Opinion

Trump’s White House is Using Putin’s Lying Kremlin Tactics

The Department of Justice investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 election has survived the holiday season and fears that, while the country was distracted, the White House would make a move to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

While Mueller’s job is secure for the time being, his investigation is under increasing pressure as the President’s allies in Congress and the media ramp up their campaign to discredit the former FBI Director.

The latest effort is Devin Nunes’s attempt to draft a report on “corruption” within Mueller’s team. This follows a string of similar attempts to sling mud at Mueller, including calls for his recusal or resignation; accusations that the investigation illegally collected transition emails ; and claims from Fox News commentators suggesting the Special Counsel is plotting a “ coup in America ” or an assassination attempt.

A very troubling trend is emerging: these are the very same style of tactics used by the Kremlin and other authoritarian governments.

Moscow has deployed similar tools across Europe, and has been doing so for decades. However, to best understand how these types of tactics unfold, it's helpful to look at a single example: Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014. When doing so the parallels with the ongoing anti-Mueller agenda become disturbingly clear.  GettyImages-872528266 Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit leaders gala dinner in the Vietnamese city of Danang on November 10, 2017. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty   

America and other Western governments were highly critical of the invasion, citing the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response was to engage in a high-stakes game of “whataboutism,” the strategy of drawing false moral equivalencies with two things that are not necessarily comparable.

This has been a favorite strategy of Russian propaganda going back to the Soviet era and even the Tsarist times, but has reemerged under Putin. When it came to the invasion of Ukraine, Putin was eager to strike on what he saw as Western hypocrisy regarding state sovereignty, raising Western intervention in Kosovo, Iraq and, Libya.  

Another tried and true tactic from Moscow’s propaganda machine is to muddy the waters and create confusion about what is true and what isn’t.

Returning to the case of Ukraine in 2014, the Russian soldiers who invaded Eastern Ukraine—the so called “ little green men ”—were not wearing traditional uniforms or identified as regular Russian soldiers, violating important international norms. This allowed Russia to sow just enough doubt that the invading force was not in fact Russian.

There was no truth to the matter, but those who wanted to believe it were given a jumping-off point.

When really pushed however, the Kremlin resorted to full-scale conspiracy theories not based in any form of reality.

After Russian-backed separatists shot down a commercial airliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the Kremlin and its supporters in the Russian press advanced multiple alternative explanations for how the flight could have been shot down, including the possibility that it was an attack by Ukrainian fighter jets, that it was at the direction of the Obama administration, and even that the actual target of the strike was President Putin as part of a NATO-led assassination attempt. These were all, of course, lies.

The White House and its allies are using these same methods in their attacks on the Mueller investigation: there’s whataboutism around the funding of the Fusion GPS dossier.

There’s muddying of waters by continually re-raising the Uranium One deal, a manufactured controversy that has been repeatedly and consistently debunked, as well as the fantastical claims of liberal bias at the FBI. And now we are seeing full-fledged conspiracy theories entering the mainstream, throwing around words like “coup” and “assassination.”

While Mueller has survived so far, one thing we do know about President Trump is that he is prone to rash and unpredictable behavior and his allies are laying the groundwork everyday for a potential firing everyday. Recent reporting even claims that the President in fact wants to fire Mueller but is only being held back by his lawyers who are telling him what he wants to hear.

This is why the Mueller investigation needs to be protected. There is currently a bipartisan effort in the Senate to craft legislation that will deter President Trump from firing Mueller. The legislation is far from foolproof but it does provide some boundaries and protection.

More importantly, however, it would send a clear message to President Trump – and the country – that America is not an authoritarian state and no one is above the law.

The White House is not the Kremlin, and Congress needs to make sure it stays that way.

James Lamond is manager of the Moscow Project at American Progress.