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It Is Not News that Bill Barr Lied to Protect Kleptocracy

Let’s talk about what Bill Barr did in his second tenure as Attorney General.

Even before Jeff Sessions was fired, Barr decided — based on the false claims he saw on Fox News — that the allegations against Donald Trump were bullshit. He wrote up a memo suggesting that it was okay for the President to fire the FBI director to cover up his own crimes. And based on that audition, he was nominated and confirmed as Attorney General.

When the investigation into the aftermath of that firing shut down weeks after he was confirmed, Barr lied to downplay the degree to which the President had enthusiastically welcomed the help of a hostile country to get elected. Among the things his lies did was to hide that the investigation into whether Roger Stone conspired with Russia — with Trump’s full knowledge — remained ongoing, a detail that remains unreported everywhere but here. Barr also issued a prosecution declination for crimes still in progress, Trump’s ultimately successful effort to buy the silence of witnesses against him with pardons.

Barr poured whiskey to celebrate his old friend Robert Mueller’s frailty before Congress.

Then Barr turned to protecting Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and Sean Hannity when a whistleblower objected that Trump was extorting Volodymyr Zelenskyy for help on his reelection campaign. He did so in a number of ways, including interfering in legally mandated congressional and election oversight. He also stripped the whistleblower complaint to ensure that investigative steps put into place to protect national security in the wake of 9/11 wouldn’t tie Trump’s extortion attempt to an ongoing investigation into Ukrainian efforts to exploit Rudy Giuliani’s corruption to protect (Russian-backed) Ukrainian corruption. Barr’s efforts to hide the national security impact of Russian-backed Ukrainian efforts to corrupt American democracy gave Republicans cover — cover that every single Republican save Justin Amash and Mitt Romey availed themselves of — to leave Trump in place even after he put his own personal welfare above national security.

Then Barr turned to undoing the work of the Russian investigation. After Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled that the case against Mike Flynn was sound and Michael Horowitz concluded that the Russian investigation was not a partisan witch hunt, Barr assigned multiple investigators — John Durham and Jeffrey Jensen — to create a new set of facts claiming it was. He intervened to minimize the punishment against Stone, in the process claiming that threats against a witness and a judge — involving the same militias that would go on to lead an attack on the Capitol on January 6 — were mere technicalities. In his attempt to shield Stone from punishment, Barr ensured that the then-ongoing investigation into Stone’s suspected conspiracy with Russia would go nowhere. Barr’s efforts to attack Emmet Sullivan for refusing to rubber stamp Barr’s corruption resulted in a death threat against the judge. Barr’s effort to invent excuses to dismiss the prosecution against Flynn included altering documents and permitting an FBI agent who had sent pro-Trump texts on his FBI device to make claims in an interview that conflicted with the agent’s own past actions.

Barr used COVID as an excuse to let Paul Manafort serve his sentence in his Alexandria condo until such time as Trump pardoned his former campaign manager for lying about the help from Russia he used to get elected.

Barr took several measures to protect Rudy Giuliani from any consequences for his repeated efforts to get help for Donald Trump from Russian-backed Ukrainians, including outright Agents like Andrii Derkach. He ensured that the existing SDNY investigation into Rudy could not incorporate Rudy’s later efforts to solicit Russian-backed Ukrainian help. He attempted to fire Geoffrey Berman. He set up a parallel process so that DOJ could review the fruits of Rudy’s influence peddling for potential use against Trump’s campaign opponent.

This is just a partial list of the false claims that Bill Barr mobilized as Attorney General to ensure that the United States remained saddled with a President who repeatedly welcomed — at times extorted — Russian-backed help to remain as President.

It is not news that Bill Barr corrupted DOJ and lied to protect kleptocracy — in its American form of Donald Trump, but also, by association, in Putin’s efforts to exploit American venality to corrupt democracy.

Nevertheless, multiple outlets have decided that now — during Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine — is a good time to invite Bill Barr onto TV or radio to tell further lies to spin his own role in protecting kleptocracy, Russian and American. They appear to think they’re clever enough to catch a shameless liar in a lie — or perhaps believe the news value of having Barr explain that he’d prefer a competent fascist to Trump but if Trump is all he gets, he prefers that to actual democracy.

You cannot win an interview with Bill Barr. Gaslighters like Barr are too skilled at exploiting our attention economy. The mere act of inviting him on accords a man who did grave damage to the Department of Justice and the Constitution in service of kleptocracy as a respectable member of society. Even assuming you’re prepared enough to challenge his lies (thus far none of the journalists who interviewed Barr has been), he’ll claim your truth, the truth, is just partisanship designed to smear those who believe kleptocracy is moral. More likely, you’ll end up like Savanah Guthrie did, letting Barr claim, unchallenged, that the allegation that Russia conducted a concerted effort to compromise Trump is a lie.

Before Russia invaded a peaceful country, it attempted to achieve the same ends by cultivating Trump, by trading him electoral advantage for Ukrainian sovereignty. Bill Barr was a central part in letting that effort continue unchecked until January 20, 2021.

If you invite him on to do anything other than apologize to Ukraine and the United States, you are part of the problem.

Three Things: Part 1 — Cognitive Dissonance and Ukraine

[NB: check the byline as usual, thanks./~Rayne]

I was stitching together three somewhat disparate bits into a narrative only to realize the post was huge and unwieldy. I’ve broken it out into three parts under the Three Things theme. The other two should be done soon.

~ ~ ~

Though NATO and the EU have become more resolved and responsive since active military action began, there’s been anger and frustration expressed about the lack of immediate aid by allies of Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion.

We have to admit that cognitive dissonance played a role in the lag.

Cognitive dissonance may have been to blame for the low key response to Russia’s previous incursions against Georgia, Crimea, and the quasi-coup of Belarus with Alexander Lukashenko’s sketchy presidential election, as well as the 2014 occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk areas in eastern Ukraine.

For a number of reasons depending on the individuals’ and nation-states’ situations, EU and NATO were uncomfortable confronting the possibility Putin was engaging in colonial expansion.

It didn’t sink into our collective consciousness over more than a decade what Putin was doing with his steady acquisition of control over areas formerly part of the USSR.

Did it take our impeaching a US president because he attempted to extort performance from Ukraine in exchange for military aid? No — that still wasn’t enough for many to see what’s been in front of them for years.

We’re steadily awakening to the challenge Putin has posed but denial clings to us, our eyes resist opening.

It shouldn’t have taken Ukraine’s president Zelenskyy making an impassioned speech to break the torpor, reminding the EU and thereby its NATO members that Ukraine was defending democratic values on Europe’s eastern flank, and that his plea might be the last time they saw him alive.

The implication was not only that Putin wants Zelenskyy dead, but there could be far worse ahead without immediate assistance from the EU neighborhood.

~ ~ ~

Let me share a translation of a tweet thread by Anna Colin Lebedev, lecturer at University of Paris-Nanterre, a specialist in post-Soviet societies. She shared these remarks on February 24 when the invasion began, in which she addresses the drag of cognitive dissonance. (Forgive the wonky formatting, it is as it was entered in Twitter.)

