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Pro-Trump conservatives want to talk about their own Russia narrative. The only problem is that it's bullshit.
President Donald Trump has spent much of his presidency engulfed by congressional and criminal investigations into Russian efforts to help him win the 2016 presidential election. But today, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced he was joining a new congressional probe -- one that appears to revolve around the purported Russian ties of Trump’s opponent in that race, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
This is no accident. Like the work of the House Select Committee on Benghazi before it, this is a partisan investigation with a political purpose, with its roots in the conspiratorial muck of the right-wing media. But while the Benghazi probe -- as Republican leaders eventually acknowledged -- was an offensive push to damage Clinton’s political standing in the lead-up to the 2016 election, the new one is a defensive move aimed at protecting Trump by diverting attention to his former opponent. The effort's loudest champion is Sean Hannity, the Trump propagandist and sometime adviser who has claimed for months that the “real collusion” with Russia revolves around a bogus conspiracy theory linking Clinton to the 2010 sale of the uranium mining company Uranium One to the Russian government.
The story begins with Breitbart.com head Stephen Bannon. In 2012, long before he became the Trump campaign’s chief executive and joined Trump’s White House as chief strategist, Bannon launched the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit conservative investigative research organization. Three years later, GAI’s president, the discredited author Peter Schweizer, authored the bestselling book Clinton Cash. The book, built on GAI’s research, alleged that Bill and Hillary Clinton “typically blur the lines between politics, philanthropy, and business.” It was a trainwreck of sloppy research and shoddy reporting, but was heavily promoted by mainstream outlets thanks to a cunning media strategy overseen by Bannon, and taken up by Trump during the campaign.
One of the book’s bogus allegations was Schweizer’s claim that Hillary Clinton played a "central role" in approving the purchase of Uranium One by the Russian State Atomic Nuclear Agency. Schweizer speculated that she did so because of the money given to the Clinton Foundation and her husband by Russians and people linked to the deal. But this made no sense, and several reporters assessing Schweizer’s claims rejected them. The State Department had one of nine votes on the committee that approved the deal; the State Department rep said Clinton never intervened on the issue; there were critical questions about the timing of the donations Schweizer referenced; and even Schweizer said he had no direct evidence Clinton had intervened.
The false allegations might have been forgotten in the wake of the election. But in January, the U.S. intelligence community announced that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin with the aim of harming Clinton’s campaign because “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” Reporting from a host of news outlets ever since has suggested that Trump’s campaign aides and associates had a series of troubling interactions with Russians, triggering congressional investigations and eventually a criminal probe by special counsel Robert Mueller. With Trump’s presidency hanging in the balance, his allies have searched for a way to rebut the charges.
Hannity eventually settled on the old Clinton Cash allegations. Claiming that there is no evidence to support what he terms “black-helicopter, tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories about so-called Trump-Russia collusion,” the Fox host declared that the “real collusion” is between Clinton and Russia, as demonstrated by the Uranium One tale. He pushed that argument over and over again to his audience of 3 million, making it in more than two dozen monologues over the summer.
Then a week ago, Hannity tweeted this:
Hannity was promoting a report by John Solomon, the executive vice president of The Hill, which purported to advance the Uranium One story. According to Solomon’s anonymous sources, “Russian nuclear officials had routed millions of dollars to the U.S. designed to benefit former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation during the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton served on a government body that provided a favorable decision to Moscow.” Solomon provides no evidence that the Clintons were aware this was happening, and of course the underlying conspiracy theory that Clinton pushed the Uranium One deal through still makes no sense. But it’s something the right-wing press can use to try to shift attention away from Trump.
Solomon is an investigative journalist who has had many acts in the business. This year, he’s drawn attention for his work as chief operating officer of Circa News, a mobile-first platform with an independent brand that the conservative goliath Sinclair Broadcast Group bought in 2015, hollowed out, and turned into its own pro-Trump news website. At Circa, Solomon and his colleague Sara Carter excelled at turning out stories -- often anonymously sourced -- alleging impropriety by former Obama national security officials and former FBI Director James Comey. Feeding into the right-wing narratives about efforts by nefarious deep-state actors to tear down the president, Circa’s reporting received glowing reviews from Trump’s most conspiratorial supporters.
But Circa’s biggest fan is Hannity -- as The Hill put it in March, he “has repeatedly lauded Circa as the gold standard.” Indeed, for all intents and purposes, Solomon’s operation replaced Fox’s own journalists in providing the pro-Trump reporting Hannity needs to confirm his biases. According to Media Matters research, Carter appeared on 30 episodes of Hannity from May 15 through the end of August -- the only guests to show up more often were Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow and Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett. Solomon made 14 appearances on Hannity’s Fox News show during the same time frame.
