An article written by Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine has been making the rounds of the Twitterverse since its publication Monday. Described by former CIA officer and anti-Trump 2016 presidential candidate Evan McMullin as “the best summary and assessment of publicly known facts regarding the nature of President Trump’s relationship with Moscow so far,” the article seeks to lay out in systematic fashion the allegation that Donald Trump is a compromised Russian asset, since as early as 1987.
Blasted by many as kooky and unfit for a mainstream publication, Chait is clear in explaining that he does not accept the ‘Trump as Russian Asset’ story as conclusive. The opening of the article is written as an analogy comparing the whole collusion allegation as “like walking into a dark cavern.” Chait wishes to hold up a lantern and peer deeper into the cave for what might be there. On Twitter he concedes that the whole story could “go nowhere” and Trump’s professed innocence “might well be true.” He only wants to “explore the unlikely scenario on the other side.” In a separate tweet, Chait calls the accusations that Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald is on the financial take from Russia “totally nuts.” Taking Chait at his word, his article can be taken as unsubstantiated hypothesizing from a viewpoint of honest commentary, separate from the peanut gallery of cranks like Louise Mensch and Seth Abramson. At the same time, he pegs the odds that “the president of the United States has been covertly influenced or personally compromised by a hostile foreign power for decades” at 10 to 20%—higher than the odds many publications gave Trump of even winning the presidency.
While others may combat specific factoids and details in Chait’s unverified theory, it is equally important to address the point of view it is written from. All commentary is inherently biased, but too often in the modern age journalists attempt to write as objective beings without presuppositions. Chait’s commentary is typical of liberal, mainstream elites. It has a deep deference for established institutions (no matter their track records), an acceptance that America has a duty (or even a right) to global hegemony, and that the foreign policy of military empire used to uphold this hegemony is fundamentally good. When you are writing from the top of the world, you are going to be hostile to any view that is more earthbound.
While still writing the introduction, Chait makes two points that are worth expanding before moving on to the body of the article. In the very first paragraph, Chait mentions that in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign “Russia was already broadcasting its strong preference for Trump through the media.” He links to a Politico Europe article that cites RT programing hosts like the recently-deceased Ed Shultz and television staple Larry King, along with online articles published at RT that were sympathetic to Trump’s campaign. This proposition that Russian media was in the bag for Trump is contradicted by the media actually in Russia, which both adheres closer to the official Kremlin line and has a much more influential following than RT’s foreign broadcasts. The positions expressed here, on Russia’s No. 1 talk show for instance, were much more skeptical of both Donald Trump’s sincerity and governing ability.
Secondly, he makes an all-too-true observation that is ignored all-too-often. “Conspiracy theories tend to attract people far from the corridors of power, and they often hypothesize vast connections within or between governments and especially intelligence agencies. One of the oddities of the Russia scandal is that many of the most exotic and sinister theories have come from people within government and especially within the intelligence field.” Whether or not someone has legitimacy as an intrepid investigator of dominant narratives or is viewed as a baseless theorizer of nonexistent conspiracies does not depend on their honesty or how many facts they can document. If a conspiracy theory originates from within the political center as a defense of the status quo, none dare call it conspiracy. Perhaps this is a legacy of the term’s underhanded creation. Chait’s unintentional acknowledgement of this double standard is helpful in identifying “Russiagate” as uniquely separate from theories generating on the fringe. Not due to any factual basis, but because of narrative difference.
The former intelligence official Chait trots out as an example is John O. Brennan, who has gone on the record saying there is something fishy about the Trump-Russia relationship that might even breach on treasonous. “While the fact that the former CIA director has espoused this theory hardly proves it, perhaps we should give more credence to the possibility that Brennan is making these extraordinary charges of treason and blackmail at the highest levels of government because he knows something we don’t.” Contrary to that impression, Brennan’s statements should make one very skeptical. Or at least that’s the logical conclusion of anyone outside the establishment groupthink previously described. If the former CIA director knows something the public doesn’t, why has no action been taken? If there is solid, irrefutable evidence that Donald Trump has been compromised by a foreign power, why is John Brennan keeping it secret? Congress should be alerted, and Vice President Pence sworn in under the Twenty-fifth Amendment. But in two years since the original start of the investigation, Brennan has presented no such evidence. In fact, using Brennan as the example shows how blind one can be when only seeing life through the establishment paradigm. As CIA director, John Brennan not only provided a rear guard defense of torture, but oversaw U.S. military aid to Syrian jihadists allied with Al-Qaeda. If Donald Trump is a traitor to his country, what does that make Brennan and his aiding and abetting of America’s sworn enemy? The actions of the Obama administration are widely sourced and admitted by public officials, but Chait pays no mind. That’s because people like Chait don’t see crimes committed in defense of the empire as real crimes.