I see on this day at the start of the war that many of us cling to familiar categories. Reassuring, but misleading. We need to shift our interpretive schemas, because the situation requires it. A few quick remarks. 1/11

1. “Putin is crazy.”
Maybe, but it doesn’t matter, because above all we need to understand the internal rationality of his action. We need to understand the extent of his project, to see his salient points (Ukraine, and beyond, the United States, the West) 2/11

We need to realize that the ambition of the project is global, beyond Ukraine.

2. “Isn’t he okay?…”
What the massive attack on Ukraine teaches us is that the most radical scenario, the most improbable, the one we refuse to see… 3/11

… is the one that is likely to be implemented.
Our political cultures have an aversion to radicalism. We don’t believe the worst is possible. On another continent, perhaps, but not here.
Russia still won’t attack US? 4/11

The current Russian power does not reason in terms of costs and benefits. He reasons in terms of a major mission. Even an ultimate mission. Mission requires sacrifice. Even a self-sacrifice. Attacking a NATO country would be suicidal for Putin? 5/11

Let’s not rule it out though. The suicide mission is part of the mental universe of this former KGB officer. Once again: so far, our most doomsday scenarios have come true. 6/11

3. “Attachment to Ukraine”; “Soviet nostalgia”; “willingness to rebuild the USSR”
Warning: smoke screens. Political science teaches us that by using history, we speak above all about the present. To say “Putin wants to rebuild the USSR” is to be reassured. 7/11

Why? Because we imply: “Once the USSR is rebuilt, it will stop. We will be quiet behind our iron curtain. He wants Ukraine? calm.”
You have to listen to Putin. It’s pretty self-explanatory. 8/11

In his speeches he talks about Ukraine, yes. But he talks a lot, a lot, a lot about us. The West. United States. And the European Union, this little subservient to the USA, this little one that doesn’t count and which is a NATO base. The USA is the main adversary. 9/11

But we are the target.
You’re going to say to me: “wait, he’s still not okay?…”
I refer you to point 2.
It is not catastrophic today to consider the worst. It’s realistic. And I say it all the better because I was one of those who temporized. 10/11

There’s a scary little taste of “don’t look up” in the interviews I was able to do today. That explains this thread.
I will return to my job and continue to do what I have done until now: explain, detail, show other angles. 11/11, end

The bit about “don’t look up” will be familiar to those of us who watched the Netflix movie, “Don’t Look Up,” in which experts try to warn the public of an extinction level event but multiple layers of opportunistic predatory delay and denialist disbelief thwart a rational response to save humanity.

One might think this a little throwaway line, “a scary little taste of ‘don’t look up’,” but it should give us pause if Lebedev’s repeated attempts fail to get through to us the ruthlessness of Putin’s decision-making. What are the risks posed by lingering delay, denial, and disbelief?

In short, we should expect Putin to remain singularly focused on his mission.

We should be equally focused on stopping him, and look the up at the bigger picture.

Americans should also snap the fuck out of their somnolent navel gazing and confront Colin Lebedev’s question, “Russia still won’t attack US?”

The truth is that Russia already has attacked the U.S. as well as NATO, repeatedly.

The truth is that we’re still wallowing in cognitive dissonance, unable and/or unwilling to accept what has been limned before us:

2009 — Russian cyberattack on Kyrgyzstan in an attempt to force the country to evict an American military base;

2009-2010 — a program of spies embedded in our population in the event of societal breakdown, which we’ve blown off and normalized as premium cable TV series content, The Americans and “red sparrow” Anna Chapman; Russian hackers attacked Twitter and Facebook in Georgia to celebrate the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Georgian territory;

2011-2012 — Funding of Russian-sympathetic GOP candidates and electeds by laundered cash donations throught the National Rifle Association, with assistance by Russians Aleksandr Torshin and “red sparrow” Maria Butina.

2012-2015 — Evgeny Buryakov and two other Russian spies gathered intelligence which included information on U.S. sanctions and alternative energy.

2014 — Russian hackers attacked the State Department and White House as well as NATO.

2015 — Russian hackers attacked the Defense Department.

2016 — Russian hackers attacked the Democratic National Committee as part of a program of active measures to subvert the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Active measures also included divisive tactics on social media at least as early as 2014 intended to increase societal friction based on race and gender.

There are are far more efforts to harass, attack, and manipulate the US and NATO not listed here, including the entirety of Donald Trump’s term in office, and the Brexit referendum resulting in the steady destruction of the UK’s economy along with a breach in EU nations.

Other persons and events which don’t appear to have a direct role but likely fit in some way, like the presence of Leonard Teyf and his wife in North Carolina, should be included in the list, along with the hacking of the RNC’s email which has never been fully accounted for.

In these efforts there’s a pattern here of increasing intensity, scale, and severity.

If Putin managed to ensure his useful idiot occupied the White House for four years, he surely feels more is within his capability. We would be absolutely blind and foolish to ignore the likelihood Putin will attempt far more against the US, NATO, and other democratic allies.

~ ~ ~

Since I began writing this post, Politico published an interview with former Trump administration Senior Director for Europe and Russia of the National Security Council Fiona Hill. It’s a must-read piece. An expert on Putin, her perspective mirrors Colin Lebedev:

Reynolds: The more we talk, the more we’re using World War II analogies. There are people who are saying we’re on the brink of a World War III.

Hill: We’re already in it. We have been for some time. We keep thinking of World War I, World War II as these huge great big set pieces, but World War II was a consequence of World War I. And we had an interwar period between them. And in a way, we had that again after the Cold War. Many of the things that we’re talking about here have their roots in the carving up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire at the end of World War I. At the end of World War II, we had another reconfiguration and some of the issues that we have been dealing with recently go back to that immediate post-war period. We’ve had war in Syria, which is in part the consequence of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, same with Iraq and Kuwait.

All of the conflicts that we’re seeing have roots in those earlier conflicts. We are already in a hot war over Ukraine, which started in 2014. People shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that we’re just on the brink of something. We’ve been well and truly in it for quite a long period of time.

We have been sleep walking for too long, and now innocents are paying for it with life and limb, facing the monster who blew up apartment buildings killing hundreds of his own countrymen to ensure he was elected to office, who has used both radioactive material and nerve agent to poison foes.

It’s beyond time to wake up.

Questions for Bill Barr about His Cover-Ups Pertaining to Ukraine and Russia, Starting with: Who Withdrew the Red Notice for Yevgeniy Prigozhin?

Billy Barr’s effort to launder his reputation with a book tour has started, kicked off with a supine WSJ review that includes just one “some said” clause treating as debatable the provably false claims he made in his book about intervening to eliminate all consequences for Trump’s top associates for lying to cover up their interactions with Russia during the 2016 election.

During much of Mr. Barr’s time in the Trump administration, some said he protected the president at the expense of the Justice Department’s independence, especially over his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Mr. Barr issued his own summary of Mr. Mueller’s investigative report depicting the results in a way that Mr. Mueller and others described as misleading or overly favorable to Mr. Trump. He also worked in the ensuing months to undermine some of the prosecutions spawned by the Mueller investigation. An example was his decision to drop the criminal case against Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser.

