In Effort To Mangle Bernie on Russia, Politico Mangles the Facts

When it comes to life’s inevitabilities, an item that seems to take its place beside death and taxes is corporate press hostility to progressives in general and Sen. Bernie Sanders in particular. Politico is becoming quite notorious for its stream of tendentious, anti-progressive and anti-Sanders editorials masquerading as news reports and Edward-Isaac Dovere, Politico’s chief Washington correspondent, has just excreted another one. “Bernie Blames Hillary For Allowing Russian Interference,” screams his sensational headline. His opening is hard-hitting:

“Bernie Sanders on Wednesday blamed Hillary Clinton for not doing more to stop the Russian attack on the last presidential election. Then his 2016 campaign manager, in an interview with POLITICO, said he’s seen no evidence to support special counsel Robert Mueller’s assertion in an indictment last week that the Russian operation had backed Sanders’ campaign.
“The remarks showed Sanders, running for a third term and currently considered a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, deeply defensive in response to questions posed to him about what was laid out in the indictment. He attempted to thread a response that blasts Donald Trump for refusing to acknowledge that Russians helped his campaign — but then holds himself harmless for a nearly identical denial.
“In doing so, Sanders and his former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, presented a series of self-serving statements that were not accurate, and that track with efforts by Trump and his supporters to undermine the credibility of the Mueller probe.”

But readers digging through Dovere’s article and its source material will struggle in vain to find anything that supports Dovere’s fuming assertions. Rather, the only story here is that an alleged “journalist” has decided to misrepresent the facts in order to libel the progressive senator. Again.

The principal exhibit here is an interview Sanders had just given to Vermont Public Radio. At the 11:30 mark, Sanders begins fielding a series of questions about the Russia matter. Dovere distorts its content beyond recognition:

“Sanders said that his campaign had shared information with the Clinton campaign about suspected Russian anti-Clinton trolls on a campaign Facebook page. But Weaver later acknowledged that the Vermont senator had no firsthand knowledge that this had happened. Weaver said Sanders based his remark on an article published by NBC’s San Diego affiliate over the weekend about a campaign volunteer who claimed to have conducted his own investigation and brought the findings to the Clinton campaign in September — an assertion flatly denied by a former Clinton campaign aide.
“‘A guy who was on my staff … checked it out and he went to the Clinton campaign, and he said, “You know what? I think these guys are Russians,”’ Sanders said. Weaver said Sanders had not verified the information in the article himself before stating it as fact.”

In order to make Weaver’s later comments look like after-the-fact dissembling, Dovere has edited out a portion of Sanders’ own wherein Sanders conceded he had no firsthand knowledge of this; within those ellipses Dovere dropped in, Sanders actually described “a guy on my staff who I don’t know personally, his name was John Mattes out in San Diego.” Further, though Sanders didn’t mention the NBC San Diego report, both he and Weaver accurately relayed its contents:

“After a lengthy investigation, Mattes said he took his findings to the Clinton Campaign as well as the Obama Administration last September.”

If this report turns out to be incorrect, it’s hardly a mark against them. To refute it, Dovere turns to an anonymous Clintonite and acts as an uncritical stenographer:

“A former Clinton campaign staffer said it was nonsense that Sanders’ campaign had reached out to Clinton’s about potential Russian interference. ‘No one from the Sanders campaign ever contacted us about this’ — not in September, and not in ‘April and May.’ Sanders said in the radio interview that he noticed ‘lots of strange things’ during those months in 2016.”

So what do we have here? It may be that the NBC San Diego report didn’t accurately relay what Mattes said. It may be that Mattes isn’t telling the truth. Or it may be that this “former Clinton campaign staffer” is acting in the usual custom of that campaign, which rarely told the truth about anything. Dovere’s project is falsely presenting Sanders and Weaver as offering a series of self-serving fictions, so he never ever tries to disentangle the matter.

Worse, either Dovere or the staffer is flatly lying about Sanders’ “April and May” comment. Not only did Sanders never say he “noticed” anything unusual in those months, he specifically said he didn’t know anything that early in the game. Sanders was describing Mattes noting strange activity on Facebook in September 2016, near the end of the campaign, and said “we did not know early on” about any Russian activity but subsequently, “what we found out was that in April and May, it appeared that there were lots of strange things happening attacking Hillary Clinton.” Sanders never even claimed he knew in September; he was merely referencing that NBC San Diego story, an article that had appeared in the press a few days before his interview. Dovere’s wording makes it unclear whether he or the staffer added the bit about “April and May” but it ran under his name and it’s false.

