Feb 10, 2023

We got a lot wrong about Trump & Russia.

Trump and Vladimir Putin shaking hands during a 2019 meeting in Russia. Image: Presidential Press and Information Office
Trump and Vladimir Putin shaking hands in 2019. Image: Presidential Press and Information Office

Looking back on the Trump-Russia story, and the media's coverage.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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If you're anything like me, your reaction to this headline might be, "Are we really talking about Donald Trump? And Russia? Again?"

Trust me, I understand.

For the last eight years, former President Donald Trump has sucked up more oxygen in the political press than any other person or topic I can think of. The motivation for this piece is not a desire to keep Trump in the headlines, nor to constantly re-litigate the past when there is so much to chew on here in the present.

But the story of Trump, and specifically his interactions with Russia, is an incredibly important one. Not only because it covers the purported corruption of a former president (and potential presidential nominee in 2024), but because it also covers the current state of the media. The Trump-Russia story is just as much a story about the press as it is a story about Trump, and Putin, and obscure Kremlin oligarchs, no matter how much some people want to resist it. Our mainstream press — led by giants like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News, and the major cable networks — covered Trump incessantly. They broke a lot of important news, and they made a lot of mistakes.

Part of my impetus for creating Tangle was watching some of those mistakes go unaddressed, and watching the clown car of partisan punditry pack in one once-trusted institution after the other. Today, tens of millions of Americans believe the mainstream media is an enemy of the people, and millions more simply don't trust it. In some ways, this has been a boon to independent journalists like me, and has helped drive the success of Tangle. But it has not been good for the body politic of this country that I care so deeply about.

Another reason I'm writing this piece is that so many of you have asked for it. Every week, another reader writes in asking me to revisit the "Trump-Russia" story, asking if I could do a round-up or a synopsis of "what really happened" or "what we really know." I hope to fulfill that wish, at least in part, today.

Finally, I'm writing this piece because it is still deeply relevant. Many of the main characters — from the mainstream media to Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin to the FBI — are still constantly in the news. More importantly, many of the same mistakes that happened in the Trump era are happening again now. Narratives are being formulated first, driven by prior feelings on the characters involved, with the facts being filled in second. A lack of skepticism is thriving within a modern context akin to a new-age Red Scare, where foreign adversaries like Russia and China are seen as the root of all evil.

As we've documented in Tangle, media outlets like The New York Post have seen their legitimate journalism throttled on account of it being "Russian disinformation" and "hacked materials." These allegations were made by U.S. intelligence officials and echoed uncritically by many in the press, only for us to find out they were invented out of thin air.

More recently, the mystery around the Nord Stream 1 pipeline explosion resulted in a largely unanimous mainstream narrative that Russia must have been behind it. Months later, we still don't have an answer. Here at Tangle, we focused on the mystery, but narrowed the pool to Russia or the United States. Just this week, the legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an extremely detailed article alleging that a team of covert U.S. Navy divers were actually behind the attack, and that it was planned with the explicit approval of President Biden.

Hersh's piece is — to put it kindly — a thinly sourced account, with just one anonymous person serving as his primary narrator. His reporting has taken some fire from critics in the last decade, so I won't die on the hill that this piece is one hundred percent accurate. But if any version of his account of events turns out to be true, he will have beaten the entire mainstream press to one of the biggest stories of the year.

I was particularly inspired to write this piece, though, after the publication of another piece: Jeff Gerth's 23,000-word tour de force titled "The press versus the president," which was recently published in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). CJR is, to all journalists, considered the premier watchdog of journalism.

I believe Gerth's piece is one of the most important works of journalism I've seen in recent years. I know many of you may not have time for a 23,000-word piece (hence this newsletter), but if you do — I encourage you to go read it. It is more exhaustive than what I am about to write, though some of what follows will reference Gerth's reporting, criticism of that reporting, some of his omissions and the many other notes and ideas I've been jotting down about this story for close to 18 months.

It's worth stating plainly that many of the problems Trump faced as president were problems of his own making. Not because of any particular unethical behavior — though there was plenty of that — but because of his penchant for loving anyone who complimented him, regurgitating half-baked talking points, and a long history of complicated business dealings with unsavory individuals.