Mr. Barr has said that he intervened to correct what he saw as overreach by the prosecutors and flaws in the department’s approach to those cases, a stance he maintains in his book.

Barr’s book tour happens at the same time, the Times reports, as 400 Wagner mercenaries sent by Putin to Kyiv are trying to hunt down the elected President of Ukraine.

More than 400 Russian mercenaries are operating in Kyiv with orders from the Kremlin to assassinate President Zelensky and his government and prepare the ground for Moscow to take control, The Times has learnt.

The Wagner Group, a private militia run by one of President Putin’s closest allies and operating as an arm-length branch of the state, flew in mercenaries from Africa five weeks ago on a mission to decapitate Zelensky’s government in return for a handsome financial bonus.

Information about their mission reached the Ukrainian government on Saturday morning and hours later Kyiv declared a 36-hour “hard” curfew to sweep the city for Russian saboteurs, warning civilians that they would be seen as Kremlin agents and risked being “liquidated” if they stepped outside.

This makes me wonder whether Viktor Medvedchuk — the guy Putin would like to install as a puppet — had help escaping from house arrest.

People’s deputy from the Opposition Platform – Pri Life party, Putin’s godfather Viktor Medvedchuk, escaped from arrest.

Source : information from the ZN.UA edition , obtained from the Office of the Prosecutor General, Advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs Anton Gerashchenko

Details : According to sources, on February 26, the Prosecutor General’s Office instructed the National Police to check the presence of Medvedchuk at the address where he is under house arrest.

The National Police fulfilled the order: Medvedchuk was not at the scene.

The coincidence of Putin’s invasion with Barr’s attempt to launder his reputation led me to put together a partial list of questions Barr should be asked (hopefully by Lester Holt) as he attempts to pretend he didn’t pervert justice — in part — to protect Trump from his attempt to extort Ukraine. For example:

  • Why didn’t Barr recuse himself from the review of the whistleblower complaint against Trump given that Trump told Zelenskyy Barr would contact him during the Perfect Phone Call? (This post provides more details of how Barr’s DOJ mishandled that referral.)
  • Why did Barr only refer the transcript of the call, and not the entire whistleblower complaint, the latter of which would have led Public Integrity to see the tie between Trump’s call and Rudy’s successful effort to get Maria Yovanovich fired (for which Rudy remains under active investigation)?
  • Why did OLC, first, write a memo refusing to share the whistleblower complaint and, once they did, overclassify passages of the call to hide Barr’s own role?
  • Why did Barr personally warn Rupert Murdoch before Sean Hannity got on a plane to fly to Vienna as part of Rudy’s grift?
  • Why did Barr try to fire Geoffrey Berman at a time it was investigating Rudy Giuliani’s role in all this?
  • Why did Barr ask one of his most politicized US Attorneys, Scott Brady, to serve as an intake point for Russian disinformation from Andrii Derkach?
  • Why did Barr separate the investigation into Derkach from the one in which Rudy, who met with Derkach after he had been IDed as a Russian agent, was already under investigation?

Had Barr not intervened in all these ways, the US would have been better able to protect its own democracy from Trump (and Giuliani’s) attempt to corrupt Ukraine’s democracy. Instead, Ukraine is schooling America about what it takes to defend democracy.

But given the assassins hunting down Zelenskyy even as Barr attempts to launder his reputation, there’s perhaps a more urgent question. Why did Bill Barr’s DOJ let the Red Notice for Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s arrest drop in September 2020?

In March 2020, DOJ dismissed the case against two of Prigozhin’s companies that had interfered in the 2016 election, but not Prigozhin himself. As I wrote, the decision was not as suspect as some of Barr’s other interventions in Mueller prosecutions (though it happened at the same time). Because Prigozhin’s corporate persons, but not his biological person, showed up to contest the charges, the Prigozhin defense became substantially an effort to learn FBI’s sources and methods. A Dabney Friedrich decision on the protective order exacerbated that, and another required DOJ to start naming US persons affected. Dropping the case against two corporate persons was not, itself, suspect. DOJ did not drop the case against Prigozhin or his trolls.

Even though the charges against the biological person Prigozhin had not been dropped, in September 2020, Interpol removed Prigozhin from the list of those who could be arrested, citing the dismissal against his corporate persons. This allowed Prigozhin to make several trips to jurisdictions, including Germany, from which he could have been extradited.

It’s certainly possible Billy Barr had no role in this decision and that DOJ tried to point out that, in fact, the charges against Prigozhin remained (and still remain). But given that he gave a screed that seemed to attack the prosecution as a whole at the time, perhaps DOJ affirmatively let Prigozhin slide.

But as his book tour takes place against the backdrop of assassins hunting for Zelenskyy, it seems like a good time to ask him if he did intervene to let the owner of Putin’s paid killers travel free from any risk of direct legal consequences for his intervention in America’s own democracy.

Three Things: The C C D of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

[NB: check the byline as usual, thanks./~Rayne]

This is an opinion piece, no reporting, simply some thoughts which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have spawned.

It also offers fresh thread space since comments are getting deep below some of the previous threads.

~ 3 ~

Colonialism is alive although not necessarily well, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates.

When persons of color talk about decolonialism it’s frequently in the context of anti-racism — making a concerted effort to unwind domination and occupation of people, place, and culture which have been suppressed and oppressed by white supremacy and white nationalism.

It’s the reawakening of culture and consciousness like indigenous language and thinking in those places where they have lived and where their people first arose.

Because racism is so often tightly wound with colonialism, it’s easy for white people to believe this is unrelated to them, or worse, reject it as “woke-ism.”

The invasion of Ukraine reminds white people colonialism is ongoing and very much affects people who look like them. It underpins the tensions between Britain, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It’s part of the conflict between People’s Republic of China and Xinjiang Province, Taiwan, and Hong Kong where different minority ethnic groups have long existed apart from the Han majority in China. It’s at the heart of Israel’s domination and apartheid of Palestine; it still affects entire continents including Africa and South America.

After dizzying waves of political and cultural slicing and dicing across several millennia, Ukraine had its own identity as a sovereign state beginning in the mid-1700s but for a handful of years when it was resorbed into the Russian empire. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Ukraine emerged again as an autonomous sovereign state. It has since then struggled against various forms of incursion by Russia to maintain its sovereignty while working to establish its autonomous cultural identity (ex. Kyiv not Kiev).

In 2013 Ukraine chose to align itself more fully with Europe, exercising its collective human right of self-determination — a rejection of colonization by any other nation-state. Unfortunately its pro-Russian president obstructed this choice setting off the Euromaidan protests and the Maidan revolution, which in turn may have led to Russia’s incursion and occupation of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

What we are watching now is the continued effort by Russia’s Putin to destroy Ukraine’s sovereignty and restore its previous identity as a subset of Russia — a colonial force seeking to re-colonize a former colony. It is more than re-colonization, though; it’s an expressed intent to erase people on an individual and national level. A pogrom.

