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The Makings of a GOP Pseudo-Scandal

This week, House Republicans launched two joint investigations, spanning three congressional committees, aimed at sowing confusion about the nature of Russian influence over last year’s election.

This isn’t liberal gloss on a series of news developments that muddy a clean scandal ensnaring President Donald Trump. Rather, it describes a documentable, partisan effort to use the levers of government to confuse the public about a foreign conspiracy—the subject of a federal criminal investigation—to bolster President Donald Trump’s campaign and sabotage his rivals.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple compiled the most compelling circumstantial evidence that one of the two investigations is a put up.

Republicans greenlit that inquiry after a report in The Hill last week suggested a 2010 uranium deal approved by the Obama administration was the fruit of a corruption-ridden Russian effort to acquire a greater share of the U.S. atomic energy market.

One problem, as Wemple noted, is that “none of this was news.” Not only was the shady activity reported in other outlets over two years ago, but the Justice Department successfully prosecuted crimes connected to the deal. Another problem, that Wemple did not note, is that one of The Hill report’s authors, John Solomon, is notorious for hyping Republican-friendly stories, presented with a patina of investigative rigor, that ultimately fall apart.

Solomon’s well-plated serving of upchuck is now the basis of a congressional investigation, and of Republican claims—from President Trump and the chairman of the House intelligence committee on down to the rank and file—that Russia really interfered on behalf of Democrats last year.

Wemple—who, in the interest of full disclosure, mercilessly edited my embarrassing copy over a decade ago when I was a stringer for the Washington City Paper—has documented the makings of a pseudo-scandal. Perhaps unintentionally, he has also written a genre-bending article we sorely need at a time when certain strictures of political journalism—that journalists can’t divine intention, that America’s two parties mirror one another—are overwhelming the imperative to report truth.

Though the nominal subject of Wemple’s piece is The Hill, the lead may as well be that Republican House investigators are participating in a demonstrable propaganda campaign for the protection of their scandal-plagued president. The fabrication of the scandal, not the scandal being fabricated, is the scandal itself.

That is not how most media outlets have framed the story.

“Obama-era uranium deal yields new questions, new accusations and new investigation,” blared a CNN headline.

The New York Times’ version read “Courting Democratic Ire, Republicans Open New Obama-Era Inquiries.”

Wemple’s access point to the heart of the story was granular criticism of a bad piece of journalism, and it’s understandable that national political desks didn’t have the benefit of his specific perspective. Moreover, when a congressional committee launches an investigation, oftent the news is that something is coming under scrutiny. But here’s what makes this uranium pseudo-scandal a perfect case study in how the sticky norms of political journalism are ill-equipped to expose a single party’s deep rot of bad faith: Republicans already hoodwinked the political media with the exact same uranium story before the presidential election, and everybody knows it.

About two and a half years ago, as the 2016 presidential campaign was ramping up, the New York Times published a curious piece about a Russian atomic energy agency that swallowed a Canadian uranium mining company known as Uranium One. As the transaction unfolded, the company’s chairman made multiple donations to the Clinton Foundation, which made the story interesting to the Times, because the acquisition could not have happened without the permission of the U.S. national security apparatus, including Hillary Clinton’s State Department.

Here was quid and quo, laid side by side, on the front page of the nation’s paper of record. The following year, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, would rest his ludicrously false claim that Clinton “handed over” 20 percent of American uranium to Russia on this central insinuation in the Times’ story. Upon mild scrutiny, though, Trump’s attack, and the broader implication of corruption, collapsed.

“The State Department was one of nine [U.S.] agencies…that approved the deal,” the Washington Post noted in its debunking. “The deal was also separately approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” which is politically independent from the White House. The suggestion that Clinton approved the deal as a favor to a donor was a crock.

Innuendo-driven exposés of the Clintons’ vast financial and geopolitical network formed their own genre in 2015 and 2016, but what made the Times report uniquely puzzling was a two-sentence disclosure, nine paragraphs into the story, that it was the fruit of a partnership with Peter Schweizer, a right-wing muckraker who presided over a think tank bankrolled by anti-Clinton billionaires. Eventually, the political press developed a healthier skepticism of the uranium story, and other anti-Clinton stories Schweizer seeded. But this was all too little, too late for Clinton. “The effect on Clinton’s popularity was profound,” wrote Joshua Green in Devil’s Bargain, his biography of Trump campaign chairman Steve Bannon. “The percentage of Americans who thought she was ‘untrustworthy’ shot up into the 60s.”

Bannon, as Green documented, was one of Schweizer’s closest associates, a patron of his think tank, and the person who recognized that laundering Schweizer’s reporting on the uranium deal through the Times would make it far more damaging to Hillary Clinton than if it lived exclusively on his website, Breitbart, and other right-wing agitprop sites.

Today’s credulousness is so frustrating because it’s a case of fool-me-twice: This deal, and the deal House Republicans are now investigating, are the same deal. Warmed over, picked apart, digested, and, of course, completely sideways to the conduct of the current government. 

The purpose of the propaganda has changed from defaming Hillary Clinton to blurring the truth about Russia’s subversion of the election, but the underlying content is the same. The facts of the matter are all out in the open, as are the ways and reasons the right manipulated those facts and has now returned to them a year later. But the press, once bitten, hasn’t yet learned to be shy.