Now in its third year, Russiagate is the worst, most corrosive, and most fraudulent political scandal in modern American history. It rests on two related core allegations: that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an “attack on American democracy” during the 2016 presidential campaign in order to put Donald Trump in the White House, and that Trump and his associates willfully colluded, or conspired, in this Kremlin “attack.” As I have argued from the outset—see my regular commentaries posted at TheNation.com and my recent book War With Russia?—and as recently confirmed, explicitly and tacitly, by special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report, there is no factual evidence for either allegation.
Nonetheless, these Russiagate allegations, not “Putin’s Russia,” continue to inflict grave damage on fundamental institutions of American democracy. They impugn the integrity of the presidency and now the office of the attorney general. They degrade the many Democratic members of Congress who persist in clinging to the allegations and thus the Democratic Party and Congress. And they have enticed mainstream media into one of the worst episodes of journalistic malpractice in modern times.
But equally alarming, Russiagate continues to endanger American national security by depriving a US president, for the first time in the nuclear age, of the diplomatic flexibility to deal with a Kremlin leader in times of crisis. We were given a vivid example in July 2018, when Trump held a summit with the current Kremlin occupant, as every president had done since Dwight Eisenhower. For that conventional, even necessary, act of diplomacy, Trump was widely accused of treasonous behavior, a charge that persists. Now we have another alarming example of this reckless disregard for US national security on the part of Russiagate zealots.
On May 3, Trump called Putin. They discussed various issues, including the Mueller report. (As before, Putin had to know if Trump was free to implement any acts of security cooperation they might agree on. Indeed, the Russian policy elite openly debates this question, many of its members having decided that Trump cannot cooperate with Russia no matter his intentions.) A major subject of the conversation was unavoidably the growing conflict over Venezuela, where Washington and Moscow have long-standing economic and political interests. Trump administration spokespeople have warned Moscow against interfering in America’s neighborhood, ignoring, of course, Washington’s deep involvement for years in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia. Kremlin representatives, on the other hand, have warned Washington against violating Venezuela’s sovereignty. Increasingly, there is talk, at least in Moscow policy circles, of a Cuban Missile–like crisis, the closest the United States and Russia (then Soviet Russia) ever came to nuclear war.
To the extent, however remote, that Venezuela might grow into a Cuba-like US-Russian military confrontation, would Trump be sufficiently free of Russiagate allegations to resolve it peacefully, as President John Kennedy did in 1962? Judging by mainstream media commentary on the May 3 phone conversation, the answer seems to be no. Considering the mounting confrontation in Venezuela, Trump was right, even obligated, to call Putin, but he got no applause, only condemnation. To take some random examples:
§ Democratic Representative David Cicilline asked CNN’s Chris Cuomo rhetorically on May 3, “Why does the president give the benefit of doubt to a person who attacked our democracy?” while assailing Trump for not confronting Putin with the Mueller report.
§ The same evening, CNN’s Don Lemon editorialized on the phone call: “The president of the United States had just a normal old call with his pal Vladimir Putin. Didn’t tell him not to interfere in the election. Like he did in 2016, like he did in 2018, like we know he is planning to do again in 2020…. You just don’t seem to want us to know exactly what was said…. Nothing to see when the president talks for more than an hour with the leader of an enemy nation. One that has repeatedly attacked our democracy and will do so again.” (Lemon did not say on what he based the expanded, serial charges against Putin and thus against Trump or his allegation about the 2018 elections, which congressional Democrats mostly won, or his foreknowledge about 2020 or generally and with major ramifications why he branded Russia an “enemy nation.”)
§ We might expect something more exalted from James Risen, once a critical-minded investigative reporter, who found it suspicious that “Trump and Putin were both eager to put the Mueller report behind them,” even for the sake of needed diplomacy.
§ Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative Eric Swalwell, both candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, also expressed deep suspicion regarding the Trump-Putin phone talk. Swalwell was sure it meant that Trump “acts on their behalf,” that he “is putting the Russians’ interests ahead of the United States’ interests.” (Voters may wonder if these candidates and quite a few others who continue to promote extremist Russiagate allegations are emerging American statesmen.)
§ Not surprisingly, a Washington Post opinion writer argued that the phone call meant “Trump is counting on Russian help to get reelected.”
None of these “opinion leaders” mentioned the danger of a US-Russian military confrontation over Venezuela or elsewhere on the several fraught fronts of the new Cold War. Indeed, retired admiral James Stavridis, once supreme allied commander of NATO forces and formerly associated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, all but proposed war on Russia in retaliation for its “attack on our democracy,” including “unprecedented measures” such as cyberattacks.
Russiagate’s unproven allegations are an aggressive malignancy spreading through America’s politics to the most vital areas of national security policy. A full nonpartisan investigation into their origins is urgently needed, but US intelligence agencies were almost certainly present at their creation, which is why I have long argued that Russiagate is actually Intelgate. If so, James Comey, then FBI director, was present at the creation, though initially in a lesser role than were President Barack Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan and intelligence overlord James Clapper.
Comey recently deplored Attorney General William Barr’s declaration that US intelligence agencies resorted to “spying” on the Trump campaign. (In fact, Barr mischaracterized what happened: The agencies, first and foremost Brennan’s CIA, it seems, ran an entrapment operation against members of the campaign.) Comey warned Barr that he will discover that Trump “has eaten your soul.”
It would be more accurate to say—and certainly more important—that baseless Russiagate allegations are eating America’s national security.
This commentary is based on Stephen F. Cohen’s most recent weekly discussion with the host of The John Batchelor Show. Now in their sixth year, previous installments are at TheNation.com.