Overreacting to Russia

db2b136e-aa8a-11e6-ba7d-76378e4fef24For weeks now I’ve been arguing, perhaps in vain, that the lurid conspiracy theories lying beneath the surface of much of the Trump-Flynn-Sessions-Kislyak story did not necessarily add up to a coherent whole, and that while I do agree an independent investigation is important, I am not confident that we are suddenly going to discover any substantive proof that the Trump campaign actually had some level of meaningful collusion with Russia in the campaign. That’s not to say that many of these officials have been completely transparent, but there are likely a host of reasons for them to “forget” so many meetings with the Russians (namely, it is embarrassing and impugns legitimacy, which is said to be unacceptable to POTUS).

The obsession with Russia, especially the obsession with Putin as some kind of wunderkind puppetmaster, is not only hugely inaccurate but also poses a grave danger in that we are ignoring so many other foreign policy priorities and threats to U.S. interests taking place right underneath this fitful moral panic.

Furthermore, this is incredibly useful for Putin. At home, presiding over a crippled economy, hopelessly corrupt bureaucracy, and steadily diminishing standards of living, his only future is to project himself as the defender of the besieged fortress, and this portrayal of his administration as actually capable of shaping a monumental outcome such as a US election, well, you can’t buy that kind of advertising.

Writing in Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi nails it:

Hypothesize for a moment that the “scandal” here is real, but in a limited sense: Trump’s surrogates have not colluded with Russians, but have had “contacts,” and recognize their political liability, and lie about them. Investigators then leak the true details of these contacts, leaving the wild speculations to the media and the Internet. Trump is enough of a pig and a menace that it’s easy to imagine doing this and not feeling terribly sorry that your leaks have been over-interpreted.

If that’s the case, there are big dangers for the press. If we engage in Times-style gilding of every lily the leakers throw our way, and in doing so build up a fever of expectations for a bombshell reveal, but there turns out to be no conspiracy – Trump will be pre-inoculated against all criticism for the foreseeable future.

It is completely understand given the rather loose regard for facts on behalf of Trump admin officials that the Democrats smell blood in the water. But it would be a strategic mistake to bet the house on it.