That the Kremlin had taken over American political institutions through its blackmail control of former President Donald Trump was a media conspiracy theory as pervasive as it was deranged. This once-exciting script was excavated from the CIA’s Cold War basement, dusted off by their operatives, and then kicked off by the intelligence community’s purposeful dissemination of the now-debunked Steele Dossier. And once this fairy tale was launched, there were seemingly no limits on the depths to which media figures would sink to promote it.
Journalists published best-selling books and column after column hyping this melodrama of international intrigue. In what was just one of many low points, MSNBC’s host Chris Hayes earnestly interviewed New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait about the latter’s 2018 cover story speculating that Trump may have been groomed as a Russian intelligence asset since 1987. “Unlikely but possible” declared the on-screen cable graphic as Hayes spoke, summarizing the media’s Trump-era renunciation of all standards of rationality and evidence for disseminating unhinged conspiracies to their audience, at great profit for themselves but great harm to everything and everyone else.
In the world of reality, the exact opposite was happening. When it came to actual vital Russian interests — as opposed to the symbolic gestures hyped by the liberal cable and op-ed page circus — Trump and his administration were confronting and undermining the Kremlin in ways Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had, to his credit, steadfastly refused to do.
Indeed, the foreign policy trait relentlessly attributed to Trump in support of the media’s Cold War conspiracy theory — namely, an aversion to confronting Putin — was, in reality, an overarching and explicit belief of President Obama’s foreign policy, not President Trump’s. During the 2012 presidential election, Obama and the Democratic Party famously and repeatedly mocked GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s warnings about the threat posed by Russia as a “relic of the Cold War.”
Consistent with that view, Obama rejected bipartisan demands to send lethal weapons to Ukraine throughout 2015 and into 2016. Even when Russia reasserted control over Crimea in 2014 after citizens overwhelmingly approved it in a referendum, Obama did little more than impose some toothless sanctions (though he did preside over, if not engineer, regime change efforts in Ukraine that swept out the pro-Moscow leader and replaced him with a pro-U.S. lackey). Obama worked directly with Putin to forge an agreement with Russia’s allies in Tehran to lift sanctions against Iran and bring them back into the international community, and then publicly praised the Russian leader for the constructive role he played in orchestrating that agreement.
And, enraging the bipartisan U.S. foreign policy community, Obama even refused to follow through on his own declared “red line” to attack Russia’s key ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, even after Russia asserted governance over Crimea, and even after Russia is said by intelligence agencies to have hacked the DNC and John Podesta’s computers, Obama, in 2016, sought to form a partnership with Russia in Syria to jointly bomb targets regarded by the two governments as “terrorists.”
Obama’s “meekness” when it came to Putin was a common line of attack not only from hawkish Republicans such as Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) but also hawkish liberal pundits and even many Democratic lawmakers. Even his response to allegations of Russian hacking — I told Putin to “cut it out” — produced little more than mockery over Obama’s weakness when it came to Putin.
Yet Obama stood firm in his belief, as expressed in a lengthy foreign policy interview he gave in 2016 to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. When the long-time neocon journalist pressed Obama on his refusal to bomb Assad’s forces, Obama told him: “I’m very proud of this moment.” As for his refusal to send lethal arms to Russia’s neighbor, Goldberg wrote: “Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one.” Indeed, to vilify Trump as a Kremlin agent, Democrats, as I reported in 2017, were implicitly forced to repudiate virtually every prong of Obama’s accommodating foreign policy toward Russia.
Meanwhile, Trump — even as media figures gorged themselves on the conspiracy theory that he was a Kremlin agent — reversed virtually all of those Obama-era accommodations to Putin. Again and again, Trump acted contrary to the Kremlin’s core interests. After publicly threatening Russia over Syria, Trump twice bombed Putin’s key Middle Eastern ally — something Obama refused to do — prompting applause from the always-hawkish Hillary Clinton and even from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (who had starred in a 2012 DNC video mocking Romney for viewing Russia as a serious threat). Trump withdrew from the Iran Deal over the Kremlin’s vocal objections.
Trump also reversed Obama’s Ukraine policy, sending the exact lethal arms to anti-Russian elements that Obama warned would be directly threatening to the Kremlin and thus excessively provocative. Trump filled his administration with long-time anti-Russia hawks who would never have been welcomed in the Obama administration (including CIA Director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, NATO Ambassador Richard Grenell, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley).
It is true that Trump, like Obama before him, spoke of the potential to partner with Russia rather than viewing it as an enemy, just as it is true that both presidents imposed sanctions on Moscow. And it is also true, and understandable, that Moscow likely favored a Trump victory rather than having supreme war hawk Hillary Clinton in the White House (the same reason Ukraine worked in 2016 to help Hillary win).
But over and over, Trump undermined, not advanced, core Russian objectives. As Obama himself said in 2016, it is hard to imagine doing anything more provocative and harmful to Russian vital interests than sending lethal arms to Ukraine — exactly what Obama refused to do, despite bipartisan pressure. Yet the Trump administration quickly did exactly that: bizarre behavior for a Kremlin asset, to put that mildly.
Trump found one thing even more threatening to the Kremlin’s vital interests than arming Ukrainians: namely, doing everything possible to destroy Russia’s ability to complete construction of its new underwater natural gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2. That new pipeline is designed to double Russian sales capacity to an EU addicted to cheap Russian natural gas, producing massive revenue for the Russian economy and giving Moscow greater leverage when dealing with its European neighbors. But it provides an even more important benefit: it allows Russia to bypass Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, thus avoiding costly transit fees and the risks of political instability or anti-Russian manipulation by outside forces, including the U.S. government.