In the radio interview, Sanders repeatedly pointed out that the alleged Russian activity wasn’t aimed at supporting his candidacy but rather was carried out with the goal of sowing chaos and discord in the electoral process, which is the position taken by the Mueller indictment. The indictment offers a narrative wherein the Russian conspirators began putting in place the initial infrastructure for their eventual project as early as 2013, years before anyone even dreamed of a Sanders — or Trump — candidacy. The indictment repeatedly outlines the conspirators’ goals: they “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” were “interfering with the U.S. political system,” were “interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with the stated goal of ‘spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.’” No one who has read it can miss this.

Sanders echoes it. “[A]ll they want to do is sow division in this country, bring people against each other,” he said. “This was not supporting me, any more than they were supporting groups like Black Lives Matter that are fighting for social justice,” a reference to the Russians targeting messaging toward BLM activists, another matter covered in the Mueller indictment. “Trust me, that’s not what they were doing — they were trying to cause division.”

In order to set up a false equivalence with Donald Trump’s comments regarding this matter, Dovere omits all of this, quoting only Sanders’ denial that the Russians were supporting him then engaging in further fabrication:

“The Vermont senator was adamant that he did not benefit from Russian bots urging voters to support him… Sanders has repeatedly condemned President Donald Trump for not acknowledging the Russian attack on the 2016 election alleged in the Mueller indictment and being investigated by congressional committees. But he has refused to say that his campaign benefited from the activities.”

At no point in the interview did Sanders deny he benefited from Russian bots. He was, in fact, never even asked if his campaign benefited, nor, if he had been, would he even be able to say; the Mueller indictment’s allegations of Russian activity during the Democratic primary are too nebulous and unspecific — barely even a blip. The indictment references a memo circulated among the Russian conspirators on 10 February, 2016, describing it as “an outline of themes for future content to be posted to ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts” in which “specialists were instructed to post content that focused on ‘politics in the USA’ and to ‘use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them).’” While concealing from his readers what the indictment says about the Russians’ motives and how it relates to Sanders’ comments, Dovere partially quotes this in an effort to refute Sanders but while the indictment covers an extensive range of specific activities carried out by the conspirators, nearly all of those activities occurred after Sanders had already lost the Democratic nomination in early June 2016. Sanders’ name and campaign, in fact, are only even mentioned in the few lines regarding that memo; the indictment contains no other information on any support for him.

Weaver is on top of this:

“‘The factual underpinning of that in the indictment is what? Zero,’ Weaver said. ‘I have not seen any evidence of support for Bernie Sanders… Two dudes sitting in a hole somewhere support Bernie Sanders — tell me what they did to support Bernie Sanders,’ Weaver added later.”

Dovere can’t tell Weaver that but instead of noting Weaver is correct, Dovere equates these remarks with Donald Trump’s:

“Sanders’ and Weaver’s argument mirrors that of Trump, who has argued in a days-long series of tweets that the Russians were not supporting him.”

But as gratifying as this anti-Sanders “journalist” no doubt found it to tie Sanders to the spectacularly unpopular Trump, nowhere in this recent tweet-storm does Trump say the Russians weren’t supporting him. Rather, he says his campaign didn’t collude with the Russians and that their activities had no impact on the ultimate outcome of the election.[1] Neither Sanders nor Weaver have said anything of the sort. In the past, Trump has suggested the entire notion of a Russian conspiracy to interfere in the election was a hoax.[2]

While the existence of an online Russian “troll army” that follows Kremlin policy was a matter of public record well before 2016, it wasn’t particularly well-known in the U.S.. After allegations emerged that Russians were behind the hacking of the John Podesta emails, which Wikileaks began releasing shortly before the Democratic convention at the end of July 2016, Russia became subject to more scrutiny but online activity attributed to Russia and aimed at interfering in the presidential election only really came to be scrutinized toward the end of the campaign and only became a major story after the election. By the time this heightened scrutiny was brewing, Sanders was working with the Clinton campaign and as a consequence, it’s to the Clinton campaign that Sanders deferred when asked why he didn’t alert his supporters of these alleged Russian activities. “I would say the real question to be asked was ‘what was the Clinton campaign [doing]?’ They had more information about this than we did and at this point, we were working with them.”

