As you move from the right to the left of the ideological spectrum, skepticism of the Russia scandal gives way to suspicions that it covers up something serious. But somewhere on the left, right around the fault line where Barack Obama is deemed to have been a bad president, opinion turns back again toward skepticism.
The purest form of this sentiment on the far left is a vein of attacks that are almost indistinguishable from Republican rhetoric about the investigation. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald has gone from insisting evidence of Russian interference should be discounted until Robert Mueller produced some indictments to now saying indictments themselves should also be discounted. Greenwald regularly appears on Tucker Carlson’s show to dismiss the Russia witch hunt, as does The Nation’s Stephen F. Cohen. Aaron Maté, another Nation contributor, has scoffed at what he calls “alleged Russian meddling” (alleged?) and insisted that the Trump campaign’s solicitation of help from Russia is no worse than the Clinton campaign hiring a British investigator to uncover Trump’s ties to Russia: “Lying to reporters is not an indictable offense, and neither is showing a willingness to obtain foreign dirt. During the 2016 contest, the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign accepted help from Ukraine and paid for the salacious and outlandish Steele ‘dossier’ from across the pond.” You see, Christopher Steele, like Natalia Veselnitskaya, is foreign, so it’s all the same.
Situated just to the right of this faction is a slightly less extreme form of skepticism about the Russia investigation. It does not justify or deny Russian hacking. Instead it criticizes liberals for caring too much about Russia, and posits that the Russia fixation is somehow preventing the left from prosecuting a populist case against Trump.
This is an argument more of mood and tone, relying more on implicit contrast than frontal challenge to the Mueller investigation. Commenters like Katherine Krueger at Splinter, Seth Ackerman and Corey Robin at Jacobin, and Osita Nwanevu at Slate have all expressed versions of this soft Russiagate skepticism. These critics do not all agree with each other on every point, but share certain overlapping tendencies. They are mostly or entirely willing to accept the known facts of the investigation. But they assume little else of importance will come of the investigation, and above all consider the issue to be overblown, a distraction at best, and the seeds of a dangerous backlash at worst.
“Putin didn’t single-handedly elect Trump over Clinton,” writes Krueger, rebutting an accusation that nobody has made. Surveying astonished reactions to Trump’s performance next to Putin, she asks:
It’s worth scrutinizing what people are really mad about when they tweet things like this. Are they most mad that Trump is siding against the American national intelligence community, which has a bloody legacy of influencing elections abroad when it suits its own interests and trampling its own citizens’ civil liberties? Are they angry that Trump continually refuses to admit black and white truth staring him in the face, which would give Clinton even a second of solace? Or are they most inflamed at the notion that the international order is shifting away from a place where American might comes first and must be deferred to in all matters of war, peace, and beyond around the world? Just some thoughts to ponder.
Ackerman asserts that the Russia investigation has produced “an atmosphere of nationalist fervor and anti-Russian paranoia.” Robin has decried “basically a form of moral panic.” The ideological impulse producing these sentiments is fairly straightforward. Russiagate casts Trump as an opponent of American sovereignty, and to the extent one views the weakening of American sovereignty as a positive good, Trump’s position appears sympathetic. Relatedly, Trump has occasionally attacked the idea that the United States government is more admirable or democratic than authoritarian states like Russia. Trump “said some things that were true,” wrote Robin during the campaign, “Like this: ‘When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger.’” His realpolitik alliance with Russia, and his premise that America has no right to hold its political system above Russia’s, strikes a chord in some precincts of the left.
A theme of their skepticism is a sense of frustration with the way the Russia investigation cuts across the electorate, and especially the political intelligentsia, in a way that frustrates their ideological project. While some leftists have disdained the Mueller investigation, many centrists and even some conservatives have supported it. By expanding the Democratic coalition into the center, at least temporarily, the Russia issue runs counter to their goal of repositioning the party to the left. An undercurrent of frustration expresses itself in sniping at the commonality between liberal Russia skeptics and right-of-center Russia-hawks-turned-Trump-critics like David Frum, Max Boot, and Bill Kristol. What’s more, Trump’s Russia policy has produced a quiet struggle pitting the president against the mostly standard-issue hawkish Republicans who staff his administration. Trump is the enemy of the left’s enemy.
This helps explain why the soft Russiagate skeptics see the issue as detracting from other lines of attack against Trump. “A disquieting number of pundits seem to prefer playing detective to engaging in meaningful politics,” complains Nwanevu, singling out my article on Trump and Russia as a focus of his critique. Of course, engaging in meaningful politics is not the job of a political analyst. I do agree (and have written) that self-dealing, not Russia, is Trump’s greatest political liability. But I can write the arguments I find most compelling and interesting without stopping to consider what will benefit the Democratic Party’s messaging strategy.
That said, the left may be underestimating the potential vulnerability the Mueller probe has opened up for the administration. A poll in May found that most Americans do not realize Mueller has uncovered any crimes, and that the news that he has indeed done so impresses them. It stands to reason that guilty pleas or convictions would have a pronounced impact on public opinion. If nothing else, it would be harder for Trump to harp on crime if his 2020 opponent can counter that Trump and/or his cronies are themselves a bunch of criminals.
What makes the schism over the Mueller probe so odd is that, unlike a division over rival candidates or legislation, it is an argument without any particular decision as an end point. Few leftists actually want to shut down the Mueller probe, or are even arguing that Democrats should refuse to investigate Russia if they gain congressional majorities. Some of the skeptics complain that Democrats are emphasizing Russia too heavily, but this complaint confuses liberal journalists and activists with Democratic politicians, who are mostly concentrating their rhetoric on health care and other economic issues.
In the meantime, journalists and close followers of politics are going to have a natural interest in the drama of a criminal investigation into the president of the United States and his family and advisers. This is especially true when the president has expressed through words and deeds his belief that he is entitled to immunity from legal prosecution, and indeed is entitled to direct law enforcement to harass his adversaries instead. It is very strange that the self-styled populist wing of the left is so indifferent to this project.