One day after her network joined the rest of corporate media in cheering for President Trump’s missile attack on Syria, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow was back to regular business: seeing Russian collaboration with Trump at work.
It’s “impossible,” fellow anchor Lawrence O’Donnell told Maddow on April 7, to rule out that “Vladimir Putin orchestrated what happened in Syria this week – so that his friend in the White House could have a big night with missiles and all of the praise he’s picked up over the past 24 hours.”
Maddow concurred, suggesting that only the FBI’s ongoing probe into Trump’s alleged collusion with Russian electoral interference will determine the truth. “Maybe eventually we’ll get an answer to that from [FBI Director] Jim Comey,” Maddow said.
The Washington Post noted that the “conspiracy theory” drew “derision from across the political spectrum.” But it was not out of place.
MSNBC, the country’s most prominent liberal media outlet, has played a key role in stoking the frenzy over Trump’s alleged involvement with Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential race — in lock step with the Democratic Party’s most avid partisans.
Jennifer Palmieri, a senior member of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, captured the prevailing mentality when she recently urged party members to talk about the Russian “attack on our republic” — and to do so “relentlessly and above all else.”
And no leading media figure has done so more than Maddow. In the period since Election Day, “The Rachel Maddow Show” has covered “The Russia Connection” — and Russia, generally — more than it has any other issue.
Here is a video sampling:
The Intercept conducted a quantitative study of all 28 TRMS episodes in the six-week period between February 20 and March 31. Russia-focused segments accounted for 53 percent of these broadcasts.
That figure is conservative, excluding segments where Russia was discussed, but was not the overarching topic.
Maddow’s Russia coverage has dwarfed the time devoted to other top issues, including Trump’s escalating crackdown on undocumented immigrants (1.3 percent of coverage); Obamacare repeal (3.8 percent); the legal battle over Trump’s Muslim ban (5.6 percent), a surge of anti-GOP activism and town halls since Trump took office (5.8 percent), and Trump administration scandals and stumbles (11 percent).
Maddow’s focus on Russia has helped her ratings, which are at their highest level since 2008.
As MSNBC’s most popular host, Maddow over the years has become a critical voice for U.S. progressives, helping to shape the outlook of millions of viewers and the smaller left-leaning outlets that follow her lead. A supremely gifted journalist who Vanity Fair has dubbed “the smartest person on TV,” Maddow’s influence is well-earned. She frequently brings pivotal national attention to overlooked stories, such as the poisoning of Flint, Michgan’s water supply.
While proof of collusion with Moscow could well emerge — and could well topple Trump’s presidency — the “above all else” focus on Russia lacks concrete supporting evidence, either of Russian hacking and cyber disinformation impacting the vote’s outcome or of the Trump campaign’s complicity with it. Journalist Matt Taibbi calls it “an exercise of conspiratorial mass hysteria.”
This muddies the waters for a sober, credible investigation of Russia’s actions — but that is the least of its consequences. Democrats have avoided constructive introspection on their seismic election loss by blaming the Kremlin. Anti-Russia sentiment threatens to turn into rank xenophobia and escalate tensions with a nuclear-armed power. And most critically for a vital news source like Maddow’s show, every moment devoted to scrutinizing Trump’s alleged Russia ties deflects attention from his administration’s actual policies.
In the six-week period we reviewed, Maddow covered Russia not just more than any other issue, but more than every other issue combined. The contrast is particularly striking when comparing the amount of time that speculative Russia stories received versus critical non-Russia issues.
The Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare, which was in full swing during the six-week period, got less coverage (nearly 46 minutes) than six other individual Russia issues on the chart below, such as the plight of Russian dissidents under Putin’s rule (54 minutes) or alleged Russian hacking and cyber disinformation (70 minutes). Trump’s Muslim travel ban got less time (67 minutes) than any one of four other Russia-related issues, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s Russia ties (88 minutes). Trump’s escalation of immigration raids and deportations (16 minutes) got just over half the coverage of the Russian-related machinations of his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort (31 minutes).
