HOLLYWOOD, California—Not long after moving to Los Angeles last year, I did what every transplanted East Coast hack out here does and pitched a series.
It was satire on our current obsession with foreign interference in American democracy, nominally about a Russian oligarch (working title: Oligarch) who lives and thrives in Manhattan and genuinely loves America: its culture, its politics, its no-strings perquisites for the super-rich. Yury had grown up reading Friedman and Hayek under the covers and badly wishing he was part of the cartoon depravity depicted in Soviet propaganda, and now he is. But, because he’s Russian, he’s still beholden to the system that created him and that means doing as he’s told whenever the motherland has a special request. A big one has just come in.
The intelligence organs back home want him to swing a U.S. Senate race in New York by secretly financing an online alt-media outlet called The Whole Truth.
Yury thinks the plan is insane. For one thing, he’s on intimate terms with the putative targets for such active measures. He throws fundraisers for celebrity charities in East Hampton, he endows wings at Lincoln Center and is on cheek-kissing terms with the mayor. Yury thinks the plan can never work. But his handlers, who include his father, a retired general of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, disagree. They insist that now is the perfect time to meddle in the internal affairs of the main adversary, even in the deepest of blue states. They even have their own polling data to prove it.
Well, the oligarch can’t exactly say nyet lest he “accidentally” die in a helicopter crash or waste away from an illness which leads to half of the Upper East Side being quarantined. So he goes along with the scheme, but with a catch. He tries to sabotage the sabotage operation by overdelivering: dialing up the lies to eleven, forgoing any nuance or subtlety. Then, when The Whole Truth implodes, he can play the crestfallen patriot who at least gave it his best shot, which, in a way, he did.
Except overdelivering works. The Whole Truth is dizzy with success. A no-shot ex-con has been transformed into a frontrunner and Yury finds himself the Max Bialystock of disinformation. His handlers are amazed at the result and consider him a genius even as he flirts with a nervous breakdown trying to figure out how his adoptive country, his true homeland, has become terra incognita. The only idealist in the show is a compromised Russian billionaire. It’s the Americans he loves who turn out to be a lot worse than he realized.
“Who’d want to watch a show about how stupid Americans are?” a Hollywood agent asked me when I gave my elevator pitch for Oligarch. The perennial answer to this question, of course, is the British. Now, strangely, it’s everyone.
Robert Mueller has performed a few valuable services to a troubled nation. First, he’s managed our expectations. It’s highly unlikely we’ll be seeing a urine-stained mattress exfiltrated from the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow forensically analyzed by Rachel Maddow over the course of six captivating hours on MSNBC. Alas, not even Rob Reiner is going to chase down that angry Czech waiter with documentary proof that Michael Cohen is, among other things, a lousy tipper.
“Collusion” as a liberal theme, an all-encompassing accusation, will no doubt endure in late-night panel discussions and email threads started by your mother-in-law. But the special counsel has helpfully explained that it was never really much of a legal concept to begin with. Even the more relevant question as to whether or not the Trump campaign “conspired” or “coordinated” with Russia was always limited to the parameters of Russia’s “election interference activities,” which Mueller defines narrowly as hacking and trolling.
He painstakingly shows how the GRU and IRA, two acronyms formerly associated in the popular imagination with a Pixar villain and an Irish terrorist organization, mounted a “sweeping and systemic” effort to subvert a U.S. presidential contest by overloading the electorate with information.
Much of that information was true in the form of Democratic correspondence stolen by Russia’s military intelligence agency and disseminated through its reliable clearinghouse WikiLeaks. Plenty of it was fabricated in the form of alarmist anti-facts such as, “BREAKING: Thousands of names changed on voter rolls in Indiana. Police investigating #Voterfraud. #DrainTheSwamp,” which Don, Jr. found credible and newsworthy enough to retweet just days before the election, even if he thought he was endorsing what the “Unofficial Twitter of Tennessee Republicans” was reporting, not what Irina from St. Petersburg was being paid to type.
All of that information, however, found eager accomplices in tens of millions of us who amplified or consumed or simply commented on it. If there was a conspiracy against America, then we were all co-conspirators.
In some cases, we even built wondrous towers of derangement out of the raw materials provided by the Russians. John Podesta’s Satanic repast, supposedly born of his hacked and leaked emails, was a homegrown conspiracy theory. So was the Comet Ping Pong pedophile ring, which culminated in an attempted shooting and an attempted arson.
Officers of the GRU didn’t invent Jack Prosobiec or Alex Jones or Mike Cernovich and would probably be court-martialed by the Russian Defense Ministry if they tried. But they didn’t have to. What luck for Putin’s spies that so many lunatics and charlatans exist naturally in American society, all with their own lines of male vitality supplements.
