Matt Taibbi and Aaron Mate on How Russiagate Helped Trump

MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow chases the "Russiagate" story in a Jan. 2019 broadcast.(Photo: YouTube)

Matt Taibbi and Aaron Mate on How Russiagate Helped Trump

A sad irony is that the Russiagate narrative, which so many people clung to in an attempt to bring down Trump, only helped him.

The claim that President Trump engaged in collusion with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election was so pervasive and unquestioned that only a handful of journalists demonstrated the healthy skepticism required by their profession. Last week, special counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report on the Trump-Russia investigation to the Justice Department, which then released a four-page summary written by Attorney General William Barr. While the full report is over 300 pages, and Mueller punted on the question of obstruction, he found no evidence of collusion. Despite this, the "Russiagate" truthers, if you will, are doubling down on the Russiagate narrative, moving the goalposts to focus on the possibility of obstruction of justice and conveniently ignoring that the collusion that was so central to their theory has not been established.

A sad irony is that the Russiagate narrative, which so many people clung to in an attempt to bring down Trump, only helped him. Actual occurrences that could have undermined Trump's authority and damaged his reputation were ignored as much of the media and political class focused almost exclusively on a literal conspiracy theory that does not resonate with the voter base that stayed home on Election Day or the Obama-to-Trump voters. Surely, Trump has done awful things, coverage of which could get out the vote and galvanize opposition. But the Russiagate obsession perpetuated Trump's narrative about being picked-on by a media that peddles fake news and a political elite that represents the status quo. Trump was able to come off, once again, as the outsider who takes on the establishment, which in turn persecutes him. And now that the Mueller report has said he didn't collude with Russia, he's celebrating.

In a recent episode of my podcast, I spoke with two journalists who pushed back on the Russiagate narrative: Aaron Mate, contributor to The Nation and former host and producer for "The Real News" and "Democracy Now!," and Matt Taibbi, the award-winning Rolling Stone journalist and author of four New York Times best-sellers. They weighed in on the way Russiagate benefited Trump, undermined journalistic integrity and thwarted a real resistance.

Editor's note: A transcript, lightly edited for clarity, follows the podcast player embedded below.

Katie Halper: Congratulations, by the way, to both of you, on your skepticism.

Matt Taibbi: Well, this is going to continue for years and years and years, so it's a little early to be doing a touchdown spike, I think.

Aaron Mate: The only actual victory here is Trump's. Because, as we've been warning for two years, focusing on this conspiracy theory was only setting up the resistance for failure, because the evidence wasn't there. And eventually the facts had to come out. Mueller just did that with his verdict, and now, of course, Trump is understandably, and as we predicted, using this for his re-election campaign. So the only possible victory here for politics and journalism is if there's accountability: on the journalism front, if we learn how to follow the facts, not a narrative that benefits ratings and gets us clicks; and in politics, it would be to actually learn to start becoming a real resistance, mounting opposition to Trump based on opposing his policies, not based on believing in this fairy tale.

KH: Where are we right now in the Russiagate investigation?

AM: Where we are is that the conspiracy theory has collapsed. For two years, the dominant narrative has been that Trump is in cahoots with Russia, engaged in a conspiracy with them, is compromised by them, and that Robert Mueller was going to uncover it. He was going to uncover the smoking gun. And Robert Mueller has just rendered his verdict, and he didn't. He found no evidence of a Trump-Russia conspiracy. That's no surprise to those of us who looked at the available evidence, which is what journalism is supposed to do. You go based not on where your imagination takes you but what the actual facts tell you. And the facts from the beginning told us a very clear story: that the case for this Trump-Russia collusion theory was just not there.

KH: What were your predictions about what happens next?

AM: This result was not a surprise at all, based on the available facts and just the plausibility of the underlying theory to begin with--that this reality-TV show host who didn't even look like he thought he was going to win [the 2016 presidential election] engaged in a conspiracy with Russia or that he was compromised by Russia. It just wasn't there. It didn't make sense as an idea, and it didn't make sense based on the facts we knew. So my prediction was always that there would be zero indictments for the claims of a Trump-Russia conspiracy but that Mueller might throw those who were hanging onto that idea a bone, especially because there was so much put on his shoulders. He was turned into such a revered thing. And he does come from the D.C. establishment, who does resent Trump, not for the reasons you and I do, and listeners might, based on his actual harmful policies, but because they think he's a crude representative of the establishment.