It wouldn’t hurt to pay more attention to how people of color view Russia’s colonialist efforts for this reason. You might try following Terrell Jermaine Starr (https://twitter.com/terrelljstarr) who is currently reporting from Ukraine and Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon (https://twitter.com/ksvarnon) who has been studying Ukraine.

It’s equally important to reexamine unconscious colonial bias while our heads have been opened to decolonization. Like the words used to explain the Russian invasion compared to other ongoing colonization.


As if the US hadn’t installed a colonial occupation in Iraq during the Bush administration. As if Iraq wasn’t already a civilized nation before the US invasion in 2003. As if Afghanistan hasn’t been occupied by Russia and then the US in our lifetime.

~ 2 ~

Consent is a core component of democracy, autonomy, and sovereignty.

Watch who across the right-wing in the US supports Putin’s invasion. If you look through the lens of respect for affirmative consent, it’s no surprise at all which right-wing extremists support Putin.

They don’t support consent by anyone who isn’t part of their immediate in-group, either.

Which persons reject the autonomy and agency of women and LGBTQ+ people over their own bodies?

Which persons reject the sovereignty of indigenous peoples’ lands, or the true history of colonized and occupied people?

Which persons reject the civil rights of non-whites and others marginalized, including the voting rights of non-whites who elected Joe Biden as president?

The same people who also support Putin’s invasion have no qualms about rejecting the human rights of Ukrainians. They generally have a problem with democracy here or elsewhere, which relies on the consent of the people.

~ 1 ~

DARVO isn’t merely a behavior exhibited by abusive individuals but colonialists and fascists. Stripped to its barest form it’s victim blaming: they made me do it, they were asking for it, so on, while denying responsibility for the abuse.

If you’re familiar with abusive relationships particularly with narcissists, you recognize the behavior. We saw it throughout Trump’s campaign and administration.

A framework developed by psychologist Jennifer Freyd, DARVO means “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender,” a defensive mechanism used by abusive persons when confronted with their actions.

We saw this with Trump when he accused his rape victim E. Jean Carroll directly and through spokespersons of lying about the attack and attempting to profit off her lawsuit against Trump for defamation, making himself out to be a victim of an opportunist instead of a serial sexual abuser.

Trump scaled up DARVO frequently; one particular attack used repeatedly has been the claim he’s been spied on by Democrats and the previous Obama administration. We all know know that these claims were outright fallacious, while intended to redirect attention from spying done for his benefit like the hacking of the DNC servers in 2016, and yet more redirection from whatever he was doing with classified and top secret material during and after his administration.

Nearly all the GOP and its white evangelical base have employed DARVO by claiming victimhood though it exists in a majority white country with a majority white government established to protect white supremacy and nationalism with preference for Christian fundamentalism.

At scale when aimed at a population, DARVO is a confluence of different propaganda techniques melding the Big Lie and tu quoque fallacy using virtue words and smears to gaslight the population into believing the perpetrator over anyone trying to hold them to account.

This is what Putin has done and is doing with Ukraine; he’s an abusive leader claiming a false victimhood to defend his attack on a sovereign neighbor.

From The Hindu:

Unfazed by tough Western sanctions, President Vladimir Putin said on February 24 that he decided to launch a “special military operation” aimed at the “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine and also bring to justice those who committed numerous crimes against peaceful people, including Russian nationals.

“People’s republics of Donbass approached Russia with a request for help. In connection therewith, I made the decision to hold a special military operation,” Mr. Putin said in a special television address.

He said the goal of the military operation is to “protect the people that are subjected to abuse, genocide from the Kiev regime for eight years, and to this end we will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine and put to justice those that committed numerous bloody crimes against peaceful people, including Russian nationals”. Justice and truth are on Russia’s side, Mr. Putin was quoted as saying by state-run TASS news agency.

We can imagine what Russian state media has been reporting about Ukraine based on this tissue of lies used to create a casus belli.

Julia Ioffe explains what Putin has done but ultimately it’s propaganda.


If anyone was to ask Putin if he is using manufactured excuses for war, he’d deny it.

He’d claim the Ukrainian government is at fault and has started this war.

He’d reverse the victim again as he has already, claiming Russians and Ukraine’s Russian nationals.

He’d claim these false victims have been damaged by Ukraine’s current government.

Deny, attack, reverse victim and offender.

It’s not the first time Putin’s done this and gotten away with it. He may have done this about the 1999 Russian apartment bombings in order to boost his political profile and get himself elected; reporting on this may have been the reason behind Alexander Litvinenko‘s assassination.

What more self-victimization can we expect from Putin as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues?

~ 0 ~

No matter how long this invasion lasts, no matter the costs wreaked by either side, no matter the amount of ginned-up rationalizations for the violence unleashed on Ukraine, Putin has already lost to this man.


I hope he lives to see the last Russian invader leave his country.

How Not to Lose a World War between Authoritarianism and Democracy, Two

My last thread on how not to lose a World War between authoritarianism and democracy got really long and I’m overdue for an update. Same rules, new developments.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has provided masterful leadership since Russia invaded. This morning, Ukraine let it be known that when the US offered him safe passage out of the country, he responded, “I need ammunition, I don’t need a ride.”

Not only will this bolster Ukrainians fighting for their country, but it will make it clear that Zelenskyy is not a mere pawn of the US.

1. DON’T LET IT BECOME A WORLD WAR BETWEEN AUTHORITARIANISM VERSUS DEMOCRACY

Last night, a joint US-Albanian motion to condemn Russia’s invasion failed in the UN Security Council with a Russian veto. Russia holds the presidency right now, so Ukraine’s ambassador and others criticized Russia’s involvement in presiding over the vote.

Importantly, however, China abstained. While China is still protected Russia in its invasion, the abstention vote suggests Russia hasn’t been able to persuade China that it had created enough legitimacy for its invasion.

Ukraine’s ambassador suggested that one day the Russian people might be liberated too.

2. RETAIN THE TOOLS OF HEGEMONIC POWER

Over the course of the last day, Europe led the US in imposing sanctions in Putin and Sergei Lavrov personally.

Most major oligarchs still escape sanctions (in part because they’ve obtained residency in Western countries). But minutes ago, Roman Abramovich announced he’s stepping back from management of Chelsea football.

3. DON’T ANTAGONIZE YOUR ALLIES

Over the course of the day, the last remaining hold outs on limiting Russia’s access to SWIFT have come on board. So in a few days, Russia will be further removed from the world economy.

Symbolically, Germany just announced they’re sending arms to Ukraine, regarding the invasion of Ukraine as a threat to the post-war order.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a statement. “It threatens our entire post-war order. In this situation, it is our duty to do our utmost to support Ukraine in defending itself against Vladimir Putin’s invading army. Germany stands closely by Ukraine’s side.”

Update: Ursula von der Leyen has just made the SWIFT removal official.

First, we commit to ensuring that a certain number of Russian banks are removed from SWIFT. It will stop them from operating worldwide and effectively block Russian exports and imports.

Also, the EU has collectively closed their airspace to Russian planes.

