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November 20th, 2018

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As Dems prep for Comey, some on left want them to give up Russia story

 David Weigel

By David Weigel The Washington Post

Published June 7, 2017

As Dems prep for Comey, some on left want them to give up Russia story
After Saturday's March for Truth, where activists called for answers on whether Russia meddled in the 2016 election, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., strolled offstage and straight into quicksand. Max Blumenthal, a dogged reporter working with the Baltimore-based Real News Network, brought Raskin on camera to ask what, exactly, Democrats wanted to know.

"We need an independent commission to get all the facts," Raskin said, offering the litany of possible Trump-Russia ties that he'd given to progressive and mainstream media for months.

Blumenthal wasn't sold. "You said that Russia attempted to hack [Emmanuel] Macron in the French elections," he said.

"Well, we know that!" said Raskin.

"The Washington Post has reported that the French cyber-intelligence agency has said that it's not true," said Blumenthal.

"Well, certainly, Macron was convinced of it," said Raskin.

"It was reported days ago," said Blumenthal.

For four minutes, until the congressman was pulled away by a staffer, an award-winning journalist with bylines at the Nation and Salon asked whether he'd been telling bellicose lies about Russia and the Trump team. "Why aren't we talking about jobs or racism?" Blumenthal asked.

That question, which has occupied much of the political left since Hillary Clinton's campaign first fingered Russia for a series of campaign hacks, has not gone away. This week, as former FBI director James Comey prepares to answer questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee, some prominent left voices warn that the party is wasting its time - or worse, that it is engaging in a new superpower slap-fight that will be used to further a hawkish agenda.

"We are in a new cold war with Russia that is totally unjustified given the facts," said Dan Kovalik, a labor lawyer and author of the "The Plot to Scapegoat Russia," officially released Tuesday. "Putin was the first international leader to call Bush after 9/11 to offer us help. I don't see them as this big enemy."

Left-wing skepticism of the "Trump/Russia" story has existed since Clinton's campaign first blamed hacks of the Democratic National Committee and campaign chairman John Podesta's emails on Russian interference. For five awkward months, Democrats from Clinton down to interim DNC chair Donna Brazile dodged questions about the contents of the emails by saying they would not comment on what appeared to be foreign meddling in the election.

"We've never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election," Clinton said in the final televised debate with Trump - the second to include questions based on the hacked information. "We have 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin, and they are designed to influence our election."

For some, Clinton was being too pat about emails that had found DNC staff growing frustrated with Bernie Sanders before the primary was over, and uncovered the contents of speeches she'd given to banks. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein warned that Clinton might start World War III by creating a no-fly zone in Syria, antagonizing Russia. Some critics suggested that Trump, at least, was avoiding the Russia hysteria and making war less likely; some mocked the idea that Russia had been at all involved in the hacks, citing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who questioned Clinton's "17 intelligence agencies" claim by pointing out that the number included the Coast Guard's intelligence unit.

"False thrillers will now be written about the Russians hacking the American elections," wrote director Oliver Stone last year. "Money and TV serials will be made. I've never read such hysterical junk in The New York Times (call it what it is - "fake news"), in which the editorials have become outrageous diatribes of alleged crimes by Russia."

Stone, who wrote a blurb for "The Plot to Scapegoat Russia," is now promoting his own sit-down interviews with Putin, early clips from which show Putin making eyebrow-raising arguments - "our intelligence agencies always conform to the law" - with no on-camera pushback.

Increasingly, as stories about a potential coverup of Russian contacts with the Trump campaign have ripped across the headlines, activists have worried that the party's looking for a deus ex machina end to the Trump administration instead of making a real policy argument.

"The Democrats are doing precisely what Trump is doing, arguing against things and not for anything," said RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association, and a critic of the Democrats' Russia focus. "They don't forward policies, they react to what they conceive of as red meat. Squirrel! Squirrel! Squirrel! Invariably they make me question if they actually understand who is or should be their base."

Last month, DeMoro's nurses were at the forefront of a campaign for single-payer health care that made headlines for booing (and getting booed back by) some speakers at California's Democratic Party convention. DNC chair Tom Perez elicited groans at a party reception for saying he didn't know if Trump or Putin was the acting president. A story in the Observer, falsely claiming that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi spent most of her speech discussing Russia - she spent more time talking health care - went viral.

"The D.C. legislators, Pelosi, etc. were trying to rally the troops around the same worn-out narrative, and it was clearly not working," said DeMoro. "They said Russia so many times that people started counting how many times Russia was mentioned in each speech."

The crux of the complaint is that Democrats, locked out of power in Washington, are focusing on Russia to the exclusion of other issues. That criticism befuddles some elected Democrats, who have seen the Russia issue boil over in their town halls, and who've simultaneously voted against most of the Trump agenda, slowing it to a snail's pace.

"People want us to keep trying to advance legislation that will strengthen infrastructure, that will affect their lives," said Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del. "But they also say: What the heck was that? Get to the bottom of it." Asked about the idea that Democrats were being hawks toward Russia, Coons, laughed. "I'm sorry, you're concerned that our response might be too bellicose? I'm concerned that we might not be responding enough," he said.

Other Democrats said that Russia skeptics, loud on social media, were clearly outnumbered by constituents and other media voices. Stephen Colbert, who has become the highest-rated late night host since Trump won, regularly works Trump/Putin jokes into his monologues. (He apologized for one where the punchline was the president performing a sex act on the Russian president.) MSNBC, which for the first time in decades has vaulted past Fox News in ratings, is rife with Russia and Comey news.

Scott Dworkin, a Democratic fundraiser and pundit who advises the Russia-centric Democratic Coalition Against Trump, said that calls for the party to pivot off Russia were either misinformed or malicious.

"Anybody who says we shouldn't look into Russia at this point is either in it or a traitor," said Dworkin. "It's all about obstruction at this point. If there's one obstruction charge coming out of the Comey hearing, go to impeach. That's the agenda for the Democrats."

Dworkin pointed to the turmoils of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who stepped aside from the Russia probe despite his role atop the House Intelligence Committee, as proof that Republicans were sweating the investigation. (The Democratic Coalition has paid for a billboard in Nunes's district with the message "Hold a town hall. Let's talk about Russia.")

But to the skeptics on the left, Democrats were making little real headway. Michael Tracey, a reporter for the Young Turks news network who had Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., push past him after he asked skeptical Russia questions, asked why Democrats were so satisfied to keep searching for a smoking gun that never appears.

"This whole issue has been characterized from this lurching, ramping up of expectations that the smoking gun will be discovered imminently," said Tracey. "That's how this story has played out. It's sort of monomaniacal."

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