The investigation that turned into the investigation into Trump's campaign, as best we know, was launched on account of thinly sourced hearsay. George Papadopoulos, a Trump aide, had heard from an academic named Joseph Mifsud that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton involving her emails. Papadopoulos told this to Alexander Downer, a diplomat, who reported it to U.S. officials. The FBI launched their investigation, called Crossfire Hurricane, two days later. In documentation of Crossfire Hurricane's launch, a lack of supporting evidence was apparent. According to Gerth, the FBI noted that Papadopoulos had "suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia" about dirt on Clinton.

A few weeks before that meeting between Papadopoulos and Mifsud, a DNC staffer working for the Clinton campaign unwittingly gave purported Russian hackers access to his email account, lending credence to Mifsud's claim. Papadopoulos didn't appear to know this at the time, and for weeks before hearing of the dirt on Clinton, he had been trying to arrange a meeting between Putin and then-candidate Trump in an apparent attempt to join Trump’s team for a long-term, formal role. Around this same time, Trump began suggesting on the campaign trail that the United States should have a more friendly relationship with Putin.

A few months later, in June of that year, Donald Trump Jr., campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner met with a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. Emails and investigations into this meeting suggest the entire affair was a dud, with the Trump camp coming to the conclusion the lawyer had no valuable information and the meeting was a waste of time.

About five days later, the DNC publicly revealed it had been hacked, and it accused Russia of being behind the hack. A hacker going by the name Gufficer 2.0 started leaking the Clinton campaign’s emails to the public, with damaging information — as well as the campaign’s strategy for attacking Trump — being sprayed across the internet. Not long after, Wikileaks would upload about 20,000 of Clinton's emails, which included evidence of the DNC working to elevate Clinton and stymie Sen. Bernie Sanders, despite its supposedly neutral role in the primary.

We'd learn later, through the multiple investigations into this time period, that Roger Stone — then a Trump adviser — had repeatedly tried to coordinate with Wikileaks during the release of that information. Mueller could not make a determination about whether Stone ever directly connected with WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, although Stone — known for being a shrewd embellisher and media manipulator — publicly alleged such communications happened before the election. Trump would later pardon Stone after he was convicted on seven counts of obstruction, witness tampering and lying to Congress.

Shortly after the Wikileaks dump, Trump held his now infamous press conference, from which the media largely zeroed in on one particular moment: “I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

From that press conference until the election, there was a flood of Russia-related news. The New York Times reported on a ledger belonging to Manafort, Trump's campaign manager, alleging he was due nearly $13 million "in cash" from a Russia-aligned party. Manafort has maintained that he never dealt in cash, and that the money covered his entire team, but he eventually resigned because of the piece — and would later become one of the strongest purported links between Trump's team and Russian agents.

That was in August of 2016. In the few months leading up to the election, the news kept coming like a firehose. In early September, The Washington Post reported that intelligence agencies were investigating a "broad" covert operation by Russia to sow chaos in the U.S. election. Trump got briefed on the investigation. President Barack Obama said publicly that Russia was behind the hack of the DNC. Russia denied orchestrating it, and Trump cast doubt on the intelligence agencies, saying we may never really know who was behind the hack. In early October, Stone again said on Twitter that he was confident Wikileaks would "educate" Americans about Clinton.

A few days later, Wikileaks dumped another trove of emails, this time from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. They continued to release those emails through election day, competing with media attention surrounding the so-called “Access Hollywood tapes,” in which Trump is caught on a live mic bragging about groping women. In debates with Clinton and on social media, Trump repeatedly praised Wikileaks, referencing the contents of the emails that show the Clinton campaign and DNC worked together to stymie Sanders. At the same time, Clinton, Obama and the intelligence officials continued to tell the public that Russia was behind the hack and leak campaigns, and Clinton used Trump’s posture to criticize him as a “Russian asset.”

At the end of October, just days before the election and after months of Clinton, Democrats and former intelligence officers accusing Trump of being in bed with Putin, The New York Times ran a story headlined, “Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” The piece noted the FBI’s belief that Russia was trying to sow chaos, not necessarily to help Trump, and knocked down other reporting about a purported link between Trump and Alfa Bank in Russia.

Nine days later, Trump was elected president.