In 16 of the 28 episodes analyzed, Russia comprised either all or a substantial part of the “A-block”, the show’s headlining and far lengthiest segment, which often amounts to nearly half the show, excluding commercials.
Maddow’s foremost concern has been alleged Trump-Moscow collusion, which she has repeatedly suggested has continued beyond the election. Here she is on March 9:
What’s getting to be, I think, particularly unsettling, is that simultaneously, we are … number one, nailing down more direct connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government at the time the Russian government was influencing our election. Number two, at the same time, we are also starting to see what may be signs of continuing influence in our country. Not just during the campaign but during the administration. Basically, signs of what could be a continuing operation.
Maddow has acknowledged that allegations of Trump-Russia collusion are unverified. But she has ignored claims that cast them in a more skeptical light. For instance, James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, told NBC News on March 5 that U.S. intelligence has “no evidence” of collusion between Trump and Russia. On March 15, former CIA Director and Hillary Clinton surrogate Michael Morrell said “there is smoke, but there is no fire, at all.” Those statements have gone unmentioned.
Proposed budget cuts, canceled press briefings, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s muted role have led Maddow to wonder if Trump is weakening the State Department on Vladimir Putin’s behalf. “We have to ask,” Maddow said in a 12-minute segment on March 8, “whether [Russia] wanted actions by U.S. political figures to weaken the parts of America that most annoy and that most undermine Vladimir Putin.” In an extended follow-up the next night, Maddow said, “Silencing the U.S. State Department, putting a friend of Vladimir Putin’s in charge at the U.S. State Department, who stands by quietly while the State Department gets hollowed out, gets gutted… That’s a dream for Putin.”
On March 7, WikiLeaks published documents exposing cyber tools used by the CIA to penetrate cell phones and other devices. Two days later, Maddow blamed Putin. Reminding viewers that WikiLeaks had released the Podesta emails, Maddow asked:
Consider what the other U.S. agency is besides the State Department that Putin most hates? That Putin most feels competitive with? That Putin most wants to beat? It’s the CIA, right? Spy versus spy. Putin is ex-KGB. He’s an ex-FSB officer… Smart observers say this is the largest dump of classified CIA material maybe ever, and it really could be a devastating blow to the CIA’s cyber war and flat-out spying capabilities, and that dump was released by WikiLeaks.
Maddow ommited the widely circulated reports that U.S. intelligence officials believe that the CIA’s own contractors were behind the cyber tools leak.
A popular internet theory posits that RT (formerly Russia Today), the Kremlin-funded television network, had advance knowledge of a WikiLeaks release of hacked Podesta emails. The claim is based on RT’s Twitter account reporting the release 19 minutes before WikiLeaks’ Twitter account did. Here’s Maddow on March 9:
Russian state television was magically able to tweet about the next release of John Podesta e-mails. The sixth release of John Podesta e-mails even before WikiLeaks released them… Russia Today, how did you know it was coming?
But RT answered the question months earlier: the Podesta emails appeared on the WikiLeaks website before WikiLeaks got around to tweeting about it.
On March 8 – one day after congressional Republicans unveiled their Obamacare repeal bill – Maddow led her show with “dramatic news.” U.S. officials, she explained, “are looking into a Russian citizen in conjunction with one of the incidents on the Trump campaign last year which defied explanation at the time”: the rejection of a proposed amendment to the Republican Party platform that called for sending lethal aid to Ukraine. Politico reported of the Russian in question, Konstantin Kilimnik: “after a late summer trip to the U.S., Kilimnik suggested that he had played a role in gutting a proposed amendment to the Republican Party platform that would have staked out a more adversarial stance towards Russia, according to a Kiev operative.”
