Fake News, Real News — It’s all news now.

After a campaign in which Donald Trump promised to lock up his opponent for crimes that the FBI now says she never committed, Trump himself is facing an uncomfortable turn of the karmic wheel.

It 2016, Donald Trump and his team did all they could to blur the lines between truth and false news, and to create a cloud over Clinton by mixing smears based on allegations and investigations that proved groundless with wholly fake news of even more serious crimes, tossing the core American principle of “innocent until proven guilty” out the window.

When fake news sites ran stories that Hilary Clinton was involved in a pedophile sex ring being investigated by the FBI, and other stories linking her more generally to sex crimes, some of these were re-tweeted by Trump’s National Security Advisor designate General Michael Flynn and his chief of staff (Flynn’s son).   Breitbart News, which was run by Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon until last summer, ran an essay just three days before the election titled “Hilary Clinton Should be in Jail, not the White House,” giving an extensive list of her “crimes” and asserting that “Clinton would already be in jail as the head of an international crime syndicate if she were not being protected by the media establishment and Obama’s political operatives in the Department of Justice.”

Trump himself said that Clinton would be jailed for her crimes if he was elected, and encouraged his supporters in chants of “lock her up” at political rallies.  After extensive Congressional investigations into her conduct as Secretary of State and FBI investigations into her emails found no evidence of criminal acts, Trump continued to insist on her guilt and claimed that Clinton’s exoneration was evidence of a government conspiracy against him.

Now it is Donald Trump’s turn to be caught in the real/news fake news conundrum and the miasma of allegations vs. facts.   BuzzFeed has released 35 pages of memos that purportedly report on interactions between Trump and Russia that go back many years.  The memos provide details about Russia’s direction of a campaign to release hacked emails through Wikileaks to harm Clinton.  In addition, the memos claim that Russia has material to blackmail Trump, that they have pressured him to adopt pro-Russia policies on Ukraine, and that the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence shared information.

Is this real news or fake news?   The main claim in the memos, dated to July of last year, regarding a top-level Russian effort to use hacked information to promote Trump’s election win, has now been verified in extensive investigations by U.S. intelligence agencies.  Other claims in the memos, regarding contacts between Russian sources and Trump campaign advisors, have in fact been under investigation by the FBI.

While some of the claims in the memos seem fantastic, their overall story is plausible; indeed the main theme of Russian interference in the U.S. election has now been proven.  All that remains is to determine whether there was any collusion between the Russian effort and the Trump campaign.

There is at least some indication that there was. Two days after the election, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that his government had maintained contacts with Trump’s team throughout the campaign: ‘“I cannot say that all, but a number of them maintained contacts with Russian representatives,” Mr. Ryabkov said.” But this was quickly denied by the Foreign Ministry, who said that all that happened was that the Russian ambassador in Washington had reached out to American politicians and supporters of Trump to obtain information on Trump’s positions.

Indeed, the dismissals of any possible election interference and any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia by both sides have been vehement, if not hysterical.  Russian officials dismiss the very idea that they might have used cyber-attacks to support Trump as too ridiculous to even consider; instead they seek to put the blame on anyone else, even rogue US agencies.   Trump has called BuzzFeed, which released the memos, “a failing pile of garbage”  and called their contents an utter fabrication.  Whenever the subject of Russian hacking is raised, instead of following the time-tested politician’s mode of denial – “I am innocent of these charges and I am confident a full and thorough investigation will completely clear me of any wrongdoing” – Trump or his surrogates insult the messenger, impute the story to spiteful losers, make extreme denials, and urge that the story simply be dropped.

Yet Trump himself spent almost five years pursuing far more weakly supported allegations that President Obama’s birth certificate was falsified.   The FBI spent over a year looking into Hilary Clinton’s emails, and it took almost two years to complete the investigation into Richard Nixon’s cover-up of criminal activity in the Watergate building.   The allegations of Trump-Russia collaboration are no less worthy of thorough investigation.

The principles followed by the Trump team during their campaign – that all allegations of criminal actions should be widely publicized, that guilt should be presumed and pronounced while waiting for supporting evidence to emerge, and that any formal investigations of alleged crimes should be treated as evidence of guilt – may be uncomfortable when turned against them.   However, they have only themselves to blame for setting that standard.  The allegations in the BuzzFeed memos are sufficiently serious that the American people have a right to an independent and thorough investigation as to whether they are falsehoods manufactured simply to damage Trump, or if some portion of them can be verified as accurate.  Such an investigation may be a distraction for the Trump presidency, but it is no less necessary.  Our nation survived the Watergate investigation and it will survive a Kremlingate investigation.

What we may not be able to survive is an environment where fake news is allowed to thrive, on either side of any political divides.  Nor can we survive any effort by the government and especially the U.S. President to chastise news organizations, suppress news investigations, and replace serious investigations into the implications of intelligence findings with simple dismissals.

If President-elect Trump is confident that the BuzzFeed memos are garbage, and that the Russian hacking was both completely unconnected to himself and his campaign and had zero impact on the election, then he should welcome a full and thorough investigation of the matter.  That investigation should seek to understand why Russia thought it could be effective in hacking U.S. political organizations and in utilizing that information to advance their goals.  It should thoroughly search for any links between this Russian effort and anyone connected with any U.S. political party or campaign or other organization that might have enabled or encouraged it.  It should examine how the Russian effort was carried out and why it succeeded.  And it should thoroughly vet the various claims in the BuzzFeed memos or any other plausible explanations for recent events to separate facts from fiction.

If the President-elect is correct in his confidence, then the only possible casualties of such an investigation would be the impunity of Russia in acting against America, and the credulity and influence of false news.   Those are both outcomes that should be welcomed by the administration and by all Americans.



About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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