Hannity heavily promoted Solomon’s story on his Fox show, devoting extensive segments to the “explosive” “bombshell” on the night it broke and the next two nights. He’s hosted Solomon, Carter, and Schweizer, harangued the rest of the press for not covering the story, and declared Uranium One “one of the biggest scandals this country has ever seen.” And on the night the story broke, he made clear what he thought should happen next:
HANNITY: Also, is Congress now going to do its job? Will they investigate these explosive reports immediately? Will the Special Counsel Robert Mueller start looking into this Russian plot to control American uranium?
Over the next few days, Trump’s allies on Fox and elsewhere worked themselves into a frenzy over the “real collusion” story (per Alex Jones, the “Beginning Of The End For Clinton Crime Family”). On the morning of October 19, apparently spurred on by a Fox & Friends segment on Solomon’s story, Trump himself joined the fray, tweeting, “Uranium deal to Russia, with Clinton help and Obama Administration knowledge, is the biggest story that Fake Media doesn’t want to follow!”
Left, Fox & Friends, 6:07 am
Right, Trump, 7:17 am pic.twitter.com/57r0UUZsGx
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) October 19, 2017
And now Nunes -- who had to recuse himself from Russia-related investigations earlier this year due to ethics charges that resulted from his effort to do the White House’s bidding and scuttle the Trump-Russia investigations -- is taking a hand. At a press conference today, he announced that he would be launching an investigation into the Uranium One allegations. He will be working alongside the House Oversight Committee, helmed by the former chairman of the Benghazi Committee, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC).
Fox programming is now basically 24/7 about Hillary Clinton and Uranium. It's legit amazing.
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) October 24, 2017
The New York Times yesterday detailed how Republican congressmen, including Nunes and Gowdy, are trying to “wrap up the investigations” into Trump’s Russia ties as quickly as possible. “Congressional investigations unfortunately are usually overtly political investigations, where it is to one side’s advantage to drag things out,” Gowdy told the Times. He knows that from experience. A year into Trump’s presidency, egged on by sycophantic media allies like Hannity, the first congressional investigation into a Clinton has begun. It won’t end anytime soon.
Dozens of Sinclair-owned local news stations are running a package featuring serial misinformer Peter Schweizer, a senior editor-at-large for Breitbart, making debunked allegations about Hillary Clinton’s role in a deal selling U.S. uranium holdings to Russia while she was secretary of state. This package is the latest in Sinclair’s attempt to infect local media with inaccurate right-wing commentary.
Schweizer, whose work has been funded in large part by hedge fund billionaires Robert and Rebekah Mercer, used the segment to hype debunked allegations from his error-riddled book Clinton Cash. He implied that there was “cronyism” or “corruption” surrounding the selling of the Uranium One company to a Russian nuclear company while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state because the company, Rosatom, donated to the Clinton Foundation. Schweizer, who has a long history of pushing misinformation, baselessly claimed, “There was a quid pro quo culture at the Clinton Foundation, that large donors were getting favors in return for those donations.”
From the October 20 edition of WNWO’s NBC 24 News:
PETER SCHWEIZER: People often assume that corruption or cronyism is a victimless crime, that it’s just politicians making money and what’s the big deal? The problem is, in this particular case, there are huge national security implications.
SARA CARTER: Peter Schweizer, the man behind the book Clinton Cash, says the U.S. government should take a closer look at the deal that allowed the Russian nuclear company Rosatom to purchase Uranium One.
SCHWEIZER: Even at the time this deal was approved in 2010, it was massively controversial. You had a dozen members of Congress who ran national security committees, you had U.S. senators who wrote letters to the [Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] raising questions about the fact that this deal was being looked at.
CARTER: One of the points of contention for people investigating the Clintons’ potential connection to the deal were speech fees Bill Clinton received from a Russian bank while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state and sat on the panel that approved the transaction. Schweizer says a Clinton Foundation review, done at the behest of Chelsea Clinton, shows a lack of transparency in their contributions.
SCHWEIZER: There was a quid pro quo culture at the Clinton Foundation, that large donors were getting favors in return for those donations.
CARTER: When Schweizer helped The New York Times with an article on the Clinton Foundation in 2015, a spokesperson for the Hillary Clinton campaign told them no one has ever produced a shred of evidence supporting the theory that Hillary Clinton ever took action as secretary of state to support the interest of donors to the Clinton Foundation. The Clinton Foundation did not respond to attempts for comment.
