What Russiagate tells us about a corrupt system

March 7, 2018

Robert Mueller's investigation is exposing lots of dirty deeds, but not that many of them are about Russian collusion during the 2016 election, writes Ryan de Laureal.

AFTER MONTHS of buildup, the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign's alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 presidential election actually seems to be going somewhere.

On February 16, the Justice Department announced new charges against 13 Russian citizens and three Russian companies on counts of identity theft, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and "criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States" by interfering in the 2016 election.

Though none of the defendants are likely to be extradited from Russia to actually face the charges, Mueller's announcement came to the immense satisfaction of many Clintonite liberals, because they seemed to provide tangible evidence that there was indeed an attempt, originating in Russia, to influence the opinions of U.S. voters over a number of years.

The following week, Mueller filed new charges, including money laundering and lying to federal investigators, against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates. Gates quickly pleaded guilty and announced his cooperation with Mueller's investigation in exchange for sentencing leniency.

Clockwise from top left: Paul Manafort, Donald Trump and Rick Gates
Clockwise from top left: Paul Manafort, Donald Trump and Rick Gates

Last week, Trump renewed his public lambasting of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which many observers believe is an attempt to get Sessions to resign so that Trump can find a replacement more willing to impede the Mueller investigation--a dubious strategy given that Mueller is already looking into Trump's previous attempts to dump the attorney general as a possible obstruction of justice.

This week, former Trump aide Sam Nunberg announced that he would refuse to obey a subpoena from Mueller--but added the judgment that, based on the questions he was being ordered to answer, Trump "may have done something illegal," and Mueller had the goods on him.

ALL THIS is to say that it's been a good few weeks for those who hope that proof of a Russian conspiracy will actually stick to Trump and maybe take him down.

Gates is the third participant in Trump's presidential circus act who has lied and pleaded guilty in the course of the Mueller investigation, joining former foreign policy aide George Papadopoulos and former Gen. Michael Flynn--whose 24-day tenure has to make him the most ephemeral National Security Advisor in U.S. history.

In addition, a number of Trump's other close advisers have recently been feeling the heat. Communications Director Hope Hicks resigned shortly after eight hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, and Jared Kushner's security clearance was downgraded amid skepticism over his foreign financial ties.

The ongoing investigations into the many shady activities of the Trump inner circle are clearly taking their toll. And just as clearly, there was something going on between Russia, Trump and the people close to him over the course of the 2016 election campaign.

But whether Trump's presidency will reach a Nixonian finale over obstruction of justice charges related to his firing of former FBI director James Comey remains an open question.

As satisfying as it may be to witness Trump's allies face the possibility of jail time, it's still necessary to approach the so-called Russia conspiracy with a dose of skepticism (the debate hosted by The Intercept between Glenn Greenwald and James Risen provides a good overview of the terms of the debate.

One pertinent fact has to be kept in mind: Though a number of suspicious contacts between figures in the Trump campaign and Russians with varying degrees of closeness to the Kremlin has come to light, nothing leaked from the investigation so far provides strong evidence that any significant "collusion" actually took place, or that the campaign was actively involved with Russian hacking and propaganda efforts.

Though it is difficult to predict where Mueller will go next with the investigation, the lack of proof for the central claim of the conspiracy's proponents remains the elephant in the room.

In fact, the most interesting revelations to come out of the investigation so far don't have anything to do with any scheme hatched by Trump and Putin to "steal" the election.

What the investigation has done is shine a light into Washington's underworld of crooks and lobbyists, revealing the normalized corruption of an entire class of influence-peddlers and financial fraudsters who flourish in the murky quagmire of a political establishment whose tentacles span the entire globe.

BEFORE THE Trump campaign, people like Flynn and Manafort served time as ordinary henchmen of a bipartisan ruling class.

Flynn was appointed by Barack Obama to the position of director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, making him the highest-ranking military intelligence official in the country--while Manafort spent his career as a Republican political operative and lobbyist, serving as an adviser on every Republican presidential campaign from Gerald Ford to Bob Dole.

That these two figures, so firmly entrenched in the networks of power in Washington, could so seamlessly transition from their work on behalf of the U.S. ruling class to become lobbyists on the payroll of foreign governments and the international corporate elite speaks volumes about what American power brokers truly think about the patriotism that they shove down the throats of ordinary people.

After retiring from military intelligence, Flynn founded the Flynn Intel Group, a lobbying firm whose activities on behalf of Russian figures and Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have become his main foil in light of the Mueller investigation.

Likewise, Manafort's lobbying firm Black Manafort Stone & Kelly earned millions of dollars peddling the interests of some of the world's most blood-soaked right-wing dictators during the 1980s and '90s--all while Manafort maintained his side job as a Republican adviser.

A 1989 Washington Post article noted that Black Manafort Stone & Kelly "counts some of the heaviest hitters in politics among its clientele, including President Bush" and describes the firm as "so hot in Washington" that even a corruption scandal over dubious methods used to obtain lucrative government building contracts had "not slowed business."

The article was written after Manafort's firm signed a million-dollar lobbying contract with dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (later renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

At the time, Mobutu was notorious for stealing billions from his impoverished country after leading a 1961 military coup--backed by the U.S. and Belgium--that deposed and murdered the democratically elected and internationally revered anti-colonial leader Patrice Lumumba.

WHILE NO one at SocialistWorker.org is going to cry about Manafort, who amassed millions through despicable means and laundered the money to hide it from the government, facing possible jail time, there are real questions about the significance of many of the accusations leveled in the Russia scandal so far.

Some of the allegations made by the intelligence community have been laughable. There was enormous hype last year, for example, about an intelligence report on Russian hacking, but most of the report wasn't about hacking at all and instead focused on the use of news outlet Russia Today to spread Kremlin propaganda, which is neither illegal nor unique (has anyone ever heard of Voice of America?)

Much of the overheated rhetoric about Russia's social media shenanigans is similarly shallow.

Is there anything actually illegal about buying Facebook ads and using social media bots to spread propaganda? If so, why focus only on Russia, when these are common tactics used by governments across the world? It would be naïve to assume that U.S. intelligence agencies and their armies of hackers aren't utilizing these same tactics to spread their propaganda internationally.

Finally, why single out Russian money spent on ads when the fact is that the U.S. political system is awash in foreign money?

Another aspect of the Trump-Russia scandal that has been overlooked in much media coverage is the actual reason why Russian leaders would perceive such a threat in a Hillary Clinton presidency. Presumably the answer was her hawkish foreign policy--which says more about Clinton than it does about Trump.

It's important to weed through the hot takes and soberly understand the Mueller investigation as an overhyped but still significant manifestation of an acute political crisis for the U.S. ruling class--one that hasn't gone away since the 2016 election.

As the relentless media focus on the Mueller investigation continues, we should be clear that the primary cause of Trump's election was not a Russian propaganda campaign--regardless of whether such a campaign took place.

Trump won because of a perfect storm of historical conditions, among them: the ongoing slide of the U.S. into an authoritarian form of corporate oligarchy, the decimation of the labor movement, increased public frustration with the political system and non-participation in elections, the dismantling of voting rights protections, corruption on an unparalleled scale--and the antiquated nature of the Constitution itself, with its undemocratic mechanisms such as the Electoral College.

Did Trump collude with the Russian government to win the election? Maybe.

But we should stay focused on the actual conditions that enabled Trump's victory, and not succumb to amnesia and allow the Democratic Party, which helped to implement the neoliberal policies that laid the foundations for the current crisis, frame themselves as our saviors.

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