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I Need 20 CC's of Hopeium, STAT!
The MAGA answer to the Mueller investigation is fizzling out: Trump's fans have never been more excited. Plus: Are Russian military bloggers set to take over the invasion?
Over the past two years, few names have become as meaningful and invested with hope as John Durham’s.
Even folks who kept close tabs on the dizzying twists and turns of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election could be forgiven for only vaguely knowing who Durham is. Because, outwardly, his work has been wrapped up in a marathon series of grand jury hearings that have produced very little actionable information.
But for those who are convinced that that something nefarious is going on in America, an increasingly-desperate series of moves by a carnivorous deep state determined to keep its iron grip on power, Durham was rich in a scarce resource:
This week, on Bug-eyed and Shameless, a look at the Trump-launched investigation that keeps his supporters hanging on. Later in the newsletter, for subscribers only: Are Russian military bloggers calling the shots in Ukraine? And: A few words about Pierre Poilievre, the conspiracy theory-peddler who might be the next prime minister of Canada.
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The hysteria around ‘Russiagate,’ as we now call it, might feel like a century ago to most of us. But for Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters, ones who see the domestic threat of the Democrat Party as orders of magnitude more dangerous than the over-hyped Russian menace, it is still very close to the bone.
Let’s quickly recap:
In 2016, as we know, the Russian government led a coordinated and organized effort to tilt the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.
As we’ll recall, there was both an FBI investigation and a private dirt-digging operation into the idea that the Trump campaign had shady ties with Russia, that it could have even had knowledge of their meddling, or, maybe, that they actively helped — perhaps because Moscow had kompromat, on Trump, maybe in the form of a tap of the would-be president getting wet and wild with a few professional female entertainers.
The duelling narratives led to the appointment of two different special counsel investigators.
The first, Robert Mueller, embarked on a complex and wide-ranging investigation into ties between Trump and Russia. While it led to indictments, and ultimately revealed a deep contempt for democracy inside the Trump campaign, it did not drop the bombshell the Democrats had hoped for. “The Office identified multiple contacts…between Trump Campaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government,” but, Mueller and his team found, “the investigation did not establish such coordination.”
The second, led by John Durhmam, had a murkier mandate. The order establishing his special investigation tasked him to investigate whether any of those counter-intelligence investigators broke the law in surveilling the Trump campaign.
It was, indeed, a meta-investigation. An investigation within an investigation. Investigations all the way down.
Clearly, partisans had a favorite investigation. Democrats wanted the Mueller investigation to prove Trump’s complicity in election interference, which could be downright treasonous. Republicans wanted Durham to establish that the Obama intelligence community was working hand-in-glove with the Clinton campaign to smear Trump and tip the scales of the election.
Neither of those hope-based theories turned out to be quite true, of course.
But while the Mueller investigation wrapped up with a lengthy report, separating fact from fiction and dashing the hopes of anyone who dared hope that it may end with Trump in handcuffs, the Durham probe has slogged on in relative silence.
The only real explosions of activity for the Durham probe happened in the fall of 2021, when he indicted lawyer Michael Sussman and Russian national Igor Danchenko. Sussman, it was alleged, had been working for the Clinton campaign when he passed on information to the FBI — that later turned out to be bunk. Danchenko, allegedly, lied to the FBI about the sources of his information.
Sussman was acquitted in May, while Danchenko is awaiting trial.
The Durham probe’s silence has been interpreted as success by Trump’s fans.
For years, the mere mention of Durham’s name has been a straight shot of hopeium straight to the brain for Trump’s loyal followers. It goes all the way down.
Trump has encouraged it in his own special way: “We’ve been waiting for Durham for a long time. Durham: Please come in and give us your work! Durham, Durham, we’ve got to get Durham going, here,” he chanted at a recent rally.
Fox News, Newsmax, One America News: They’ve all obsessed over Durham’s investigation, often getting things outright wrong in the process. Fox, for example, got flogged by the New York Times for wildly misrepresenting what Durham himself said in court documents. In response, Fox claimed that the Times should’ve spent less time fact-checking their reporting and more time salivating over the court filings.
Much like everything in Trump world, the real information war was happening below the surface. As one QAnon influencer wrote on his Substack: “Durham indicted members of the Clinton legal team and introduced to the public that the Russia investigation was a treasonous hoax perpetrated by Hillary and Obama and subversion of the DOJ, FBI, CIA at the highest levels.”