4. KEEP THE PUBLIC HAPPY

Largely thanks to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s leadership and courage, the support of western public around the world have joined in supporting Ukraine.

5. INCREASE PUTIN’S VOLATILITY

The biggest developments in the last day, however, come in increased volatility for Russia. Prominent Russians continue to condemn the war. Russia has had nowhere near the success in Ukraine they expected and the delay has given time for a resistance to form. European nations have committed to send more weapons to Ukraine. Ukraine just rolled out a website where Russian mothers can check to see if their sons have been killed or captured in Ukraine.

In addition to protests in Russia and all over the world, a particularly big protest in Georgia must seriously concern Putin. Kazakhstan also reportedly refused to send troops to Ukraine.

Russia has been really ratcheting up the propaganda and censoring both formal media outlets and social media, in an attempt to prevent Russians from learning how things are really going in Ukraine. But Ukraine has had some successes in hacking through these media defenses.

Rudy Giuliani Attacks Biden as SDNY Sifts Through His Comms for Ukraine Foreign Agent Investigation

Among the many Trump allies suggesting that the former President was better on Russian issues than the current, Rudy Giuliani attempted to attack President Joe Biden with a Tweet dripping with projection.

Just over four weeks ago, the Special Master Barbara Jones delivered the latest tranche of records seized from Giuliani’s phones to prosecutors in SDNY, the US Attorney’s Office that Rudy once led.

While the scope of the review exceeds the scope of the known warrants, those known warrants target Rudy’s role in getting Maria Yovanovich fired in 2019 as part of an effort to get campaign dirt on Joe Biden.

Indeed, for six of Rudy’s devices, the latest review focused on the period from December 1, 2018 through May 31, 2018, which would cover the following events.

Late 2018: Rudy Giuliani participates in a Skype call with the former top Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was ousted from office after multiple Western leaders, including former Vice President Joe Biden, pressed for his removal. Leaders complain Shokin was failing to tackle corruption. It’s around this time that Giuliani says he first learned of a possible Biden-Ukraine connection.

January 2019: Giuliani meets in New York with the top Ukrainian prosecutor at the time, Yuriy Lutsenko. This is when, Giuliani says, his investigation into the Bidens began.

A man named Lev Parnas has said he attended the meeting with Lutsenko and arranged the call with Shokin. Parnas told NPR he attended at least two meetings Giuliani had with Lutsenko. Parnas and an associate, who also worked with Giuliani, are later arrested and charged with violating campaign finance law in a separate matter.

March 31: The first round of presidential elections take place in Ukraine. Zelenskiy, a comedian who once played a president on television, comes out ahead of incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. The race goes to a runoff.

April 7: In an interview on Fox News, Giuliani, unprompted, brings up a Biden-Ukraine connection. He says that while investigating the origin of the Russia investigation, “some people” told him “the story about [gas company] Burisma and Biden’s son.” Giuliani suggests that as vice president, Biden pressed to remove Shokin because he was investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that had Biden’s son Hunter on its board for several years. There is no evidence to support this claim.

April 21: Zelenskiy is elected president of Ukraine and Trump calls to congratulate him. A White House readout of the call says Trump “expressed his commitment to work together with President-elect Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption.”

April 25: Trump calls in to Sean Hannity’s TV show and says he has heard rumors about Ukrainian “collusion.” He tells the Fox News host he expects Attorney General Bill Barr to look into it. “I would imagine he would want to see this,” Trump says.

May 6: Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and an Obama appointee, ends her assignment in Kyiv. According to the whistleblower complaint filed against Trump, she had been “suddenly recalled” to the U.S. by senior State Department officials a week earlier.

Giuliani later says in an interview that she was removed “because she was part of the efforts against the President.” Yovanovitch tells Congress that she learned from the deputy secretary of state “there had been a concerted campaign against me, and that the Department had been under pressure from the President to remove me since the Summer of 2018,” according to prepared remarks reported by multiple outlets.

May 9: Giuliani tells The New York Times he will travel to Ukraine “in the coming days” to push for investigations that could help Trump. Giuliani says he hopes to meet with President-elect Zelenskiy to push for inquiries into the origins of the Russia investigation and the Bidens’ involvement with Burisma.

“We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” Giuliani tells the Times.

“There’s nothing illegal about it,” he says. “Somebody could say it’s improper. And this isn’t foreign policy — I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”

Among the members of Congress criticizing Biden, Tulsi Gabbard voted present to impeach Trump on his related extortion attempt; virtually all Republicans voted not to impeach Trump, including Biden critics Paul Gosar and Scott Perry. Of Republican Senators, just Mitt Romney voted to convict the President.

Trump was not serious about Ukraine. He viewed it as nothing more than a political football. Almost his entire party backed him in that effort.

And his former attorney, wailing on Twitter about the ‘CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER” posed by “mentally deteriorating [men], who [were] of limited intelligence even before [] dementia” remains under criminal investigation as an unregistered agent of Russian-backed Ukrainians for his role in politicizing Ukraine.

Ukraine Defends Democracy

I happened to wake up at 3AM my time just as Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

The last thread has gotten long and I’m mostly doom-scrolling like the rest of you, so I thought I’d put up some links.

As the invasion was rolling out, President Zelenskyy made a speech, partially in Russian, appealing to the Russian people to stop this attack.

I would like to address the citizens of Russia directly, not as president, but as a citizen of Ukraine, and I address the citizens of Russia as I would the citizens of Ukraine. We share a more than 2000 kilometer border. Your soldiers are stationed all along it, almost two hundred thousand soldiers, and thousands of military vehicles. Your leaders have chosen for them to take a step forward and into the territory of another country. And that single step could be the beginning of a great war on the European continent.

The whole world speaks of what could happen day to day. A cause for war could arise at any moment. Any provocation, any incident, could be the flare of a fire that burns everything.

You have been told that this flame will bring liberation to Ukraine’s people. But the Ukrainian people are free. They remember their own past and will build their own future. They build, they do not destroy, as they themselves have told you day after day on television. The Ukraine in your news and the Ukraine of real life are two entirely different places, and the difference is that the latter is real.

Zelenskyy then said the Ukrainian government would give weapons to anyone wanting to help defend the country.

As the invasion was just beginning, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UN raised whether the Russian Federation was ever legally given USSR’s seat on the security council. Then he basically told Russia’s Ambassador to go to hell. “There is no purgatory for war criminals, they go straight to hell ambassador”

Thus far, Republican members of Congress have been far more critical of Putin’s invasion than Tucker and Trump. At least until his next golf outing, that includes key Trump ally Lindsey Graham.

Again, it’s possible that Putin’s invasion will lead to greater solidarity among Europe, NATO, and the US than the division he surely counted on. In fact, both Finland and Sweden will attend an emergency NATO summit tomorrow. Czech President, Miloš Zeman, until days ago viewed as unreasonably friendly to Putin, has called to isolate him.

Another key player will be Erdogan. Shortly before this invasion, Turkey and Ukraine signed a trade pact. Ukraine has asked Turkey to halt warships from transiting the Bosphorous.