Chait opens his chronology in the year 1987, when Donald Trump both visited Moscow on a business trip and began voicing open political sentiments. Trump’s comments focused on the United States’ relationship with its allies, saying Americans were getting a raw deal. “The safest assumption is that it’s entirely coincidental that Trump launched a national campaign, with himself as spokesman, built around themes that dovetailed closely with Soviet foreign-policy goals shortly after his Moscow stay.” Chait is nothing short of duplicitous here, admitting that the whole premise reaches nothing above coincidental while simultaneously trying to poison the waters. As Trump said, why shouldn’t countries that can afford to defend themselves do so? Why does the burden fall on the American taxpayer to defend the economically rich people of Germany and Japan? The answer, Chait says, is to defend the “liberal international order” of the postwar era. An order that requires U.S. military domination of the planet. Having other countries defend themselves would take away from U.S. preeminence, and most importantly, U.S. power. The idea of Americans protecting America only would at first glance to be the logical, even pro-American answer. But it is certainly the anti-hegemony answer, and to Chait that puts it in the category of a pro-Soviet goal.
In a single sentence, Chait tries to both summarize and dismiss the downturn in Russian-American relations that accelerated during Barack Obama’s second term. “During the Obama administration, Russia grew more estranged from the United States as its aggressive behavior toward its neighbors triggered hostile responses from NATO.” Perhaps it would be unreasonable to expect Chait to detail Russian relations with the West over the past 25 years, such as NATO expansion eastward in contradiction to previous promises, the U.S. withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, or the 2008 Russo-Georgian War with violence initiated by the latter. But to not only ignore the February 2014 coup in Ukraine that initiated recent hostilities between the U.S. and Russia, but to also put the blame on the latter’s “aggressive behavior,” is at best laughable and at worst dishonest. In February of 2014 the democratically elected government of Ukraine was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the United States government, an event Chait and his peers do their best to forget. Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula (containing the Russian naval base at Sevastopol) was a wholly reactive measure. To say the recent estrangement was triggered by anything else than western aggressive behavior is factually inaccurate.
A deep-dive into Paul Manafort’s past relationships fills the middle of the article, along with Chait’s biased perceptions. “This much was clear in March 2016: The person [Manafort] who managed the campaign of a pro-Russian candidate in Ukraine was now also managing the campaign of a pro-Russian candidate in the United States.” What makes Donald Trump pro-Russian? “Well I hope that we do have good relations with Russia. I say it loud and clear, I’ve been saying it for years. I think it’s a good thing if we have great relationships, or at least good relationships with Russia. That’s very important,” says the President. Donald Trump has not proposed any kind of military alliance with Russia, giving it financial aid of any kind, or granting it favored-nation status. Simply to want “good” relations with a country is enough to be pro-Russian, in Chait’s characterization. Does that make Trump pro-any country he doesn’t wish to bomb? Is Donald Trump equally pro-Peruvian, pro-Nepalese, and pro-Tanzanian as he is pro-Russian? Shouldn’t it be the proper view of the United States to try to have good working relations with all foreign powers, especially if that power has thousands of stockpiled nuclear weapons? A better description of that view would be pro-American.
It is important to emphasize and explain these seemingly small choices of language because of how much they reveal of Chait’s worldview. When one believes that patriotism and defense of empire must be synonymous, and that skepticism of international conflict implies sympathy with a foreign power, it is easy to see why someone would seek out the most nefarious answer. Chait is willing to overlook obvious, mundane explanations to imply Trump has committed wrong because to Chait, he already has by opposing the international order’s chosen script. “It is possible to construct an innocent explanation for all the lying and skulduggery [sic], but it is not the most obvious explanation. More likely, collusion between the Russians and the Trump administration has continued beyond the campaign.” Or, perhaps, politics is naturally a game for liars and the political world is specially made to house them. “Why would Manafort, who has a law degree from Georgetown and years of experience around white-collar crime, behave like this? Of all those in Trump’s camp, he is the furthest thing from a true believer, and he lacks any long-standing personal ties to the president or his family, so what incentive does he have to spend most or all of his remaining years in prison rather than betray Trump?” The most obvious answer would seem to be that there is nothing to betray; if there is no grand conspiracy of Russian collusion, Manafort has not spilled the beans for any reason more inexplicable than there is nothing to spill. Or if that’s too boring, there’s always the answer Chait is giddy to suggest. “One way to make sense of his behavior is the possibility that Manafort is keeping his mouth shut because he’s afraid of being killed.” Creativity knows no bounds.
