Hillary Clinton is back, and so is Chris Steele, this time in the United Kingdom. They are no less than implying that current Conservative (Tory) Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a Russian plant. And it’s no mistake that these allegations are being made just before a U.K. general election on December 12 that will decide the fate of Brexit.
It started last month, when the U.K.’s leftwing Guardian newspaper reported the existence of a secret report that said the Russians spent five years “cultivating leading Tories including Johnson…” The 50-page “dossier” from the U.K.’s intelligence and security committee is “based on analysis from Britain’s intelligence agencies, as well as third-party experts such as the former MI6 officer Cristopher Steele…”
That’s crazy, because Steele is the same man who claimed the Russians had been “cultivating, supporting, and assisting” Trump “for at least five years.” A sprawling, unlimited-spend, two-year U.S. special counsel investigation found that false.
This Guy Can’t Be Trusted
Readers will remember that Steele was hired by Fusion GPS, an opposition-research outfit hired by a law firm called Perkins Coie, to manufacture ties between Trump and Russia. Meanwhile, Perkins Coie was hired by, and working closely with, the Clinton campaign and other Clinton operatives.
Steele paid a British national with ties to Russia—Edward Baumgartner—to create a “dossier” tying Trump to Russia via wild and unsubstantiated claims, which Baumgartner created using unknown Russian sources. Once the dossier was created, Steele and other Clinton operatives, including the infamous Sid Blumenthal, injected the allegations of the dossier into the Obama administration. This included getting the dossier circulated at high levels within the State Department, and within the Department of Justice and FBI.
Eventually, using the dossier, the FBI secretly spied on the Trump campaign. And the Clinton campaign tried to use the FBI’s investigation to smear Trump, which amounted to interference in the 2016 election by the Clinton campaign, using Russians to assist her efforts. Using Steele, the Clinton campaign planted media stories smearing Trump as a Russian agent, then responded to them as if they had appeared organically.
In the U.K., which has stricter libel laws than does America, Steele wouldn’t even back up his dossier in court. Instead, he emphasized that he never wrote it, which is of course true, because Baumgartner and unknown Russians wrote it.
Steele Is Back in the U.K.
Given his dismal track record, it’s stunning that Steele has again surfaced, just before the U.K. election that will decide the fate of Brexit, this time to claim that Johnson is a Russian asset.
Right behind Steele is Hillary Clinton, who is saying to the British press that it is “shameful” the U.K. government won’t publish Steele’s report before the election. She also told the BBC that she’s “dumbfounded” that Johnson’s government could get away with not releasing the report, allegedly damaging to Johnson.
This deserves to be unpacked a bit. First off, it is damning to British intelligence that they would still be working with Steele, given what we know today. And this isn’t the first stain on British intelligence.
In mid-2016, before the U.S. election but after the Brexit vote, FBI number two Andrew McCabe—heavily involved in spying on and launching an investigation into the Trump campaign—met with his British counterpart at MI5, Jeremy Fleming. As the establishmentarians that they are, both Fleming and McCabe were upset by the Brexit vote. Calling the Brexit result they didn’t like a “wake-up call,” they blamed Russian interference for the outcome.
Earlier in 2016, former Trump campaign volunteer George Papadopoulos was set up in London. And serious allegations have emerged that former CIA head John Brennan used GCHQ to spy on the Trump campaign.
GCHQ is Britain’s signals intelligence outfit, akin to the United States’s National Security Agency (NSA). Fleming is now head of GCHQ, which surely played a role in generating the report that says PM Johnson is some sort of Russian plant.
But the rot is probably larger than Fleming. All the way back in late 2015, GCHQ allegedly began to flag U.S. officials about its concerns related to Trump and Russia. Were these concerns generated by Steele? And what were these concerns, beyond foreign policy differences and the fact that Donald Trump was bucking the D.C. foreign policy establishment?
And if Steele started to plant these concerns in late 2015, while Trump was rising in the GOP primaries and before the Democratic National Committee was allegedly hacked by Russian intelligence, what does this say about the origin of the Russia investigation?
Let’s Get Some Perspective
Back to Clinton: in the same interview with British press, she went on to say that Russia was “pumping out propaganda” in the United States in 2016, and implied Russia is now doing the same thing in the United Kingdom.
But a quick overview of the facts tempers this popular fallacy. Russia spent little more than $100,000 on digital ads, compared to $90 million in digital advertising spent by the Trump campaign. While Trump and Clinton spent a combined $81 million on Facebook ads alone, Russia spent only $46,000 on Facebook ads that ran before the election, many of which were not overtly partisan or in swing states.
