While most of the nation was largely fixated over the past week on President Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis, the President and his allies in right-wing media have been engrossed with something else entirely.
Trump, with the help of outlets like Fox News, has been pushing a dishonest narrative in touting intelligence documents that his administration declassified last month on the eve of the first presidential debate. They claimed the information was a supposed smoking gun proving that Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration sought to frame Trump with a Russian collusion scandal.
But when examined closely the documents indicate no such thing. In fact, by the Trump administration’s own admission, they are based on unverified Russian intelligence that could be totally bogus. Which is to say that the President and Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson are hyping and disseminating information that originates from a foreign adversary to bludgeon top Democratic officials.
Trump and his allies have even gone so far as to demand or suggest that President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden should be charged with actual crimes — again, resting much of their case on unverified Russian chatter and other cherry-picked material that the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency warned against releasing, as CNN previously reported.
It’s the latest episode in a long-running attempt by Trump and right-wing media to portray the Obama administration as nefarious actors who sought to launch a coup of an incoming Republican administration. This “deep state” conspiracy has been thoroughly discredited.
What makes this situation more alarming is that John Ratcliffe, Trump’s Director of National Intelligence who declassified the documents, appears to be selectively doing so to help Trump accuse his 2020 opponent of committing a crime — all with the help of a major US media organization.
It has some current and former intelligence officials aghast.
“We are acting like a banana republic, with various cabinet officials so beholden to a dictator, they violate all norms and rules simply to curry favor,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who oversaw operations in Europe and Russia before retiring last summer.
Polymeropoulos told CNN that Ratcliffe, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Bill Barr, “have forgotten their oath to protect America; they only serve this President, and history will judge them for that.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which Ratcliffe runs, declined comment.
The dubious narrative being propagated by Trump and his allies was born out of materials released on September 29 by Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist whose qualifications for the top post have been questioned. He was confirmed for the job in May on a party-line Senate vote with all Democrats opposed. Before Ratcliffe, there were never more than a dozen senators who voted against a nominee for director of national intelligence.
Ratcliffe publicly disclosed the unverified Russian intelligence about Clinton despite concerns raised by the CIA and NSA, according to people briefed on the matter.
One of the documents included details of an unverified Russian intelligence assessment from July 2016 that Clinton “approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal” about Trump’s ties to Russia. In releasing the documents last month, Ratcliffe said that the US government had learned about the Russian assessment, but “does not know” if it is accurate, and warned that it “may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”
In other words, the US government picked up on Russians discussing Clinton’s political strategy to highlight Trump’s connections to Russia. This is no bombshell: Clinton’s political strategy played out in public view during the 2016 campaign — in tweets and TV interviews — and it was true that Trump’s team had extensive contacts with Russians, which they worked hard to keep secret during and after the 2016 campaign.
The document didn’t include any underlying intelligence or context about efforts to corroborate the information. Democrats and national security experts immediately questioned Ratcliffe’s decision to release such dubious material. Hours later, at the first presidential debate, Trump cited the information to falsely accuse Clinton and Biden of being part of a “coup” against him.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Brett Bruen, an Obama administration official who focused on combating disinformation. “The intelligence community has always stayed out of American politics and has been quite limited in what it releases publicly. Now they’re releasing information they shouldn’t be releasing, and on top of that, it’s about domestic politics. It’s really alarming.”
Ratcliffe denied that the materials he declassified contained Russian disinformation and has gone on to release additional documents in an attempt to justify the initial disclosures.
This week, he released handwritten notes by former CIA Director John Brennan about a briefing with Obama where the Russian assessment was discussed. He also released a memo from the CIA to the FBI, which said some Russians believed Clinton was using Trump’s ties to Russia “as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.”
The new releases came to light in an “exclusive” Fox News report on Tuesday, which quoted two “sources familiar with the documents” who defended Ratcliffe and critiqued Brennan. After the news broke, prompting immediate criticism from Democrats, Ratcliffe issued a statement denying that he was peddling disinformation.
The Russian assessment said Clinton was “stirring up a scandal (by) claiming interference by the Russian security service,” according to Brennan’s notes. Trump and his allies pounced. They claimed this proved what Trump has said all along — that Obama, Clinton, Brennan and the FBI conspired to sabotage his campaign and invented a “hoax” about Russian meddling.
But there’s a major problem: Russian meddling was no hoax, and that false narrative comes from Russia, which has repeatedly lied about its pro-Trump interference in the 2016 election.
The top US intelligence agencies have said unequivocally that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win.