However, as numerous fact-checkers have previously pointed out, “The State Department was one of nine agencies on the committee that approved the deal,” and “there is no evidence Clinton herself got involved in the deal personally, and it is highly questionable that this deal even rose to the level of the secretary of state.”
The segment, which was reported by Sinclair Broadcast Group subsidiary Circa, is the latest in Sinclair’s history of pushing right-wing commentary that has been compared to “propaganda.” The broadcasting company also has selectively omitted stories that don’t fit its agenda. Recently, Sinclair has made a series of conservative hires, including discredited former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson and former Trump White House aide Boris Epshteyn. In July, Sinclair announced it would be tripling the number of segments featuring Epshteyn that are sent to stations as “must-run” packages -- a typical practice for the company. There has also been reporting that Sinclair could partner with Breitbart, as the latter site’s chairman and former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has sought to expand his “platform for the alt-right” to “compete with Fox News from the right.” Both Bannon and Schweizer worked at the Government Accountability Insitute, a venture that was funded by the Mercers.
Sinclair’s dealings with the Trump administration run deep. During the campaign, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner reportedly “struck a deal” with Sinclair to “secure better media coverage” for then-candidate Donald Trump in exchange for “more access to Trump and the campaign.” Additionally, President Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Committee has pursued deregulatory efforts that could make it easier for the Sinclair empire to grow as it seeks to merge with Tribune Media.
Circa, and in particular its correspondent Sara Carter, have become a favorite source for others in right-wing media, especially Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
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Stephen Bannon, former White House chief strategist and restored executive chairman of Breitbart.com, orchestrated and supported many of the worst elements of the campaign and presidency of Donald Trump. Before, during, and after his direct involvement with Trump’s political ambitions, Bannon used his experience -- and his extensive and complicated financial connections to the far-right billionaire Mercer family -- to stoke the flames of nativist anger, encourage Trump’s most racist and misogynistic rhetoric, support far-right political candidates across the globe, and attack all perceived enemies of Trumpism, potentially including Trump himself.
Fox News host Sean Hannity attracted widespread condemnation for pushing conspiracy theories about a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer, but it wasn’t his first time promoting or entertaining such wild claims on air. From claiming that the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick protested the national anthem because he “may have converted to Islam” to implying that former President Barack Obama is a terrorist sympathizer, here are some examples of Hannity embracing conspiracy theories.
Top Editors Use Their Roles At Breitbart To Flack For Other Mercer Ventures They Also Work For
Media Matters investigates the web of self-dealing, conflicts of interest, and corruption surrounding Breitbart.com. Its top editors have used the site to promote nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, and personal clients who in turn pay them hefty salaries.
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President Donald Trump this morning urged supporters to watch a Fox News segment that was based on research overseen by White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon in his prior role as chief executive of the conservative group Government Accountability Institute (GAI).
Last August, Bannon promoted the GAI report in an article he co-authored at Breitbart.com, which he was simultaneously running as chief executive. Breitbart is now fighting to gain permanent reporting credentials from the Senate Press Gallery in the face of criticism that the website lacks editorial independence because of its entwinement with GAI.
This morning Trump tried to defuse criticism of his ties to Russia by encouraging his followers to “Watch @foxandfriends now on Podesta and Russia!”:
During the segment in question, conservative activist Peter Schweizer detailed connections between former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and a Kremlin-backed bank.
Schweizer is both president of GAI and a Breitbart senior editor-at-large, and he and Bannon promoted the Podesta allegations last year in their roles with both. Their story provides a case study in how top Breitbart editors use the website to promote the work of a conservative group that pays them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
The Podesta claims were first raised in a July 31 GAI report titled “From Russia with Money: Hillary Clinton, the Russian Reset, and Cronyism,” which purported to detail unsavory connections between Clinton and her associates and Russia. On August 1, Bannon and Schweizer co-bylined a story breaking the news on Breitbart, and discussed it on the Bannon-hosted SiriusXM program Breitbart News Daily.
“It’s gonna cause a firestorm because they’re going to have to answer the question, and Mr. Podesta’s gonna have to answer the question, why he failed to disclose this, and we’re going to drill down on what all this means,” Bannon commented at the time. “We’ve got a lot more of this coming.”
The GAI report and Breitbart article were released amid a slew of news stories detailing the Trump campaign’s friendly stance toward the Kremlin, and just days after The New York Times reported that “American intelligence agencies have told the White House they now have ‘high confidence’ that the Russian government was behind the theft of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee.”
Sixteen days after the GAI report was released, Bannon took a leave of absence from Breitbart to become the Trump presidential campaign’s chief executive.
