John Ratcliffe, President Donald Trump’s handpicked director of national intelligence, is selectively declassifying documents related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. His politically motivated disinformation campaign puts bolstering the president’s faltering reelection chances above U.S. national security. And he has found eager partners at Fox News. The network’s hosts are lapping up the story and baselessly claiming that it vindicates their conspiracy theories that the federal investigation into Russia’s actions was an anti-Trump witch hunt.
For years, Fox has been trying to delegitimize the voluminous evidence that Russia helped Trump win the 2016 election. Russian President Vladimir Putin personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed” at helping Trump defeat his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to the U.S. intelligence community. That campaign included a Putin-directed effort to hack and release Democratic emails and an array of interactions between Trump associates and Russians with ties to the Kremlin. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russian operation led to the successful prosecutions of various close supporters of the president. But for Fox’s propagandists, the real story has been “Obamagate,” the right’s spittle-flecked conspiracy theory postulating that “deep state” elements in the U.S. government dreamed up a Russia “hoax” in order to stop Trump.
Trump, a Fox obsessive, is an eager “Obamagate” proponent, and over the last few years, he has replaced key figures in his administration with partisan Fox favorites who are willing to use their positions to prop up the network’s unhinged conspiracy theory. He removed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Mueller probe, in favor of William Barr, who has worked to stymie Mueller-related prosecutions while ordering and overseeing a federal criminal probe into the origins of the Russia investigation. He used the same playbook at the top of the intelligence community, ousting Joseph Maguire, whose office had warned of Russian interference in the 2020 election, and subbing in Richard Grenell, a former Fox contributor who used the office to create fodder for pro-Trump conspiracy theorists.
And now Ratcliffe, who replaced Grenell in May after gaining Trump’s favor despite a lack of experience in intelligence because the president liked his anti-Mueller rants on Fox, has levied his own salvo. On Tuesday, he selectively declassified and released two heavily redacted documents: a set of handwritten notes former CIA Director John Brennan took after briefing President Barack Obama in July 2016 and a memo the CIA prepared for the FBI summarizing intelligence. Those documents undergird a Russian intelligence assessment Ratcliffe described in a letter he sent last month to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Fox, unsurprisingly, was given the exclusive on the documents, and it credulously reported that they reveal that Brennan briefed Obama on Clinton’s “purported ‘plan’ to tie then-candidate Donald Trump to Russia as ‘a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server’ ahead of the 2016 presidential election.”
If Ratcliffe’s aim was to create political ammunition for the president and his Fox propagandists, he succeeded. The story led the network’s website on Tuesday night and was treated as a “bombshell” by Fox’s pro-Trump prime-time and morning hosts, who alleged that it proved that Clinton had “invented the Russia hoax” to deflect attention from her email server. And Trump furiously tweeted about the story on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, demanding arrests for what he baselessly termed had been an attempted “COUP."
This is nonsense.
The Russia probe did not begin due to anything Clinton did in July 2016. It was initiated based on earlier intel that George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser, had disclosed that Russia had political dirt on Clinton. Papadopoulos, a bipartisan Senate report later assessed, was a “potential vector for malign Russian influence” who learned about the Russian hacking campaign from an individual with Russian ties and almost certainly informed the Trump campaign.
The notion that Clinton was secretly scheming to link Trump to Russia to avoid talking about her email server doesn’t meet the laugh test. At the time Brennan was briefing Obama, that hacking campaign was ongoing. WikiLeaks had just released thousands of Democratic National Committee emails, it was widely believed that those emails had been stolen by Russian hackers, and Clinton’s campaign was publicly denouncing Trump for calling on the Russian government to produce her emails while also denying that government’s involvement.
Ratcliffe’s selective redactions were also deceptive. “Four people familiar with the matter said the Russians’ assessment of Clinton was only one part of a larger intelligence report that was billed as an initial examination of Russian cyberattacks targeting the 2016 election, and was not the reason that it was referred to the bureau,” Politico reported Tuesday. Likewise, Brennan explained to CNN that the notes Ratcliffe released showed him “giving examples of the type of access that the US intelligence community had to Russian information and what the Russians were talking about and alleging.”
Moreover, the Russian intelligence assessment Ratcliffe produced had previously been rejected on a bipartisan basis as likely Russian disinformation intended to distract from their hacking of the Democratic National Committee as those documents were released.
This pipeline from the DNI’s office to Fox will continue as long as Trump is president. Ratcliffe is doing exactly what Trump wants him to do, using the power of the director of national intelligence to boost his reelection. And Fox is doing what they always do, serving as a propaganda outlet for the Republican Party.
Meanwhile, the Russian effort to help Trump win the 2020 election continues.