Imagine that the most widespread, hysterical conspiracy theory in America came not from backwoods rumor mills but from the Ivy League-staffed, megacorp-owned news media. Oh, wait — you don’t have to imagine anything. You’ve been living this reality for years now!
The last three U.S. presidents have seen some of their opposition unite under the banner of really juicy conspiracy theories: for Bush, it was that 9/11 was an inside job; for Obama, it was that an ineligible foreign national became commander-in-chief, possibly as a sleeper agent for The Muslims; for Trump, it’s that a hostile foreign power installed an illegitimate president who would do its bidding, thanks to humiliating blackmail material.
Those first two conspiracy theories have been beaten down by time and vigorous debate — with experts and institutions meticulously fighting the sexy, imaginative narratives of their opponents.
Yet the Russia conspiracies continue to thrive, because the experts and the institutions haven’t admitted the obvious conclusion to draw from the evidence. The experts and institutions remain true believers!
Just this week, the star lawyer for House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry refused to disavow his promotion of the most salacious, popular element of the conspiracy theory. Let that sink in: someone who is telling the American people to trust his judgment for the removal of an American president, while testifying under oath to Congress, held fast to a lurid sex fantasy that any reasonable adult can see has been 100% disproven.
I’m talking about the infamous “pee tape,” of course. This week, it was finally decapitated, burned, and buried, thanks to the DOJ Inspector General’s review of the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” campaign surveillance. The most succinct summary of this development comes from Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi, no friend to Breitbart or Trump:
The Steele report reads like a pile of rumors surrounded by public information pulled off the Internet, and the Horowitz report does nothing to dispel this notion.
At the time the FBI submitted its first FISA application, Horowitz writes, it had “corroborated limited information in Steele’s election reporting, and most of that was publicly available information.” Horowitz says of Steele’s reports: “The CIA viewed it as ‘internet rumor.’”
Worse (and this part of the story should be tattooed on the heads of Russia truthers), the FBI’s interviews of Steele’s sources revealed Steele embellished the most explosive parts of his report.
The “pee tape” story, which inspired countless grave headlines (see this chin-scratching New York Times history of Russian “sexual blackmail”) and plunged the Trump presidency into crisis before it began, was, this source said, based a “conversation that [he/she] had over beers,” with the sexual allegations made… in “jest”!
Steele in his report said the story had been “confirmed” by senior, Western hotel staff, but the actual source said it was all “rumor and speculation,” never confirmed. In fact, charged by Steele to find corroboration, the source could not: corroboration was “zero,” writes Horowitz.
You got that? Steele took a joke he heard about Trump (golden showers from Russian hookers), stuffed it into a grave-sounding Word document, and bluffed that it was “confirmed.” And, knowing there was nothing there, watch how former FBI Director James Comey continued to blow smoke as though this thing had any credibility whatsoever — more than a year later:
Comey’s book — and the subsequent press tour — is a main reason why New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait said he went from a pee tape skeptic to a “peeliever.”
While everyone else is (rightfully) outraged about the FBI’s misconduct detailed in the IG report, the pee tape is the most important passage by far, because it’s the only thing that trickles down past the legal wonks (cue Andrew Breitbart’s line about culture being upstream of politics). Stephen Colbert devoted a whole segment to it on his late-night show, pounding on his desk, shouting, “It’s the only part we care about! It’s the part we talk about, the pee-pee tape! Pee-pee tape! Pee-pee tape! Pee-pee tape! Pee-pee tape!”
It’s the foundation of the entire cottage industry that has sprung up around Russia conspiracies. Steele planted the seed that grew into Rachel Maddow, Malcolm Nance, everyone else at MSNBC, Louise Mensch, the Krassensteins, Seth Abramson (I mean really, how obvious could it be!), and dozens more grifters playing to the imaginations of wounded Hillary voters. These authors may be able to hide behind the “I’m just a pundit!” defense, but many “straight news” reporters in corporate media, quite obviously, are true believers in some level of Trump-Putin collaboration, as well. The New York Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet admitted “we built our newsroom to cover one story” — Trump-Russia conspiracies.
The pee tape is the reason Christopher Steele contacted the FBI, according to Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson. The pee tape is the reason James Comey briefed Trump on the dossier — because of the “minimally corroborated” claims of kompromat on the president-elect.
Without the pee tape, the briefing doesn’t get leaked to CNN and then the dossier doesn’t get published by BuzzFeed. Without the pee tape, the dossier has no news hook that captures the public’s attention. Trump being a Russian agent isn’t a plausible narrative — unless you introduce the specter of blackmail. The pee tape is so huge in the thought life of the political left, it received a shoutout in the Mueller Report — which we now know was in part prepared by another true believer in crackpot Russia theories, prosecutor Andrew Weissmann.
The pee tape is everything in this shameful episode of history. And now, everyone who pushed it deserves a brand of shame.
The 9/11 and Kenya conspiracy theorists each had their own pithy, diminutive nicknames: “Truthers” and “Birthers,” respectively. But the Russia fanatics have not received their own title — note how Taibbi calls them “Russia truthers.” Not quite as snappy, nor was my go-to label for a while: “Birthers with Advanced Degrees.”
So I’m proposing a new nickname for the Putin-obsessed: the “Rushers.” It’s a play on “Russia,” the flow of liquid, and the embarrassing rush to judgment without skepticism or due process that has characterized the last three maddening years.
The Rushers believe Trump couldn’t possibly want to flatter and accommodate Vladimir Putin for any national security interest, like turning Russia against Iran. The Rushers don’t see that he similarly flatters other world leaders, like his odd public description of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as “so pure.”
The Rushers have been humiliated over and over again — believing the worst possible conclusions about Trump without all the facts, quibbling about petty details, drawing nonsensical connections to Russia with extreme paranoia, and publishing straight-up fake scoops have not been enough to teach them that the Orange Man may be Bad but, in fact, is not a Manchurian Candidate groomed from the 1980s to do the will of Vladimir Putin (they really believe this).
The Rushers in media are a stain on our industry’s reputation. They must be branded with this name when they appear on TV and radio. They must answer for their promotion of this conspiracy. Not just about “the dossier.” There’s too much wiggle room there. They must defend their belief in the pee tape with original sources, then explain why their citations have not convinced the federal agents who wrote the Mueller and Horowitz reports — agents who have no affinity for Trump.
The Rushers cannot speak from a position of authority by default anymore; the burden of proof is on them to verify their credibility on any topic — since they have been gullible enough to promote this tabloid trash after so many years with so many warning signs.
It is up to every American to hold them to account and demand basic news literacy from newsmakers.
Pictured, clockwise from top left: David Corn, Daniel Goldman, James Comey, Ari Melber [who has backtracked, blaming Comey, but has not addressed his multiple segments spreading the rumors], Jonathan Chait, Rachel Maddow.