Last week’s explosive revelations documented in an email chain that Donald Trump Jr. took a meeting explicitly pitched as being “part of a Russian government” effort to aid Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign is the clearest evidence to date confirming the Trump-Russia collusion story is anything but a hoax, as President Trump likes to tweet–often. It amounts to a stunning admission that the highest levels of the Trump campaign–the president’s son, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his campaign manager Paul Manafort–had significant contacts with Russians linked to the Kremlin in Putin’s orbit, and those interactions in fact evidence the very acts of coordination and collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government’s unprecedented and brazen assault on our 2016 election.
The June 9 Trump-Russia meeting at Trump Tower, however brief, likely communicated several critical and often overlooked pieces of information to Russia, including (1) Trump was game to work with the Kremlin, (2) Trump was willing to break laws to win the presidency, (3) his campaign would use deception and conceal its work with Russia from the US government, (4) a president Trump would consider lifting sanctions or at least consider working with US lawmakers to change US law to be more favorable to Russia’s interests under Putin, (5) Magnitsky Act sanctions would be on the table in a Trump Administration.
The media must therefore be diligent in every piece of journalism going forward to avoid adopting the Trump administration’s framing about the June meeting and other revelations sure to follow. If we allow ourselves to focus narrowly on the information from Russia, we play into Trump’s propaganda narrative that this meeting (or others) is insignificant because the Russians perhaps provided no information. The truth is, the meeting was earth-shattering. It provided key information to Russia, information that surely helped and perhaps even launched the Kremlin’s 2016 attack on America’s democracy, an attack Trump is still covering up to protect himself, his family, and, tragically for America, his cohorts in Russia. We shouldn’t help him.
I’ve written before about propaganda and bias in mainstream media. Specifically, I focused on how seamlessly and imperceptibly subtle forms of propaganda can seep into our language in news reports. It’s often not purposeful. Most of us are fairly adept at recognizing explicit propaganda. What’s harder to detect and yet arguably more powerful is the bits of propaganda that manage to slip into ordinary stories, and ends up advancing a specific narrative framework, skewing journalistic accuracy and ultimately failing to inform adequately, and even misinforming, the public. Even the best news organizations are not immune.
Propaganda is by definition limiting. When a story in reputable media slips into presenting elements of a skewed narrative, it goes down a garden path which propagandists have manicured precisely to divert, deflect or distort a story and reporting of important news.
It’s incumbent on all of us to recognize the brave new media world we inhabit in the Trump era and adapt accordingly. Our media landscape is a kind of dystopian universe in which right-wing conservative media brazenly embraces all manner of propaganda techniques–whataboutism, deflection, misinformation, disinformation–to create an impenetrable Pro-Trump Alternative Universe Fortress. Fox News assaults its viewers with captivating distortions of fact-based journalism, where counter-narratives and conspiracy theories have become the norm. “Russia Hysteria” has become the banner of choice behind which all things Trump-Russia are uncritically dumped.
Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which now requires that “must-run” right-wing segments be broadcast across their 173 TV stations nationwide, airs what can only be called straight-up sycophant pro-Trump propaganda. And a pending deal with Tribute Media could expand the pro-Trump universe to reach even wider audiences. (Yes, that’s Boris Epshteyn, former Trump campaign surrogate, in his new gig.)
Propaganda has already seriously eroded debate, discourse and even our democracy, which depends on an informed electorate. The media plays a unique and protected role in our democracy precisely because its mission is to inform the public so that we are able to make informed decisions and keep our institutions of power accountable. Alternative propaganda universes prevent this process, and, in so doing, threaten the very pillars of our democratic republic.
Below I examine one example of a good news organization, one I respect deeply, falling into the trap of subtly advancing propaganda narratives, in this case, both Russian propaganda and Trump propaganda (which often mirror each other in language and purpose). This is a good case because it demonstrates that falling into even small propaganda traps limits reporting, and thereby can miss critical elements of a news story. Traditional, fact-based reputable journalistic institutions must remain steadfastly committed to avoiding such traps, even seemingly small ones. America literally depends on it.
