Practically the only major area of disagreement among Paste Politics writers relates to the alleged collusion between Trump and Russia. My take on the matter is that despite a lot of smoke, there has been no fire, and even if there is, it won’t really matter. In other words, Russia will not save us. That doesn’t mean Trump is innocent, or that Putin is good, or that Mueller should stop his investigation, or that I won’t be dancing in the street if he goes down. It’s just that I don’t think it will happen, and I believe the most reliable way to defeat Trump and the other Republicans is to fight them on policy, because—as we’ve seen in recent elections—that’s almost a surefire winner, and something like the tax bill matters a lot more to most normal people than the nebulous bombshell culture of Russia-gate.

That said, Jacob Weindling and Roger Sollenberger have written extensively and brilliantly about the Russia connections for Paste, and would fundamentally disagree with my assertion that it’s backburner material (though Jake has written on how the media’s credibility is shot on that front).

I bring this up because I just watched an interview with Guardian journalist Luke Harding, who recently released a bestseller called Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win. The host of The Real News, Aaron Maté, repeatedly pressed him on concrete examples of proven collusion, and the result was embarrassing—Harding had a whole heap of nothing.

You can watch the video below, or read the transcript at the link above:

Let’s highlight the many times Maté asked the collusion question plainly:

Luke, welcome. Let’s start with the book’s title. Do you think there actually was collusion?

LUKE HARDING: I think we’re already across the line in terms of collusion. I think actually you have to go back a long way to see when it began to Donald Trump’s first trip to Soviet Moscow in 1987 paid for by the Soviet Union where he was discussing hotel deals. I think we can say — and I’m sure this is something that Robert Mueller is looking at — that there’s kind of long-term relationship. That doesn’t mean that Donald Trump is an agent or a KGB colonel, merely that there’s been a kind of transactional deal going back a very long way indeed.

You notice here, for the first time, the way Harding dances around the question and reverts to historical evasion and other acts of vague supposition. But Maté won’t let him off easy:

AARON MATÉ:That’s also an assertion of the infamous Steele dossier, that there’s a transactional relationship between Trump and the Kremlin and that Putin has been cultivating Trump for several years now. But explain why you think that is and why you think there’s evidence of a transactional relationship.

LUKE HARDING: Well I think you just kind of have to look at what happened. We had Donald Trump’s trip back in the kind of late Cold War period, and I talked to a number of sources for this book, some in Moscow, some in London, some in Washington, some defectors. I met with Chris Steele, the author of the dossier, as well. I think what you have to understand is the fact that the sort of Soviet state and its Russian successor is raking on kind of cultivating people, particularly Americans.

This pattern repeats over and over—Harding simply can’t say “here’s the collusion.”

AARON MATÉ:Okay. But where then is the proof of a transactional relationship?

LUKE HARDING: Well I mean there are secret meetings as the book says that we now know about, some of which we have discovered about in the last few months. We have Donald Trump, Jr meeting with a Russian lawyer now famous, Natalia Veselnitskaya, having been promised information from the Russian government as part of its campaign to support Mr. Trump and to hurt Hillary Clinton. We have four indictments by Robert Mueller-

AARON MATÉ: Luke, Luke, let me stop you there. Luke, let me stop you there. If we already have a transactional relationship between Trump and Russia going back to the late ‘80s as you say, then why would they have needed a music publicist to set up this meeting? I mean presumably that level of relationship would have entailed some high-level contacts that wouldn’t have needed an intermediary like this kooky music publicist, Rob Goldstone.

At this point, Harding tires of prevarication and opts for another sly trick—chastising his interviewer for tacitly supporting Putin, and ignoring the Russian’s history of violence toward oppositional journalists. Which, of course, Maté never did:

LUKE HARDING: Yeah. Right. Don’t kind of quite appreciate the nature of Vladimir Putin’s state. I mean I lived there for four years. I was there for between 2007 and 2011. I was eventually kind of kicked out for writing stories about kleptocracy, about Putin’s fortune, about human rights, about journalists. I’m not sure if you know, but some of my friends in Moscow who are journalists have been murdered. This is not a nice or benign regime. It’s-

AARON MATÉ: [crosstalk 00:10:04] I’m certainly not arguing that Vladimir Putin is a nice person or that he has great policies, but to me though, that doesn’t automatically mean that he waged a massive influence campaign that got Donald Trump elected. Part of the reason why I’m skeptical of that is that, again, there still is actual … There’s zero evidence so far. There’s a lot of supposition and innuendo.

LUKE HARDING: Well I’m a journalist. I’m a storyteller. I’m not head of the CIA or the NSA…

Yikes. “I’m a storyteller” is not exactly the best defense when you fundamentally fail to defend the basic premise of your book.

This pattern repeats over and over, and I’d probably be guilty of copyright infringement if I copy-pasted much more, but I do want to highlight one moment that illustrates the “depth” of Harding’s journalism:

AARON MATÉ: Okay. Well listen. In terms of the book, I will … I do want to quote you one part that I did read that I found interesting which is where you are talking about the potential connections between Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, and the Russian government. You spoke to a Manafort associate. Hopefully I have his name … Hopefully I can pronounce his name properly. Konstantin Kilimnik. Kilimnik wrote you by email in response to your questions about his relationship with Manafort, and you recount that Kilimnik responded by telling you that the collusion issue was gibberish and then he signed his email off by saying “Off to collect my paycheck at KGB.” Then he has an emoji smiley face with two parentheses. Okay.

You write “The thing which gave me pause was Kilimnik’s use of smiley faces. True, Russians are big emoticon fans, but I’ve seen something similar before. In 2013, the Russian diplomat in charge of political influence operations in London was named Sergey Nalobin. Nalobin had close links with Russian intelligence. He was a son of a KGB general. His brother worked for the FSB. Nalobin looked like a career foreign intelligence officer.” You go on to write “On a Twitter feed, Nalobin described himself thus: a brutal agent of the Putin dictatorship, smiley face.” So are you inferring there that because two Russians used a smiley face that that’s proof that Manafort’s associate was a tool of the Russian government?

Emoji collusion!!

Now, obviously Harding wasn’t prepared for what amounted to a skeptical interviewer. I have no doubt that if Paste’s writers were present, they would have done a much better job, and Harding’s stumbling incompetence doesn’t necessarily mean there was no collusion. That said, a simple fact remains: The man who wrote the book on Trump-Russia collusion can’t point to a single concrete instance of said collusion.

That’s pretty damning, right?

And it backs up my premise that until we get something legitimate from Mueller, the wisest course of action for the left is to focus exclusively on policy. Until then, the parade of false bombshells works out in Trump’s favor, especially when the mainstream media (ABC News and CNN, most recently) make glaring reporting errors that undermine the whole anti-Trump movement and give ammunition to the “fake news!” crowd.

Journalists like Harding do a disservice to their profession with interviews like this one, and they make it that much harder to root out the national disease that Trumpism represents. The winning formula here is simple: Point out to Americans exactly how they’re being screwed and immiserated by a party that represents nothing but corporate interests, and illustrate how they would gladly sacrifice your well-being to further line the pockets of the rich. That’s how you drive them out of office. But unless we want further embarrassment—the kind that complicates the salient message—leave Russia out of it.

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