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R.I.P. Collusiongate

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Friday, March 29, 2019

Collusiongate is now history. The late-Friday afternoon announcement that special counsel Robert Mueller had completed his investigation and Attorney General William Barr's four-page letter released Sunday made it clear. "The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities," Barr wrote.

This is not what you expected if you've been watching CNN or MSNBC or reading The New York Times or the Washington Post these past few years. Their viewers and readers have been savoring the prospect of Donald Trump being frog-marched out of the White House on his way to prison, the smirk off his face.

Now it's clear that's not going to happen. The House isn't going to impeach, and the Senate isn't going to remove. That will be done, if by anyone, by the voters in 2020. Perhaps his exoneration -- not too strong a word -- will improve his surprisingly stable poll numbers. Perhaps not. Certainly, he will have greater credibility any time he charges the press with spreading "fake news."

For that proposition, he could cite the leftish journalist Matt Taibbi, no Trump sycophant (his last book is titled "Insane Clown President"). Mueller's conclusion, Taibbi writes, "is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media." In exhaustive detail, he lays out how major news organizations repeatedly and unrepentantly "broke every written and unwritten rule in pursuit of this story, starting with the prohibition on reporting things we can't confirm."

Reporters and editors often make news judgments based on their guesses of what the underlying truth is. When those guesses are wrong -- in this case, spectacularly wrong -- they further a narrative that can fairly be called "fake." Clearly, many in the media thought Collusiongate was their generation's Watergate, their road to fame and fortune, plus repudiation of a president and a party they hate. Instead it has been a road to disgrace.

It has been a disgrace as well, as Taibbi argues, for our intelligence agencies. He compares their promotion of Collusiongate with their assurances that Saddam Hussein was seeking weapons of mass destruction. But he doesn't note one important difference. On Iraq, the intelligence agencies were doing their job as best they could, and subjected the evidence to the pessimistic appraisal that is arguably appropriate in that work.

On Collusiongate, the CIA and the FBI were acting contrary to their usual rule of refraining from interference in domestic politics. Instead, as has become clear thanks largely to former House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, they were relying heavily on a document bought and paid for by the Democratic National Committee -- to the point of presenting it, without identifying its provenance, as evidence to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

That, of course, was the now-famous Steele dossier, prepared by the former British spy Christopher Steele, purportedly based on telephone or email conversations with unidentified Russians. If much of it seemed far-fetched, Steele's employer, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, said Steele could judge the credibility of Russians from afar. But Steele recently confessed that he assumed comments by "random individuals" on CNN's website were verified by the network, even though the website said they weren't. Some sleuth!

"When I read the report, I was in shock," Taibbi writes of Steele's work. "I thought it read like fourth-rate suspense fiction." This shoddy work was evidently the prime or only basis for federal government secret surveillance of an opposition party's presidential campaign. I'm old enough to remember when liberals looked askance at this sort of thing and didn't believe that citizens have a patriotic duty to believe every statement from an FBI official.

Some Democrats are now eager to put a fine-toothed comb through Mueller's full report for evidence against the Trump campaign, and to emphasize Russian shenanigans. The Russians did indeed hack the DNC, and they tried but failed to hack the Republicans, too. This is not new stuff: Franklin Roosevelt complained that the communists opposed him in 1940, during the Hitler-Stalin pact.

I've written that the Democrats have been overinvested in Collusiongate and would be wiser to concentrate on other, forward-looking issues. And now some Democrats are urging just that. Put aside the dog-eared copies of the Steele dossier and safely dispose of the Robert Mueller votive candles. Everyone makes mistakes.

But the government officials who promoted Collusiongate should not get off so easily. I'm biased, in favor of respecting elections, and I think that a CIA or FBI director who tries to tilt them their way should be held morally accountable. Anyone disagree?

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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