KH: Given that Mueller found no evidence of collusion, can we still even revere him? Can we still even believe that he wears Brooks Brothers suits?

AM: That was part of the PR campaign to revere Mueller and paint him as this saintly figure and talk about what clothes he wears and his background. And that was at a time when everybody thought he was going to deliver a verdict that Trump had committed treason. Now that Mueller has delivered the opposite verdict, now that he's not being glorified in this way, there's even an article in The New York Times saying that some Democrats are reconsidering their act of putting him on a pedestal.

But my prediction was Mueller would throw them a bone. And I think--this is my theory here--that that's what Mueller's decision was when it comes to obstruction, because he didn't make a decision on that. He basically left it open, which then leaves it open to speculation. It's strange for a prosecutor to defer like this after a two-year investigation. I think that punting on obstruction was Mueller's way of leaving something open that people could hang on to while still not giving them anything. Because, of course, if Mueller actually thought that Trump had committed obstruction, he could have alleged it.

KH: Some people think that if you question the Russiagate narrative, you're somehow helping Trump or are trying to cover for Trump or to downplay how destructive he is.

MT: In March 2017, I wrote an article saying this story is a minefield for the Democratic Party and particularly for journalists, because Trump had made it such an important part of his message that journalists were out to get him, that they were representatives of the elite who would stop at nothing to undermine this presidency. And to me it seemed the only way we could possibly lose with the public in a contest with someone like Trump is if we completely abdicated the standards of the profession and did what he accused us of doing, which would be politicizing our jobs and using trumped-up evidence to try to make him look bad. That was the one option out of an infinite number of ways we could have pursued covering his presidency. That was the one thing that could have really helped him. And we did it. Not only did we do it, but we did it, basically, to the exclusion of everything else, for years.

KH: What were some of the important stories the public was deprived of?

AM: Literally everything. I remember watching Rachel Maddow the day that Congress had taken a huge step forward toward taking away the health insurance of millions of Americans. I think she gave it around 30 seconds and then moved onto some element of the conspiracy theory that ended up being debunked. MNSBC didn't mention Yemen for I think about a year.

KH: Where in Russia is Yemen?

AM: At a time when the U.S. was taking part in a genocide and killing tens of thousands of people through the Saudi bombing campaign and the famine that that campaign was causing. And one of the most crucial things it ignored was the serious escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia that Trump was overseeing through carrying out policies that were far more hawkish than Obama, which we haven't focused on, partly because they're supported by the bipartisan foreign consensus in Washington, which the media generally goes along with, but also because to acknowledge those policies, to look at them seriously, would undercut this idea that everybody bought into that Trump was doing Putin's bidding.

MT: There was a very telling story for me. Every year the Pentagon is responsible, under each year's National Defense Authorization, to submit a memo that's usually not made public on which countries we have active combat operations in. And I believe it was in early 2017 that they released one that said we had active operations in seven countries. So I did a little story basically saying, hey does anybody notice we're at war in Niger and Somalia and Yemen and Syria and Afghanistan? Just the idea that we've started new military campaigns, and that this can fly completely under the radar with the public because of the Russiagate story, just speaks to the enormity of the story and how much oxygen it took up. It took up everything. We didn't have time for anything else.

KH: There was a lot of goading and mocking of Trump by Democrats who claimed he was in bed with Putin politically or even his boyfriend. How much did this provide cover or even incentive for Trump to be more hawkish?

MT: One of the things I said in one of these pieces was that in terms of activism in the next four years, the most important thing is to keep Donald Trump away from any kind of decision that would involve nuclear combat. That would be the number one consideration that anyone should make. Even though Trump likes to think of himself as great at war, he does have this sort of natural reluctance to get into military conflicts politically.

So, he talked about getting out of Syria, and we should have been encouraging that. No matter what you think about Syria or what you think our policies should be there, the reality is that the commander in chief that we have is not the person you want to be sending troops into a combat zone where there are Russians on the other side. The Russian-American troops are sitting across the Euphrates River from each other, and a couple of bad drunken incidents could trigger nuclear combat.

KH: You have people saying that Trump is a megalomaniac with dementia who's erratic. And the same people say that Putin is a megalomaniac and evil. And they both have their finger on the button. And these people want Trump to ratchet things up with Putin. So what is the endgame that they imagine?

