As one of the vanishingly few people in journalism who has been pointing out the fundamentally fallacious premises behind “Russiagate” since the day it started, I can attest to how vociferously skeptics of this charade have been denounced as Donald Trump apologists or even secret supporters. Of course, there was always a vocal faction of people who are partisan boosters of Trump and rejected the Russia conspiracy for no real reason other than that they wanted to protect their beloved president. But for those of us who recognized how vital it was that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies be met with a rational, evidence-based opposition—rather than one overtaken by conspiratorial frenzy—highlighting the glaring flaws in this story was unavoidably necessary. Sadly, our warnings largely fell on deaf ears.
The end result is a grand ironic twist for Trump’s most ardent opponents: Because Democrats and their media allies invested so much political capital in the now-discredited Russia collusion theory, they have not only failed to topple Trump, they’ve actually strengthened his hand immeasurably. There’s just no way to sugarcoat it: Robert Mueller has fully exonerated Trump on the core conspiracy charge that impelled the creation of the special counsel in the first place, and Trump is absolutely justified to celebrate this as a profound humiliation for Democrats and huge swaths of the national media. Heading into a re-election campaign, liberals witlessly gifted him the standing to rightly declare victory over opposition forces that compromised their integrity and abandoned their critical faculties in a vain effort to oust him from power.
Rather than focusing on any number of Trump’s very real crimes and corruptions—the blatant conflicts of interest posed by his sprawling global real estate empire, his clear indebtedness to the Republican donor class he once maligned, his obsequious deference to repressive foreign states like Saudi Arabia and Israel—they instead chose to stoke this groundless Russia fever dream for nearly three straight years. In so doing, Democrats effectively insulated Trump from legitimate criticism, such that the real harms of his tenure have escaped scrutiny.
Democrats may have won in the 2018 midterm elections mainly on the strength of standard-fare economic issues like health care and taxes, but the elite Democratic-allied media chatter still remained relentlessly fixated on Russia all the way through. A disconnect developed: While most of the country was indifferent to the “collusion” melodrama, the core group of rabid, anti-Trump activist liberals became wholly consumed by Russiagate and all its attendant multifarious subplots.
Now their worldviews have been completely shattered. I saw many of these people at Democratic town halls, rallies, and other events between 2016 and 2018, where they would chant “treason” and wave elaborate banners graphically illustrating Trump’s supposedly homoerotic subservience to his best buddy Vladimir Putin. Instead of energizing these people around a substantive policy program that could lay the groundwork for removing Trump by normal electoral means, the cynical media instead force-fed them a wild international espionage fairy tale. Now that activist energy has been totally squandered.
Democrats have ended up giving the moral, political, and logical high ground to a president who is perhaps the most venal and sleazy individual to ever walk the Earth. Trump is a chronic complainer, often about the pettiest of slights, but Russiagate is the one subject about which his complaints have actually been legitimate. It’s astonishing but true: Democrats and the national media chose to spend three years validating Trump’s one grievance that actually has merit.
By ignoring the obviously flawed premises behind this investigation, Democrats ceded to Trump the authority to opine justifiably about the wrongdoings of what he calls the “Deep State”—a cadre of nefarious bureaucratic actors hellbent on undermining him. Though Trump’s spin on things often took an oversimplified, overpartisan tone, the truth is that Trump was fundamentally correct. There was a cohort of unelected security state officials who acted unilaterally to thwart him, on grounds now resolutely proven by Mueller to have been extraordinarily flimsy.
The reckoning with how elite journalists behaved throughout this sordid affair will also have to be far-reaching and painful, because the stark reality once again is that Trump’s critique does have much truth to it. He is absolutely, demonstrably correct that the media comported itself with incredibly reckless indiscretion—the errors, retractions, baseless speculative proclamations, and outright deceits are far too numerous to comprehensively list.
As such, journalists who hate Trump have given him an enormously effective bludgeon to gleefully wield for the rest of his presidency. He can now use their manifold, humiliating Russia-related failures an excuse to proclaim legitimate reporting on other subjects “fake news,” and unfortunately, there won’t be much for journalists to say by way of rebuttal. It wasn’t Trump’s doing that this collusion conspiracy bonanza became the dominant national political narrative of the past three years. The blame for that lies squarely with an irresponsible, ratings-and-clicks hungry media.
