Special counsel Robert Mueller’s bombshell first indictments against former Trump campaign aides in the Russia investigation were revelatory for a number of reasons. First, the charges were substantive and wide-reaching enough to suggest the investigation won’t be going away anytime soon.
Second, they underscored the lengths to which Trump loyalists in the media will go to keep their audiences dancing to the drumbeat of denial, with the usual menu of dismissive claims that it’s all a witch hunt, or fake news, or launching a disinformation campaign of whataboutisms in a desperate attempt to redirect us to the real story: namely, Hillary Clinton’s 2009 deal to grant U.S. uranium production to a Russian nuclear energy agency while she was Secretary of State, or “fake news” outlet the Washington Post’s October report that the Clinton campaign helped fund the infamous 2016 Trump dossier.
Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, along with his business associate Richard Gates, were hit with a dozen counts not actually linked to anything involving the 2016 campaign: tax evasion, money laundering and intentionally conspiring to defraud the government by failing to register lobbying work for a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party with the Justice Department. Manafort, who’s now the first campaign chief since Watergate to be indicted, has pleaded not guilty to those charges.
Then there’s the case of George Papadopoulos, the 30-year-old former Trump foreign policy advisor who was quietly arrested in July and pleaded guilty in October to lying to federal investigators regarding his months-long attempts to arrange meetings between the Trump camp and high-ranking Russian government officials. Manafort, Gates and other senior Trump officials apparently knew what Papadopoulos was doing, as did Agriculture Dept. adviser Sam Clovis, who encouraged Papadopoulos to seal the deal on a meeting. So, why are we just hearing about it now? Unsealed court papers show Papadopoulos had been lending “proactive cooperation” to the investigation since his arrest, meaning for more than three months he may have worn a wire in exchange for cutting a plea deal, and his work with federal investigators could produce further charges against other staffers. This is very bad news.
So far, Trump and his administration have responded to the news with wild feats of obscurantism, utilizing a confusing communications strategy that serves to both distance the President from the allegations while, simultaneously, casting the developments as no big deal. Trump on Oct. 30 took to Twitter to respond to the arrests, claiming Manafort’s unlawful activities occurred “years ago,” and “long before [Manafort] came to the campaign.” This is incorrect. According to Mueller’s Oct. 30 indictment, Manafort hid Ukrainian payments from U.S. authorities between “approximately 2006 through at least 2016,” during which time he was serving as Trump campaign chairman. On Papadopoulos, Trump cast the former advisor as a “young, low level volunteer” who “has already proven to be a liar.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated these talking points, claiming the former campaign members were indicted on charges that had “nothing to do with the President.” She then doubled down on the image of Papadopoulos as a glorified coffee boy, referring to him as an unpaid volunteer on an advisory council that met once in the course of a year.
Predictably, Trump’s allies in the media have fallen lock-step behind these clumsy PR efforts, desperately attempting to spin a confusing narrative of often-contradictory talking points that downplay the indictments while attempting to use the opportunity as a chance to rally their audiences to follow them down the rabbit hole after their own cherry-picked conspiracy theories involving Hillary Clinton.
Sean Hannity, who’s gone absolutely ballistic over the scandal, laid bare his paranoid, fevered delusions in an October monologue, claiming there’s “zero evidence of Trump Russia collusion” before pivoting into a baseless conspiracy theory that Mueller is somehow “clearly complicit” in Clinton’s 2009 Uranium One scandal. Jesse Watters, appearing on “The Five,” also used the news as a classic “but Hillary!” bait-and-switch, claiming that what “Papadopoulos did, Hillary did 10 times worse.” Sidney Powell, speaking on “Fox & Friends,” claimed that “the entire investigation was set up, basically, to impugn this presidency and to make it as hard as possible for Mr. Trump to carry out his duties.”
In a series of bizarre new developments, both the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board have now penned editorials calling for Mueller’s resignation. In the strangest twist of all, Fox has now set its sights on the judges presiding over the Paul Manafort case, reporting that one judge has a son who was allegedly convicted of selling heroin, and that another had donated $1,000 to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
There’s another unlikely ally that has aligned with this narrative. Speaking with the media on Oct. 31, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the investigation “over-the-top Russophobic hysteria” and the suggestion of any election meddling “fantasies” without “a single piece of proof.” Politics truly makes strange bedfellows.