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Manafort/Assange Drama Proves Media Will Buy Any Russia Conspiracy Story, No Matter Its Flaws


Many media figures have swallowed whole, without evidence, a conspiracy theory that Donald Trump became president by treasonously colluding with Russia to steal the 2016 election from its rightful owner, Hillary Clinton. The information operation that pushed this story turned out to have been secretly developed and funded by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, a fact uncovered only through the tenacious digging of Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the face of major opposition from the media and Democrats on the committee.

The information operation has been fed to an increasingly compliant and credulous media with nearly no resistance. Fusion GPS is the Clinton- and Democrat-funded group that initiated the Russia collusion story, although it is now, according to congressional testimony, being spearheaded by the Democracy Integrity Project and funded to the tune of $50 million. The Washington Post quietly admitted, buried the news, really, that the operation was funded by George Soros.

The latest questionably sourced information in support of this dramatic tale that opponents of Trump cling to in order to delegitimize the results of the 2016 election is that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort secretly met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2013, 2015 and, ominously, in spring of 2016, just as the Trump campaign was heating up. Assange is holed up in London at the Ecuadorian embassy there and published the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton aide John Podesta.

Even on first read the story seemed difficult to believe. It was based on anonymous sources so non-descript that they could be any of literally millions of people. A document from Ecuador’s Senain intelligence agency allegedly claimed a “Manaford” had visited Assange along with “Russians.” The story mentioned the discredited dossier that journalists wrote about and intelligence agencies used to secure wiretaps on Trump associates despite the failure to verify its claims.

Since the visitor logs for the Ecuador embassy are public and show no mentions of Manafort, the story had to come up with a convenient excuse for why he was missing from the logs. They went with “Sources in Ecuador, however, say Manafort was not logged.” Okay, then.

I suppose it’s possible that this outlandish story has merit, that a close ally of Trump was working with WikiLeaks in an election year and it never managed to come out or get leaked, wasn’t caught on visitor logs or by any of the U.K.’s over-eager spies who were all over everyone else who knew Trump. It’s possible that Manafort missed any of the gazillion cameras trained on visitors to the Ecuadorian embassy and was able to evade any intelligence gathering about this meeting. It’s possible, but to believe it or take it seriously, you’d have to have much better sourcing, particularly since Fusion-allied groups have a reputation of planting such stories with friendly journalists.

It’s been seven and a half months, for instance, since McClatchy’s Peter Stone and Greg Gordon claimed, without evidence, that the special counsel had the goods showing that Trump attorney Michael Cohen had gone to Prague to collude with Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election. This was a key fact in the dossier and Cohen claimed it was a bald-faced lie. Even after he agreed to cooperate with the feds, he claimed it was a lie. In the seven and a half months since McClatchy ran that “bombshell” story that nearly everyone fell for, literally no one has been able to corroborate the story.

So let’s look at how people who present themselves as newsmen or thoughtful pundits handled this extremely unverified story.

Here’s Ken “FusionKen” Dilanian, NBC’s “intelligence and national security reporter.” He’s one of the journalists known for uncritically publishing Russia conspiracy theories:

Here’s another reporter, The Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand, also known for pushing Fusion GPS theories:

Perhaps worth noting that the story she mentions about texts, while billed as, you guessed it, a smoking gun of treasonous collusion, was a bit of a nothingburger, as explained here.

Weekly Standard editor at large Bill Kristol tweeted, “What campaign chair hasn’t held secret talks with Julian Assange in the Ecuadoran embassy in London?” He later deleted the tweet without explanation.

Fellow NeverTrumpist and Commentary Associate Editor and MSNBC Contributor Noah Rothman went with this take:

NeverTrump fan favorite Molly Jong-Fast has it all figured out:

Reason Magazine’s Peter Suderman said it seemed pretty collusion-y to him:

The Washington Post’s “senior political reporter” Aaron Blake was gung-ho on the story:

His colleague Philip Bump, who literally doesn’t know how babies are made, used the Guardian story to speculate on its significance for 2,000 words or so.

This Princeton professor of history Kevin Kruse was pretty sure this was the end for Trump:

Former Obama and Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri said this was “more” evidence of collusion and completely unsurprising:

John Harwood, who claims to “cover” politics for CNBC, was convinced by the story:

Here’s Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch:

John Schindler, who presents himself as an expert on these matters but doesn’t realize that Manafort’s attorneys are under a gag order, had a really novel explanation for why it took them so long to get a statement out:

Then again, Schindler seemed deeply confused about a lot of details in the story.

CNN’s John Campbell was completely credulous:

Time’s Phil Elliott shared the story with a note saying it “is a major threat to the President’s claims of ‘no collusion.'”

This woman who fell for the story probably should show a bit better discernment as she’s Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and she sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Oh well!

Apparently Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., took the unsourced report so seriously that he demanded a briefing from the government of Ecuador.

Both Assange and Manafort strenuously and explicitly denied the story. Here’s Manafort, for instance:

This story is totally false and deliberately libelous. I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him. I have never been contacted by anyone connected to Wikileaks, either directly or indirectly. I have never reached out to Assange or Wikileaks on any matter. We are considering all legal options against the Guardian who proceeded with this story even after being notified by my representatives that it was false.

WikiLeaks also announced it was suing the Guardian for printing a false report.

The Guardian immediately began backpedaling on the story, caveating the heck out of it. The headline was softened. Paragraphs asserting the meetings took place and discussing why they took place were hedged to include words about what the meeting might have meant if it definitively had occurred.

Other thoughtful people noted all of the many problems with the story, such as the fact there would be video evidence if it were true. It had the hallmark of a Russia conspiracy story in that it was conveniently impossible to disprove. The most convincing argument would be to show there’s no record, so the story preemptively addresses that problem by claiming he evaded registry.

The authors expected people to believe that Manafort and Assange, two highly surveilled people, had not one, not two, but three meetings never noticed by intelligence agencies? Most crazy of all was the notion that this explosive piece of collusion evidence was real but never leaked until now. And no one picked up on any of these three visits on congressional committees or among the media?

As the story seemingly fell apart, it was no barrier for the true believers in the Russia conspiracy, such as Mitt Romney campaign “strategist” Stuart Stevens:

What a fun game! If this story had been true, it would have been proof of the conspiracy theory the Resistance/Media/NeverTrump has peddled without evidence for years but being upset about it being false means that you’re also guilty!

Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee’s Russia Conspiracy Theory is a powerful one. It was used not only for political messaging during the 2016 campaign, but weaponized by intelligence agencies to surveil political opponents in multiple ways. That surveillance continued during the Trump administration, and the theory was used to sideline an attorney general, oust a national security advisor via criminal leaks that no one has been held responsible for, and generally undermine the peaceful transition of power from President Obama to President Trump.

The media have behaved shamefully throughout this, ignoring or downplaying multiple story lines of problematic behavior by high-ranking government officials while hyping every collusion story, no matter its flaws.