These days it is not uncommon to hear that the concept of democracy – meaning essentially that governments are chosen by the citizens of a nation – is under challenge.
In the US, those who warn about the threat to democracy focus on the Capitol riots of January 6, 2021, when a group of president Donald Trump supporters invaded the Capitol Building maintaining that their leader had been robbed of victory in the November 2020 US presidential election – on account of factors that they cannot explain.
Such political conservatives maintain that American democracy is under threat from what they regard as forces of the term deep state – mainly police, intelligence and governmental institutions. Their claim is that Democrat President Joe Biden is an illegitimate leader.
This is not an unknown phenomenon to contemporary America. After her defeat in 2016, Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton claimed Trump was not legitimately elected due to Russia’s alleged involvement in the election – a conspiracy that her supporters also could not explain.
In Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (Crown, 2017), Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes wrote that, immediately after her defeat, Clinton claimed Russian interference, among other factors, cost her the presidency. The authors reported that the Clinton camp prepared an argument that they would pitch to the press and the public.
It’s just on five years ago that star ABC reporter Sarah Ferguson introduced the first episode of her Four Corners series titled Trump/Russia with this pitch to voters: “Tonight we begin our special three-part investigation into the story of the century – the election of US president Donald Trump and his ties to Russia.”
Ferguson’s essential thesis turned on the allegation that Trump had defeated Democrat candidate Clinton only because of the improper intervention into the US presidential election by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his henchmen.
It has turned out that the ABC’s much proclaimed story of the century – which first aired on June 4, 2018 – did not make it to quarter time (to use an AFL term). It was finally buried in Washington last Monday following the release of special counsel John H. Durham’s Report on Matters Related to Intelligence Activities and Investigations Arising out of the 2016 Presidential Campaigns.
Before that, the Trump/Russia conspiracy had been discredited by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, released in March 2019. Mueller did not find evidence to support this conspiracy theory.
I am not aware that Four Corners or ABC television’s 7.30 covered the findings of the Mueller report. Moreover, so far 7.30 has ignored the Durham report, which has barely received a mention on ABC news and current affairs. In the meantime, Trump/Russia remains for viewing on ABC iview.
One example illustrates the problem. It’s true that Four Corners interviewed both Trump critics and Trump supporters. But the essential message of the Trump/Russia program was that the president had succeeded in residing in the Oval Office because of the devious works of the Kremlin.
Trump/Russia began with James Clapper (the US director of national intelligence from 2010 to 2017) telling Ferguson that Russian intelligence might have obtained “compromising material” on Trump. And the three-part series ended with Clapper. In between, Clapper declared that the events in the US during the Trump administration were dangerous in that Russia, which he described as the US’s prime “foreign adversary”, was “involved in US politics” – and, as such, was an “essential threat” to the US.
After this, Ferguson told Four Corners viewers that the “Kremlin’s puppet master (that is, Putin) now has Americans dancing to his discordant tune”. Clapper provided no evidence for his claims made to Ferguson in 2018.
It was later revealed that Clapper had given evidence to the US House of Representatives in July 2017 that he had no evidence concerning any link between Trump and Russia. He told Four Corners a different story. The Mueller report stated that its investigation “did not establish that members of the (Trump) campaign co-ordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities”.
The Durham report goes further. It makes specific criticism of the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s relationship with Russia – titled the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.
Durham is critical of (now former) FBI director James Comey and his (then) deputy Andrew McCabe in that they “failed to uphold their important mission of strict fidelity to the law” concerning the Trump investigation.
Moreover, Durham found that the FBI “displayed, at best, a cavalier attitude towards accuracy and completeness” and “did not genuinely believe that there was probable cause to believe that the target (Trump) was knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of a foreign power”.
Former CIA director John Brennan also is criticised in the body of the Durham report for having briefed president Barack Obama about the alleged approval by Clinton in mid-2016 for one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services. Brennan provided no such briefing into the Trump campaign.
The evidence suggests that many officials in key US institutions such as the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Justice belonged to a “Hate Trump” brigade. In the event, Trump won narrowly in 2016 and lost narrowly in 2020. There was no conspiracy on either occasion.
American democracy is likely to survive the unprofessional and biased behaviour of some key institutions in 2016 and of the rioters in early 2021.
However, as The Wall Street Journal editorialised on May 16: “The Russian collusion fabrication and deceptive sale to the public is a travesty that shouldn’t be forgotten. That Washington’s establishment refuses to acknowledge its role in this deceit is one reason why so many Americans don’t trust public institutions. It will take years for honest public servants to undo the damage, but the Durham accounting is a start.”
Meanwhile, the ABC can correct the errors of the Trump/Russia program on Monday and make its own small contribution to restoring faith in democracy.