Between its initial promotion of the GAI report and Election Day, Breitbart produced at least six more reports on GAI’s Podesta story. Meanwhile, the Bannon-headed Trump campaign issued a statement calling on Podesta to provide more information or step down.
Following Clinton’s defeat, conservatives largely dropped the story. But after FBI Director James Comey announced during a March 20 congressional hearing that the bureau is investigating “whether members of President Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election,” right-wing politicians and media outlets began casting about for angles they could take to mitigate that damaging narrative.
The next day, fringe gadfly Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) called for a congressional investigation into Podesta, relying on information in the August GAI report. Over the past week, Breitbart has produced two reports on the allegations, both citing GAI’s August report as the original source of the claims. The story has apparently gained enough attention on the right to catch the eye of Fox & Friends producers, generating this morning’s Trump-promoted interview with Schweizer.
The new revelation about Breitbart’s overlap with GAI comes at a bad time for the outlet.
Yesterday, the Standing Committee of the Senate Press Gallery announced that it would not approve Breitbart’s request for permanent Capitol Hill credentials, citing in part concerns that key editors on the masthead have received payments from GAI. This suggests that the website falls short of the Senate Press Gallery’s requirement that outlets be “editorially independent of any institution, foundation or interest group that lobbies the federal government.” The committee has sought more information from the conservative outlet, with a deadline of April 14.
Schweizer received $778,000 from GAI between 2012 and 2015 while simultaneously appearing on Breitbart’s masthead. And while serving as chief executive of both institutions, Bannon received $376,000 from GAI.
As the Podesta reports show, top editors at Breitbart are getting paid by another organization and using their platform to produce and oversee reporting based on that organization’s work. This violation of the press gallery’s bylaws should lead to the rejection of Breitbart’s application.
President Donald Trump tweeted that Congress should investigate Bill and Hillary Clinton for a “deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia,” hours after Fox News host Sean Hannity promoted the story on his radio show.
On the March 27 edition of The Sean Hannity Show, Hannity revived the long-debunked conservative claim from discredited Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton allegedly sold “20 percent” of American uranium to the Russian government in exchange for Clinton Foundation donations. Hannity and guest Pat Buchanan argued that the “whole Uranium One fiasco” involved Bill and Hillary Clinton, with the former president “giving speeches in Russia, getting paid twice what he normally gets paid.” Hannity also mentioned “John Podesta’s connections to the Russians” as something that is a “bigger crime” than Trump and Russia:
SEAN HANNITY (HOST): We already know a bigger crime, and what about John Podesta's connections to the Russians during the campaign, number one. Number two, look at this whole Uranium One fiasco, while Bill Clinton -- Hillary Clinton’s secretary of state, he's giving speeches in Russia, getting paid twice what he normally gets paid. They get -- for the Clinton Foundation -- literally millions and millions of dollars sent to the Clinton Foundation, Hillary herself has to sign off on the Uranium One deal, where Russia literally controls 20 percent of American uranium?
PAT BUCHANAN: Well exactly, all of these things were revealed, but the question is who will investigate the investigators? I mean, I saw, I think it was in the Post this morning or one of the papers, they're said, "Look at these -- they're trying to divert the attention away from the Russia connection to the WikiLeaks and to the getting into the DNC and Podesta files to this other thing." But look, I’m not against doing that, going into the Russian connection, if it's fair, but after eight months of investigating and you’ve turned up -- you can't even say who talked to who?
A few hours later, Trump, who has pushed the smear before, parroted Hannity’s comments on Twitter, asking, “Why isn't the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia.” Trump also said Congress should investigate the “Russian speech" and the "money to Bill,” as well as the “Podesta Russia Company.”
Why isn't the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia, Russian speech....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2017
...money to Bill, the Hillary Russian "reset," praise of Russia by Hillary, or Podesta Russian Company. Trump Russia story is a hoax. #MAGA!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2017
This appears to be the latest public example of Trump responding to segments from Fox News figures. In January, Trump responded to a segment on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor about crime in Chicago, tweeting, “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ … I will send in the Feds!” Trump has also responded directly to Fox & Friends at least half a dozen times in March. On March 17, Trump blamed Fox News as the reason for his false claim that former President Barack Obama used British intelligence agencies to spy on him. Even after causing an international incident by citing a Fox figure, Trump continues to follow their lead, this time by resurrecting the repeatedly debunked Uranium One smear.
Fox News personalities are echoing Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign, which claimed that the FBI would not have been able to “review 650,000 emails in eight days” to cast doubt on the bureau’s probe into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. However, experts point out that the FBI is able to do so using technology such as “automated search and filtering tools.”
