If you are following mainstream news outlets, you know that in 2016, Donald Trump benefited from a Russian hacking and disinformation campaign designed to help him get elected, even as he sought permission from the Russian government to build a hotel in Moscow. You know that he deflected blame from Russia for that campaign, even as he sought to benefit from it politically. You know that shortly after the election, Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office that he didn’t mind their efforts on his behalf, inviting further interference. And you know that while those acts may not have amounted to criminal conspiracy, the president’s insistence that there was “no collusion” flies in the face of established facts.
If you are ensconced in the pro-Trump-propaganda universe of Fox News and its spawn, you know something different. You know that the Russia investigation was a “hoax” developed by the “deep state” and the media, an attempt by a fifth column within the FBI to engage in a “coup,” a conspiracy, a frame job, “nothing less than the attempted overthrow of the U.S. government.” Any evidence of wrongdoing by the president, in this universe, has been manufactured by Trump’s shadowy and powerful enemies—George Soros, liberals in the FBI, Barack Obama.
The belief that Trump is the victim of a vast and ongoing conspiracy is a crucial element of the president’s enduring appeal to his supporters. If the allegations against the president are all completely false, then his supporters can continue to back him with a clear conscience, because anything and everything negative they hear about the president must be false. The consistency of that message is more important than the actual details, which frequently end up contradicting complex explanations for the president’s innocence that are often incongruous with each other, such as the insistence that Robert Mueller’s investigation was a “total exoneration” of the president, but also “total bullshit.”
The Department of Justice inspector general’s probe into the origins of the Russia investigation, which was released Monday, found no evidence that any of the Trump conspiracy theories surrounding the origin of the investigation are true. The investigation was not launched on Obama’s orders, it was not an effort by pro–Hillary Clinton FBI agents to prevent Trump from getting elected, and it was not predicated on the existence of opposition research gathered by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. The president’s defenders have taken to referring to the entire investigation as “the Russia hoax,” insisting that the entire investigation was an effort by “persons within the FBI and Barack Obama’s Justice Department” who “worked improperly to help elect Clinton and defeat Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.” But the IG report shows that the “Russia hoax” defense is itself a hoax, and a highly successful one, aimed at reassuring Trump supporters who might otherwise be troubled by the president’s behavior.
The inconsistencies and contradictions of the “Russia hoax” narrative appear not to trouble the president’s supporters. Rather, as George Orwell wrote in 1944, “For quite long periods, at any rate, people can remain undisturbed by obvious lies, either because they simply forget what is said from day to day or because they are under such a constant propaganda bombardment that they become anaesthetized to the whole business.” The numbness to every new Trump revelation, no matter how shocking, is in part a product of the president’s success in fatiguing anyone who might be interested in what the facts are.
The IG report knocked down the various claims that Trump and his allies have made, one by one. The report confirmed that the Russia investigation originated, as has been previously reported, with the Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos bragging to an Australian diplomat about Russia possessing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, which the IG determined “was sufficient to predicate the investigation.” The widespread conservative belief that the investigation began because of the dubious claims in the Steele dossier was false. “Steele’s reports played no role” in the opening of the Russia investigation, the report found, because FBI officials were not “aware of Steele’s election reporting until weeks later.”
Republicans’ claim that the investigation began because the FBI misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain permission to surveil the former Trump campaign aide Carter Page was false. The IG also “did not find any records” that Joseph Mifsud, the professor who told Papadopoulos the Russians had obtained “dirt” on Clinton, was an FBI informant sent to entrap him. The former FBI agent Peter Strzok and the former FBI attorney Lisa Page, who shared anti-Trump sentiments over text and have become key villains in the Trumpist narrative of a “coup,” never had the power to do what has been attributed to them. The IG report notes that Page “did not play a role in the decision to open” the Russia investigation, and that Strzok was “was not the sole, or even the highest-level, decision maker as to any of those matters.”
The IG report also determined that “the FBI had an authorized purpose when it opened [the Russia investigation] to obtain information about, or protect against, a national security threat or federal crime, even though the investigation also had the potential to impact constitutionally protected activity.” Moreover, the IG found “no evidence” that “political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions” to investigate Trump advisers with ties to Russia.
There is, in short, no “deep state” anti-Trump conspiracy, no network of perfidious liberals in the FBI seeking to take down Trump. There is, however, voluminous evidence of reprehensible behavior by the president, first taking advantage of a foreign attack on the 2016 election for personal and political profit, seeking to obstruct the investigation into that interference, and then falsely concocting an elaborate conspiracy theory to avoid accountability for his actions.
Nevertheless, there are important systemic problems with the FBI and the way that the U.S. government approves invasive surveillance techniques on American citizens. The report notes that while the FBI had a sufficient factual predicate for opening the investigation, that is because the FBI and the Department of Justice must meet a “low threshold” for justifying such an investigation. In addition, while the IG report found no evidence that “political bias or improper motivation influenced the FBI’s decision to seek FISA authority on Carter Page,” the IG did determine that the Page FISA application was “inaccurate, incomplete, or unsupported by appropriate documentation,” which misled the court as to the credibility of the FBI’s evidence when seeking authority to surveil Page.
Liberals may be tempted to dismiss such findings as unimportant. But federal investigations are incredibly invasive, and having a stricter standard for the circumstances under which an investigation can be opened would help ensure that this authority is not abused; the Clinton Foundation investigation began—and this is no joke—with an anti-Hillary book paid for by the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. If the FBI is making errors in seeking permission to surveil current or former advisers to a presidential campaign, the most politically sensitive kind of investigation, it suggests that there are many more flawed applications to be found in operations where the investigations are not nearly so delicate. The process for seeking permission to spy on American citizens suspected of being foreign agents should be more adversarial than it is, if only to keep the government honest.
Republicans however, do not seem at all interested in the actual legal and policy concerns the report raises. Rather, they are following the lead of the president and his attorney general, William Barr, in mischaracterizing the report’s findings. “This was an overthrow of government, this was an attempted overthrow—and a lot of people were in on it,” Trump declared, while Barr insisted, in a more lawyerly fashion, “The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken.”
Both of these statements contradict the report itself, which found no political bias behind the opening of the Russia investigation. Barr’s statement is a matter of opinion, which expresses his monarchical belief that Trump was above the law even before he became president. But whether Barr personally feels the evidence was sufficient to open an investigation, the IG determined that by FBI and DOJ standards, it was.
Trumpists will now pin their hopes on Barr’s handpicked investigator, U.S. Attorney John Durham, to provide some shred of evidence for Trump’s “deep state” conspiracy. After investigations failed to produce justification for an indictment of former FBI Director James Comey, whose actions helped put Trump in office prior to Trump firing him over the Russia investigation, or his deputy, Andrew McCabe, whose disclosures to the media harmed Clinton rather than Trump, and following two IG reports that found no evidence that the Russia investigation was the product of political bias, Durham will be under a tremendous amount of pressure from Barr to indict one of the president’s chosen enemies, if only to have a scapegoat to feed the right-wing propaganda machine and deter federal law enforcement from ever looking into criminal activity by the president or his allies again.
So the “Russia hoax” hoax continues, abetted by the sheer volume of conservative commentators and commentary capable of ignoring the text of the document and the weight of evidence, in favor of expressing obsequious loyalty to the president. By yelling falsehoods loudly enough, they hope to exhaust anyone with the ambition to determine the truth of the matter. And it might be working.