Russiagate is the biggest scandal in American history.
Nothing comes close in size, scope or harm to the republic than the years-long effort to cripple Donald Trump’s presidency by claiming he conspired with an enemy state to steal the 2016 election and then do its bidding as commander-in-chief.
Its notorious predecessors – L’Affaire Lewinsky, Iran-Contra, Watergate, Teapot Dome, Crédit Mobilier, the XYZ Affair – involved relatively small numbers of malefactors engaged in specific acts of illegality and corruption (we still don’t know who, if anyone, planned the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol)
Russiagate, by contrast, is a vast conspiracy involving innumerable powerful forces, including the Democratic Party, NeverTrump Republicans, the Obama administration, the FBI, Department of Justice and the nation’s most prestigious news outlets.
Where previous scandals often ended with public accountability for the perpetrators – Watergate saw the imprisonment of top White House aides and President Nixon’s resignation – and public reforms, Russiagate has produced no such reckoning.
Russiagate began with a kernel of truth: Someone – probably Russians, though we still don’t know for sure – hacked the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s private server. Fearful of what might be released, the Clinton campaign tried to discredit any damaging material by raising dark questions about its source. (Joe Biden executed this same strategy to great effect when he falsely described the evidence of corruption found on his son Hunter’s laptop as “Russian disinformation.”)
In response, the Clinton campaign financed an absurd collection of conspiracy theories involving peeing prostitutes and billion-dollar bribes, the so-called Steele dossier. Its importance cannot be overstated – it was the dossier that linked the Trump campaign to the hacking. No dossier, no collusion theory.
During the summer and fall of 2016, Hillary’s henchmen fed this preposterous concoction to Obama administration officials in the DOJ, FBI, CIA and State Department. Everyone knew it was a political operation: Declassified notes showed that then-CIA Director John Brennan briefed President Obama in July 2016 that Clinton planned to tie Trump to Russia as “a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.”
Clinton staffers – including Jake Sullivan, who now serves as Biden’s national security adviser – tried to interest the mainstream press in its scurrilous accusations, but got little traction because they could not be verified. Instead of laughing it all off as transparent campaign mud-slinging, however, the FBI joined the conspiracy. The bureau took the extreme step of opening a counter-intelligence probe into an ongoing presidential campaign – and its agents perjured themselves to obtain wire-tapping warrants.
Days after the November election, Hillary’s campaign focused on “Russian interference” as a chief reason for her defeat. On Jan. 5, 2017, President Obama, Vice President Biden and other key leaders met with FBI Director James Comey in the Oval Office to discuss Russia-related matters. We do not know what was discussed in that meeting, but the next day, Comey briefed President-elect Trump on some allegations in the Steele dossier. Four days later, on Jan. 10, CNN used that briefing as a news hook to report the collusion conspiracy theories as high-drama news.
Over the next few months and years, current and former officials illegally fed misleading classified material and partisan anonymous quotes to the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News and other sympathetic press outlets to advance the narrative. Brennan and former National Director of Intelligence James Clapper became a constant presence on cable news, using the top-secret authority of their previous positions to assure the public that collusion was real – although in sworn testimony, Clapper admitted he had not seen such evidence.
The appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate the fantasy in May 2017 fueled the fire. His effort became part of the scheme: He only looked for evidence that might implicate Trump, ignoring questions about who cooked up the conspiracy theory, how they disseminated it throughout the government and media, and the laws they might have broken in the process.
Despite his best effort, Mueller said he’d found no evidence of collusion when he released his report in April 2019. That should have killed the conspiracy theory and – following the script of previous major scandals – sparked a period of reflection by the government, the media and the American people that asked: How did we get this so wrong?
Such a broad reckoning has not yet happened. DoJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s 2020 report detailing grave abuses in the FBI’s handling of the matter prompted little outcry and no sweeping reform. The recent indictments of Clinton-connected actors filed by Special Counsel John Durham – who is finally doing the work Mueller should have, exposing the malfeasance that actually transpired during the 2016 campaign – have, bizarrely, led partisans to minimize his findings and actually double-down on the debunked collusion narrative. Recent pieces in The Atlantic and New York Times, for example, suggest, without evidence, that “Mueller never definitively got to the bottom of what happened.”
As Aaron Maté recently reported for RealClearInvestigations, many news organizations have refused to correct documented errors in Trump/Russia coverage, including deeply flawed articles that were awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Leading peddlers of the hoax – including Brennan, Clapper, Pelosi, Schiff and Sullivan – have paid no price for their actions. To date, no one has conducted probing interviews with Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama about their roles in the scandal.
Engineered by broad swaths of the government and media, the effort to paint a sitting president as a foreign agent alone makes Russiagate the worst scandal in American history. But it is this second, still ongoing phase – this willful effort to deny what happened, this refusal to hold the perpetrators accountable – that presents the most serious danger to our nation.
If truth and justice don’t matter, what does?
J. Peder Zane is an editor for RealClearInvestigations and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.