Ireland, another neutral country, is backing EU sanctions, which is non-negligible given Russian business presence in Dublin.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has come out with a fairly supportive statement about Russia’s invasion. If Putin can’t keep China on board this invasion would become unsustainable, but thus far he has a green light.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is in Moscow, meeting with Putin today. Putin appears to be trying to put together a BRICS type block against democracy (with Pakistan included).

Within Russia, some celebrities and journalists have already gone on record opposing the attack. Authorities are arresting those who dissent, including Marina Litvinovich after she called for protests.

Zelenskyy just tweeted that Russian occupying forces are trying to seize Chernobyl.

 

Putin’s Playmates Trump and Tucker Remind Trumpsters They’ve Been Trained to Love Putin

As I’ve been watching Putin expand his war in Ukraine, I’ve been thinking a lot about his timing. Why launch it now rather than two years ago, when Trump would have facilitated it, or another year from now, when Republicans are expected to control at least one house of Congress?

I suspect there are a lot of things that dictate the timing. Any invasion was going to come in winter. It’s easier for heavy tanks to move, but more importantly, winter temperatures make it easier to use gas prices to impose a cost on Europe.

I think it happened this year, under Biden’s first full winter rather than 2021 or even 2020 because, up until Biden’s inauguration, Putin’s investment in Trump might still have paid off by allowing Putin to achieve his objectives without launching a war. He almost did, in the insurrection, which was undoubtedly led by MAGAts but which included the participation of some key Russian projects (such as Patrick Byrne).

To be sure, there are European reasons, even beyond the gas squeeze. Boris Johnson is fighting to keep power. Angela Merkel’s retirement surely led Putin to hope that the EU would be left without a strong leader (or that he could more easily manipulate Emmanuel Macron, especially in an election year).

But I believe this invasion represents the culmination of a plan not just to reassert what he imagines is Russian greatness, but also to end US hegemony, which Putin has pursued for a decade.

Ukraine has been a part of that and starting in 2010, Paul Manafort was useful to giving his puppets the patina of legitimacy. After Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster, Ukraine was useful as a testing ground for various kinds of hybrid warfare, most spectacularly with the NotPetya attack in 2018.

Ukraine — the partnership of Konstantin Kilimnik and Oleg Deripaska, along with their leverage over Paul Manafort — was also whence Russian launched its 2016 attack (I need to find the reference, but they knew they could place Manafort as campaign manager before the end of 2015). As I have written (in a piece on my understanding of the role of using the Steele dossier as a vehicle for disinformation), Russia’s interference in 2016 is best understood as a win-win. If Hillary won, Roger Stone would have rolled out the same Stop the Steal plan that was used in 2020 back in 2016 to destabilize the US in 2017 rather than 2021, as happened.

Trump’s win was an unexpected bonus.

As part of the 2016 operation, Russia also did unprecedented damage to the NSA (through the Shadow Brokers operation) and the CIA (in the way that WikiLeaks rolled out the Vault 7 release).

The failure of Russia’s attempt to blame its 2016 interference on a false flag thwarted Russia’s best laid plans — which would have involved Kilimnik calling in the quid pro quo made with Manafort on August 2, 2016 and getting Trump to help carve up Ukraine in the same way Russia is currently doing with tanks.

Even still, the Russian investigation paid huge dividends and, given Putin’s long game, to date has surely been more than worth it. That’s because the FBI-led investigation into Trump’s cooperation with Russia, over time, came to train Republicans to trust Putin more than they trust Democrats.

Republicans genuinely believe, falsely, that the FBI deliberately attempted to take Trump out (entirely memory holing Jim Comey’s role in getting Trump elected, much less that the FBI Agents running informants on the Clinton Foundation during the election were explicitly anti-Hillary). The dossier disinformation project proved so wildly successful that most Republicans genuinely believe, falsely, that there wasn’t abundant proof of cooperation between Trump and Russia, including communications directly with the Kremlin during the election that Michael Cohen lied to hide. Republican members of Congress genuinely came to believe — because they had to! — that criticism of Trump’s refusal to spend the money in support of Ukraine they had appropriated was just another Democratic attack on Trump and not an attempt to save the integrity of American democracy. All this culminated in Stop the Steal 2.0, a literal attack on American democracy; Republican fealty to Trump forced them — more reluctantly at first and driven in large part by real terror — to defend an assault on Congress.

By February 13, 2021, the date the Senate voted to acquit Donald Trump of inciting an attack on Congress, Republicans had put loyalty to Donald Trump over defense of the country and the Capitol in which they worked.

Sure, Putin didn’t get Trump to carve up Ukraine as President. But he got so much more from Trump’s presidency.

Putin did get Trump to do real damage to NATO. He got Trump to largely abandon Syria. Trump made a humiliating deal with the Taliban that would result in the US withdrawing its military from Russia’s back door. After years of Russia having to work hard to highlight American hypocrisy on human rights, Trump did things like pardon war criminals, forever tainting America’s claim to be exceptional.

And through it all, Trump created his own authoritarian-supporting militias, heavily armed troops inspired by resentment who have the ability to make the United States ungovernable. Trumpist Republicans are making localized efforts to dismantle democracy. Trump’s Supreme Court nominees have abandoned legal precedent.

Which brings us to this moment.

I think Putin faced a moment of diminishing returns. Republicans are finally beginning to wake up from their Trump cult. If COVID subsides and the US economy takes off, Democrats might surprise at midterms. I wouldn’t be surprised, either, if Russia expected some details of what it has done over the last decade — involving Julian Assange, involving 2016 (with the prosecution of Vladislav Klyushin), possibly even involving Trump — to become public in the near future. And so Putin chose this moment to launch a war to try to solidify the efforts he has made over the last decade.

Thus far, however, things haven’t gone Putin’s way.

I believe that Putin thought he could demonstrate Five Eyes fragility by conducting war games off the Irish coast without inciting the nationalism of a bunch of Irish fisherman. I believe Putin expected the US and/or Europe would fail to fully incorporate Ukraine in its planning, thereby discrediting Volodymyr Zelenskyy. I believe that Putin expected he would be able to peel away France and Germany (after Olaf Scholz’s initial announcement that it is halting Nord Stream 2, there seems to be some hesitation). I believe Putin expected his false flags would work. I believe Putin believed he’d be able to blame someone else for this invasion. I agree with Dan Drezner, thus far Biden has done just about everything right.

I believe that Putin believed his invasion would split NATO, the EU, and the US. Thus far it has had the opposite effect.

Which brings us to the weird pivot that Trump and his top Fox associates: white nationalist Tucker Carlson, Chief of Staff Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.

Yesterday, Trump hailed Putin’s actions as genius.

“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful,” Trump told conservative podcaster Buck Sexton.

I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s strongest peace force… We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right,” Trump continued. “Here’s a guy who’s very savvy… I know him very well. Very, very well.”

Last night, Tucker did a chilling monologue, suggesting that Americans have been trained to hate Vladimir Putin.

Tucker suggested that Putin’s invasion is just a border dispute. He’s suggesting that Biden is doing this to pay off imagined debts to Ukrainian Oligarchs. Tucker laid out Putin’s plan for costs to impose on Americans, in terms of energy costs. Tucker included every single false claim about Ukraine that Russia has been planting since 2016. Every single one.