Trump-Russia Meeting, June 9, 2016, 4:00pm, Trump Tower
Although there is still much to learn about the June 9, 2016 meeting, we already know some of the key figures and some of the topics discussed, forming a picture of the intentions and purposes of those in attendance, the Trump campaign and the Russians.
The Russian figures are (1) Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer whose clients are linked to some of Russia’s most notorious corruption schemes, and (2) Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-born lobbyist for Russia with a history in Soviet military intelligence. Both are well-known players with significant and often complex connections to Russian corruption networks and Russian government interests which formed the basis of their activities in the US.
We also know from the emails themselves that the stated purpose for the meeting was to convey, or least discuss conveying, incriminating information–kompromat, in Russian lingo–about Hillary Clinton. Specifically, the emails lay out a proposed chain of custody for documents and information about Clinton, starting with the Russian equivalent of the Attorney General (Yuri Chaika), who would give them to Aras Agalarov, a Russian oligarch close to both Putin and Trump, who would give them to his son Emin (a Russian pop star), who then would send them to the Trump campaign. And the intermediary conveying all of the Clinton kompromatfrom the Russian government to the Trump campaign is Emin’s British publicist, Rob Goldstone.
There are a lot of people, relationships and issues here to decipher. Accordingly, news organizations are writing stories to help us unravel the host of characters mentioned in the emails and their connections so that we can properly understand what may have gone on in that room and its significance.
In one recent noteworthy report, NPR (National Public Radio) undertook to explain something never mentioned in the emails, but what turned out to be a critical topic discussed in the meeting — the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 US law named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who blew the whistle on a massive $230,000,000 Russian corruption fraud and was subsequently jailed, tortured, beaten, and found dead in his prison cell at the age of 37. In a bizarre and deeply disturbing move, a Russian court tried Magnitsky in absentia — 3 years after his brutal death–and posthumously convicted HIM of the crime he discovered and exposed.
Welcome to Russia.
Why The Magnitsky Act Really Irritates Putin
NPR’s report is right to zero in on the Magnitsky Act in illuminating the significance of the Trump-Russia meeting. The piece starts with some background on the Magnitsky Act, and some of the efforts by Russia to repeal it, notably by the figures who met with the Trump campaign on June 9. And we get a key takeaway upfront: “Russian President Vladimir Putin and everyone in his orbit hates it.”
The story doesn’t explain why it is Putin and his orbit hate the Magnitsky Act. It’s not a trivial detail. The law is essentially a sanctions blacklist of Russian individuals considered to be human rights abusers for their role in the persecution and death of Sergei Magnitsky. Those on the list, including top government officials, are prevented from obtaining visas to come to the U.S. and their assets are frozen.
It’s important to understand that the Magnitsky Act hits Putin and his cronies where it hurts–in the pocket. As Bill Browder, Magnitsky’s client when the massive corruption fraud was discovered, has explained, Putin’s Russia relies on deep systems of corruption and graft, often involving grave human rights abuses and criminal networks. Putin promises impunity to oligarchs and criminals alike, so long as they remain loyal. They then spend their ill-gotten money in the US, on luxury homes and yachts, parking their money in US banks, taking vacations in the US, and sending their children to US schools. The Magnitsky Act cuts all that off, making life less comfortable for Putin’s circle. It also makes Putin’s promises hollow, if the money is unreachable.
Spelling more trouble for the Putin, Estonia and Canada have passed similar laws, and a Global Magnitsky Act is currently in the works. It’s conceivable that the entire house of cards of Putinism collapses should the Magnitsky Act go global. This would threaten more of Putin’s assets directly.
Another unpleasant but important detail revealing just how hated the Magnitsky Act is in Putin’s Kremlin, several people who knew where the Magnitsky money was parked as well as the law’s chief proponents have been murdered. Boris Nemtsov, shot at the foot of the Kremlin in 2015, and Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. was on the brink of death, after having been poisoned–twice in the same year, are but two gruesome examples. A recent report by NBC’s Richard Engel is chilling.
Explaining the impact the Magnitsky Act has had on Putin’s inner circle helps to explain why Putin would have proxy agents engage in aggressive lobbying to repeal the law. It would also explain why a Russian lawyer like Natalia Veselnitskaya, whose clients are implicated in criminal money-laundering networks directly linked to the Magnitsky case, would join in Russia’s efforts against the Magnitsky Act.