“It is appalling, his selective declassification of information,” Brennan told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday. “It is designed to advance the political interests of Donald Trump and Republicans.”
In the CNN interview, Brennan also said Trump and Ratcliffe were distorting the true meaning behind his notes, and that they were exaggerating the credibility of dubious information. He also said “there is nothing at all illegal about” Clinton trying to tie Trump to the Russian meddling campaign, and urged Ratcliffe to declassify information about Trump’s connections to Russians.
“If, in fact, what the Russians were alleging that Hillary (Clinton) was trying to highlight the reported connections between Trump and the Russians, if that was accurate and a big if, there is nothing at all illegal about that, John Ratcliffe and others are trying to portray this as unlawful activity that deserves follow-up investigation by the FBI. No. It was a campaign activity,” he said.
Caveats about the documents were largely ignored by Fox News and other right-wing media entities, which portrayed them as evidence that Obama, Biden, and Clinton had nefariously framed Trump with a phony scandal.
While most news organizations were focused squarely on Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis and other urgent matters, Fox News saturated its coverage with the discredited narrative.
“Big breaking news and developments tonight in the biggest abuse of power corruption scandal in American history,” Hannity declared on his Tuesday night Fox News show, saying the documents showed an “alleged plan” by Clinton “to drum up the entire Trump-Russia hoax.”
Hannity’s guest, Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett, then accused Clinton of having “invented the Russia hoax” with Obama’s knowledge and possibly “committed crimes.”
“[“[Obama] sat there, silently, as our government was thrown into turmoil for the last four years over what he knew based on the intelligence presented to him by John Brennan was phony information conjured up by Hillary Clinton to distract from her own emails,” Jarrett said, seemingly referring to the Steele dossier. “It demonstrates just how immoral, unscrupulous, devious, and corrupt Hillary Clinton was.”
A Fox News spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
Escalating rhetoric from Trump
Other programs on Fox News echoed the same sentiment. Carlson, for instance, said the documents showed Clinton’s “strategy to smear Donald Trump as a Russian agent.” Carlson said the memos appeared to indicate that US intelligence agencies knew of the supposed plot, accusing them of possibly “undermining democracy” and saying “they should be punished.”
The news division at Fox News, which for years has reported with a strong pro-Trump bent, also got in on the action. The documents were first reported last week by Fox News’ digital arm, which leaned into the misleading narrative pushed by Trump. And Bill Hemmer, one of the channel’s top anchors, said the documents “show that the previous administration had dirty hands on this.”
More than a week after the documents were first revealed on Thursday morning Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo asked Trump about the documents, saying that they showed “it was Hillary Clinton’s idea to tie you to Russia in some way.”
Trump told Bartiromo that “people should be indicted” for “crimes, the great political crime in the history of our country.” The President specifically named Obama, Biden, and Clinton.
Trump has repeatedly echoed similar sentiments on Twitter, in dozens of posts this week.
Elsewhere in the right-wing media ecosystem, the narrative took off. Breitbart, The Gateway Pundit, The Federalist and other pro-Trump websites jumped on the documents.
On Facebook, posts from right-wing media organizations and personalities about the declassification of documents were widely shared.
On the evening after the documents had been released, the top two posts with the most interaction on Facebook over a 24 host period belonged to stories about the supposed scandal posted by Fox News, according to CrowdTangle, a data analytics firm owned by Facebook. Other posts by Breitbart and right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro also saw heavy interaction, racking up tens of thousands of interactions.
‘Most severe politicization of intelligence in history’
The declassified releases from Ratcliffe and Barr come amid growing frustration among Republicans who have been frequently touted by Trump and his campaign, serving as fodder for conservatives who are frustrated that more hasn’t come from US Attorney John Durham’s investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation.
According to sources and Barr’s own recent public comments, Durham’s work is not expected to conclude before the election. Instead, Trump and right-wing news outlets have relied on these document dumps from Ratcliffe and Barr to fill the void and speculate about future indictments.
But Ratcliffe’s document dumps are a tell-tale sign that there likely won’t be any eye-popping indictments stemming from the Durham investigation. Ratcliffe wouldn’t be turning over these sensitive documents to Congress — and to the public — if they were needed for upcoming criminal prosecutions, according to current and former Justice Department officials.
Instead Ratcliffe and congressional Republicans are releasing the documents now, helping to stoke outrage in conservative media and feeding Trump’s diatribes in his several-times-a-day interviews with Fox News and other conservative talk show hosts.
“What they are doing is the most severe politicization of intelligence in history,” said Nick Shapiro, former CIA deputy chief of staff under Brennan.