To highlight how preposterous this is, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Democrats, led by Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), had a grand conspiracy theory that said the Trump campaign helped the Russians spend this $46,000 by telling the Russians which swing states to target, and this would amount to proof of collusion.
Of course, no such coordination was ever discovered. And instead of talking to the Trump campaign, the Russians could have talked to anyone in America to figure out where the swing states and swing districts were. Yet both House and Senate intelligence committees, Republicans included, spent countless hours on the subject of Russians on social media.
Given this record, it’s highly likely that certain forces in the U.K. are now trying to overblow Russian influence there. The U.K. establishment has desperately tried to thwart Brexit despite a democratic vote to the contrary. It’s even possible that allegations of Russian influence will be used once the December 12 election is over (assuming Johnson wins) to try to hamper Johnson’s Brexit efforts, and maybe even bring down his government.
Russia Hysteria Isn’t Dead in America
Blaming Russia for Brexit is only the latest example of a corrupt class blaming Russia for every political outcome they don’t like, and were too myopic to see coming. This Russia hysteria is unfortunately still alive and well in America.
The Washington Post consistently runs articles that label Republicans as Russian “assets,” or “stooges.” The airwaves are also full with these insinuations, and a constant spin that brings us further from the truth. NBC’s Chuck Todd just attacked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for saying that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election, not just Russia, despite clear evidence that Ukraine did meddle in the 2016 election, which the media was reporting on until it didn’t fit their narrative. Several weeks ago, Todd tried to paint Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) as a Putin stooge for saying the same thing.
Around the same time, Fox’s Chris Wallace and CNN’s Chris Cuomo blatantly mischaracterized recent Trump statements on the DNC server to make it sound like the president was saying that Ukraine had hacked the server, not Russia. In reality, all Trump said was that CrowdStrike—a company with a record of overstating its findings—examined the DNC server, not the FBI. The president’s statement was entirely true. Kennedy stood his ground against Wallace, but eventually backed down to Cuomo.
Now that the inspector general’s report is out, there is major pushback in the media against the idea that U.S. intelligence did anything improper when spying on the Trump campaign. It’s as if the media wants the American people to forget the last two years happened, but still wants the American people to think there’s something fishy between Trump and Russia.
The consequence of crying “Russia” is power being taken away from the people and consolidated in the hands of faceless bureaucrats in Washington, for whom wide bipartisan swaths of America neither voted, relate to, nor agree with.
That’s why the “Russia” hysteria will certainly surface again in 2020 and beyond, partly because of the growing disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country. If labeling someone a “Russian asset” gets the national security apparatus behind you, gets your opponent spied on, and counts as an excuse for losing an election, why not keep doing it?
But this is incredibly dangerous, because we’ve seen this rhetoric get weaponized into spying on political opponents, subverting the foreign policy of our elected leaders, and even impeachment. Meanwhile, the integrity of our elections has been brought into question by irresponsible political leaders to a level that may plague the republic for decades to come. Will the selfish establishment ever stop crying “Russia!”?
What Needs to Be Done
Here’s what needs to be done to counteract this plague on the body politic.
The Trump administration, and future conservative presidents, need to examine ways to hold the intelligence agencies more accountable. This probably starts with making it easier to fire federal workers. Federal workers aren’t a protected class, and they don’t deserve to stay at their jobs with automatic pay raises no matter what.
A solution also starts with our political leaders acknowledging there’s a problem at the FBI and CIA. House intelligence committee ranking member Devin Nunes has done this. And President Trump has at least verbally pushed back. But too many of the GOP establishment-anointed successors to Trump have been all too quiet about the intelligence agency abuses that occurred in 2016 and beyond—Nikki Haley comes to mind, as do several Senate Republicans including Marco Rubio. Why are these establishmentarians so against stating the obvious?
Russia spent about $100,000 on online ads, and probably hacked the DNC server, although the FBI never examined that server. But Russia also helped Steele write his dossier, and Russians were involved in setting up Don Jr. in Trump Tower.
Russia interfered, and that’s bad. But weaponizing Russian interference for partisan gain damages America far more than actual Russian interference ever could. Intelligence agencies getting involved in politics and policy—including through selective leaks to the press—also absolutely threatens our democracy.
In general, an obsession over Russian election meddling is unhealthy for American democracy. It causes our political leaders to focus on a boogeyman that happens to fortify the status quo and bureaucratic power, versus examining what voters really care about. And it treats the American people like dupes, which is why it will never work—although it may tear the country apart.