It’s starting to look like the fix is in. For two years, special counsel Robert Mueller investigated the Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election, and the possibility that Donald Trump’s campaign somehow colluded with this conspiracy. Now there’s a report, but whether we’ll actually get to see it is unclear, as the Republicans are rapidly working in formation to keep the actual contents of the report from public view.
The strategy they’re using will feel awfully familiar to those of us who lived through the George W. Bush administration’s conspiracy to bamboozle the American public into accepting a war with Iraq: Distort the existing evidence. Lie whenever necessary. Exaggerate any evidence, no matter how iffy, that supports the desired conclusion. Stifle any contradictory evidence as much as possible. And manipulate a gullible media into amplifying the spin instead of reporting the truth.
The Mueller report is weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, all over again. Republicans are using the same playbook to protect Trump that they used to hype the Iraq war, and the strategy seems, yet again, to be working.
For those whose memories have gone hazy or who are too young to remember, the debacle of WMDs in Iraq is one of the great stains on our nation’s history. Bush and his flunkeys — especially Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and their neoconservative allies — wanted a war, but knew the public wasn’t on board. So his administration launched an all-out gaslighting campaign to convince the public that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was hiding WMDs.
U.S. intelligence services assured Bush and his administration that Hussein had no WMDs. So Bush and his people made up the evidence. In some cases, they lied. In others, they took faulty evidence, including forged evidence, and presented that as definitive proof to the public. All evidence that contradicted the official narrative was repeatedly buried. Supposedly straight-shooter types like Secretary of State Colin Powell lent their credibility, however reluctantly, to the lie. And the mainstream media, most notably Judith Miller at the New York Times, played along, hyping false information on the front page and relegating all contrary information to secondary stories deep in the archives.
It took a war, hundreds of thousands dead, and a scouring of Iraq before everyone quietly admitted what had always been evident to the skeptics: There were no WMDs in Iraq and the whole thing was a snowball campaign.
Republicans know, after two years of hype, that the public expects a “Mueller report,” but it’s starting to look like they aren’t too happy about whatever is in the one that actually exists. It appears they’re gearing up to do what Bush did with the intelligence regarding WMDs: Cherry-pick a few quotes to justify the Big Lie, bury the evidence they don’t like and employ hyperbolic rhetoric to browbeat the media into playing along.
Attorney General William Barr, an old hand at covering up Republican malfeaseance, sent a four-page letter to Congress purporting to summarize Mueller’s findings. It appears to be so heavily cherry-picked that there’s only a handful of quotes, and no complete sentences, from Mueller’s actual report.
There’s no way to really know what’s in the Mueller report. Many journalists and Democrats are trying to make this case, pointing out that way more was left unsaid by Barr than said, and that the public deserves the full report.
But by and large, the headlines — which Republicans know are all most people read — would lead audiences to believe that there is a publicly available “Mueller report” and that it clears Trump of wrongdoing. For instance, the New York Times headline Tuesday morning declares we live in a “Post-Mueller” world, which is flatly untrue, since what Robert Mueller actually wrote remains hidden from public view.
Basically, the public is being fed a fake Mueller report, just as the public was being fed what amounted to fake intelligence about WMDs in Iraq. In both cases, however, there were sprinklings of truth inserted in the fakes in order to scare journalists off calling them fabrications and to lure people into line-by-line debates that distract from the larger issues. Those would include the fact that invading Iraq was a bad idea or the fact that Trump is a corrupt president and a pathological liar and that, regardless of his level of collusion in election interference, he sold out our country’s interests to Russia during the 2016 campaign, and still more during his presidency.
Replacing full, complete intelligence with a falsified or cherry-picked narrative was only step one of the Iraq War con job. The second part involved using hyperbole, with the fake intel as justification, to bamboozle the public and intimidate reporters out of expressing skepticism.
Back in 2002 and 2003, the Bush administration stifled skepticism by making the outlandish claim that we were on the verge of nuclear annihilation. This is no exaggeration. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” and variations of that line were repeated by an anonymous source to the New York Times and by Bush himself. Bush also claimed Hussein had a “massive stockpile” of WMDs, while Cheney insisted there was “no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” All this ridiculous rhetoric was justified by heavily spinning a few bad reports out of Iraq and pointedly ignoring the substantive evidence, collected by American and international experts, showing that the Iraqi government almost certainly didn’t have WMDs.