The NPR story gives more focus to the second Russian figure, Rinat Akhmetshin, whose presence at the meeting with the Trump campaign was even more explosive news than Veselnitskaya’s, given his background in Russian military counterintelligence. Akhmetshin is described as a particularly skilled longtime political operative inside the US advancing Russia’s interests.
We are also told that Akhmetshin for some reason volunteered that he had never been “trained as a spy.” We’re left to judge for ourselves the veracity of Akhmetshin’s statement about himself. A more thorough account would add some expert commentary to help us make an informed assessment of Akhmetshin’s credibility. For example, it’s well known in the counterintelligence community that Putin’s Russia, like the Soviet Union beforehand, is a security state that regularly uses intermediaries, proxies, in business and government circles to achieve its often shadowy ends. An expert would also reasonably conclude that Akhmetshin was indeed gathering information useful for Russian government interests at that June meeting at Trump Tower, whether formally trained as a spy or not.
Russian Propaganda — “Version” or Disinformation?
Thus far, the NPR story has presented key figures–Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin, both known to work for Russia’s interests–and a key subject matter–repeal of the Magnitsky Act sanctions, with less detail than I would have liked. But I don’t believe this evidences bias.
It’s at this point that the NPR story takes an unfortunate turn and gets mired in presenting a propagandistic perspective, first Russia’s, then Trump’s. Again, I’m not suggesting this is intentional. On the contrary, it’s probably quite inadvertent. But it’s precisely this kind of seepage of propaganda into our discourse about Russia that is disturbingly common and troublingly misleading. It reveals gaps in American journalists’ knowledge about the Russian world, and, equally as important, it suggests a naiveté about the insidious nature of propaganda in framing news reporting, and how easily it is to spread a narrative, even unintentionally, in a way that does Russia’s bidding.
I’m referring to just a couple of sentences, but their impact on the entire story, and more importantly, on presenting a full and accurate account rather than playing into a propaganda narrative, is significant. And that’s precisely why I want to call attention to it, as a general call to journalists to exercise extra caution so that we don’t end up advancing the very propaganda we should be working hard to expose.
While the story does clearly state that Akhmetshin had aggressively lobbied against the Magnitsky Act, in describing his lobbying effort against the Magnitsky Act just days after the Trump Tower meeting, NPR states he was in Washington “to promote a movie” that “offers the Russian government’s version of events and claims that Magnitsky was not mistreated by Russian authorities.” These sentences are troubling for several reasons.
Akhmetshin, who has become a U.S. citizen, has aggressively lobbied against the Magnitsky Act. Just a few days after his meeting with Trump Jr. in New York last year, Akhmetshin was in Washington to promote a movie called The Magnitsky Act — Behind the Scenes.
The film was shown at the Newseum in Washington on June 13, 2016. It offers the Russian government’s version of events and claims that Magnitsky was not mistreated by Russian authorities.
Now, here’s the rub: “The Magnitsky Act–Behind the Scenes” is no ordinary movie. The Guardian called it “highly controversial,” noting that European channels refused to broadcast the film because of widespread criticism and legal challenges to its accuracy. Moreover, a Russian presidential commission concluded that Magnitsky’s detention and denial of access to healthcare amounted to torture. A report by the Council of Europe supported those conclusions.
The New York Times stated that the film disputes Magnitsky was tortured and beaten in prison, contrary to substantial documentary evidence (photographs and witness testimony). Furthermore, the film paints Sergei Magnitsky not as a victim or even a whistleblower, but as a criminal while smearing those supporting the law that imposed sanctions for Magnitsky’s death.
In essence, then, what NPR described with the unmodified “a movie” is probably better characterized as Russian disinformation, targeted at American government officials–congressional staffers, the State Department representatives from the State Department, the White House’s National Security Council–the known invitees to the private screening.
By just calling it “a movie,” NPR obscures that this was a carefully crafted Kremlin hit piece aimed at smearing those who exposed Russia’s massive corruption, including the dead Sergei Magnitsky, and several others who championed the passage of Magnitsky Law sanctions in the US Congress. Such “documentaries” and “exposes” are quite common in Russia, whose state-run media is known to present false and even doctored information in order to discredit Kremlin critics.