AM: They imagine no endgame. This whole thing is incoherent. They were accusing Trump of doing Putin's bidding while he consistently does the opposite: tries to overthrow Putin's ally in Venezuela; bombs Putin's ally in Syria twice; pulls out of the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty, basically setting off a whole new nuclear arms race. So basically, the actual endgame in real life is existential peril, because we are risking nuclear accidents and the threat of war based on these hawkish policies. But that doesn't matter to those who profited off of the Russiagate narrative, like the failed neoliberal, Democratic elites, who needed an excuse to cover for the fact that they lost to Donald Trump; FBI intelligence officials who opened up this investigation on very specious grounds and who suspected Trump, in part, because he was saying nice things about Vladimir Putin. And whether you agree with that or not, to lay that as a predicate for a counterintelligence investigation is just extraordinary. Then there was the media, which, of course, got a lot of ratings and clicks by spinning this spy thriller.

MT: I think there was an element of Russiagate, and still is, that does have a logic to it. it's a very dark logic. If you saw what happened in 2016, the political situation was that the ruling neoliberal consensus was under fire from all sides, from radical right movements both in the United States and in Europe; from leftist movements, both in the United States and Europe. The overwhelming voter sentiment everywhere had to do with the rejection of the international global consensus. You saw votes like Brexit, a complete repudiation of a number of things. But Russiagate as a political solution, as a response to that electoral phenomenon, has been extraordinarily effective. Because what it's done is it's completely changed the attitude of a huge portion of the population, which now sees the international security services, the global consensus, as the only saviors who are going to rescue them from the evil Trump. And therefore, we have to pursue this case and celebrate authoritarianism and celebrate the FBI and CIA and their heroism, and the European Union and NATO. This story has had some benefit from a propaganda perspective as well.

KH: So, is the idea that the intelligence community will act as the adults in the room and stop Trump from getting his finger on the button?

AM: Well, that was part of this narrative--that we're supposed to revere and trust in these intelligence officials, forgetting their actual record, which includes giving us one of the biggest crimes in recent memory--the Iraq War. They're the ones who spun the phony intel about [weapons of mass destruction]. And also promoting this notion that fundamentally undermines the idea of democratic government, where it's the elected president, whether you like that person or not, who's supposed to make the decision, not unelected intelligence bureaucrats.

And to illustrate Matt's point about how this diverted liberal energy, let's look at one of the biggest protests of the Trump era. It was not over Trump taking away health care, it was not over Trump and the GOP pushing through this tax cut that was, I think, the biggest upwards transfer of wealth in U.S. history. It was to protect Robert Mueller. We had marches in Times Square and D.C. and all over the country about protecting Mueller. Protecting Robert Mueller from this threat people perceived him to be under. That, all of a sudden, was one of the biggest causes for a massive national rally, instead of what Trump was actually doing?

Compare that to what we saw in the very first days of the Trump administration. We saw the Muslim ban. That was before Russiagate totally took over. We saw people going to airports, standing up to this very cruel Trump policy and doing something about it. Where was the energy ever since then? There's a strong correlation between the rise of #RussiaGate throughout the resistance and the decline of the activism we saw right before Russiagate fully exploded.

KH: Who were the worst Russiagate players in the media?

AM: There are too many to name.

KH: We could have a 24-hour marathon where we go through all of them.

MT: The central figure is Rachel [Maddow], unfortunately. I knew Rachel going back [to] the Air America days. We used to be friends. I always thought she was smart, funny, skeptical. We had some things that we disagreed about, especially on things affecting the military. I'm more of a pacifist that she is. But this transformation where she became this character on television--it's like something out of this Andy Griffith movie, "A Face in the Crowd," like a modern-day Glenn Beck act. It's been shocking to watch her embrace that role in the way that she has. It's been very scary to me. I don't know what you think, Aaron.

AM: I wrote a piece two years ago at The Intercept about how she covered Russiagate above everything else, in a way that was ignoring all the countervailing evidence that undercut her conspiracy theory. I noted what a tragedy it was, because I've always thought she's a really gifted journalist. She was dubbed the smartest person on TV, and I think there was a time when I probably found that plausible. I used to be a fan of hers.