Chait seeks comfort in those who might be even further down the establishment paradigm than he is. He describes an exchange between House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in the summer of 2016 where they joke about Trump and California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher being on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s payroll. While criticizing the GOP leaders’ joke as in bad taste, he describes the foreign policy positions taken by Rohrabacher. He once again uses the phrase “pro-Russian” to describe them, falling into the same verbal trap as before. Of interest, Chait mentions Rohrabacher’s denouncement of U.S. opposition to the Crimean annexation as “hypocrisy” considering America’s foreign policy. The implication is that this is some sort of hokum, but it is nothing more than showing American self-awareness. Verbal reproaches to Russia by the U.S. government are drowned out by the facts, including the overthrow of the Ukrainian government just days before Russian actions in Crimea, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq which stands to this day as the biggest crime of the 21st century. But when one is an empire, the indispensable nation, rules just don’t apply to it like they do to other, lesser countries. “He [Rohrabacher] is widely suspected of having an ulterior motive.” What Chait means is his cocktail party peers widely suspect it.
What follows is a description of Trump’s actions as President regarding Russia, which seem to belie Chait’s point of a special closeness. Trump was apparently “apoplectic” when political realities compelled him to sign new sanctions on Russia in the summer of 2017. Since those sanctions ran counter to the explicit platform Trump campaigned and won on, that would seem to be a normal reaction to any policy reversal. Trump says he thinks Russia should be allowed back into the G7. The idea that a geopolitical power player that approaches nuclear parity with the United States should be involved in such a global forum doesn’t require further explanation. During that G7 conference Trump expressed the belief that Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia because the people there speak Russian. He’s not wrong; the people of Crimea are ethnically Russian, speak the language, and culturally identify with Russia proper. The people of Crimea should have the right to vote in a fair, internationally monitored referendum on whether to be a part of Ukraine or Russia. That’s the right of self-determination, an American goal if there ever was one. Chait says Putin engineered the end of the U.S.-South Korea military exercises during the recent negotiations with North Korea. Such an insinuation, outright ignoring the months of talks that have been taking place between North and South Korea, the stated goals of the Moon Jae-in administration, and South Korean public opinion, is naïve to the highest degree. That sort of western-centric view, that the United States is always the decision maker, is further proof of the establishment imperialistic mindset Chait has written his entire article from. He concludes with the foreboding note that Trump is about to meet with Putin in a special summit next month. Somehow Trump meeting with Putin 19 months into his presidential term is scandalous, while George Bush meeting Putin 5 months into his term, and Barack Obama 6 months into his term (in Moscow no less!) garnered so such suspicious coverage.
Chait, to his credit, almost makes it through the entire article without pulling out one of the most overused, most debunked storylines of “Russiagate.” The storyline that anyone who says Russia was not behind the 2016 Democratic National Committee hack (or leak) is “…contradicting the conclusion of every U.S. intelligence agency.” That conclusion was reached not by the U.S. intelligence community but handpicked analysts from only four of seventeen agencies. “But who is bending the president’s ear to split the Western alliance and placate Russia?… His motive for these foreign-policy moves is obviously strong enough in his mind to be worth prolonging an investigation he is desperate to terminate.” It cannot be that good relations with Russia is self-evidently beneficial to the United States, or that Donald Trump is a genuine believer in that policy. Jonathan Chait is so enamored with established Washington foreign policy that no disagreement can be anything other than odious.
To reiterate, Jonathan Chait is not convinced that what he wrote is the truth. He admits that there is no conclusive evidence that Donald Trump was a Russian intelligence asset in 1987 or any other year. But what he is convinced about is the utility of the U.S. led liberal world order imposed at the point of a gun. The biases of his language towards permanent military hegemony run through his writing. This leads to the discoloring or even misrepresentation of the facts.
Hunter DeRensis is a senior at George Mason University majoring in History and minoring in Public Policy & Administration. You can follow him on Twitter [@HunterDeRensis]