The NPR story then follows its misleadingly simplistic characterization of “a movie” with a single statement “It offers the Russian government’s version of events and claims that Magnitsky was not mistreated by Russian authorities” [emphasis added].
Is it responsible journalism to merely state a film “offers the Russian government’s version of events” when the Russian government’s version of events is widely considered by most independent journalists to be a sophisticated fabrication — part of an aggressive international disinformation campaign that seeks to recast a truly horrific set of criminal events involving mass corruption, fraud, torture, and state murder — and a blatant propaganda narrative that turns the truth on its head and blames the victims?
I don’t think so. It would not have taken too much effort for NPR to add the adjective “controversial” to “a movie.” Nor would it have been difficult to add a phrase or two to that solitary sentence, something indicating that the Russian government’s “version of events” has been widely criticized, refuted by credible evidence, that Russia’s “version of events” may itself be part of a larger disinformation campaign to cover up substantial wrongdoing, not unlike the massive disinformation campaign Russia waged in America to help elect Donald Trump, the catastrophic consequences of which we are coping with as we speak.
The Russian government often presents denials and what might be called “alternative facts” and “fake news” as its “version of events” to give the media something to grab and include in their reporting. From a traditional Western journalistic perspective, this appears as a standard opportunity to offer balance, the traditional “other side of the story.” But, surely, high calibre lies and disinformation cannot simply be accepted and disseminated as another version of the truth. As Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius poignantly states, “a lie is not an alternative viewpoint.”Anyone familiar with the downing of civilian airliner MH17 over Russian-occupied Ukraine three years ago today, July 17, 2015, has seen that brazen Kremlin disinformation campaigns come disguised as “the Russian government’s version of events.” Journalists do the public a great disservice when they accept and repeat uncritically the Russian government and its proxies’ “version of events” when those versions are propaganda.
It’s at this point that the NPR report takes a more serious turn, moving from advancing Russian propaganda to advancing Trump’s. Here’s the key passage:
Trump Jr. has also said that — to his disappointment — last year’s meeting with the Russians focused on the Magnitsky Act. Trump was told in advance the meeting would produce critical material on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. When the topic turned out to be the U.S. law, he considered it a waste of time.
NPR not only seems to take at face value Trump Jr’s self-described “disappointment” that the subject of the meeting turned out to the Magnitsky Act, rather than the expected incriminating Clinton dirt. The story then proceeds to form a conclusion as if to corroborate Jr’s account, based on a statement Trump Jr made on Fox News’s Sean Hannity program where Trump Jr. said he considered the meeting “a waste of time.”
Worse still, by uncritically adopting Trump’s framing, the NPR report fails to include a key portion of the interaction, namely, what Trump Jr. is reported to have said in response to the Russians. Here is what was reported by NBC in a interview with the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya.
She added that Trump Jr. ended the meeting by saying, “Well, the story that you’ve told us, it sounds very interesting but unfortunately at the moment, there is nothing that we, we can help you with about it. But maybe if we come to power, maybe one day, we will get back to you on that, because it really sounds interesting.” [emphasis added]
This is a glaring omission on NPR’s part. If true, Donald Trump Jr. directly signaled to his Russian interlocutors on June 9, 2016 the Trump campaign’s serious intent in solving Putin’s biggest headache: “Maybe if we come to power, maybe one day, we will get back to you on that, because it really sounds interesting.”
Think about that: Donald Trump Jr. is reported to have explicitly stated that the Trump administration would consider repealing the Magnitsky Act, the very law that has sat in Putin and his cronies’ craw for years, tying up their ill-gotten blood money, as it were.
Surely, such critical information, if true, would have made its way rather quickly to Putin, who we know is desperate to get rid of the Magnitsky Act which ties up his money and cramps his friends’ Western free-spending style. Putin may even have determined from the information in that brief meeting in June that the time was not only ripe to help Trump, but that a President Donald Trump might be Putin’s best and perhaps only shot at overturning the Magnitsky Act visa ban and asset freeze sanctions in his lifetime.