This is the monologue you’d expect of a man who believes there are two years of records showing Russian and Hungarian sources trying to set up one meeting between him and Putin.

To win this war, Putin needs to achieve both goals at once: splitting the US so that he can take Ukraine. One goal serves the other.

And in days ahead, Putin undoubtedly plans to take great risks to impose some costs on European and American voters. In gas prices, sure, but probably also with some ambitious cyberattacks and efforts to support another insurrection. Those costs, I imagine Putin plans, will lead American and European voters to lose patience with support for Ukraine, to forget that this is about the ability to enjoy real democracy.

But to get away with that, Putin has to ensure that it won’t backfire by overcoming the polarization he has invested great effort to encourage in the last five years.

Via whatever means last night, Putin’s two biggest assets in the US (speaking in terms of advantages, not recruited assets, but I don’t rule it out) went out and reminded Trump supporters that they’ve been trained to like Putin more than they like their own country.

Update: Philip Bump notes that Republicans like Putin more than Biden.

The Paulie Plot in Ukraine

Last weekend, the UK formally released an intelligence assessment that part of Russia’s plans in Ukraine involve a plot to replace Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a pro-Kremlin functionary.

The NYT version of the story noted that the four people named in the alleged plot all have ties to Paul Manafort.

All four of the other Ukrainians named in the communiqué once held senior positions in the Ukrainian government and worked in proximity to Paul Manafort, former President Donald J. Trump’s campaign manager, when he worked as a political adviser to Ukraine’s former Russian-backed president, Viktor F. Yanukovych. After Mr. Yanukovych’s government fell in 2014, they fled to Russia.

It also claimed that, because of a division of labor within the Five Eyes, this intelligence came from the UK.

In Washington, officials said they believe the British intelligence is correct. Two officials said it had been collected by British intelligence services. Within the informal intelligence alliance known as “Five Eyes,” Britain has primary responsibility for intercepting Russian communications, which is why it played a major role in exposing Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

I noted that you might make such a claim if the collection point (reflected in the Manafort tie) were not a legal NSA target to the US.

Indeed, NBC’s Ken Dilanian explained (but did not include in his story) that this was US intelligence announced by the UK.

It would make sense that this kind of intelligence came from the US — though if it did, it might well come from the FBI, not NSA.

When Manafort traded campaign strategy to Russia for relief from his debt to Oleg Deripaska on August 2, 2016, his cooperation in a series of similar efforts to install a Russian functionary to head Ukraine was part of the deal. Citing numerous documents obtained from Manafort’s devices, Mueller made public Manafort’s participation in the effort through the time he went to jail in 2018.

We can be certain that FBI has continued its investigation of such issues. We can be sure of that because we know (in part from Treasury’s increasing focus on Kilimnik) that FBI has developed a better understanding of Konstantin Kilimnik’s role in both 2016 and his ongoing efforts to undermine US democracy in 2020. We know that because DOJ continues to protect large swaths of  Mueller’s files on Kilimnik’s other American partner, Sam Patten, which significantly focused on who was who in Ukraine and the various tools Russia used to manage the country via client politicians. The same is true of Rick Gates’ interviews. But we also know that, thanks in part to Trump’s continued ties to anti-democratic efforts in Ukraine, the FBI has continued to investigate what has been going on in Ukraine. Not only has EDNY conducted an investigation into Andrii Derkach, but Special Master Barbara Jones just handed over a bunch of Rudy Giuliani’s communications involving such issues to the FBI.

One thing we learned from all those investigations was that Paul Manafort was the guy Oleg Deripaska had employed, for years, to use the tools of modern campaigning, leavened by a great deal of corruption, to install puppet governments who would cater to Deripaska’s business interests. In 2016, Russia deployed Manafort to the United States to do the same thing in the US.

With the distance of almost six years, it may be safe to say that Russia succeeded in their 2016 attempt to interfere in the US election not so much from a failure of US intelligence collection in Russia (after all, the FBI warned the DNC it was being hacked in real time). It was — in addition to a misunderstanding of the WikiLeaks operation — a failure of US intelligence collection in Ukraine, whence the human side of the operation was significantly launched. The US has dedicated a good deal of energy to addressing that failure in recent years, though Russia continued to use Ukraine as a platform from which to undermine US democracy through the 2020 election.

Ukraine was then, as now, the test ground for Russia’s larger efforts to either subject “democracy” to the whims of kleptocracy or discredit democracy beyond the ability to govern. Among the things Russia tested on that ground was the 2017 NotPetya attack, which did devastating damage to a slew of companies who did nothing more than do business with Ukraine; I would be surprised if Putin hadn’t at least entertained similar efforts in the months ahead.

Before 2016, the US had the hubris to believe its own democracy was immune from such efforts (and that its tolerance for money laundering would not, in fact, foster kleptocracies on the other side of the world that could damage the US in turn).

Amid debates about how (or whether) the US should respond to Russia’s aggression, some have raised real questions whether, in the wake of January 6, the US has any place lecturing Ukraine about its democracy and whether the US wouldn’t be better, instead, putting its own house in order. It’s a fair question. But it misunderstands how 2016 led directly to January 6. It also misunderstands Russia’s project in Ukraine and beyond, which is of a piece with its earlier attack on  American democracy.

We may not have a NATO commitment to defend Ukraine from Russia’s assault (though we do have a NATO commitment to defend NATO allies that Russia has likewise threatened). But we’ve recently seen that attacks on Ukraine are just the prototype for larger attacks elsewhere.

Update: Both Jonathan Swan and Jonathan Weisman have pieces out today attempting to explain why Tucker Carlson and Marjorie Greene Taylor are rooting for Putin in his aggression against Ukraine that don’t mention that Putin helped get Trump elected.

The backstory: Two observable shifts have happened in the GOP electorate over the past 15 years. The first is a growing skepticism about foreign intervention in general — frustration and anger still fueled by the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • The second is a more recent warming towards Russia — initiated by the party’s most powerful figure, Donald Trump.
  • Trump’s rhetoric about Putin was a far cry from 2012 when the GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney warned that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” (Prominent Democrats mocked Romney at the time but in the age of Trump endorsed his view and apologized).

The Publisher of the Steele Dossier, Ben Smith, Reports that the Hunter Biden Laptop Was Just a Political Dirty Trick

The recent Igor Danchenko indictment and overly credulous reporting on it have created a big new push for former BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith to reflect on his role in the dissemination of the Steele dossier.

In a Sunday column on mis- and disinformation, however, he makes no mention of it.

Instead, his column questions the inclusion of the Hunter Biden laptop story in a media executive seminar on, “help[ing] newsroom leaders fight misinformation and media manipulation.” Smith claims that treatment of the laptop story is, in fact, proof that the term “media manipulation” means  “any attempt to shape news coverage by people whose politics you dislike.”

A couple of them, though, told me they were puzzled by the reading package for the first session.

