Amid ‘Russiagate’ Hysteria, What Are the Facts? We must end this Russophobic insanity

Jack Matlock file photo, adapted from image at usembassy.gov

(Jack F. Matlock Jr. – June 2, 2018)

Jack F. Matlock Jr., Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991, is the author of Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended and Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray-And How to Return to Reality.

[Short Version: thenation.com/article/amid-russiagate-hysteria-what-are-the-facts/]

[Longer version: jackmatlock.com/2018/06/musings-russiagate-hysteria/#more-982]

Whom the gods would destroy,
they first make mad.

That saying — often attributed to Euripides, though not found in his extant writings comes to mind most mornings when I bring in the home-delivered New York Times and read the headlines of the latest “Russiagate” development, often featured across two or three columns at the top of the first page. This is a daily reminder of the hysteria that dominates both the Congress of the United States and much of our “responsible media,” including those that consider themselves chroniclers of record with “all the news that is fit to print.”

My outrage spiked when I brought in the February 17 issue of the Times. In it, on page one, a four-column headline proclaimed: “Warned About Suspect, FBI Didn’t Act.” It was accompanied by the heart-breaking pictures of the seventeen victims of the shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida. To the right of it, also on the front page, was a headline which read “Indictment Bares Russian Network to Twist 2016 Vote.” One of the two stories it covered had the headline “Mueller Chronicles a Social Media War” while the second had the subhead “Sees ‘Unwitting Ties’ to Trump Forces.”

The juxtaposition of these two stories seemed strange, unless it was to stress the incompetence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, exposed by a close reading of both stories. The FBI had failed to act on repeated warnings regarding the 17-year-old gunman in Florida, thus failing in its primary duty to protect American citizens, but was making charges against foreigners, not under U.S. jurisdiction, for allegedly helping to elect a sitting president who had been nominated by the party that controls both houses of Congress. Wow! Now that’s real power for some group of foreigners, or—especially—a foreign government to have! But was it true that the tawdry, amateurish participation in the internet, a tiny fraction of the disinformation circulating under assumed names, changed any American’s vote? No evidence whatever of that. And it was no more plausible than claiming that a mouse had designed a ruse to cause an elephant herd to stampede.

Did the Times’ editors perform at least the rudiments of due diligence before they climbed on their high horse of moral outrage in the editorial of the day? Most unlikely, for the editorial said nothing about the failure of the FBI, even within our ridiculously loose gun laws, to preempt the Florida tragedy. Instead their long editorial excoriated “Russia” (not individual Russians) for “interference” in the election and demanded increased sanctions against Russia “to protect American democracy.”

It had never occurred to me that our admittedly dysfunctional political system is so weak, undeveloped, or diseased that inept and blatant internet trolls damage it. If that is the case, we better look at a lot of other countries as well, not just Russia!

The New York Times, of course is not the only offender. Their editorial attitude has been duplicated or actually exaggerated by the majority of our media outlets, electronic and print. Unless there is a mass shooting in progress it has been hard to find a discussion of anything else on CNN. Increasingly, both in Congress, and in our print and electronic media it has been accepted as a “fact” that “Russia” “interfered” in the 2016 election.

So what are the facts?

1. It is a fact that some Russians paid people to act as trolls on the internet and bought advertisements on Facebook during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. Most of these were picked up from elsewhere and simply repeated. They comprised a tiny fraction of one percent of all the advertisements purchased on Facebook during this period. This continued after the election and included organizing a demonstration against President-elect Trump.

2. It is a fact that emails in the memory of the Democratic National Committee’s computer were furnished to Wikileaks. The U.S. intelligence agencies that issued the January 2017 report were confident that Russians hacked the emails and supplied them to Wikileaks but offered no evidence to substantiate their claim. Retired intelligence specialists have examined the computer and reported that, in their opinion, the leak was an inside job since the downloads of the data were at a speed not compatible with internet transmission. However, even if one accepts that Russians were the perpetrators, the fact is that the emails were genuine and not fake. The U.S. intelligence report states this explicitly. I have always thought that the truth would make us free, not “degrade” our “democracy.”

3. It is a fact that the Russian government established a sophisticated television service (RT) that purveyed entertainment, news, and—yes—propaganda to foreign audiences, including those in the United States. Its audience is several magnitudes smaller than that of Fox News. Basically, its task is to picture Russia in more favorable light than has been available in Western media. There has been no analysis of its affect, if any, on voting in the U.S. The January 2017 U.S. intelligence report states at the outset “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.” Nevertheless, that report has been cited repeatedly by politicians and the media as having done so.

4. It is a fact that many senior Russian officials (though not all, by any means) expressed a preference for Donald Trump’s candidacy. After all, Secretary Clinton had compared President Putin to Hitler and had urged more active U.S. military intervention abroad, while Trump had said it would be better to cooperate with Russia to achieve common goals than to treat each other as enemies. It should not stress the imagination or require the judgment of professional analysts to understand why many Russians would find candidate Trump’s statements more congenial than Secretary Clinton’s.