During these months, there was another, concurrent story unfolding around Trump and Russia. This one started with Fusion GPS, a research firm created by a group of Wall Street Journal reporters who were initially hired to look into Trump for the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication backed by a hedge fund billionaire and Trump critic. Fusion picked up their work for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton campaign in the spring of 2016, around the same time Papadopoulos was first meeting with Misfud, the professor who would eventually allege that Russia had dirt on Clinton.

The Fusion GPS story is more convoluted, and by nature its details are murkier, but we are fairly certain it goes a little something like this: Glenn Simpson, one of the Fusion founders, met with a former British spy named Christopher Steele in London. He hired Steele to look into Trump's activities in Russia. While employed by the Washington Free Beacon, Fusion's work involved a lot of research into public records, but once hired by the DNC, they used Steele to also gather human intelligence.

During the 2016 campaign, Fusion GPS — on the DNC payroll, and with its founders coming from the media world — exchanged hundreds of emails with reporters from just about every mainstream media outlet you can think of. These researchers chased down rumors, like Trump having some secret backchannel to a Russian bank, and then handed over "raw" intelligence material to news outlets, who subsequently did their best to run stories based on those materials combined with many off-the-record comments from members of the intelligence community and Congress. We'd learn later that Marc Elias, the DNC lawyer who hired Fusion, would regularly brief Clinton and her campaign team on Fusion's research and work with reporters.

The intent of the Clinton campaign was not ambiguous. According to Gerth, the Clinton team had approved a “proposal from one of her foreign-policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services,” which Gerth derived from declassified notes of a briefing CIA director John Brennan gave to President Obama in 2016 (Critics of Gerth’s writing, who we’ll get to at the end, have excoriated this framing, noting that the declassified notes were based on an unverified Russian intelligence report, and that a more plausible explanation is that Clinton was simply seizing on Trump’s fumbling of the Russia hack and leak campaign to damage him politically).

All the while, reporters from across the press were meeting or communicating with Fusion (or Steele) to discuss Trump's links to Russia. Eventually, the now infamous Steele dossier came across the desk of some reporters, many of whom were immediately skeptical of its veracity and sourcing. Among other things, the dossier alleged that Carter Page, a volunteer foreign policy adviser on Trump's campaign, had been meeting with high-ranking sanctioned Russian individuals. It also contained more salacious allegations, like Trump's penchant for prostitutes and bizarre sexual activities.

For months, the dossier was known to the press but remained unpublished. Because there were so many reservations about it, many seasoned journalists ignored it, though quite a few tried to chase down individual elements of the dossier and verify them. Several stories were published during this time, citing anonymous intelligence officials, that elevated claims contained in the dossier without confirming their veracity outright. The dossier was eventually — and controversially — published in full by then-BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who went on to work at The New York Times as a media columnist and has recently launched the new global news enterprise Semafor.

Fusion GPS's work, and the press stories that were born from it, would become central to the investigation into Trump — and the nonstop media cycle surrounding it.

We'd learn much later that FBI surveillance of Trump campaign member Carter Page was, in part, justified by the news reports being fed to the press by Fusion GPS, which — again — was being paid for its research by the DNC and the Clinton campaign. An inspector general report would eventually find that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant process to surveil Page, who was never charged with any crime, was deeply flawed, relying heavily on the unsubstantiated dossier. The warrants also left out critical, exculpatory evidence, like the fact Page had been a longtime CIA informant. An FBI lawyer would end up pleading guilty to altering an email he used to seek out the warrant, which included communications he had with the CIA where he's told that Page was an operation contact for the FBI’s sister agency.

"It was a twist to the symbiotic relationship between the media and the national-security apparatus; usually, reporters use pending government action as a peg for their stories," Gerth wrote in his piece in CJR, referencing this time period. "In this case the government cited the media for its actions."

Once the dossier became public, much of the skepticism around the Trump-Russia conspiracy evaporated. According to Gerth's reporting, the dossier ended up in BuzzFeed reporter Ken Bensinger's hands after he visited David Kramer, an associate of the late Sen. John McCain. Bensinger photographed the dossier when Kramer was out of the room, according to Kramer's testimony in a libel suit. Kramer says he never would have shared the dossier with Bensinger, and Bensinger objected to Smith’s decision to make the document public, but it happened anyway.

