It seems that Russiagate is making a comeback — and right on time. Nancy Pelosi suggested over the weekend that pro-Palestine protests against the Gaza war may be linked to the Kremlin. “For them to call for a ceasefire is [Vladimir] Putin’s message […] Make no mistake, this is directly connected to what he would like to see,” Pelosi told CNN.
The former Democrat congressional leader made the comments days after Donald Trump swept the New Hampshire Republican primary. Pelosi offered no evidence, nor even a cogent argument, for the claim.
While Muslim groups hit out at Pelosi for the comments, “ties to Russia” is now the dominant meme in America’s establishment politics. “Ties to Russia” were cited to claim that Hunter Biden’s laptop was fake, that the Trump administration had been compromised and, of course, that the Kremlin used Facebook (of all things) to swing the 2016 election in the Republican’s favour.
Many of the key reports that played in this effort, known as Russiagate, were found to be demonstrably false, with other serious assertions left unproven. The Columbia Journalism Review did an exhaustive investigation into how the media built Russiagate into a full blown conspiracy theory, something no major American newsroom has accounted for (and for which numerous journalists won prestigious prizes).
Despite this, it’s unclear why Pelosi sought to connect the Gaza war protests to Russia. The protest demographics are as far from Trump’s voter base — or, for that matter, any issue connected to Trump’s platform — as can be. It might be that, after almost a decade of doing it, the DC Democratic establishment’s impulse to tie anything it opposes to Russia has become something of a political gag reflex —unpleasant, illogical but also unavoidable.
With demonstrators disrupting DNC events, harassing Jewish worshippers at an Upper East Side synagogue and, most recently, protesting outside Pelosi’s home, it may be that the personal nature of these protests was odious enough to trigger the reflex. However, it was also there, outside her home, that Pelosi was recorded telling a group of pro-Palestine demonstrators to “go back to China where your headquarters is!”
That certainly complicates the matter. But in recent weeks we’ve seen reporting on this new “ties to China” narrative emerging, including a New York Times report detailing how Trump’s businesses received millions from foreign governments, “most of it from China”.
Putting aside the fact that Trump was excoriated, mostly by the media, for his trade war with China, it might be that with Beijing on the back foot in a newly hawkish US, this is a fresh line of attack. Is red the new…well, red?
But Pelosi’s political antennae, still attuned after half a century operating in the field, may be picking up on a charge in the electoral ether. Say what you will about the journalistic (or ethical) merits of Russiagate, the reality is that it worked. Since 2016, when the effort began in earnest, it was virtually impossible to think about Trump without immediately thinking: Russia. And in case one failed to do so, the media was there to provide a reminder of the truth, however inconveniently uncorroborated it might have been.
This brings us to the final irony. In the reporting on Pelosi’s recent Gaza comments, an evidentiary disclaimer — “without offering evidence” — was included. Reuters reported, “A US Muslim group criticized former House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday after she suggested, without offering evidence, that some protesters demanding a ceasefire in Gaza could be linked to Russia and urged the FBI to investigate.”
This phrase is precisely the one the media omitted from almost every report (op-ed, cable monologue, podcast, interview and investigative series) regarding Trump’s supposed connections to Putin’s Kremlin. Have times changed, or just the topic?
We’ll likely find the answer to that in coming weeks as Trump cements his position as the Republican nominee, Biden continues to gibber Democrats into an electoral crisis, and the media emerges from its investigative hibernation with the realisation that it has a very specific set of skills. Maybe, just maybe, Russiagate lives on.