A case study in propaganda about Trump’s imaginary collusion with Russia

A week ago, the Washington Post broke another non-story on Trump’s imaginary collusion with Russia during the election, by revealing that Sessions had discussed “campaign-related matters” with Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the US, during the campaign. I wanted to write a post about it, because it’s a perfect example of how the media is taking completely unremarkable events and dishonestly spinning them so as to fuel the ridiculous conspiracy theory that Trump colluded with Russia to steal the election or whatever. Here is how the Washington Post described this “revelation”:

Russia’s ambassador to Washington told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race, contrary to public assertions by the embattled attorney general, according to current and former U.S. officials.

 

Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s accounts of two conversations with Sessions — then a top foreign policy adviser to Republican candidate Donald Trump — were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies, which monitor the communications of senior Russian officials in the United States and in Russia. Sessions initially failed to disclose his contacts with Kislyak and then said that the meetings were not about the Trump campaign.

 

One U.S. official said that Sessions — who testified that he had no recollection of an April encounter — has provided “misleading” statements that are “contradicted by other evidence.” A former official said that the intelligence indicates that Sessions and Kislyak had “substantive” discussions on matters including Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration.

 

Sessions has said repeatedly that he never discussed campaign-related issues with Russian officials and that it was only in his capacity as a U.S. senator that he met with Kislyak.

As usual, this “revelation” is the result of leaks from people working in the government, who told the Washington Post about communications they intercepted. Of course, the journalists didn’t see the transcripts, so they had to rely on the word of officials who clearly are trying to harm Sessions and, indirectly, Trump. Indeed, were this not the case, they wouldn’t have leaked this information. But you would be looking in vain for any acknowledgement by the Washington Post that, for this reason, we can’t really trust the way in which the leakers are describing the conversations they intercepted.

The conversations that Sessions had with Kislyak, which are described as “meetings” throughout the article, are purposely made to look ominous. In order to create that impression, the Washington Post carefully avoids to say much about the context in which Sessions had these conversations with Kislyak, because doing so would have made it obvious that it was just another non-story spun dishonestly in order to fuel the Trump/Russia collusion nonsense. First, as I already noted, the authors of the article repeatedly use of the word “meeting” to describe the encounters Sessions had with Kislyak. When they read this word, most people no doubt imagine that Sessions found himself in a room alone with Kislyak and perhaps a few other people, which is precisely why journalists have systematically used that word to describe Kislyak’s interactions with Sessions during the campaign. However, as I explain below, nothing could be further from the truth.

(The New York Times did the same thing about Trump recently, when it revealed that he had a conversation with Putin during the G20. The original article, which is the one that was shared instantly by hundreds of thousands of people on social media, was headlined “Trump and Putin Held a Second, Undisclosed, Private Meeting”. In fact, the “private meeting” in question was a conversation during the dinner between the heads of state and government organized at the end of the G20, hence it was in a room in which there probably was a hundred people or something like that. The New York Times later changed the headline, without acknowledging it, to “Trump and Putin Held a Second, Undisclosed, Private Conversation”. Of course, by the time this happened, millions of people were already talking about the “undisclosed, private meeting” with Putin that Trump had, which is no doubt precisely what the New York Times wanted.)

Anyway, coming back to Sessions, the first meeting where he allegedly talked about “campaign-related matters” with Kislyak was in April 2016. The Washington Post does note that it was ahead of Trump’s first major foreign policy speech. What it doesn’t say is that the “meeting” in question was just a conversation at the reception organized ahead of Trump’s speech, which was attended by at least three other foreign ambassadors beside Kislyak, as well as probably dozens if not hundreds of other people. Of course, if the Washington Post had explained this, people wouldn’t have imagined a secret meeting in a dark room where Sessions and Kislyak plotted a mysterious conspiracy… The second “meeting” happened in July on the sidelines of the Republican convention in Cleveland, as the Washington Post explains. What the article doesn’t explain, however, is that it was just a conversation at a diplomacy event organized to provide a forum for diplomats to share their concerns with Republican officials. In other words, it was in a room full of people and probably lasted for just a few minutes, but again don’t count on the Washington Post to tell you that…

The Washington Post also tries to make these conversations look problematic by suggesting that Sessions previously lied, since he claimed that he had never met with any Russian officials to discuss the election, yet Kislyak apparently told Moscow they had talked about “Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration”. (The article says “including”, but since those were the only examples given,  they were presumably the most damning.) In other words, Sessions talked with the ambassador of Russia twice, each time in a room full of dozens or hundreds of people, including other foreign diplomats and presumably several journalists. They talked about Trump’s views on foreign policy, at events that were organized precisely for that purpose, but that’s supposed to be somehow problematic… Indeed, we have reached a point where the hysteria is such that even perfectly ordinary conversations become evidence of “collusion”, because they are depicted in a dishonest way by the media and there are millions of people who are willing to believe anything about Trump.