In an interview with Gerth, Smith defended the decision, saying other publications had "problematic" and "secret" relationships with the dossier's sponsor or author that kept them from publishing it, presumably referring to Fusion GPS's ties to many of the reporters they were then feeding information to. At one point, before the 2016 election, Steele was offered $1 million to corroborate the dossier to the FBI, but he didn't — or couldn't. He told Gerth that the raw intelligence reports were meant only for clients, and maintained that only one minor detail has been "disproved" with the rest either unverified or corroborated.

The dossier's publication, despite many reporters and intelligence agencies understanding it to be a compilation of rumors, only threw gasoline on the fire. The day after its publication, Trump stood in front of the press and said "I think it was Russia" who was behind the DNC hacks and pledged that they "won't be doing it" now that he was president. CNN reporter Jim Acosta used the moment to interrupt a colleague and press Trump with a follow-up, who responded by calling Acosta "fake news," the first time Trump had publicly labeled a journalist or newsroom that way. The interaction would mark a turning point in the Trump-media relationship, and would also be one of the last times Trump ceded an inch on the narrative around Russia’s interference in the election.

This timeline of events is not an excuse for the media's treatment of Trump, which at times bordered on the deranged. I'm on record, in the past, defending the posture of the media towards Trump, often saying that its rabid desire to catch him in a lie or scandal is precisely how the press should treat powerful individuals. But the more I reflect on this time period, the more I wish I’d added more nuance into my point of view.

Heading into 2016, Trump had a fairly sparse public record on Russia. He had brought the Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow, had bragged about his numerous business dealings in Russia, and was fond of claiming he had a relationship with Vladimir Putin. But, in typical Trump fashion, there was little evidence for many of his boasts. Still, these Trumpian brags would end up underpinning suspicion around his ties to Russia, and igniting the imagination of many reporters who spent most of his first term trying to assemble a narrative that Trump had been handed the keys to the United States by a foreign authoritarian’s spy games.

I remember the 2015 to 2018 time well. I was working as a politics reporter and columnist, then at a media start-up called A Plus, where I was hired as one of the first employees by actor and venture capitalist Ashton Kutcher. My role was overseeing the politics vertical, and in 2016, largely because of my opinion writing, Yahoo News named me one of the 16 people who shaped the 2016 election. I had gone from harshly criticizing Hillary Clinton during the primaries to subsequently endorsing her in the general election, which drew a lot of attention in the punditry space (and from Clinton, who wrote me a personal letter thanking me for changing my mind, which still makes me uncomfortable).

My political views were elementary then compared to what they are now, but I was at that time some mix of a populist, Bernie-loving liberal and a never-Trump Republican. I was deeply skeptical of the establishment and the Democratic party, but revered our institutions and had a more conservative view on foreign policy. I hated the Clintons but thought Trump was a clown. And I was clear in my writing then that Clinton was a deeply flawed, probably corrupt, undoubtedly qualified, and unusually weak candidate — but that Trump would be worse, and would probably win, and that outcome would be the more dangerous and destabilizing one.

I was also young, just 24 when the presidential season kicked up in earnest in 2015, and taking many of my cues from reporters and news outlets that I had grown up reading.

Looking back on the fervor of that time is enough to make me blush. There was so much insanity. There were the claims that Russia hacked C-SPAN, a story made up after a C-SPAN producer accidentally and briefly routed Russia Today (RT) into its feed. There was the "Trump-Alfa Bank" story, referenced above, which was an allegation Trump servers were covertly communicating with a Russian bank, also never substantiated. There were Russian hackers penetrating the U.S. electricity grid, another total fantasy (not to be confused with the Colonial Pipeline Hack, which was not tied to Russia and was very real). There were hackers getting into voting machines, something some Democrats still believe, which never happened. There were hackers offering Donald Trump Jr. advanced access to the Wikileaks email archive, hackers accessing voting machines, hackers penetrating U.S. infrastructure — all unproven or totally false. There were, of course, also the "Russian bot networks" that ended up being Trump supporters and the "Russian social media campaigns" whose impact seem to have been vastly overstated.

