Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell
Credit: The White House/Flickr

It is helpful to remember that the origins of the investigation just completed by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz date back to March 2017, when Trump tweeted what might be his most egregious lie.

Rather than denounce that lie, less than three weeks later Trump’s most vociferous congressional enabler, Devin Nunes, did this after attending a clandestine meeting in the White House.

Nunes holds a press conference in the Capitol building outlining “incidental collection” of Trump and associates, as well as their “unmasking,” which means they were identified by name in intelligence reports. Nunes says the reports came from FISA surveillance, which means that foreign nationals who the intelligence community has eyes on either talked to or about the president-elect and his transition team at some point.

When members of the House Intelligence Committee were finally able to review the documents Nunes referred to in that press conference, there was bipartisan consensus that they contained nothing unusual or illegal and that no politically motivated attempts to unmask took place.

But Republicans still couldn’t let it go. The final claim was that Carter Page had been illegally surveilled. In response, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked the Justice Department inspector general to investigate the claim.

What is striking is that we are currently watching the same pattern unfold when it comes to the Russian-inspired propaganda that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election. It begins with an outlandish lie from the president claiming that it was actually Ukraine—working with the DNC—that framed Russia for the hacking of DNC emails. On the phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky, Trump was clear that he was asking for an investigation into that totally debunked conspiracy theory.

Just as Republicans failed to call Trump out on his lies about being wire-tapped by Obama, you won’t hear any of the president’s congressional enablers denouncing that conspiracy theory. Instead, they tone it down significantly by suggesting that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election based on the fact that some people in that country shared concerns about a Trump presidency.

During an interview with Chuck Todd, Senator Kennedy revealed the purpose of those claims when asked about the fact that Fiona Hill documented that they represented a Russian disinformation campaign. Kennedy responded by saying that Hill was entitled to her opinion.

The pattern that emerges is as follows:

  1. Trump makes an outlandish claim that is totally unsupported by any evidence.
  2. Rather than call him out, Republicans tone down the claim and pursue it.
  3. When people disagree with the claim, they call it a difference of opinion.

As Paul Glastris pointed out over three years ago, it is the same pattern that was used to construct the “corrupt Hillary” meme during the 2016 election.

[T]here is phrase for those who insist on keeping a controversy going long after enough facts are in to draw reasonable conclusions: “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.

Paul Waldman picked up on the pattern when it comes to the claims about Ukraine in an article titled, “Doubt Is Their Product.” He summarized the origins of the “Merchants of Doubt” with this.

In 1969, a memo written at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company explained how they and their colleagues in the industry could push back against the growing public perception that their products were giving people cancer. It wasn’t necessary to disprove the scientific consensus, the author wrote, only to inject a sufficient amount of doubt into public debate so it would be seen as an unresolved controversy with two sides.

That last phrase is key to the whole endeavor. The goal of the merchants of doubt is not to prove their case with evidence. What they want to accomplish is to muddy the evidence and promote the idea that there is an “unresolved controversy with two sides.” Senator Kennedy’s claim that Fiona Hill was merely expressing an opinion accomplished that goal.

In an era of bifurcated media, one side of the controversy is picked up by right wing news outlets, while mainstream media often feels obligated to present both sides. That is how we came to the point that Republicans continue to push Trump’s lies that the Obama administration spied on the Trump campaign and that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election.

The tactics of the merchants of doubt are an insidious form of propaganda. If everything is an unresolved controversy with two sides, then we can never reach conclusions based on evidence and facts. As Peter Palmerantsev wrote about Vladimir Putin’s form of information warfare, “If nothing is true, then anything is possible.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.