The interviewer persisted: “So did the Clinton campaign say ‘don’t talk about this’?

“No, of course not, but who do you think would be raising that issue?”

Sanders was acting as a campaign surrogate at the time and it isn’t the place of a surrogate to go off-script with allegations that, at the time, could be perceived as crackpotism, thus harming the candidate. The candidate calls the script, and in such a situation, Sanders is right to defer. His radio interviewer didn’t like that: “Why not take that directly to your supporters, many of whom really hung on your every word?” But, of course, what Sanders was saying at every stop during the timeframe in question was “vote for Hillary Clinton.” If his supporters really hung on his “every word,” why would words regarding Russia allegations carry more weight in the election than those? It’s an utterly bizarre — and empty — criticism, Blame Bernie-ism run amok. If the campaign messaging on this subject is found to be wanting — and that’s a dodgy proposition anyway[3] — it’s the campaign that should be questioned.

That’s not, of course, a position that’s going to find a warm reception among Clinton’s personality cult, as one of its defining characteristics is an absolute conviction that Clinton is correct when she insists she has no real responsibility for anything.

Dovere certainly doesn’t like it. He roasts Sanders for failing to call out this Russian activity during the campaign and contrasts this with Clinton, writing “Clinton’s campaign regularly raised suspicions of Kremlin-backed activity during the home stretch of the race.” But Clinton’s attacks on Russian interference during the campaign were directed toward the cyberattacks — the hacking and subsequent releases of Democratic emails. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain,[4] she never said anything about Russian-directed internet troll activity, which really only became a big story after — and because — she lost the election. General-election debates produce the single largest audience a presidential candidate will ever have but even during the 2nd debate with Trump, when Clinton went on an extended anti-Russia tear, she focused on human rights and the hacking and didn’t raise the issue. Criticizing Sanders, a surrogate, for failing to speak out when the candidate herself remained silent is self-evidently absurd.[5]

Dovere doesn’t ask that “former Clinton campaign staffer” or anyone else from ClintonWorld about the campaign messaging. Instead, he uses Sanders’ deference to Clinton as the basis for the charge in his lede that Sanders “blamed Hillary Clinton for not doing more to stop the Russian attack on the last presidential election,” which is entirely fictitious. Sanders has assigned no “blame” in this matter other than to the Putin regime, nor, other than that, has he even said there’s any blame to be assigned. These alleged activities were carried out by a foreign power, beyond the control of anyone in the U.S. Dovere’s truncated headline claim that Sanders has blamed Clinton for allowing Russian interference — the headline everyone on the internet will see — is a particularly egregious lie. This activity was based in Russia and there was never any question of “allowing” it to go forward or not.

Though Dovere has done nothing to establish that these Russian activities benefited Sanders’ campaign or made any case for why, beyond providing fodder for trolls, it would matter if they had, he writes that “Sanders has faced questions since Friday about why he has not more strongly condemned the Russian actions that benefited his campaign.” Dovere’s example is Joan Walsh, whom he identifies merely as a “liberal writer.” In reality, Walsh is a positively rabid Clinton supporter/Sanders basher — no better a source on this matter than some random Twitter troll. Dovere gives her space to assert that Sanders has made such a misstep that “this could be the end of Sanders 2020.”

Dovere ends on what he seems to think is a snarky “gotcha”:

“On Wednesday evening, Sanders took to Twitter with additional statements.
“‘Mueller’s indictment provides further evidence that the Russian government interfered in 2016. It also shows that they tried to turn my supporters against Hillary Clinton in the primary and general election. I unequivocally condemn such interference,’ he wrote.
“A Sanders spokesman declined to explain the senator’s apparent change of heart over the course of the day.”

But that statement merely reflects what Sanders has already said, no “change of heart.” In that radio interview, in fact, Sanders said, “They were attacking Hillary Clinton’s campaign and using my supporters against Hillary Clinton.” Dovere knows this; he directly quotes it in his own article. And, of course, Sanders has condemned Russian efforts to interfere in the election from his earlier public comments on the subject.

Dovere began by insisting Sanders and Weaver had “ presented a series of self-serving statements that were not accurate, and that track with efforts by Trump and his supporters to undermine the credibility of the Mueller probe,” but the only thing that wasn’t accurate was Rovere’s own assertions and Sanders has been outspoken in his insistence that the Mueller probe continue.