There were so many of these stories — and so many of them false — it's hard to keep track. Trump's candidacy was caught in the middle of this fervor, frequently (and perhaps inadvertently) helping to sustain it. I was absorbed by the fervor, too.

Many independent journalists, now pariahs to the left and the mainstream press, have been almost entirely vindicated in recent years. Glenn Greenwald, who I think is wrong about a lot of things, has been overwhelmingly right about his criticisms of the media during the Trump-Russia news cycle. One of my old (now deleted) tweets is even featured in his article headlined "The 10 Worst, Most Embarrassing U.S. Failures on the Trump-Russia Story," which was written in January of 2019. My tweet, from 2017, said, "Holy shit. Russia state propaganda (RT) ‘hacked’ into C-SPAN feed and took over for a good 40 seconds today? In middle of live broadcast."

In my defense, I was intending to pose a question, but I was also uncritically sharing a story from a trusted brand — Forbes — that I did not think would publish something like that without being rock solid in their reporting. Of course, like many other stories from that time, it ended up being wholly untrue. As Greenwald has aptly noted over the years, these “errors” seemed to always go in the same direction: “exaggerating the grave threat posed by Moscow and the Trump circle’s connections to it.” Reporters like me, often trusting our colleagues, regularly elevated some inaccurate stories to the masses — and they always reached far more people than the eventual corrections.

Gerth's piece does more to document the mistakes of the mainstream press than any other that I've seen. One of the genesis stories of the narrative that Trump was pro-Russia was an opinion piece in The Washington Post by Josh Rogin, who alleged that Trump had gutted the GOP's anti-Russian stance on Ukraine. This was in July of 2016. Subsequent investigations, Gerth notes, found that the original draft of the platform was actually strengthened by adding language that tightened sanctions on Russia and called for additional assistance for Ukraine. What was rejected was a proposal to supply arms to Ukraine, the same proposal Obama had turned down.

This mistake — the belief that Trump was softening the party’s stance on Russia when his platform pushed the opposite — was relatively minor compared to others. But it set the tone for coverage of him throughout his campaign, and was emblematic of many of the mistakes to come.

Other criticisms from Gerth about how the media covered Trump were also good examples of how rarely Trump helped himself. For instance, in his press conference where he famously called on Russia to find Clinton's emails, Trump quite clearly appears to be joking. As Gerth noted in his re-telling of that press conference, Trump even said he was being sarcastic at the time, though practically nobody in the press reported this. He tried to clean up the mess the next day, tweeting that whoever has Clinton's emails should give them to the FBI. Jake Sullivan, then Clinton's foreign policy advisor, responded by calling his comments "espionage."

What we know now, which we didn’t know then, was that Trump’s “joke” — a truly idiotic and undisciplined thing for a presidential candidate to say — came while the Clinton campaign was active in the background trying to frame him as a Russian stooge. His mistake intersected directly with the Clinton team’s plan, and he practically handed them their narrative on a silver platter.

Months after that press conference, once Trump was president, The New York Times published a story citing anonymous officials who were "alarmed" about purported Russia-Trump contacts laid out in the Steele dossier, especially given that the contacts occurred around the same time of the Trump press conference where he called on Russia to find Clinton's emails.

The story said the FBI declined to comment, as was often their policy, but contemporaneous notes show the FBI knew The Times story was full of inaccuracies. Peter Strzok, the former FBI agent best known for his text messages promising to "stop" Trump, wrote shortly after the story came out that the FBI was "unaware" of "ANY Trump advisers engaging in conversations with intelligence officials." From Gerth's piece:

In the article’s discussion of the dossier, it described Steele as having “a credible track record” and noted the FBI had recently contacted “some” of Steele’s “sources.” Actually, the FBI had recently interviewed Steele’s “primary” source, a Russian working at a Washington think tank, who told them Steele’s reporting was “misstated or exaggerated” and the Russian’s own information was based on “rumor and speculation,” according to notes of the interview released later. The day the Times piece appeared in print, Strzok emailed colleagues and reported that Steele “may not be in a position to judge the reliability” of his network of sources, according to Justice Department documents released in 2020.