But you can't ignore the reality that she's become, which is just a straight-up propagandist who has not interviewed a single dissenting voice and not acknowledged any of the countervailing facts. I actually tuned into her show Monday night, her first show since the summary of Mueller's findings were released, and after more than two years of promoting this idea of a Trump-Russia conspiracy, she gave the Mueller finding that there was no Trump-Russia conspiracy 30 seconds, and then she moved on to obstruction for the rest of the hour. Now, of course, obstruction is a thing that Maddow and everyone else who promoted the Russia conspiracy are going to cling to now in an attempt to cover up the fact that their conspiracy theory failed.

MT: The cable stations have played a very particular role in this, which has been to scare people. All propaganda works on multiple levels, but there has to be an emotional component in order for it to really sell. You have to be able to turn people's minds off when it comes to this stuff. So the combination at work here was the emotional devastation of liberal audiences. People were crushed when Trump was elected. People likened it to 9/11 or losing a family member. It was a combination of that plus being told over and over again, "We are under attack ... there are Russians in our midst ... you may not even be aware of them ... they may be working in your office ... they may turn off your heat in the middle of the winter." People on some level register this stuff, and it turns their minds off to alternative possibilities. And that is a particularly low form of media activity. And they didn't just indulge in it; they turned it into an art form with this story. And that was shocking to watch, too.

AM: I'll never forget Maddow did a segment where she's talking about some alleged Russian trolls interfering on Bernie Sanders' fan club page, and she called it international warfare against our country, and so on. And I'll never forget Rob Reiner, who helped set up this neocon Hollywood group called the Committee to Investigate Russia. Rob Reiner on MSNBC said that the Russians are in our bloodstream. So there's a huge psychological damage.

MT: The New York Times did an infographic online, and they expanded on that theme and described the Russian threat as a virus that was literally taking over your body at the cellular level and changing your body chemistry. It's a very elaborate graphic. And even intelligent people will be moved by this stuff.

AM: This didn't start in 2016. Russophobia is in the bloodstream of American political culture. For decades, it's been the Russians invading us and manipulating us and turning our young people into dupes, planting propaganda in our heads. That's why this Russiagate thing could not have happened with any other country. There's a reason we don't hear about "Israelgate" or "Saudigate". It survives on this very entrenched Cold War mindset that way predates 2016.

MT: Which is another reason why there was a lot of conscious conflation of the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union that went on. You can still today go on the Mother Jones website and see images of Vladimir Putin, but it will have a hammer and sickle next to it. The Jonathan Chait story that claims that he's been an agent since 1987, when it was a different country. Donna Brazile talking about how the communists are dictating the debate. They want us to forget the distinction, because they want us to remember those archaic fears we had back in the days when the day after was the big scare story.

KH: As if the problem is that Trump is being influenced by a communist, as we can see from the redistribution of wealth.

AM: It was actually a Jonathan Chait-Chris Hayes story. Because after Chait came out with his story about whether Trump wasa Russian military intelligence agent, then Hayes put Chait on his program that night, and they discussed it as if this was a serious prospect.

KH: Aaron, you've never been on MSNBC. Matt, when's the last time you were on MSNBC?

MT: You know what's funny? The last time I was on MSNBC was with Malcolm Nance to talk about this issue on Chris Hayes. I said something that I thought was a completely anodyne conservative comment, but which was that there's multiple versions of this story. There's a scenario where there's some kind of foreign interference that went on. There's another scenario where it went on and Donald Trump was involved with it. And I said those two stories--and I didn't really get into the fact that it hadn't really been established that the Russians had done it, but I said those two stories are orders of magnitude different. And the media has to make an important distinction between the two--that one doesn't prove the other. And I was never invited on again after that.

AM: And when was that, Matt?

MT: That was in, I think, January of 2017.

AM: If that's the date, that means that January 2017, basically right as Trump was taking office, was the last time someone who was skeptical of Russiagate from the left was allowed on MSNBC, because in December of 2016, I remember Ari Melber interviewed Glenn Greenwald. But that was the last time for Glenn. And if that was the last time for Matt, then that means that basically, throughout this entire affair, throughout Trump's presidency, MSNBC has not allowed on a single dissenting voice. That's extraordinary.

KH: That we know of. Because, since it's in our blood, we could have had some Manchurian candidates on without even knowing it.