5. It is not a fact that Russian leaders thought Trump would win or that they could have a direct influence on the outcome. This is an allegation that has not been substantiated by any convincing evidence. The January 2017 “Intelligence Community” report actually states that Russian leaders, like most other people, thought Clinton would win.

6. It is not a fact that Russian activities had any tangible impact on the outcome of the election. Nobody seems to have done even a superficial study of the effect Russian actions actually had on the vote.

7. It is not a fact that there was any direct coordination between the Trump campaign (hardly a well-organized effort) and Russian officials. The indictments brought by the Special Prosecutor so far are either for lying to the FBI or for offenses unrelated to the campaign such as money laundering or not registering as a foreign agent.

So, what is the most important fact regarding the 2016 U.S. presidential election?

The most important fact, obscured in “Russiagate” hysteria, is that Americans elected Donald Trump president under the terms set forth in a constitution written and approved by Americans. Americans created the electoral college, which allows a candidate with the minority of popular votes to win. Americans were those who gerrymandered electoral districts to rig them in favor of a given political party. The American Supreme Court issued the infamous Citizens United decision that allows corporate financing of candidates for political office. (Hey, money talks and exercises freedom of speech; corporations are people!) Americans created a Senate that is anything but democratic since it gives disproportionate representation to states with relatively small populations. It was American senators who established non-democratic procedures that allow minorities, even sometimes single senators, to block legislation or confirmation of appointments.

Now, that does not mean that Donald Trump’s election was a good thing for the country just because Americans elected him. In my opinion, the 2016 presidential and congressional elections pose an imminent danger to the republic. They have created potential disasters that will severely try the checks and balances that our founding fathers built into our constitution. This is particularly true since both houses of Congress are controlled by the Republican Party, which itself represents fewer voters than the principal opposition party.

I did not personally vote for Trump and cannot imagine circumstances when I would have. But I consider the charges that Russian actions “interfered” in the election, or—for that matter—damaged the “quality of our democracy” ludicrous, pathetic, and shameful.

“Ludicrous” because there is no logical reason to think that anything Russians did had any effect on how people voted. In the past, when Soviet leaders tried to influence American elections, it backfired—as foreign interference normally does everywhere. In 1984, Yuri Andropov, the then Soviet leader made preventing Ronald Reagan’s re-election the second most important task of the KGB. (The first was to detect U.S. plans for a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union.) Everything the Soviets did in fact helped Reagan win forty-nine of our 50 states.

“Pathetic” because it is clear that the Democratic Party lost the election. Yes, it won the popular vote, but presidents are elected not by popular vote but by the electoral college. (We have a republic, not a democracy!) To blame someone else for one’s own mistakes is a pathetic case of self deception.

“Shameful” because it is an evasion of responsibility. It prevents the Democrats, and those many Republicans who want responsible, fact-based government in Washington, from concentrating on practical ways to reduce the threat the Trump presidency poses to our political values and even to our future existence. After all, Trump would not be president if the Republican Party had not nominated him. He also is most unlikely to have won the electoral college if the Democrats had nominated someone—almost anyone–other than the candidate they chose. I don’t argue that any of this was fair, or rational, but then who is so naïve as to assume that American politics are either fair or rational? (By the way, Russian politics is also neither fair nor rational in terms of what is best for the average citizen.)

Instead of facing the facts and coping with the current reality, the “Russiagate” promoters in both the government and the media, are diverting our attention from where the real threats are.

I should add “dangerous” to those three adjectives. “Dangerous” because, making an enemy of Russia, the other nuclear superpower—yes, there are still two—comes as close to political insanity as anything I can think of. Denying global warming may rank up there too in the long run, but only nuclear weapons pose, by their very existence in the quantities that are on station in Russia and the United States, an immediate threat to mankind. Not just to the United States and Russia and not just to “civilization.” The sad, frequently forgotten fact is that since the creation of nuclear weapons, mankind has the capacity to destroy itself and join other extinct species.

In their first meeting, President Ronald Reagan and then General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” and concluded that it was important to prevent any war between them, nuclear or conventional. Both believed that simple and obvious truth and their conviction enabled them to set both countries on a course that ended the Cold War. We should think hard to determine how and why that simple and obvious truth has been ignored of late by the governments of both countries.

We must desist from our current witch-hunt insanity and encourage Presidents Trump and Putin to restore cooperation in issues of nuclear safety, non-proliferation, control of nuclear materials, and nuclear arms reduction. This is in the vital interest of both the United States and Russia. Whether or not the Russian government is in possession of embarrassing information about President Trump’s personal behavior is an irrelevant question. What is in the interest of the United States and Russia is in the interest of the United States and Russia. That is the central issue on which sane governments, and sane publics, would focus their attention.

[A shortened version of this post has been published here.]

[featured image is file photo]