Trump and his cronies are playing the same game now, declaring that the president has been exonerated — he has not — and making public lists of journalists and Democrats who expressed concerns about Trump’s dealings with Russia, trying to paint them as crazy conspiracy theorists. (Which is all the more maddening because Trump himself is a conspiracy theorist who rose to the presidency by spreading lies about Barack Obama’s citizenship.) The strategy is to go so big and so hard that any potential critics will back down, out of fear of being marginalized and caricatured.
It may work, as anyone who lived through the WMDs debacle can attest. The minority of Americans who saw through Bush’s lies at the time and spoke out about them tended to get written off in the cable news world and by politicians — including most leading Democrats, to be fair — as addled hippies who refused to take this massive threat to our national security seriously. The fact that the majority of the world, including most of our leading Western allies, agreed with the skeptics was ignored.
And frankly, if you were a skeptic — as I was, back then — you often felt you were going a little mad. Surely, you said to yourself in moments of self-doubt, Bush couldn’t be so evil as to be flat-out lying about this. Surely, Republicans wouldn’t do something so awful just to get us into a war. Surely, people as sober and serious as Colin Powell wouldn’t play along if it weren’t a real threat. Surely, the New York Times and cable news sources wouldn’t be so gullible as to trumpet administration claims that were false. Right? Right?
Well, it turned out the crazy people were right and the sober, serious people were liars or, at best, completely misguided.
Now we’re in the same situation. Trump’s entire career has been based on lies and corruption, he has substantial ties to Russia that he tried to hide and he has repeatedly endorsed Vladimir Putin’s claims of innocence over the evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence services. And there’s a cover-up underway, in swing, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocking a resolution calling for the actual Mueller report — not the truncated spin document written by Bill Barr — to be released.
But those of us who are willing to speak these truths are already being written off as crazy conspiracy theorists who have been driven mad by our dislike of Trump. Others who see these truths are beginning to silence themselves and play along with the media narrative about Trump’s “vindication,” rather than run the risk of being called crazy, which can mean lost job opportunities and social shunning.
This is why gaslighting works: You drive people crazy with all your lies, and then write them off as crazy when they call you a liar.
When the mainstream media, Democrats, and ordinary Americans decided, in 2002 and 2003, that it was safer to simply play along with Bush’s lies rather than get written off as nutjobs for pointing out the truth, the results were catastrophic. Reliable estimates put the number of dead in Iraq at 400,000. The destabilization caused by the U.S. invasion helped lead to the creation of ISIS, which in turn is one of the reasons for the refugee crisis around the world.
There’s reason to fear something similar coming out of any effort to suppress the Mueller report. Already a number of people eager to deny or justify Russia’s campaign to destabilize democracy around the world — including Intercept editor (and former Salon columnist) Glenn Greenwald — have seized on the Barr letter as a weapon to shame critics of Putin and Trump. There’s a real danger that the Barr letter, like the “uranium tubes” that Bush falsely claimed were being used to make nuclear weapons, will become an all-purpose talking point to marginalize anyone who speaks out about Trump’s lies or the rise of authoritarianism.
There is no reason to take the claims that Trump is vindicated at face value. There’s no reason to believe Trump about anything, or to trust the political party that lied us into the Iraq war, and has kept on lying about everything from tax cuts to health care policies. Yet somehow everyone is expected to ignore this long history and have faith in claims that a document we haven’t seen fully exonerates a man who obviously has no moral compass.
Being a skeptic about WMDs in Iraq was a lonely position. People were afraid to join you, out of fear that Bush would find some small cache of WMDs and right-wingers would never let the skeptics live it down. The same thing is happening again with the Barr letter, where the tiny chance that he is offering a good-faith reading of the Mueller report is dangled over people’s heads to silence them from expressing doubts.
But the stakes are too high to give into this intimidation campaign. We must learn from the Iraq debacle that while it might seem easier to lie down and give into a misinformation campaign, the price of doing so is too high. The Mueller report must be released in full, and nothing short of that is acceptable.