The FBI stayed silent on the piece, though, which drove new fervor around the possibility Trump was going to go down for conspiring with Russia to steal the election. In the meantime, outlets like CNN echoed the piece, publishing stories that included allegations like Trump advisers had “constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to US intelligence.” Trump, at this point in the Oval Office, had his administration inform reporters that top FBI officials said the story was inaccurate, which lined up with contemporaneous court documents about this time period. But few in the press, including me, believed the administration’s denials.

Coverage around Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey suffered similar issues as coverage from his press conference where he called on Russia to find Clinton's emails, and coverage of his press conference in Helsinki where he stood next to Putin and questioned the intelligence community’s trustworthiness. In all cases, the media focused incessantly on one or two lines, but removed important context or attempts at clean-up from the Trump team.

After Trump’s interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, the line that was repeated over and over came when Trump was recalling the decision to fire Comey: "I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story." The clip was framed as an open and shut case that Trump fired Comey as an act of self-preservation to keep himself from going down to prison for his Russia ties. But the full interview showed Trump had a different, more nuanced understanding of the decision. Again, from Gerth:

Trump told Holt, soon after the controversial words, that the firing “might even lengthen out the investigation” and he expected the FBI “to continue the investigation,” to do it “properly,” and “to get to the bottom.”... On the heels of the NBC interview came a leak of Comey’s notes of private conversations with Trump, including one at a dinner in January where Trump was said to have asked the FBI director to pledge loyalty to him. The Times piece reported that the inquiry into Trump and Russia “has since gained momentum as investigators have developed new evidence and leads.”

On June 8, at a Senate hearing, Comey was asked whether the Times story was “almost entirely wrong.” He said yes. He told a senator they were “correct” when they said he had “surveyed the intelligence community” after the article came out “to see whether you were missing something.” Comey also agreed he later told senators, in a closed briefing shortly after the Times piece was published, “I don’t know where this is coming from, but this is not the case.” Finally, in his own voice, Comey testified that the story “in the main, it was not true.”

There were also retractions. The Washington Post had to retract stories that purported to identify the source of the Steele dossier’s main points, which alleged a "well-developed" conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin. This retraction reflected the basic fact that has become more apparent with time: Much of the information being fed to the press during the Trump campaign and early Trump presidency was coming from sources the reporters did not wholly understand.

In one illuminating instance, Michael Isikoff, a chief correspondent at Yahoo News, was pitched a story by the Fusion GPS researchers about Carter Page. Isikoff published the piece, focused on a volunteer foreign policy adviser on Trump's campaign who had high level contacts with Russia. Isikoff cited a letter from the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) about the allegations, and cited a senior law enforcement officer who said the story was being looked at (the FBI had already begun investigating Steele's dossier).

After the story was published, the Clinton campaign put out a statement on Twitter about Isikoff's "bombshell report" without disclosing that it was paying the researchers who spoon fed the story to Isikoff in the first place. It was boosting a story it had helped concoct, one that we'd later find out was both flawed and was used to help justify the FBI’s further spying on Page. Isikoff, in interviews with Gerth, expressed regret about the story, saying his description of the dossier was "third hand stuff" and "in retrospect, it never should have been given the credence it was."

Accounts like this, of a sloppy press desperate to tie Trump to Russia, seem innumerable. But focusing on them alone, just like focusing on Trump's purported Russia ties alone, doesn't tell the full story.

In the interest of fairness, Gerth's work — and CJR's standards more broadly — have both been criticized recently. In a piece titled "Who Watches the Watchdog?", reporter Duncan Campbell calls into question the editorial standards of CJR's managing editor Kyle Pope. Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist beloved by the left for her reporting on Trump-Russia, also penned her own criticism of Gerth's work. In it, she makes the case that Gerth ignored many media failures around Clinton, including the coverage of her email server (of course, Clinton suffered greatly from Comey’s decision to announce the reopening of an investigation into her just weeks before the election).

Wheeler also suggests Gerth ignored the many valuable and accurate stories about Trump and Russia produced by the outlets he criticized, and glosses over (or totally omits) some important and publicly noted financial ties between Trump and Russia. If you read the Gerth piece, which you should, these criticisms too, are worth reading.

Ben Smith, who originally published the Steele dossier and is implicitly criticized in Gerth's piece, said he agreed with Gerth's two main findings: That "the media should have done more to report facts that run counter to the prevailing narrative of collusion between Donald Trump and the Russian government" and that "the media overplayed the impact of the Russian government attempts to interfere with the elections via Twitter and Facebook."

