The Merchants of Doubt Are at It Again

Back in the fall of 2016 when the media became obsessed with the Clinton Foundation, Paul Glastris reminded us of the phrase that was used to describe those “who insist on keeping a controversy going long after enough facts are in to draw reasonable conclusions.” They are “Merchants of Doubt.”

The label comes from the book about a loose group of scientists who helped corporate and conservative political interests sow doubt in the public’s mind regarding the certainty of the science linking tobacco to lung cancer and fossil fuels to global warming.

I thought of that when I read a column in the Wall Street Journal by William McGurn, who pretends to raise questions about what he calls “The FBI’s Watergate.” Of course he’s referring to the conspiracy theories that have been raised about the FBI in an attempt to distract from Mueller’s investigation, so you’ve got to give him props for the way the Watergate reference tarnishes the organization from the get-go.

But seriously, McGurn simply has questions.

Officially this FBI investigation started on July 31, 2016. But here’s the problem: If the Russia investigation didn’t start until late July, how was it that the FBI’s “top secret” informant, Stefan Halper, had met the Trump campaign’s Carter Page earlier that month at a University of Cambridge symposium that Mr. Halper helped put on? 

Attempts to cast doubt about why the FBI began an official investigation seem to be a favorite whipping post that these merchants of doubt return to over and over again. The facts are that Trump had named Carter Page—someone who had previously been recruited by Russian intelligence—as a member of his foreign policy advisory team in March. Since the FBI had reason to be concerned that Russia might be attempting to infiltrate the campaign, that would justifiably set off all kinds of alarm bells. Making contact with Page would be the appropriate step to take in order to determine whether or not to open an official investigation.

McGurn goes on to raise questions about why the FBI is reluctant to share classified information about a criminal investigation with the likes of Rep. Devin Nunes, who has demonstrated on at least three occasions to have twisted such information beyond all recognition publicly. Their hesitancy is a complete no-brainer to anyone who has been paying attention.

Let’s go back to the way Glastris described merchants of doubt. They include those “who insist on keeping a controversy going long after enough facts are in to draw reasonable conclusions.” As I’ve written previously, based on information that is already publicly available, we have enough facts to draw reasonable conclusions about when and why the FBI investigation began. The people who ignore all of that and keep the controversy going are attempting to cloud the truth. As Peter Pomerantsev wrote about the Putin playbook: “If nothing is true, then anything is possible.” That is exactly why Trump’s enablers continue to sew the seeds of doubt.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .