A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
The Trump-Russia Denialists Still Can’t Handle the Truth
By David Corn February 14, 2023
Donald Trump meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, in 2018. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Extreme contrarianism often entails an avoidance of facts. This is especially true for the cadre of Trump-Russia denialists who were recently out in force to bolster and amplify a massive and misguided Columbia Journalism Review critique of the media coverage of the Russia scandal.
I’ve already pointed out what was profoundly wrong with the 24,000-word, four-part series that onetime New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth wrote for CJR. In an act of misdirection, Gerth lambasted the press for overstating the case that Donald Trump directly colluded with the Kremlin and for hyping the unconfirmed Steele dossier. Though Gerth scored some points on these fronts, he curiously ignored the core components of the Trump-Russia affair: Vladimir Putin successfully attacked the 2016 election to help Trump, and Trump aided and abetted this assault by denying or dismissing it. He did not assess how the media reported on these critical matters (a mixed record). Instead, he defined the Russia story only by press coverage of the Steele memos and the question of whether Trump directly schemed with Moscow’s covert operators.
That is, Gerth missed the forest for a few branches on a tree. In presenting this highly limited and narrow conception of the scandal, he validated the bogus framework advanced by Trump-Russia denialists and echoed the disinformation that Trump and his minions have spread to deflect attention from Trump’s act of betrayal. Most ridiculously, Gerth claimed that the press, with its errors, caused Trump to launch his war on the media and become so paranoid and conspiracy-minded that he could not accept the results of the 2020 election. (Marcy Wheeler pounded Gerth, too. Media critic Dan Kennedy also assailed the Gerth opus.)
You can read the Gerth piece—it will take a while—and my own and decide for yourself who has the better argument. By the way, the Gerth series did trigger another controversy. After it came out, Duncan Campbell, a veteran investigative reporter, credibly claimed that CJR in 2020 had spiked an article it had commissioned from him on the Nation’s denialist coverage of the Russia scandal—a charge CJR did not accept. As the former Washington editor of the Nation, I was saddened by Campbell’s report that showed the Nation—driven by an anti-anti-Russia obsession—had bypassed editorial and fact-checking processes to publish articles that bizarrely insisted there had been no Russian hack of the Democratic Party and no attack on the election.
Back to the Gerth piece. What I’d like to highlight is how the usual suspects rushed to embrace it to push their baseless assertion that there was no there there in the Trump-Russia scandal, and how these Russian hoax hoaxers, so consumed by an anti-media bias, cannot have a clear debate or discussion about the matter.
Writer Matt Taibbi, not surprisingly, was quick out of the gate on this. For years, he has insisted the Russia scandal did not truly exist, refusing to acknowledge there was any significant Moscow attack on the 2016 election or that Trump ran interference for a foreign adversary that was subverting American democracy. After I published my take on Gerth’s article, he tweeted at me: “dude, you need to find new line of work. Lol.” This was typical: derision instead of debate. I responded, “Way to engage with an argument.” Taibbi then countered by cherry-picking a single sentence from my article, in which I had noted, “in a sense, there was a secret alliance” during the 2016 campaign between Trump and Russia. His retort: “‘In a sense’? Like in your mind, ‘in a sense’? That's not how we do it and you know it.” And at this point, Elon Musk—you’ve heard of him?—jumped in, boosting this Taibbi tweet with one word: “Wow.”
Taibbi thought he had me. But he had mischaracterized my point. The next sentence in the article read, “At least, in a wink-and-a-nod fashion.” I was referring to the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Trump’s top advisers (Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort) and a Russian emissary who, they were told, would deliver them dirt on Hillary Clinton. In the emails setting up this rendezvous, the Trump men were informed that this meeting was arising from a secret Kremlin effort to help Trump. (“I love it,” Trump Jr. emailed the business associate who helped broker this get-together.) So, yes, a secret alliance of sorts: the Kremlin would covertly scheme to help Trump, and the Trump camp would not tell the FBI or say anything about it. Trump and his aides even would deny Russia was doing this. (And, not coincidentally, Manafort was covertly communicating with a Russian intelligence operative and passing him campaign information.)
So I responded by asking if Taibbi had read what I had written after the sentence he had tried to mock, and I replied to Musk, “you’re being conned. If you care about this issue, read the *bipartisan* Senate intel comm. report, and then let’s talk.” I know Musk is a busy man. It’s hard to run a financially failing social media site, while overseeing a car company whose stock value is plummeting. Thus, I bothered him with another tweet: “you’re being conned by bad-faith actors who are helping Putin (and Trump). If you are serious and care about this issue, read the *bipartisan* Senate intel comm. report, and then let’s talk.”
I was referring to the 966-page Volume 5 of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Trump-Russia scandal, which was released in 2020 and which remains the best (and damning) account of this whole business. It details the Russian attack, notes Trump tried to deny this assault while seeking to benefit from it, and reveals how Manafort was interacting—colluding? collaborating?—with that Russian intelligence officer. No one should be allowed to debate the Russia controversy without reading this.
At this point, Taibbi went silent. Personal attacks and selective citation were all he had. And there were crickets from Musk, who apparently was available to boost Taibbi’s sophomoric reply but unavailable to have a serious discussion. This is SOP for Trump-Russia denialists.
No shocker, Glenn Greenwald, the former lefty commentator who now helps Tucker Carlson promote Trump-defending conspiracy theories, joined the fray. He hailed the Gerth piece, referred to me as the “Original Steele Dossier Truther” (I was the first journalist to report on the dossier’s existence and reveal that the FBI was investigating its allegations), and approvingly quoted an unnamed “analyst” who referred to the media reports on Trump’s interactions with Russia as a “propaganda campaign.”
I tried again. I tweeted at Greenwald, “How about you read the bipartisan Sen. intel report (& maybe 'Russian Roulette') & then we have a civil conservation re what Russia did to influence the 2016 election *and* how Trump engaged with that effort? No invective or rhetoric. Just a conversation about facts.” (I was referring to the book I co-wrote with Michael Isikoff, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump.) A few years ago, during a tweet-tussle with Greenwald, I had made a similar offer. Like before, there was no reply.
I attempted to do the same with another contrarian who loves to scold the media. After my dissection of the Gerth piece was posted, Andrew Sullivan tweeted, “If this is the best response the MSM has got, it's pretty pathetic. @DavidCornDC basically concedes almost every point Gerth made and then tries to change the subject. Just apologize. And be accountable.” Oh my, this might have been the first time I’ve been accused of being a spokesperson for the mainstream media. More important, Sullivan misrepresented my main contention: Gerth had zeroed in on the wrong subjects and avoided the basics. As one Twitter commenter declared to Sullivan, “You call changing the subject pointing out that Trump and Gerth tried to change the subject.”
Ever hopeful, I replied to Sullivan: “Did you read the full Sen. intel committee report? After you do, let's chat. Meanwhile, I'm not changing the subject. I'm pointing out Gerth selectively examined two pieces of the Trump-Russia scandal w/out considering the main elements: Putin attacked & Trump helped.” Never heard back. I’m still waiting.
I even took a stab with Ed Snowden. The former national security whistleblower who now resides in Russia blew kisses at Gerth’s piece, noting, “corpo media knowingly suppressed facts that cut against popular narratives, ignored denials, eagerly laundered partisan attacks via ‘anonymous sources,’ and refuses to reflect on mistakes.” My response to him: “I would ask @snowden if he accepts that Russia attacked the 2016 campaign to help Trump & that Trump aided the effort by falsely denying it was happening. And how should we regard people who deny these realities and suppress facts that cut against their denialist narratives?” Nada. Zip. Zilch.
I tried, I really did, to use this moment as the occasion for an honest and open discussion about what happened in 2016 with Trump and Russia and the media coverage (or lack thereof) of all of it. None of the denialists were interested. I realize that Snowden, living in Moscow now with Russia citizenship, may not be free to fully discuss Russia’s information warfare against the United States. But in that case, he probably should not engage at all on these topics.
As for the others, they appear more interested in using the Gerth piece to advance their denialism or to blast the mainstream media they detest—or both. They are not neutral arbiters of media conduct. Taibbi has been roundly and deservedly criticized for his skewed reporting on the so-called “Twitter Files.” Greenwald, a conspiracy theorist, has of late been promoting a story claiming the CIA blew up the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was based on a single, anonymous source—the sort of journalism he excoriates when it does not serve his interests.
As for Musk, days ago he amplified a tweet from a pro-Kremlin account that contained disinformation: the claim that hundreds of US and British NATO military trainers and thousands of NATO soldiers have been killed in the Ukraine war. This was false—part of the Russian propaganda campaign that asserts NATO and US soldiers are fighting in Ukraine. But Musk approvingly retweeted this post with his own comment: “A tragic loss of life.” His tweet received nearly 11 million impressions in half a day. Here was the owner of Twitter promoting Putin’s BS. Not the sort of thing a person with a high regard for truth and accuracy would do.
On Saturday, Musk followed up this misstep by telling his 128 million followers that they should not believe the media: “Some of the smartest people I know actively believe the press…amazing.”
This tweet received over 50 million views. Yes, the guy who boosted Kremlin disinformation was encouraging millions to disregard the media entirely. (The next day, Musk was partying with Rupert Murdoch at a luxury box at the Super Bowl, hanging with the man who rules a media empire of spin, conspiracy theory, misinformation, and disinformation.) Of course, journalists get things wrong—and right. Suggesting that reporters ought never be believed is the act of a demagogue who would rather manipulate truth than champion it.
That’s what we see with the Trump-Russia denialists. They are not dedicated to informing the public about what happened in 2016. They are committed to other agendas: bashing the mainstream media, protecting Trump, assailing purported liberal groupthink, crusading against the national security establishment, and/or beating up on Hillary Clinton and others who cite the Russian attack as a factor that influenced the outcome of that election. They don’t want a fair and honest discussion of the truth. They cannot handle it.
Got anything to say about this item—or anything else? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Psychosis: An Update
It’s been a few months since my new book, American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, came out, and people still stop me to ask, “How’s the book doing?” Books, I explain, are a bit like movies. Films have their big opening weekends, and then ticket sales tend to trail off steeply after the first few weeks—unless the movie attains blockbuster status. Books get their launches. If an author is lucky, he or she has media hits, perhaps bookstore appearances, maybe a review published here or there, and most sales happen in those initial weeks. Certainly, there are books that catch fire because of word of mouth or other factors after their releases, and a precious few become phenoms that remain perched on the bestseller list for months. But most books have a run—or a chance at a run—and then fade away, awaiting a small number of late-coming purchasers. (They may, though, earn a second lease on life in subsequently published paperback editions.) This explanation that I give to these interlocutors is a polite way of saying, “It’s kind of done, and I have nothing to report.”
American Psychosis had its gangbuster early weeks and reached the New York Times bestseller list for a fortnight, as I hit one cable television show after another and tweeted endlessly about it (and pestered—or beseeched—Our Land readers). That was a good stretch, especially at a time when an unusually high number of new releases were out and contending for spots on the list.
My publisher, already pondering what my next book should be, recently contacted me and reported that American Psychosis fared better than other books on similar subjects, and he had good news to share. The book is still selling several hundred copies a week. It’s hard to know what’s spurring sales at this point. (My intermittent tweets?) But he noted this is an encouraging sign. It may well be the result of readers recommending it to others. In any event, I was happy to learn the book is marching along in sales—even if moderately. If that’s because of any of you, thanks. I am obliged to add: If you haven’t yet checked out this history of the Republican Party’s decades-long relationship with far-right extremism, bigotry, and conspiracy theory, well, you still can. As regular newsletter readers might be sick of hearing me say, American Psychosis shows us that Trumpism is nothing new; the Republican Party since the 1950s has encouraged and exploited the radical fringe. With MAGA extremism fueling much GOP activity these days—Speaker Kevin McCarthy, I’m looking at you—it’s never too late to learn the full story.