Nowhere is the native rot at the heart of our democracy more amply demonstrated in Mueller’s 448-page report than in the latter half of Volume I, which deals with the various members of the Trump campaign who liaised with emissaries of the Kremlin. Mueller here acts a Virgil guiding us through the moronic inferno of an unlikely candidacy for high office. If anything, it’s the Russians, primarily interested in alleviating sanctions and satisfying their own naked interests, who come across as befuddled and exasperated to even be dealing with such a motley assortment of outer-borough lowlifes and chancers.
George Papadopoulos may not have been to blame for meeting a dodgy Maltese “professor” in London who told him Moscow was in possession of Democratic communications several weeks before The Washington Post broke that story to the world. But George Papadopoulos was foolish enough to tell not one but two diplomats from two different U.S. allies about this alarming encounter, prompting the very counterintelligence investigation of which he now proclaims himself a victim.
It was not necessarily Carter Page’s fault that officers of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, once tried to recruit him years ago in New York on the basis of his well-publicized lust for Gazprom money. It was Carter Page’s fault, however, that he told the FBI he knowingly passed along “non-public information” to those he assumed to be Russian spies in order to help make America great again. And this is someone the conservatives right now tells us has been maligned by the American press.
In 2015, Felix Sater, a Trump Organization employee who had once gone to prison for slashing someone in the face with the broken stem of a martini glass, had the inspired idea to bring Trump’s consigliere to Russia under the auspices of VTB, a Russian state-owned bank, which a simple Google search will have shown was sanctioned only the previous year by the Treasury Department for its role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov might have thought that too conspicuous a trip for Michael Cohen to take. In the event, however, Sater was bluffing his connections to Russian stakeholders, so the plan fizzled.
As for Cohen, someone who now says he pleaded guilty to crimes he didn’t commit, he not only confused the former aide and press secretary to Russia’s energy minister (a useful contact for anyone to have) with an Olympic weightlifter, he persisted in that confusion even after the Special Counsel’s Office told him he was wrong. And Cohen then lamented, in a letter he sent to the incorrect email address for Putin’s press secretary, that chatter about building a Trump Tower in Moscow had “stalled” between the Trump Organization and the Russian government.
Erik Prince runs a notorious American mercenary outfit, a previous incarnation of which was guilty of war crimes in Iraq. So I doubt very much that the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund was in the mood to hear what his country could or could not do with the respect to the civil war in Libya. But such was the commandment Prince handed down to Kirill Dmitriev at the Four Seasons in the Seychelles when the Russian was only ever there to suss out improved bilateral relations. Not that he wanted to be. Dmitriev, Mueller informs us, thought Prince far too junior a figure on the Trump transition team to be talking to at all. Now he found Prince peremptory and boorish, too. The Seychelles meeting went nowhere.
Martin Scorsese would fire a screenwriter who tried to pass off Paul Manafort as a plausible cafone in a gangster flick. But Donald Trump thought him just the right man to manage his campaign all the way to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Yet Manafort only used that unpaid job to repair his ruptured business relationships with a series of dodgy oligarchs. Chief among these was Oleg Deripaska, who was suing an already hard-up Manafort over a failed investment project. Manafort even instructed his longtime crony Konstantin Kilimnik, “who the FBI assesses to have ties to Russian intelligence,” to pass along internal polling data from the Trump campaign to Deripaska. But this wasn’t done to help the Russians install Trump in the White House, which the Donald might have at least appreciated. No, it was to help Manafort “get whole” with the metals magnate who must have by now concluded that the lobbyist was a dead-beat and a liability.
Even after Manafort resigned from the campaign, he continued to advise it, offering Jared Kushner a strategy memo on how to portray Hillary Clinton as “the failed and corrupt champion of the establishment.” That might have been the height of his chutzpah but for what followed Trump’s election. That’s when Manafort finally cashed in by traveling to “the Middle East, Cuba, South Korea, Japan, and China” to explain to curious foreigners what they might expect from the new administration. Presumably a raft of indictments and prison terms wasn’t in that made-to-order forecast.
Which brings me to the most important thing Mueller has done—something I had no idea a rock-ribbed G-man out of a 1950s comic book could ever do in the era of post-truth populism. In anatomizing active measures, he has shown us just how prosaic these weapons of mass psychology really are. They neither hypnotize nor mystify; they simply hold up a mirror to reflect the venality, baseness and stupidity of which their target audience, their dupes, are quite capable without any external intercession.
The weapon the Russians used against our democracy was one always located on these shores. They sought out the all-American assholes among us, patted them on the head, and offered loud encouragement for them to simply keep going.