It consisted of a Harvard case study, which a participant shared with me, examining the coverage of Hunter Biden’s lost laptop in the final days of the 2020 campaign. The story had been pushed by aides and allies of then-President Donald J. Trump who tried to persuade journalists that the hard drive’s contents would reveal the corruption of the father.

The news media’s handling of that narrative provides “an instructive case study on the power of social media and news organizations to mitigate media manipulation campaigns,” according to the Shorenstein Center summary.

The Hunter Biden laptop saga sure is instructive about something. As you may recall, panicked Trump allies frantically dumped its contents onto the internet and into reporters’ inboxes, a trove that apparently included embarrassing images and emails purportedly from the candidate’s son showing that he had tried to trade on the family name. The big social media platforms, primed for a repeat of the WikiLeaks 2016 election shenanigans, reacted forcefully: Twitter blocked links to a New York Post story that tied Joe Biden to the emails without strong evidence (though Twitter quickly reversed that decision) and Facebook limited the spread of the Post story under its own “misinformation” policy.

But as it now appears, the story about the laptop was an old-fashioned, politically motivated dirty tricks campaign, and describing it with the word “misinformation” doesn’t add much to our understanding of what happened. While some of the emails purportedly on the laptop have since been called genuine by at least one recipient, the younger Mr. Biden has said he doesn’t know if the laptop in question was his.

And the “media manipulation campaign” was a threadbare, 11th-hour effort to produce a late-campaign scandal, an attempt at an October Surprise that has been part of nearly every presidential campaign I’ve covered.

The Wall Street Journal, as I reported at the time, looked hard at the story. Unable to prove that Joe Biden had tried, as vice president, to change U.S. policy to enrich a family member, The Journal refused to tell it the way the Trump aides wanted, leaving that spin to the right-wing tabloids. What remained was a murky situation that is hard to call “misinformation,” even if some journalists and academics like the clarity of that label. The Journal’s role was, in fact, a pretty standard journalistic exercise, a blend of fact-finding and the sort of news judgment that has fallen a bit out of favor as journalists have found themselves chasing social media.

While some academics use the term carefully, “misinformation” in the case of the lost laptop was more or less synonymous with “material passed along by Trump aides.” And in that context, the phrase “media manipulation” refers to any attempt to shape news coverage by people whose politics you dislike.

Unless Smith considers the two details he cites — some researchers have confirmed that some of the emails are authentic, yet Hunter Biden doesn’t claim to know whether the laptop in question was his — to be proof one way or another that this was a “politically motivated dirty tricks campaign,” he cites no evidence for his conclusion.

Smith doesn’t mention any of the reasons why there was and remains good reason to suspect the laptop — the provenance of which even Glenn Greenwald once proclaimed to be “bizarre at best” — was more than that. From the time President Trump first started extorting an investigation into the Bidens from Ukraine through at least January 2020, Russia’s military intelligence agency, GRU was found hacking Burisma, the company with which Hunter had a sketchy consulting relationship that was the initial hook for the laptop stories. Rudy Giuliani not only played a central role in the brokering of the laptop story, but reportedly had been sitting on a copy of the files for some time. Rudy, of course, had played a key role in Trump’s attempt to extort news of a Biden investigation and even during the impeachment inquiry, in spite of warnings from the intelligence community, traveled to Ukraine to meet with Andrii Derkach, who was subsequently sanctioned as a Russian agent. According to Ben Smith’s employer, Derkach’s efforts to deal “misleading information” to Rudy as part of a 2020 election operation are under investigation by EDNY; a parallel investigation into Rudy for serving as an unregistered agent of Ukrainian interests in events that were part of the impeachment inquiry remains ongoing at SDNY. An intelligence report related to the second story hung on the laptop, regarding Hunter’s ties to China, was disclosed to have been attributed to an intelligence analyst whose identity was entirely fabricated, down to his artificially generated face. And the IC’s report on efforts to interfere in the 2020 election includes one conclusion that sounds suspiciously similar to the efforts that led to the laptop story.

A key element of Moscow’s strategy this election cycle was its use of people linked to Russian intelligence to launder influence narratives–including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden–through US media organizations, US officials, and prominent US individuals, some of whom were close to former President Trump and his administration.

If the Hunter Biden laptop story was just a political dirty trick, then it was one that exactly paralleled well-substantiated efforts involving Russian intelligence agents.

We now know, thanks to the investigation into Project Veritas, that the “sister” media package right wing propaganda outlets were pitching, the dissemination of a diary from Hunter’s half-sister in the very same weeks leading up to the election, similarly features a sketchy origin story that — SDNY has shown probable cause to believe — actually serves to hide the theft of the underlying diary. While SDNY has not yet charged anyone much less proven the case, it claims that the story about how reporters came to obtain such a juicy campaign prop was, itself, misinformation hiding theft. That’s another detail that Smith doesn’t mention in his piece.

Even if the similarities between Smith’s “old-fashioned, politically motivated dirty tricks campaign” and the acknowledged interference attempt by Russian agents are mere coinkydink, it nevertheless is the case that the Hunter Biden laptop package was an attempt at media manipulation, part of the reason it was presented to the seminar.

That’s because — again, as even Glenn Greenwald acknowledged — the presumptively authentic emails offered as the dangle in the laptop package provided, “no proof that Biden followed through on any of Hunter’s promises to Burisma.” By offering “authentic” emails and derogatory pictures just before the election, right wing operatives attempted to make a story that had long been reported (and key parts of it debunked by experts testifying under oath as part of the first impeachment) go viral just before the election not by offering any proof of the key allegations, but by waving something “authentic” around that could substitute for real proof.

It briefly worked, too, as high profile journalists disseminated the most inflammatory details in the story — effectively delivering the announcement of a criminal investigation pertaining to Ukraine that Trump demanded from Volodymyr Zelenskyy — and only after that started identifying really problematic parts of the story.

This entire episode was an effort to disseminate something “authentic” that nevertheless lacked proof of the underlying allegations as a way to lead people to believe those allegations. Classic media manipulation, and it nearly succeeded.

And Ben Smith, the man who published a dossier full of unproven allegations that — Republicans in Congress now believe — injected Russian disinformation into what otherwise might have been just an “old-fashioned, politically motivated dirty tricks campaign,” a dossier that (like Hunter Biden’s laptop) long stood as the proxy understanding for a criminal investigation into dramatically different facts, dismisses the possibility that it was disinformation blithely, presenting no real evidence for or against.

It is undoubtedly the case that there remain real questions about the Hunter Biden laptop package, questions that may get renewed attention given the new focus on the Ashley Biden diary package. Maybe one day, Ben Smith will be able to state, as fact, that it was just an, “old-fashioned, politically motivated dirty tricks campaign;” or maybe EDNY will uncover the real provenance of those “authentic” files all packaged up and handed to a guy who made no secret of his willingness to accept and disseminate Russian disinformation.

But at a time when he is actively refusing to reflect on his own actions in disseminating an “old-fashioned, politically motivated dirty tricks campaign” that seems to have been exploited as an easy vehicle for hostile disinformation, Ben Smith might want to be a little more cautious about assuming those lines are so easy to distinguish.