One of the more satisfying sideshows of the Trump era has been the media falling on its face as it spins poorly-sourced—even fabricated—conspiracy tales about Republicans, all while dismissing evidence of political corruption at the government’s highest level. This shoddy excuse for journalism has ensnared more than a few reporters as they expose their complicity with the biggest political scandal in U.S. history: The coordinated attempt between the Obama Administration and powerful Democratic Party interests in 2016 to destroy their political opposition, including the Republican nominee for president.
One example comes this week amid reports that House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) traveled to London to dig up dirt on ex-British spy and Trump-Russia dossier author, Christopher Steele—an accusation Nunes’s office wholly denies.
In a piece in The Atlantic on August 28—the day Bruce Ohr, a top Justice Department official ensnared in the scandal, testified to Congress before closed doors—Natasha Bertrand claims top U.K. security officials snubbed Nunes’s request to meet with them to discuss Steele and his contacts with Ohr.
Bertrand cites “two people familiar with his trip across the pond who requested anonymity to discuss the chairman’s travels” as her only proof Nunes was attempting to talk with officers at three British agencies: MI6, MI5, and the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.
Bertrand quotes one anonymous “person familiar with the trip” who insisted the Brits were concerned the California congressman was “trying to stir up a controversy,” even though the one U.K. official with whom she did speak confirmed meetings between congressional leaders and British intelligence officers is normal.
Bertrand remarked about Nunes’s “fixation” with the former British spy who was hired in 2016 by surrogates of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign to initiate the Trump-Russia collusion hoax; she insisted the snub “is symbolic of the political island on which Nunes finds himself as he continues his search for wrongdoing by the Justice Department.” Nunes’s efforts, Bertrand suggests, are nothing more than the actions of a Trump-loyalist and political hack trying to win favor with the president.
But the London trip story was just a pretext for a bigger hit piece on Nunes. Bertrand attempted to debunk Nunes’s February 2018 memo that first exposed how Steele’s dossier was used by the FBI to secure FISA warrants against Carter Page (she erroneously states that the FBI’s application informed the court of the dossier’s political origins) and downplay the role of Ohr’s wife, Nellie, who worked on the dossier while employed by Fusion GPS.
Bertrand’s dubious article quickly filled the anti-Trump media echo chamber that has been gunning for Nunes since he started uncovering the Russiagate scandal. A Slate headline blared “Devin Nunes Went to London to Get Dirt on Christopher Steele. Britain’s Spies Wouldn’t Meet With Him,” and criticized congressional Republicans for their “assault on the credibility of Steele.” A Vanity Fair piece mocked Nunes as a “Homeland”-type character whose “secret trip” was an embarrassing failure. A London-based reporter for Reuters also regurgitated Bertrand’s account but he appeared unable to get confirmation from his own sources on the ground. Similar coverage appeared in the Washington Post, The Hill, and cable news outlets.
In an interview on MSNBC, Bertrand pushed her flimsy story, telling Lawrence O’Donnell that “because of Nunes’s track record in disclosing classified information, and potentially compromising sources, they were wary of giving him any kind of information.” The young reporter then dispensed some political advice to the seven-term congressman: “Devin Nunes should be at home with his constituents ahead of the election where he faces a close race instead of going on these international trips which is very, very weird.” (Cook Political Report ranks Nunes’s race this year as “solid Republican.”)
But one minor problem with Bertrand’s London trip saga: None of it is true. A spokesman for the House Intelligence Committee denied every aspect of her story.
“While in London, Chairman Nunes did not discuss Christopher Steele in any meetings, he did not try to schedule any meetings to discuss Steele, and he did not seek out or request any information whatsoever related to Steele,” Jack Langer wrote to me in an email Friday. “It’s amazing how an utterly false story based on anonymous sources is uncritically re-reported by dozens of media outlets. Readers can determine for themselves whether these outlets are gullible or simply partisan mouthpieces for the Democrats—and those two things are not mutually exclusive.”
Further, Nunes was only in London for less than 24 hours and the stop was part of a multi-country trip the Congressman took earlier this month to visit U.S. troops and foreign officials.
Aside from the fact that Bertrand’s account of Nunes’s trip is completely fictional and “anonymously-sourced,” let’s suppose it was true. So what? Steele is a foreigner at the center of a major U.S. political scandal. Each week, new revelations about his interactions with top government officials are made public, raising disturbing questions about his influence in our government and, indeed, what impact his anti-Trump research had in the presidential campaign. Steele was fired by the FBI in October 2016 for violating agency protocol by leaking information to the press just days before the election. Earlier this year, Senate leaders asked the Justice Department to investigate Steele for lying to federal officials. And Steele refuses to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
So if Nunes, as a top-ranking intelligence official in Congress, wanted to get more information about Steele from Steele’s former employer in the British government, what would be the big deal? Steele is not a victim nor is he a bit player in this story. He is a central figure in the most contentious political scandal in American history that has divided the nation, monopolized media coverage, violated the rights of private citizens, cost taxpayers millions of dollars; and jeopardized the stability of the federal government. Congressional oversight of an unchecked, unelected bureaucracy that is colluding with foreign agents to compromise the integrity of a national election and undermine an administration is the only thing standing between freedom and a police state.
Which makes it all the more galling and irresponsible of the media—particularly inexperienced reporters such as Bertrand—to make up stories designed to smear elected officials whose duty it is to expose the very same “conspiracies” and foreign intrusions into our political process they have been falsely pushing about Trump-Russia for more than two years.
Their motive is more sinister than just biased reporting: It is an effort to create noise and distract away from the unfolding Russiagate scandal. And no tactic, even manufacturing news, is beneath them.
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