But, Smith wrote, Gerth also slipped into some of the confirmation bias he criticizes, and ignores the fact that "two conflicting claims are both obviously true: Parts of the liberal media, and many Democrats, developed wildly false theories about Trump. And a Russian intelligence operation, reported by the Times and others, helped Trump. Gerth treats the DNC hack, a hugely successful intelligence coup, as another data point in the narrative about the media. He omits the Trump organization’s attempt to build a Moscow high-rise."

All this taken into account, what we have today is not a simple black and white story with obvious villains and good guys.

Working against Trump are numerous well-verified storylines.

In Robert Mueller's report on Trump, he documented roughly 100 "links" between the Trump campaign and Russians. Mueller wrote that “the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the [Trump] Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”

Today, most in the Trump-Russia collusion camp cite Paul Manafort's relationship and 2016 meeting with Konstantin Kilimnik as the core of this conspiracy. Manafort shared campaign polling data with Kilimnik during this meeting, and Mueller said Kilimnik was known to have ties to Russian intelligence. Mueller said he could not determine why the data was shared or what happened to it, and Manafort, his deputy and Kilimnik have separately claimed that the arrangement was made to help Manafort's personal finances, including a dispute with a Russian oligarch, as if this were exculpatory.

At the same time, there is also Stone, the Trump adviser and provocateur who has repeatedly claimed to have had contacts with Wikileaks and Julian Assange before they dumped Hillary Clinton's emails. If Stone had been coordinating with Wikileaks, and Wikileaks had been coordinating with a hacking group supported by the Russian government, it wouldn’t be hard to connect the dots. But despite his boasts, Stone's contact with Wikileaks has never been confirmed, and Russia being responsible for the hack and leak of DNC emails — while certainly the most plausible scenario — has also never actually been litigated. Mueller, who maintained in his report that the Russia-backed GRU was behind the hack, also did not accuse Stone of coordinating with any of the parties involved.

Then there was Michael Flynn, who was Trump's national security adviser for a few weeks before resigning. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office, which many in the Trump-collusion camp have held up as vindication of the investigation and the conspiracy.

Then there's Trump, personally. His financial relationships in Russia and his desire to bring business to Russia was well-documented before he was a candidate. He regularly bragged about his relationship with Putin, which only raised suspicions. The idea that Trump may have wanted better relationships with Putin and Russia in order to benefit himself financially is a perfectly plausible theory — but still a theory. That he and his campaign were open to receiving "dirt" on his opponent in the 2016 election is not theory, but fact. This openness can be interpreted as a willingness to work with Russian spies to hurt his opponent or the amateurish flailing of an inexperienced candidate trying to use anything he could to win. Obviously, Americans are divided on this interpretation — but both interpretations fall short of open conspiracy.

Of course, Trump also faced allegations of obstructing justice, though those charges have never been brought, and they are less relevant to the question I am probing here of whether Trump actually conspired with Russia. If he were innocent, given the mechanisms at play, and the powerful actors who were apparently attempting to destroy him in the press, one might even sympathize with an (alleged) effort to kill the investigation. Certainly, many of Trump’s supporters do. For whatever it’s worth, White House lawyer Don McGahn, whom Trump purportedly called on to fire Mueller and was cited throughout Mueller's report, told investigators that “he believed the president never obstructed justice."

Working for Trump is most everything else.

There was, quite clearly, an intentional and well-orchestrated effort from Trump's opponent in 2016 to frame him as being in the pocket of a foreign adversary. There was a nonstop stream of inaccurate and shrill news reports, fueled in part by his political opponent, to create a fervor around a "Trump-Russia conspiracy" that has not yet abated. There was unethical and illegal spying on the Trump campaign by the FBI. There were coordinated efforts from members of Congress to leak confidential intelligence briefings to the press, often by cherry-picking only damaging elements to make Trump look as corrupt as possible.

And, of course, there was Mueller's final report, which is exhaustive (2,800 subpoenas and over 500 interviews with witnesses) and states plainly that there was no proven case of conspiracy or collusion between Russia and Trump, though there were offers from Russian-affiliated people to help the Trump campaign. There were, according to Mueller, 10 incidents that raised the possibility of obstruction of justice.