The Watch, Read, and Listen List
All the Eye Can See, Joe Henry. Joe Henry has had a long run as a brilliant songwriter and eclectic musician. In the early 1990s, he recorded two impressive albums that blended alt-country, Americana, and indie rock with members of the Jayhawks. He then developed a quirkier, harder-to-pin-down sound that conveyed a jauntily haunting feeling. A good example was “Bob & Ray” off his 1996 album Trampoline. In the decades since, he has produced many other can’t-quite-categorize albums. His songs are often poetic shards of narrative. There might be a story in there, or an offbeat character; often the protagonist is a mood. His tunes are marvelously well crafted, and Henry deserves to be on the shelf—or in the playlist—with Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, and Randy Newman. His vocals drip with earnest poignancy. No surprise, he has attracted some of the best producers, including T-Bone Burnett and Daniel Lanois. And he has served as a producer for many artists, earning Grammys in this role for his work with Solomon Burke, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He’s also written songs recorded by Madonna, who happens to be his sister-in-law. In 2016, he recorded with Billy Bragg a collection of folk songs about trains.
Henry recently released a new album, All the Eye Can See. Stuck at home during the Covid pandemic, he recorded tracks with guitar and his vocals and then sent them, as he puts it, to “my dearest and most trusted collaborators, and with very little instruction in most cases other than to join me as they might.” His pals added percussion, Celtic harp, violin, keyboards, sitar, accordion, banjo, pump organ, saxophone, clarinet, and other instruments. The Milk Carton Kids, Allison Russell, and others contributed vocals. Henry notes, “I was in no instance disappointed by what came back.” And neither will a listener be. The album is an assemblage of pensive and melancholy contemplations that appear to exist in a dreamscape shaped by the loss and strangeness of the past few years. “Song That I Know” (co-written with Heath Cullen) is a beautiful, mournful dirge, with Henry singing, “Now, here come the tramps from the river below / with the fire that they made in their hats as they go / fuming and seizing the day—though, I know / how rarely we find our way home.”
These songs are driven by imagery and associations, not plot. They are impressionistic. “Near to the Ground” opens with a scene that could set up a linear tale: “Yes, there we were, on the floor of your room / speaking at length of your mother / counting her scars like the rings of a tree /tell stories of lightning and thunder.” Yet the song defies obvious explanation, as it becomes more exploratory than explicit: “But drawn to the streets by voices that live /much nearer to ground than to heaven / we’ll gather around the fire next time / heading back up where it came from.” These songs are poetry accompanied by the spectral music they deserve—open to interpretation and visceral responses. On “Kitchen Door,” Henry considers the final departure of a dear one (I assume his mother, who passed recently): “I ask aloud just where you are /and think I hear you say / ‘I’m everywhere, my love, that you can find.’” This is loss tinged with beauty and a dollop of hope—and that’s a lovely way to describe a stunning album that resists easy description.
Read Recent Issues of Our Land
February 11, 2023: Joe Biden’s Americans First agenda; an arrested FBI agent and a mysterious Albania lobbying campaign; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Ben Shapiro); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
February 7, 2023: Justice for Warren Zevon; remembering the Myanmar coup; the great love story in HBO’s The Last of Us; and more.
February 4, 2023: How we got the Santos story and what comes next; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Rob Portman); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
January 31, 2023: The bull of John Durham; George Santos: it never stops; nominating Navalny; Judith Owen’s brassy Come On & Get It; and more.
January 28, 2023: Remembering Victor Navasky, the unflappable ringmaster of the Nation; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Julie Kelly); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
January 24, 2023: Tucker Carlson, Glenn Greenwald, the JFK assassination, Watergate, and the MAGA perversion of history; the right-wing disinformation machine and Hunter Biden; David Crosby, RIP; and more.
January 21, 2023: Is it getting harder to enjoy action thrillers?; Santos and a big-money con; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Donald Trump Jr.); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
January 18, 2023: Trump Derangement Syndrome on the right; nominating Navalny; the weirdness and ghostliness of Tar.
January 14, 2023: Why Ron DeSantis shouldn’t—or won’t—run for president; the many faces of the George Santos scandal; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Ryan Zinke); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
January 10, 2023: Our split-screen America; Wakanda Forever and Babylon (thumbs down) and The Fabelmans and Armageddon Time (thumbs up); and more.
January 7, 2023: The other GOP civil war; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Glenn Greenwald); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
Got suggestions, comments, complaints, tips related to any of the above, or anything else? Email me at email@example.com.