Some of the most influential QAnon figures have touted the idea for years that Durham would be a key figure in the coming military tribunals — the one, presided over by Trump, that will indict, maybe even execute, senior deep state officials like Hillary Clinton. That thinking only intensified after the 2020 election.
Of course, the good ship Hope crashed on the rocks of reality just about every time for Trump and the gang.
“Things are getting spicy 🔥” one account swore as the Sussman trial began. The jury deliberated for just six hours before returning a verdict of not guilty. Ah, well, nevertheless. One major MAGA account wrote: “His smile this morning leads me to believe this verdict was not unplanned for.”
The acquittal signalled the beginning of the end for the probe.
Durham’s grand jury has expired, and isn’t likely to be renewed. Danchenko’s trial looks set to return another acquittal. Key staff are leaving the probe for jobs in the private sector. And Durham himself is getting set to hand his report into the Justice Department by the end of the year.
This is how the probe ends. Not with a bang but a lengthy report redacted to obscure sources and methods.
Even in the home stretch, the hope is strong. One MAGA account pointed to the upcoming Danchenko trial and smugly sigh: “He truly caught them all.” A New York Post article haughtily proclaimed: “John Durham’s final act: exposing the FBI.” Paul Manafort — who has either been convicted or pleaded guilty to a host of charges, including witness tampering and conspiracy to defraud the government — had the audacity to go on a QAnon podcast and proclaim: “Durham has connected the dots.”
All of this nonsense orbiting the Durham investigation was, perhaps, the whole purpose of the Durham investigation.
The narrative that has been established in Trumpworld is that Clinton’s campaign coordinated with the FBI to fabricate the Russian meddling narrative, and relied on shady witnesses to justify actual surveillance of the Trump campaign.
Nevermind that such a narrative is not supported by anything Durham has filed, it was also eviscerated by a 2019 report by the FBI’s Inspector General — which found that the original Russiagate tip originated from Australia, that ex-British spy Christopher Steele was merely one source for the FBI investigation, and that evidence for this collusion went well beyond just the vague allegations found in Steele’s unfinished dossier. None of that matters.
What matters is that the Durham probe has been a central point around which to rally, brainstorm, and pitch. In an era of divided attention and a fast-moving news cycle, having common points to stick with is essential.
Indeed, that was the whole point of QAnon. In its earliest inception, Q was a bunch of 4chan shitposters making up classified intelligence to impress their anonymous friends. But what that meant, in practice, was: Let’s talk about Ukraine! Or: What about human trafficking?
Fundamentally, this was about agenda setting. When Q materialized as the pope of the paranoid masses, they mixed ripped-from-the-headlines topics — “Who was ‘Jane Roe’?” reads one of the most recent drops, from just after the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion — to the downright vague, encouraging the masses to put their heads together and come up with their own metatheries of the world. (On November 13, 2020, Q posted simply: “Durham.”)
So it doesn’t matter if Durham obtains a single conviction, or if his report alleges any actual wrongdoing in the ranks of the FBI. All that really matters is that, for some 30 months, he has gotten the Trump masses singing from the same hymn book: Even if they’re making up the text.
As Ukrainian forces swept through Kharkiv Oblast, liberating the largest swath of territory yet in their defensive war against Russia, the extent to which Moscow seemed caught off-guard surprised, I think, everyone — including the Ukrainians.
Russia has undergone multiple reboots of its invasion since it began. In April, Vladimir Putin tapped Aleksandr Dvornikov to lead the war effort after his existing leadership failed to topple Kyiv as quickly as the Kremlin had hoped. By June, Dvornikov was out and…someone else was in.
Exactly who is actually leading the Russian effort in Ukraine remains a matter of some speculation. The Consensus seems to be that it is Gennady Zhidko, while others have reported it is likely Sergey Surovikin.
Expect more shake-ups as Moscow rages over their most recent humiliation. Increasingly, however, pro-Russian influencers say the person really in need of replacement is Putin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu.
The natural response may be to say: Who cares what these influencers think? There is, however, some wisdom to their criticisms.
For starters, many of these influencers watch this war like hawks: Some are actually reporting from near the frontlines. Others have close contacts with Russian fighters and, in some cases, the leadership. While some are merely armchair critics, others consider themselves military correspondents or bloggers. Their read of the situation is often quite enlightened, although their solutions usually turn on the idea that Russia needs to get even more brutal in its warfighting. Most critically: They are much more willing to speak to failures of the Russian military than Putin’s own advisors.