Democrats and journalists have now presented Trump with a potent argument for re-election on a platter. Though economic factors will undoubtedly play a much bigger role in whether Trump wins in 2020, the “no collusion” victory will allow him to deflect from all the actual shortcomings of his presidency—legislatively, temperamentally, and otherwise.
There is also the staggering irony that the so-called Resistance—comprising those who turned their flamboyant, overwrought opposition to Trump into a branding strategy and marketing ploy—has ended up making Democrats look not like crusading truth-seekers but a bunch of delusional clowns, thereby bolstering the very president they have incessantly warned is a world-historic menace who must be removed at all costs. Their inane tactics could well be what keeps him in power.
The Center for American Progress, the nation’s preeminent liberal Resistance think tank, adopted whole-hog the most maximalist conspiratorial version of the Trump-Russia storyline, launching something called “The Moscow Project,” which regaled credulous readers with an ever-expanding dark web of sinister Russia connections, and encouraged Democrats across the country to assume that a “collusion” finding was obviously forthcoming.
The institutional Democratic apparatus was fully committed to this discredited narrative, and the longer they remain in denial about how comprehensively wrong they were, the more political leverage they gift to Trump. For one thing, hawking the scam was a highly profitable boondoggle. Nancy Pelosi fundraised frantically by pushing the false notion that Mueller was perpetually on the precipice of being fired, as did the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other party organs. As is so often the case, the incentives for pushing Russiagate with such unrestrained vigor were nakedly, self-interestedly financial.
The consequences of these failed opposition tactics will be deep and long-lasting. For years, Democrats and members of the left-leaning media displayed remarkable incuriosity about the national security state machinations that brought about the Trump-Russia non-scandal in the first place. Agencies they once would have regarded with extreme skepticism—the FBI, CIA, NSA, and foreign intelligence services—suddenly became valiant defenders of truth and liberty because they appeared for the moment to be arrayed against Trump. Figures like former CIA Director John Brennan not only acted as sources for journalists eager to bandie coveted “bombshell scoops,” they were subsequently hired by these very same outlets to which the scoops had been provided. Because the national media discussion of Russiagate was so dominated by former security state officials, all the abuses that are now clearly evident—politicization of intelligence agencies, surveillance overkill, prosecutorial overreach—were excused or even celebrated because in the moment they appeared to disadvantage Trump.
Democrats often posture as opponents of overzealous state power, but in this case they turned around and cheered things like the months-long solitary confinement of Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign manager convicted on charges that had zero to do with any collusion conspiracy. Solitary confinement would ordinarily be widely regarded by liberals as tantamount to torture, but all their principles seemingly went out the window in the context of Trump-Russia. Consequently, they have weakened the progressive critique that could have otherwise be used with good reason against Trump.
So now the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have to reckon with the embarrassing fallout. They’ll be left to deal with the shock and anger of MSNBC- and Twitter-addicted liberal voters who are currently suffering from what could not-hyperbolically be described as an existential crisis: Everything they thought they knew about American politics for nearly three years has been dramatically shattered.
Even the candidates themselves look profoundly foolish. Most have at various points indulged in exaggerated, unsupportable Trump-Russia rhetoric—whether prematurely endorsing impeachment (Beto O’Rourke), suggesting that Trump would soon end up in prison (Elizabeth Warren), or declaring that there were “foreign powers infecting the White House like malware” (Kamala Harris). Even Bernie Sanders has made overwrought, conspiratorial intimations about Trump’s relationship with Putin. The only exception is Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii, who has bucked the trend and sharply criticized prevailing Democratic orthodoxy on this subject.
There’s no other way to put it: Mueller’s conclusion is an utter disaster for Democrats and their media allies. Not only have they wasted incalculable political energy obsessing about what has proven to be a deranged fantasy, they have dramatically emboldened Trump and given him a compelling, triumphant narrative for re-election. It’s finally now time to stop the lies, stop the distortions, and stop the excuses. Otherwise this fiasco will just keep getting worse.
Michael Tracey is a journalist in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mtracey.