For all those reasons, few priorities were more important to Putin and the Russian economy than this new pipeline. Yet for at least the last two years of his presidency, Trump — even as he was shrilly depicted as an agent of the Kremlin — was obsessed with stopping the Russian pipeline and thus sabotaging Putin’s key geopolitical project.
The Trump administration caused a halt to the project in 2019 when it imposed sanctions on companies working on it. Trump did everything he could to pressure, cajole and even threaten the Germans to pull out of the deal, warning that it would leave a winter-plagued Europe captive to Russian pressure and insisting that Berlin had the obligation to buy gas from the U.S., not Russia, given NATO expenditures to protect Germans. Trump even tried to pull close to 10,000 U.S. troops out of Germany to pressure the Merkel government, but the pro-war alliance of hawkish Democrats and Liz-Cheney-led neocon Republicans voted to defund that effort.
Any minimally rational or honest media would have taken note of these events and instantly realized that their years-long conspiracy theory about Trump being controlled by Putin was sophomoric nonsense, the opposite of the truth. That a Putin-controlled Russian asset would send lethal arms to Ukraine and do everything possible to sabotage Nord Stream 2 is so blatantly absurd that it could be ratified only by a media aggressively committed to spreading disinformation and lies.
All of this became even clearer on Tuesday when President Biden reversed Trump’s blockage of the Russian natural gas pipeline. Axios' Jonathan Swan reported that “the Biden administration will waive sanctions on the corporate entity and CEO overseeing the construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline into Germany,” which “indicates the Biden administration is not willing to compromise its relationship with Germany over this pipeline.” Swan wrote what is clearly true: “the completion of Nord Stream 2 would be a huge geopolitical win for Putin and give him substantial new leverage in Europe.”
This “huge geopolitical win for Putin” is exactly what the Kremlin’s alleged asset in the White House spent years preventing and which Biden is now handing over. Indeed, this decision by the Biden administration directly contradicts the assurances which long-time anti-Russia hawk Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) extracted from Secretary of State Antony Blinken during Blinken’s January confirmation hearing. Cruz asked Blinken whether he would commit to maintain the efforts of the Trump administration and a bipartisan group of Senators to use sanctions to prevent completion of the Russian pipeline, and Blinken vowed that he would:
SEN. CRUZ: Now, worryingly, there have been suggestions out of Moscow and out of Berlin that the Biden administration would reduce pressure and reduce efforts to stop Nord Stream 2. Can you commit to this committee today that the Biden administration will hold the line, will keep the sanctions, and will prevent the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from being completed?
MR. BLINKEN: Two things, if I may, Senator. First of all, the president-elect strongly agrees with you that Nord Stream 2 is a bad idea and he has been very clear about that. I need to look at the actual legislation. I am determined to do whatever we can to prevent that completion, the last hundred yards, I very much agree.
As Swan put it: “this planned move” to lift key sanctions “seems at odds with” Blinken’s commitment. Indeed it does. While the Biden administration intends to maintain some of those Trump-imposed sanctions, the waivers they intend to issue will allow completion of Nord Stream 2, a gigantic gift to Putin.
What makes Biden’s turnaround even more stunning is that it comes just weeks after the U.S. claims that Russians were behind a quite significant hack-for-ransom into a U.S. gas pipeline that caused serious gas shortages on the East Coast. U.S. officials say that while they have no reason yet to believe that the Kremlin itself was responsible, they do believe that the hackers were Russian citizens and/or operating from Russia. An angry Sen. Cruz said on Wednesday morning: “Biden has vastly strengthened Putin’s hands at the expense of the rest of the Free World.” Yesterday, he tweeted this:
Stunning. In defiance of U.S. law, Biden is actively helping Putin build his pipeline.— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 18, 2021
Objectively speaking, the Biden administration is shaping up to be the most pro-Russia administration of the modern era. https://t.co/3FwjiIILEc
Just imagine what would be happening right now if it were Trump, rather than Biden, who just handed Putin his underwater natural gas pipeline just days after Russian hackers allegedly caused serious gas shortages in the U.S. Jingoistic op-eds would fill the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post warning of Kremlin control of the U.S.; CNN and MSNBC would convene panel after panel of their former FBI and CIA operatives to accuse Trump of treason for subordinating U.S. interests to Russian interests; Rachel Maddow would be on the verge of righteous and indignant tears as she devoted her 20-minute monologue to decrying the tragedy that we were all living under Putin’s rule; and Nancy Pelosi would be holding a press conference to spread more innuendo about Putin’s blackmail control over Trump while demanding a DOJ investigation.
None of that, needless to say, will happen now. Indeed, just hours after Swan reported this sanctions waiver, reporters giggled and swooned after Biden joked about running them all over in his car as a condition to answering their questions about the war in Gaza, then giggled and swooned even more when he floored the car and drove away from them.
For five years, the bulk of the U.S. media pushed and endorsed a demented, dangerous conspiracy theory about the world’s second-largest nuclear power that not only lacked evidence but was negated by every relevant event. As I documented in late 2016 and then again in 2018, there is a stronger basis for claiming that Obama was significantly more accommodating of Putin than Trump ever was. And after just four months in office, the same is true of Biden. But for a media devoted to an agenda rather than truth, the inexorable destruction of their conspiracy theory does not matter.