MT: The group that has publicly talked about this is so small that you can count us on basically two hands. We all know each other. We're in constant contact with each other because we have to be. And nobody's going to invite us on television.

AM: And what does that say about a political media culture, that it's somehow a fringe position to question the conspiracy between the president and Russia, that that position is so fringe that you can count it on one or two hands?

MT: The press is like wildebeests. If 51 percent of the wildebeests decide to go one way, they'll all go that way. That's why you see those seamless transitions from thinking one thing one day, and then the next day, the new point of emphasis is going to be we need to see the entire report from Mueller. Then, once the report's in, the new point of emphasis will be, "Why is there no obstruction charge, despite the fact that Mueller says there was no underlying crime?" And then there are going to be calls for a new investigation. They're not going to let this go. It's going to continue in perpetuity.

AM: Yeah. These people have invested so much into it that they're forced to double down, and they're already doing it. They can't claim to be taken seriously as journalists. They're basically, at this point, propagandists on this issue. Hopefully they can have time to focus on real issues. But they've painted themselves into a real corner, and it's going to be kind of both sad and hilarious to watch how they continue to try to wiggle out of it.

KH: I feel gaslit. You must feel especially gaslit. I just interview people like you, but you guys are actually doing all the research and you guys are dismissed as conspiracy theorists, which is really ironic because you guys are skeptical of the conspiracy theory. How does it feel doing the work that you're doing?

MT: I had it pretty easy compared to others--what the people who work at RT have gone through, for instance, is horrible. I can't even tell most of the stories I've heard. But, for instance, I know one very talented person who worked at RT briefly years ago, long before any of this, and now can't get work because of that one blip on the resume. For me, these last three years for sure have been the most unpleasant of my career. I was regularly accused of being a foreign agent. Threats are normal in this business, but there were some especially weird things with this. I had somebody from one of these self-described Russia-watching websites call me up--on my unpublished landline number, on a Sunday--and offer to escort me to the FBI so I could give my confession. I think my experience was probably a little different from Aaron's, because I work for a massive corporate organization, where I had the support of editors, at least. Still, it was difficult operating within those parameters, because I'm pretty sure everyone assumed I was crazy.

One thing that I felt pretty clearly was that even people I knew pretty well seemed to suspect I'd become a secret Trump supporter and this was how I was expressing it. So suddenly I was like the kid with lice. All of this stuff drove me a little bit crazy, to be honest. Again, I can't stress enough: Other people went through things that were a lot worse: losing work, being condemned by colleagues--the academic, Stephen Cohen, went through a very tough time for instance, being removed from internet platforms--I'm talking especially about small websites that in many cases were family businesses where people had invested their life's savings into their sites. Some I talked to had paid tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote their businesses on platforms like Facebook, only to be removed abruptly one day for "coordinated inauthentic activity."

Again, all of this is small beans compared to problems people face in the real world, and under this administration, where immigrant families were separated. I wouldn't want to even begin to compare. But in the press, when everyone feels the same pressure to avoid saying certain things, the tragedy there isn't necessarily how hard it is for the individuals, but what it does to the business overall. You'll end up with a landscape where everyone is saying the same thing and audiences are only hearing one thing, which is totally dysfunctional.

AM: Ultimately, what matters in journalism are the facts, and the facts were always on our side. My feelings don't matter. Even though all these people are trying to attack you and marginalize you, I never took them seriously. As Matt said, it was so unpleasant, but it also was kind of amusing. And I felt sorry for them--that they were so in it. And I have been surprised that even after Mueller collapsed the conspiracy theory--I mean, it's one thing if you don't want to acknowledge people who got it right--but I saw leftist pundits who I respect coming out of nowhere to take shots at me and my colleagues and disingenuously accuse us of helping Trump and saying we were the ones fixated on this issue. And meanwhile, not coincidentally, these were some of the same people who got the story wrong. As Matt said, there are incentives to going along with this and conforming. And I just really respect Matt and others who never thought twice about doing their jobs: being real journalists and following the facts.

KH: I get that you're saying it's just feelings, Aaron, and that feelings don't matter as much as facts. But I think it's important for people to know, when they're assessing the media, that there are all these incentives against doing what you're doing and all these incentives to do what the Rachel Maddows are doing. So we'd have a lot more people speaking and writing the way you both are if there weren't these incentives.

Thank you, guys, so much for being so relentless and fearless.

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