Again, the Washington Post claims it means that Sessions lied about this before, but the argument is profoundly dishonest. He is supposed to have lied because he previously said that he had “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign”. But you have to be extremely dishonest to claim that, in the context in which Sessions made that statement (he was responding to people who accused Trump’s campaign of having colluded with Russia), his reference to “issues of the campaign” could have referred to Trump’s views on foreign policy. This is just another example of journalists interpreting a statement uncharitably to make it look like people in Trump’s campaign are hiding something, when in fact it’s painfully obvious in context that Sessions wasn’t talking about something as trivial as discussing Trump’s views on foreign policy with the Russian ambassador at diplomacy events during the campaign. People constantly forget that, in order for someone to have lied, it’s not enough that something they said was literally false, they must also have had the intention to deceive.

In fact, even if Sessions had lied, it wouldn’t mean anything and, in particular, it wouldn’t be evidence that people around Trump are trying to hide a conspiracy with Russia or anything of the sort. Indeed, the McCarthyist hysteria that currently permeates the US creates a huge incentive to deny any contacts with anyone who has anything to do with Russia, even if they were completely innocuous. So it wouldn’t be surprising if people around Trump had sometimes deliberately denied that such contacts took place, although in almost every case where people claim that people in Trump’s campaign lied about this we don’t actually know that since the intent to deceive has not been demonstrated, because they are terrified that it will be used to accuse them of colluding with Russia. Of course, it can backfire when evidence shows they did have contacts with people who are connected to Russia however indirectly, but this doesn’t mean they were trying to hide something nefarious. Since there is no evidence whatsoever that anything nefarious actually took place, a much better explanation is that they are just trying to avoid becoming the next victim of this McCarthyist witch hunt.

The authors of that article in the Washington Post also claim the intercepts they were told about show that Sessions lied when he said he’d only met Kislyak in his capacity as a Senator. But as they surely know, he made this statement after it was revealed that he had also met with Kislyak in September and, at the time, it was clear he was talking about this meeting. Yet, as the authors of this piece acknowledges, though not until the 19th paragraph of the article, the intercepts they were given details about don’t concern this particular encounter. Nobody would have taken him seriously if he had been talking about his conversations with Kislyak in April and July, the second of which was revealed at the same time as the September meeting (which led to his recusal from the investigation on Russia’s interference with the election), since they both took place at campaign events…

Moreover, as I already noted, it’s absolutely clear that, when Sessions said that he had never discussed issues of the campaign with any Russian officials, he was referring to conversations that could be interpreted as some kind of collusion, not perfectly ordinary conversations about his candidate’s foreign policy views. But people are being willingly obtuse and pretend they don’t understand that, at least for those who aren’t genuinely stupid (which many are), in order to be able to claim that he lied. Since he was a major supporter of Trump, it’s obvious that many foreign diplomats talked to him about his views on foreign policy, because it’s their job. It would also be amazing if, when he met with them, they hadn’t talked at least a little bit about the campaign itself and not just the issues that interest them. Sessions met with Kislyak, as well as with 21 other foreign ambassadors in 2016, in the middle of the campaign. How often do you think people in Washington met in September 2016 without at least exchanging a few words about how the campaign was going? But again this isn’t what people are talking about when they accuse Trump’s campaign of colluding with Russia.

As I explained recently, Trump’s opponents throw ridiculous accusations at him or people in his campaign, which they deny because they’re obviously false, but then use “revelations” about completely innocuous events that have nothing to do with those accusations to accuse Trump or the people around him of lying and dishonestly suggest it supports the original accusations. This article in the Washington Post is a perfect example of how this nonsense has been kept alive for so long. Journalists take a completely innocuous event, spin it to make it look ominous and claim it proves Trump or people around him lied. But it only proves that the media is ridiculously biased against Trump and is making shit up to fuel this Russia/Trump collusion nonsense.

By doing that on a regular basis, they make sure people who don’t like Trump become more and more convinced he colluded with Russia to steal the election (whatever that means), because they are stupid, haven’t followed that story closely and/or hate Trump so much that they have lost the ability to think clearly about anything that has to do with him. I only plan to publish one more article on this nonsense, where I explain that people ignore basic epistemic and moral principles when they talk about this, but after that I will try to stay away from this story because I can’t bear the stupidity of this witch hunt anymore and there are several far more interesting things I have been meaning to write about for a while. Beside, if you have already read everything I wrote about this and still think there might be something to this story, there is probably nothing I can do for you, so I don’t really see the point of trying.

One thought

  1. Have you ever wondered why it is that a young, brilliant, hard-working, free-thinking, Ivy-League graduate student applying his philosophical and political acumen to current political events – almost on the daily! – always comes up with takes that are pretty much indistinguishable from the views of the average 50+ white, male, Fox viewer (except by their vocabulary and, god knows, their length!)? Genuinely interested in what you think it signifies. And if nothing, why the ideological convergence (in your opinion)?

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