Adopting Trump’s propaganda framing about “a waste of time” meeting with allegedly “no information received” from Russia misses perhaps the most critical consequence of the entire meeting–the information passed from the Trump campaign to Russia. This may in fact be the more serious and tragically consequential result: giving a bright green light signal to Putin to launch the weaponization phase of his massive operation to swing the 2016 election for Trump, an operation still sitting on the sidelines until that point.
We’ve long known that Trump is sympathetic to Putin and his interests. We need only look at the RNC platform change on Ukraine in Russia’s favor to see that. Now it seems the Trump campaign made it clear on or about June 9, 2016 that it was willing to give Putin something significant in return for Russia’s “help”–repeal of the Magnitsky Act.
Trump’s continued insistence on an accommodating “friends with Russia” stance — in defiance of every top US intelligence official’s repeated alarming assessments of the grave threat posed by Putin — further evidences the seriousness of the June 9 “signal” sent to Russia by the Trump campaign.
NPR, however, having adopted Trump Jr’s propaganda framing, narrowly focused only on information received, leaves us with a misleadingly understated picture of the June meeting’s significance and the critical role that the meeting may have played in the greatest attack on our nation since 9/11, and the most successful.
Trump, his lawyers and surrogates have been flooding the media to advance just this narrative–“no information was received”– desperately trying to frame the stunning revelation that this meeting even took place as wholly insignificant and inconsequential. They do this by narrowly focusing on information the Russians pitched they would bring to the campaign.
However, we may very likely learn that the June meeting’s true significance lies not in the information coming IN to the Trump campaign, but in the information going OUT from the Trump campaign to Putin. Whatever the Trump team may have gotten out of that meeting may pale in significance to what Putin gleaned. In other words, the significance of the meeting is not whether Veselnitskaya brought or didn’t bring information to Trump. It’s what she brought back to Putin that is consequential.
The NPR piece, unfortunately, misses the whole boat. And in so doing, I believe, has led its readers into Trump’s world of spin and propaganda, characterizing this meeting from the Trump’s defense attorney’s narrative framing. Perhaps NPR was taken in too. But had NPR thought to approach the meeting as a two-way street, which certainly all meetings are, then it would not have fallen into the trap of needlessly regurgitating propaganda. And the public would have been better informed and served.
We need only look at what happened after that critical week in June 2016 to see that that Trump-Russia meeting may have changed the course of history. Adopting Trump’s propaganda framing limits our ability to piece together key elements in the timeline, obscuring the larger story of Russia’s unprecedented attack on the heart of our democracy — the process by which we choose our leaders — an attack that the Trump campaign encouraged at best, and collaborated with, at worst.
•June 3: Shortly after the email offer to Trump Jr on June 3, Trump announced that he would deliver a “major speech” to discuss “all the things that have taken place with the Clintons.”
•June 9: Minutes after the meeting ended on June 9, Trump tweeted about Hillary’s 33000 emails for the first time, suggesting he knew about the meeting.
•June 15: DCLeaks, the front for the Russian cyber-espionage group Fancy Bear, established the website in June and began posting DNC hacked documents on June 15.
•July 22: Three days before the Democratic National Convention where Clinton was to receive the Democratic nomination after a robust challenge from Bernie Sanders, Wikileaks dumped nearly 20,000 hacked DNC emails. Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned as Party chair, as a result.
•July-November: Wikileaks continued to release other hacked materials timed at particular stages in the campaign to cause maximum damage to Clinton and help Trump. (For example, Clinton campaign chair Podesta’s emails were released on October 7, the same day the Trump’s “pussy-grabbing” video was released.) Wikileaks’ hacks were seized upon by Trump and used daily on the campaign trail as the campaign heated up. “Wikileaks, I love Wikileaks,” he exclaimed at one point, waving printouts of Russia’s stolen emails. Amplified by thousands of Twitter bots and Facebook posts, the emails — mostly innocuous but fodder for disinformation and conspiracy theories — boosted Trump’s campaign in the home stretch — like nothing else, as he might say.
•July 27: Trump announces at a press conference (his last, it turned out) “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you can find the 33 thousand emails.” Trump and GOP allies later dismissed this shocking and bizarre plea as a “just a joke.”
