Donald Trump has been adamant that he has no ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin, and during Sunday’s debate he deflected Clinton’s suggestion that Russia is trying to influence the U.S. election in his favor by floating a novel conspiracy theory: What if the Democrats were never actually hacked?
“I notice, anytime anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians are — she doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking,” Trump said. “But they always blame Russia. And the reason they blame Russia is because they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia. I know nothing about Russia. I know — I know about Russia, but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia.”
It’s unclear if Trump was suggesting that the emails were fake, or that the hack was an inside job. (U.S. intelligence officials say Russia is behind the hack, and Trump has been briefed on that point.) Regardless, just a day after questioning the legitimacy of the Democratic emails released by WikiLeaks, Trump was reading one of them at a rally in Pennsylvania.
To be fair, few right-wingers could resist this particular email, in which longtime Clinton confidante Sidney Blumenthal told John Podesta, her campaign chair, that the attack in Benghazi was “almost certainly preventable.”
But Trump should have gone with his gut instinct, because it turns out the email was a complete fabrication put forth by Sputnik. The Russian state-controlled media outlet wrote:
In an email titled “The Truth” from Hillary’s top confidante Sidney Blumenthal, the adviser writing to undisclosed recipients said that “one important point that has been universally acknowledged by nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable” in what may turn out to be the big October surprise from the WikiLeaks released of emails hacked from the account of Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta …
“Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate,” said Blumenthal, putting to rest the Democratic Party talking point that the investigation into Clinton’s management of the State Department at the time of the attack was nothing more than a partisan witch hunt.
Something about the quote seemed fishy to Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald. “Those words sounded really, really familiar. Really familiar,” he writes. “Like, so familiar they struck me as something I wrote. Because they were something I wrote.”
In the original email posted on WikiLeaks (which has not been verified), Blumenthal emailed Podesta a magazine piece Eichenwald wrote about the politicization of the attack in Benghazi. Sputnik plucked out one paragraph in which Eichenwald acknowledged there were some legitimate reasons to criticize Clinton over Benghazi and presented it as Blumenthal’s words.
Apparently Sputnik realized the error, because the article was quickly taken down. Yet somehow, after only a short time on the internet, Trump was reading the exceptionally false Russian propaganda to an American audience. Eichenwald suggests that this is evidence of a direct link between Trump and Putin:
This is not funny. It is terrifying. The Russians engage in a sloppy disinformation effort and, before the day is out, the Republican nominee for president is standing on a stage reciting the manufactured story as truth. How did this happen? Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin? (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment).
Eichenwald does not answer the question, but concludes that Putin needs to “get the hell out of our election,” and Trump has “some explaining to do.” The simplest answer doesn’t involve the Kremlin directly feeding talking points to Trump, but it does highlight the disturbing, symbiotic relationship between the Trump campaign, state-operated Russian sources, and the alt right.
As Talking Points Memo explains, Sputnik News is like an alt-right version of RT:
As Foreign Policy put it two years ago, if RT is a Russian mix of Deutsche Welle and [Voice of America], Sputnik News is their propaganda Buzzfeed or maybe more like some combination of Free Beacon and the supermarket weekly world news. It’s punchy, conversant or maybe more more like sorta conversant in all the new-fangled Internet memes. At least in its American incarnation it’s basically Russian propaganda for millennials.
Both Kremlin-operated outlets have “stated publicly their preference for Trump,” former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote in the Washington Post. They’re also frequently cited by alt-right outlets such as Breitbart News, whose former CEO, Stephen Bannon, is now running the Trump campaign.
The Russian outlets were behind some conspiracy theories advanced by the Trump campaign even before Bannon came onboard. In August, his predecessor Paul Manafort, who worked for Ukraine’s pro-Russia political party, told CNN that a NATO base in Turkey had just been attacked by terrorists. There was no terror attack on Incirlik air base in Turkey, but as BuzzFeed explains, that’s not what RT and Sputnik reported:
In late July, Sputnik and RT — both Russian state-controlled media outlets — pointed to a fire near a NATO base in western Turkey as potential sabotage. And both sites helped spread the idea — which also was passed along on Twitter by accounts that are both pro-Trump and pro-Russian — that the protests against Incirlik in late July were a massive mob attempting to take over the base.
Sputnik has also pushed stories about how the Incirlik base, where nuclear weapons are stored for NATO sharing purposes, should be shut down amid the threat of possible attacks. But there’s been nothing about attacks within the last two weeks.
That same month Sputnik published an article titled “Secret File Confirms Trump Claim: Obama, Hillary ‘Founded ISIS’ to Oust Assad,” and tweeted it out with the hashtag #CrookedHillary.
There was no “secret file” and, unsurprisingly, the document did not confirm that the president and Hillary Clinton founded a terrorist group in their spare time. The story was debunked when Breitbart reported it in June, but Trump continues to repeat the claim on the campaign trail.
Just last week Trump bragged that a Google poll had him ahead of Clinton by two points nationwide, “despite the fact that Google search engine was suppressing the bad news about Hillary Clinton.” That theory was quickly debunked after spreading throughout conservative media in June. So why was Trump talking about it in September? The New York Times reports:
The fervor surrounding the conspiracy theory died down in less than a week, after news outlets provided their fact checks, but this month, Sputnik News, a website run by the Russian government-controlled news agency Rossiya Segodnya, resurrected the study, prompting more headlines from Breitbart, the website once led by Stephen K. Bannon, the chief executive of Mr. Trump’s campaign.
Trump publicly asked Russia to hack his opponent, so it’s not completely implausible that he would be getting talking points from the Kremlin. However, it’s easier to imagine that a Trump staffer immersed in alt-right media saw a juicy email posted on their favorite Russian news source and immediately hit print.