Having apparently decided that defending the Trump campaign against charges of collusion with Russian cyberattacks is an impossible task, the Republican Party has decided to go on offense. The House Intelligence Committee, putatively assigned to investigate collusion, is instead running a counter-investigation into Trump’s nemeses. Their argument, incredibly enough, is that the FBI and Robert Mueller are the real perpetrators of collusion with Russia. “No puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet” has become the new Republican argument against Mueller.
Their case, which is being quickly spread by Republican officeholders and conservative media, centers on the role of Christopher Steele, a respected retired British intelligence officer turned private investigator, and Fusion GPS, the firm for which he worked. During the Republican primary, donors opposed to Trump’s candidacy hired Steele to conduct opposition research into Trump. After Trump won the primary, Democrats continued to finance his investigation. Steele compiled a now-famous dossier alleging a web of corrupt ties, including blackmail, between Trump, his inner circle, and the Kremlin. The FBI took at least some steps to investigate the allegations Steele made, a natural response given the serious possibility that the Kremlin had compromised a president-elect. The questions surrounding Trump’s collusion are in some sense an outgrowth of the larger question of his corrupt relationship with Russia.
The Republicans have developed a theory of alt-collusion, centering on elements of these same facts. Their version of the story uses Steele’s research in Russia as evidence that Steele is a tool of the Russian government. Steele’s report, charges the The Wall Street Journal editorial page, is “based largely on anonymous, Kremlin-connected sources.” Ergo, “Strip out the middlemen, and it appears that Democrats paid for Russians to compile wild allegations about a U.S. presidential candidate. Did someone say ‘collusion’?” Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer has circulated the same bizarre theory.
It is obviously true that Steele’s sources had some contact with the Kremlin. That, of course, is why they were sources. If they had no connections to the Russian government, Republicans could say they were ignorant people speculating on subjects they knew nothing about. But by pretending that Steele’s sources were actually acting as agents of the Kremlin, Republicans can proceed to hypothesize that they were deliberately spreading a message devised by Putin in order to smear Donald Trump.
There are some important confounding facts that the theory of alt-collusion avoids. For one, Trump’s apparent collusion with Russia involved a crime: stealing Democratic emails. Steele’s “collusion” involves no crime at all. Second, while the Russian propaganda apparatus publicly amplified political messages generated by its email theft, it has done nothing of the sort with the Steele dossier. Indeed, Russia fervently denied the charges in the dossier and called them an attempt to smear Trump.
But if you ignore these massive flaws, the theory of alt-collusion opens the way for a prosecution of the people investigating Trump. After all, if Putin was using Steele to spread nefarious lies about Trump, then why did the FBI treat these charges seriously? Could it be that the FBI is also a tool of the Russian conspiracy?
The purpose of the theory of alt-collusion is not necessarily to be swallowed whole. It is merely to be taken plausibly enough to raise questions about Trump’s investigators. If the FBI might be compromised by a sinister Russian conspiracy, then it follows that James Comey is suspect. And since Mueller is close with Comey, he too is suspect.
“The Fusion news means the FBI’s role in Russia’s election interference must now be investigated,” charges the Journal. And Mueller’s close relationship to sacked FBI director James Comey therefore dictates Mueller “resigning to prevent further political turmoil over that conflict of interest.” Versions of this message have been echoed by Tucker Carlson and Representative Devin Nunes. “I think the next focus is going to be on whether or not did the FBI use this dossier to get any warrants, did they use it to open a counterintelligence investigation and if they did, if they’re using unverified information to open up inquiries into American citizens,” he tells Tucker Carlson.
In some ways the theory of alt-collusion mirrors the propaganda methods used by Putin himself. When William Browder publicizes Russia’s murder of crusading lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, Russia turns around and implies that maybe Browder is the one who murdered Magnitsky. The accusation is preposterous, but that doesn’t matter. The purpose is to create an offsetting accusation against the accuser, so that the average bystander can only puzzle at the spectacle of two sides making the same allegation against each other.
This method can work if you have enough mouthpieces who are sufficiently devoid of skepticism or intellectual self-respect to be willing to spread your obviously absurd message. A key fact that Trump has discovered, and which has enabled his takeover of the Republican Party, is that this is a resource the American right has in abundant supply.