Russia Was Listening
It’s difficult not to conclude that the June 9, 2016 meeting in fact played a crucial role in Russia’s 2016 attack on our electoral process. Not only did the weaponization of the hacks begin shortly after June 9, but Trump’s notorious open appeal for Russia to hack Clinton’s emails can now be seen in its fuller and darker context – of the Trump campaign having told Putin that the Magnitsky Act sanctions were on the table. What appeared at the time to come out of the blue in such a shocking manner, was evidently part of a concerted, planned and concealed effort, whose basis and strategy was set out in Don Jr’s email chain and the Trump camp was eager to implement. It’s reasonable to conclude that the Trump campaign began believing from at least the date of that meeting that “Clinton dirt” was definitely obtainable from Russia, and although it may not have come on June 9, perhaps a direct appeal from Trump himself would make Putin listen and act.
That’s the context in which we heard Trump utter his notorious speech on July 27, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you can find the 33000 missing emails. I think you will be rewarded mightily.” Trump is calculated enough to add a cover phrase “by our press” because he probably realized without that, he was in fact making an explicit offer to the Russian government to commit a criminal act. Even today, that speech and that sentence still chill me to the bone.
After that shocking appeal, and throughout the summer and into the fall, Trump’s Orwellian propaganda campaign, aided by Russian propaganda and Russian hackers flooded the media landscape and overwhelmed our information space. Trump’s agitated rallies pushing disinformation, conspiracy theories distorting the content of the seemingly endless stream of emails took the oxygen out of our election.
The shocks are still coming—by the hour, on many days. Since Trump’s stunning squeaker win by less than 80,000 votes (out of 139,000,000) in a handful of swing states on November 8, 2016, the blows to America’s institutions and norms have been nonstop and brutal. And Trump continues to try to reshape Putin’s image away from the reality of authoritarianism, corruption and criminality to one of ally, partner, even friend. That so many Republicans are on board with this “rehabilitation” of “a killer” is downright terrifying.
Many are working hard to piece together the hundreds, maybe thousands of pieces that make up the Trump-Russia jigsaw puzzle. This week, our frame was completed. Piece by piece, we now have all four corners, all the edge pieces and we have a solid outline. Now we have to focus on fitting all the pieces we have, and those we will soon find, into the frame.
In the process, we have to be careful to stay focused and not fall into Russia’s or Trump’s propaganda traps. We must examine our use of language more carefully and more deliberately than ever. We have to be more media literate not just in our reading but in our writing. Americans aren’t accustomed to this decidedly Russia-tinged disinformation age, but we are learning, of necessity.
During the Cold War, we used to talk about the Soviet Union trying to catch up to the West. The Soviets used to say, they had to catch up and overtake the West. Well, it seems the Russians have maintained their always significant lead in propaganda by adapting to new methods of information warfare. We won’t be able to debunk misleading and false disinformation if we can’t even recognize when it rears its head. And perhaps the hardest places to recognize it is in the most influential and least expected places–in our own traditional reputable news media.
In conclusion, the Trump campaign knew of, welcomed and was likely instrumental in Russia’s 2016 election attack, having provided critical information and pivotal signals to Putin in the June meeting (if not earlier). This stunning revelation raises profound questions about the integrity of our president and our democracy. Russia’s proxy hackers broke into the DNC and stole emails, creating a feeding frenzy of propaganda and disinformation that ate away at our most sacred of democratic institutions, our election process. But it was Trump who pounded away using the fruits of Russia’s labor to demonize Clinton beyond recognition, discrediting her so savagely, that many Americans concluded they couldn’t vote for “criminal” “crooked Hillary” Clinton. Trump’s Orwellian campaign, using Putin’s propaganda playbook of pandering to perception and emotion–fear, anger, resentment—over facts and reality—must be seen in a profoundly new light. And we must now be ever alert to both the Trump administration’s and the Kremlin’s continuing efforts to spin and reframe narratives to keep the public in the dark.
Though bruised, we are still standing. Media outlets and press organizations, including NPR, have been, for the most part, doing an outstanding job to keep the public informed without bias or propaganda. We owe it to the country we love to understand the role propaganda played in our election, and, importantly, how it continues to be used today to obscure the truth and undermine our democracy. We cannot afford to be naive or sloppy.