As one account put it earlier this month, these influencers have been levying some valid, constructive, criticism and the leadership has, instead, “crapped on the criticism and on us.” Shoigu, they wrote, has “completely failed.”
One figure, however, has been increasingly popular with these bloggers: Yevgeny Prigozhin
Prigozhin is not a soldier, by trade. He earned his fortune through his catering business — and gross corruption. His close relationship with the president has earned him the title of “Putin’s chef.”
His real utility to the Kremlin has been his relationship with the quasi-private military contractor the Wagner Group. (While he has previously sought to deny those links, the pretense has largely been dropped.)
Wagner has been responsible for war crimes in Syria and in conflicts throughout Africa. While its role in Ukraine has been somewhat murky — its status as a “private” contractor is a misnomer, as its units often integrate with the Russian military directly — its presence in the fighting has been an increasingly-popular propaganda effort by Moscow, as I wrote back in March.
Prigozhin knows the power of social media, particularly messaging platform Telegram. Wagner has a network of pages on the platform, which advertise their work in Ukraine. Prigozhin himself has reportedly spoken to some of these bloggers, treating their Telegram pages as trusted news outlets — one account recently posted a purported conversation with Prigozhin where he revealed his organization’s tactics in the Donbas region, proposed possible courses of action for the Ministry of Defense, and remarked “I hope the Ministry of Defense will deal with it.”
The Institute for the Study of war remarked that the tete-a-tete between Prigozhin and that influencer, “if it occurred, could indicate that the Kremlin is attempting to address milbloggers’ months-long complaints that the Russian Defense Ministry did not hear their criticism highlighting the ineffectiveness of Russian higher command.” The Institute has, quite smartly, noted on the apparent Kremlin efforts to cater their information war to the bloggers’ interests. A larger shift in military tactics to appease the influencers, who tend to be more bloodthirsty and nationalistic, could be a terrifying development.
Particularly worth watching is Prigozhin. Recently, he showed up at a Russian prison with a plan to conscript inmates into his forces, offering six months on the brutal frontlines for their freedom. Some have speculated that he may be destined for Shoigu’s job. That would be terrifying.
Finally, Canada’s Conservative Party has a new leader.
On the night he was crowned prime-minister-in-waiting, I offered some initial thoughts:
Those thoughts proved somewhat controversial, with some folks accusing me of trying to rehabilitate Poilievre’s profile — arguing that he is, in fact, a white supremacist and should be referred to as such.
I expanded on some of those thoughts in the Globe & Mail over the weekend. Some of that column was a response to those who were gobsmacked that I would suggest that Poilievre is, personally, anything other than a monstrous evil unleashed on the country.
We need to keep two ideas in our heads about Mr. Poilievre: He is appealing to the fringe where extremists may live, but he is not himself an extremist, and won’t behave like one.
Some may argue that is a distinction without a difference – that putting food out for conspiracy theorists makes you one of them. Maybe they have a point. But Hillary Clinton’s stunning 2016 loss in the U.S. presidential race is a prime example in how writing off this populist anger, and refusing to battle charlatan politicians on their own turf, is a recipe for disaster. Mr. Poilievre’s electoral strategy is, unfortunately, solid – and he may yet endear himself to working-class voters who simply ignore his conspiratorial overtures.
I actually got to know Poilievre a little bit over my time in Ottawa. My read of the man is pretty straightforward: He is, to a fault, an ambitious opportunist.
If the political climate were such that Poilievre thought he could rocket to power by attending a drag queen brunch and espousing the useful contributions of international fora like the World Economic Forum, you can bet that he would. He, obviously, has a very different read of the current state of affairs.
That’s not to say that Poilievre has zero principles. He certainly has some: He has always been a small government conservative who harbors a zealous belief in his political party. I think he has some red lines: I don’t think he’s willing to engage in outright ethno-nationalism. (Either way: His supporters, by and large, don’t want him to.)
We need to understand Poilievre as someone who hears what the most rabidly engaged amongst his base are saying, and reflects it back to them. To simply write him off as innately extremist and a white nationalist obscures that entire interplay.
Any effort to pigeonhole Poilievre as a racist and xenophobe, even as he offers up only positive messaging around immigration, is going to be a real mistake.
That’s it for this week.
You may have noticed that B-EAS came out on Monday this week, not Friday. Expect the schedule to return to normal in the near future!