Flynn, for his part, was railroaded by the FBI and tried to retract his guilty plea after a Justice Department review uncovered exculpatory evidence in his favor. The Justice Department dropped its charges against Flynn and the point became moot when Trump pardoned him (Trump also commuted the sentence of Roger Stone).

Other elements of the Trump-Russia story remain shrouded in some mystery. Joseph Misfud, the professor who first told Papadopoulos about the dirt on Clinton, has gone missing. We still have little clarity about Konstantin Kilimnik, the purported Russian spy who received polling data from Manafort. As Gerth wrote:

The evidence of Kilimnik’s Kremlin ties is far from certain, and the question of whether Manafort’s dealings with him were personal or campaign-related are even murkier.

As for Kilimnik possibly being a Russian spy, the only known official inquiry, by Ukraine in 2016, didn’t result in charges. More recent claims that he worked for the Russians, by the Senate intelligence panel in 2020 and the Treasury Department in 2021, offered no evidence. Conversely, there are FBI and State Department documents showing Kilimnik was a “sensitive source” for the latter. (The documents were disclosed a few years ago by John Solomon, founder of the Just the News website. Kilimnik, in an email to me, confirmed his ties with State.)

Since Mueller's investigation concluded, more investigations have been born. John Durham is still conducting his investigation of the investigation, which has now gone on far longer than Mueller's initial probe. When Durham started, many Trump supporters hyperventilated that it would end with high-ranking Obama and Clinton officials in jail, perhaps even Obama and Clinton themselves, and that Durham was going to take scalps across D.C. while exposing the deep state. No such reckoning has occurred.

Instead, Durham has brought three cases forward. The first was against FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith, the one who pleaded guilty to falsifying an email to get a surveillance application against Carter Page. The second was Durham's false statement charge against Michael Sussmann for lying about his client (the DNC) when he relayed a tip to the FBI. Sussmann was acquitted. The third charge was against Igor Danchenko, a Russian policy researcher, for four felony false statement charges. He was also acquitted.

While Durham hasn't had the success in court many Trump allies hoped for, his investigation has provided ample — and now public — evidence of the story relayed in this piece. Evidence brought forward in his probe has also prompted retractions and walkbacks from news outlets who were reporting on the Trump-Russia story from 2015 to the present day.

At the end of January, The New York Times released a lengthy article alleging that Durham's probe had failed to find wrongdoing in the origins of the Russia inquiry, and that former attorney general Barr had improperly egged the probe on. Some are now suggesting an investigation of Durham's investigation into the investigation might be necessary.

If I were to try and summarize this entire affair in a paragraph or two, which is an impossible and perhaps dangerous task, I think it'd look something like this:

Years later, we still have no hard evidence of Trump's campaign conspiring with Russia to steal the 2016 election, which should serve as proof positive of their innocence. We have ample evidence of their opportunism, and their openness, to using hacked or stolen documents to damage their political opponent — even when suspecting those documents may have come from a foreign adversary. Trump, who has a penchant for boasting, lying, and riffing, often damaged his own case with inappropriate comments and a tendency to be enthralled by anyone — even Vladimir Putin — who heaps praise on him. Russia did damage Clinton's campaign, though the extent of that damage is hard to quantify.

But Trump was also a victim. He was the victim of a sloppy press that got far too many things wrong, and the victim of a well-connected campaign-media-intelligence apparatus that worked in concert to present him as a Russian asset. Stories being investigated by employed researchers of the Clinton campaign regularly made their way into the media, who regularly butchered them, which ultimately resulted in more negative press around Trump, which helped the Clinton campaign, and which led to literal FBI spying on a Trump campaign member.

Imagine, for a moment, how different the treatment of Trump may have been in 2016 if everyone had known — in real time — that many of the narratives being pushed in the media were being planted by someone on the payroll of his opponent in the race?

Some eight years later, many Americans still believe Russian officials and Trump worked in concert to steal the election, and many in the press are yet to properly reflect on the mistakes they made in perpetuating this narrative.

All this is cause not just for reflection on the past, but a new approach to the present, and one that is necessary if we in the media ever hope to win back the trust of Americans.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.