A few things on this issue beyond the immediate matter of Politco and its asshat “reporter”: These are troubled times, and an entrenched political Establishment in such times will latch on to just about anything to keep people from catching on to the fact that it is part of what troubles them. “Russian interference” is its current shiny object. Those in the Democratic Establishment, using it to avoid any assessment of their own epic-scale failures in the last decade, have built it up into a scandal of monumental proportions.[6] The right has embraced it as well but insists the real makes-Watergate-look-like-stealing-a-Snickers outrage is a series of fake counter-scandals they’ve manufactured that blame the other side. For over a year now, both have insisted that, any moment now, the other shoe will drop and the resulting public outrage will forever wash away the opposition in a flood of ignominy. And here’s one of the few guarantees in all of this: that’s never going to happen. Further, here are some truths about this particular species of Russian “interference” that neither of these players want you to hear.

— This sort of thing is the price of living in a free society. One can, of course, prosecute any crimes that occur and one should always try to expose sources that attempt to conceal their origins but when it comes to much of the activities with which these Russians were involved — setting up discussion-groups on the internet, commenting on social media, organizing rallies, etc. — there’s little a free society can do about it.

— The U.S. presidential electoral process is a multi-million-dollar behemoth. When standard operating procedure involves candidates trading their souls to Wall Street sharks, oil billionaires and the like for campaign contributions, worrying over a few dozen people buying Facebook ads from a warehouse on the other side of the world — or worse, presenting them as having stolen an election — is completely ridiculous. Which brings me to perhaps the most important item,

— It doesn’t even matter. Whether anyone wants to hear it or not, Hillary Clinton lost the election because she was astonishingly unpopular. Not unpopular as a consequence of a few foreign trolls on the internet but as a consequence of an entire lifetime of shiftiness, dishonesty and corruption. And the only reason Donald Trump, the most unpopular major-party candidate in the history of polling, won the election is because he was facing Hillary Clinton. Even in a worst-case scenario, any impact these activities alleged by Mueller may have had is microscopic.[7]

In closing, here’s some food for thought from just abut the most unlikely source imaginable:

Chill out, folks.

— j.

— -

[1] The Tweet flurry in question:

[2] It is, however, worth noting that according to the theory advanced in the Mueller indictment, the Russian conspirators’ “support” for Trump, which is detailed at great length and with much specificity, was a result of their (correctly) perceiving him as a chaos figure who would serve their goal of disruption. After the election, they organized both pro- and anti-Trump rallies. Chaos.

[3] There’s really no reason at all to question the campaign messaging on this; it’s an entirely manufactured “controversy.” If one just insists on charting the many problems the Clinton campaign needed to address and didn’t (or couldn’t), any perceived shortcoming on this matter would be so minor in comparison to the rest — both individually and in bulk — it would barely even register.

[4] Clinton certainly never made a major issue of the troll activity. To ascertain whether she’d ever mentioned it, I went to Google news, set the search date parameters to cover the entire general election campaign then spent far too much time conducting a series of searches for every relevant word combination of which I could conceive. I found nothing in which Clinton addressed the troll activity.

[5] It’s entirely possible Clinton didn’t know about these activities at the time. If one wanted to make an ugly partisan dogfight about it, that report about John Mattes, who “said he took his findings to the Clinton Campaign” in September — the report Dovere declined to properly examine — potentially looms large. But whatever the case may be, there really just isn’t any “blame” to cast here; if Russians were carrying out these activities, it’s beyond the control of anyone in the campaign.

[6] The “Russiagate” scandal pimps have used this “interference” story to insist on a needlessly belligerent posture toward Russia and to attempt to scandalize any effort at a more reasoned approach. To the extent that this has any impact, it’s dangerous, and in recent days, they’ve escalated their rhetoric into the realm of irresponsible by insisting the “interference” amounts to “an act of war.” It isn’t, and that’s not something responsible people should even suggest.

[7] The major activity attributed to Russia and that may have had an impact was the hacking and release of the Democratic emails but even there, the scandal was only a consequence of Democratic misbehavior; releasing those emails was much more akin to a public service than an offense meriting condemnation. The Mueller indictment doesn’t deal with the matter of those emails.