The FBI was reportedly trying to build an investigation into the Clinton Foundation around claims made in a right-wing book riddled with errors written by a Republican activist with a history of bogus reporting. The author’s organization is headed by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign chief executive and is funded by one of Trump’s top campaign supporters.
The FBI in August was considering whether to expand investigations into both Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s “secretive business dealings in Ukraine” and Democratic presidential nominee “Hillary Clinton’s relationships with donors to her family foundation,” but, following longstanding precedent, decided not to proceed for fear of impacting the election, according to The New York Times. The paper further reported that the Clinton Foundation inquiry “had not developed much evidence and was based mostly on information that had surfaced in news stories and the book ‘Clinton Cash,’ according to several law enforcement officials briefed on the case.”
Clinton Cash: The Untold Story Of How And Why Foreign Governments And Businesses Helped Make Bill And Hillary Rich is a 2015 book authored by Peter Schweizer, a Republican activist and consultant who has worked for Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, and Breitbart News.
Schweizer has a disreputable history of reporting marked by errors and retractions, with numerous reporters excoriating him for facts that "do not check out," sources that "do not exist," and a basic failure to practice "Journalism 101." Clinton Cash is similarly a trainwreck of bogus research that included more than 20 errors, fabrications, and distortions, according to a Media Matters review. On the campaign trail, Trump has pushed conspiracy theories from the book, leading reporters to note that the book has been “discredited” and features “lies” and claims that “fell apart under scrutiny.”
Schweizer is also the president of the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a right-wing group that purports to investigate “government corruption.” Stephen Bannon, who is taking a leave of absence from his role as chief executive of Breitbart News to serve the same role with the Trump campaign, is also the executive chairman and co-founder of GAI. The group has been heavily funded by the Mercer Family Foundation, which is run by Rebekah Mercer.
Mercer’s father, the hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer, is one of the nation’s largest Republican donors and a major investor in Breitbart News, and the father and daughter were reportedly key to Bannon’s ascension to a leading role in the Trump campaign. Robert Mercer has also donated millions to a pro-Trump super PAC that Rebekah Mercer controls.
UPDATE: Schweizer disclosed during an August Fox News appearance that "earlier this year at [the FBI's] request," he had met with "two people from the bureau to talk about some things related to the Clinton Foundation, specifically things that were in Clinton Cash." From the August 24 edition of The O'Reilly Factor:
Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence ran with the lie that the Clinton Foundation has only devoted 10 percent of its funds to charitable causes. Pence’s figure, which has been frequently used by conservative media figures throughout the campaign, is wildly inaccurate: fact-checkers have concluded that the charity devotes 80-90 percent of money to charitable causes, and charity watchdogs have given the foundation high ratings.
During the October 4 debate, Pence claimed twice that “less than 10 cents on the dollar in the Clinton Foundation has gone to charitable causes.” Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine responded, “90 percent.” Debate moderator Elaine Quijano did not respond to the exchange.
Pence’s statistic is false.
PolitiFact wrote that the “Clinton Foundation spends between 80-90 percent on program services, which experts say is the standard in the industry to define charitable works. It spends the majority of its money directly on projects rather than through third-party grants.”
FactCheck.org similarly found that the claim that the Clinton Foundation only spends a small portion of its money on charitable works is “simply wrong.” It wrote that “One independent philanthropy watchdog did an analysis of Clinton Foundation funding and concluded that about 89 percent of its funding went to charity.”
Claims that the Clinton Foundation gave a small percentage of its funds to charitable works have been echoed throughout the conservative media. For instance:
Rush Limbaugh claimed that "85 percent of every dollar donated to the Clinton Foundation ended up either with the Clintons or with their staff to pay for travel, salaries, and benefits. Fifteen cents of every dollar actually went to some charitable beneficiary."
Fox Business host Gerri Willis claimed only 6 percent of the foundation's 2013 revenue "went to help people."
Fox News co-host Eric Bolling said that "only 10 cents on the dollar went to charitable uses, causes."
Fox News host Jeanine Pirro said of the Clinton Foundation: “It is not a charitable foundation. No charitable foundation has only 10 percent that goes to a charity.”
Further undermining Pence’s claims, two leading foundation watchdogs -- Charity Navigator and CharityWatch -- have given the Clinton Foundation high marks.
CharityWatch President Daniel Borochoff told CNN of the Clinton Foundation: “They have good governance and accountability. They have great financial efficiency. They have valuable, important programs that help a lot of people in the world. Pull the politics out. Regardless of what you think about Hillary, the Clinton Foundation is an excellent charity.”