The Politico report, Maddow explained over the course of 16 minutes, confirms “essentially a quid pro quo between Russia and the Donald Trump campaign,” whereby the Trump campaign sought “to take Russian intervention in Ukraine basically out of the Republican Party platform as an issue.”
But Politico’s main revelation was that U.S. investigators are “looking into” a Russian guy who an unnamed Ukrainian “operative” says “suggested” that he helped the Trump campaign change the language in a document that has no practical effect on anything, and that in fact remained strongly pro-Ukrainian government, stating:
We support maintaining and, if warranted, increasing sanctions, together with our allies, against Russia unless and until Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored. We also support providing appropriate assistance to the armed forces of Ukraine and greater coordination with NATO defense planning.
On January 17, Maddow opened her broadcast by noting the parallels between Vladimir Putin’s political ascent and former British spy Christopher Steele’s just-disclosed dossier asserting that Russia has compromising details on Donald Trump’s sex life. “How Vladimir Putin stopped being just a KGB guy and got political power in the first place was by producing, at just the right time and in just the right way, just the right sex tape to use for political purposes,” Maddow said.
Maddow then discussed the increase of U.S. troops near Russia’s border during President Obama’s last days in office:
“The Kremlin is furious about it,” Maddow said. “Russia hates it, but our allies—they say they want it.” And so, with Trump about to enter the White House, Maddow had this to say:
Here’s the question – is the new president going to take those troops out? After all the speculation, after all the worry, we are actually about to find out if Russia maybe has something on the new president? We’re about to find out if the new president of our country is going to do what Russia wants once he’s commander-in-chief of the U.S. military starting noon on Friday. What is he going to do with those deployments? Watch this space. Seriously.
As of this writing, Trump has not withdrawn the troops.
On March 7, Maddow led with the day’s top story: the unveiling of Republican plans to repeal Obamacare. “If you are worried about losing your health insurance, if you are worried about 20 million of your fellow Americans losing their health insurance, today was very scary,” Maddow said.
But after less than two minutes, Maddow promised to return to the story later and shifted gears to a higher editorial priority:
But we are going to start at this embassy. The embassy, this is a big one. It is fully staffed … there’s even an attaché specifically for fish. The fisheries attaché is named Mr. Oleg Vladimirovich Rykov.
Viewers were then treated to a 22-minute deep dive into the Steele dossier and the various ways “the bits and pieces of what’s reported in this dossier are turning out to be true and reported and checkable.” When Maddow finally returned to the day’s opening, “scary” story about millions standing to lose their health insurance, she gave it less than four more minutes.
Six days later, on March 13, Maddow opened with the day’s “absolutely astonishing” news that the Congressional Budget Office was now estimating that 24 million people would lose their health insurance if Republicans manage to repeal Obamacare. But after less than two minutes, Maddow again veered off: “We’re actually going to start the show tonight on the subject of money, lots and lots and lots and lots of money.” The ensuing 20-minute segment speculated on whether the recent firing of New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara could be tied to investigations into Russian money laundering through Deutsche Bank and the Bank of Cyprus. The CBO’s Obamacare repeal news ended up getting less than five minutes of Maddow’s time.
On March 16, Trump unveiled a budget that would boost military funding and slash vital government spending. But Maddow viewers heard no mention of the EPA, public broadcasting, meals on wheels, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the Community Development Block Grant program, or other targets of Trump’s domestic cuts. Instead, Maddow began the show by recounting the shady Russian bid to win the 2014 Winter Olympics, and how a Russian air cargo company involved in the scandal would later become one of several Russian entities that made payments to former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The 22-minute segment explored the issue of whether Flynn committed a crime in taking money from Russians, and whether the Trump campaign knew about it. The next 12 minutes were devoted to alleged Russian hacking that targeted down-ballot congressional Democratic candidates in 2016, and the Clinton campaign’s response.
Given her political expertise, journalistic acumen, and influential platform, Maddow is ideally suited to explore the Democrats’ 2016 electoral collapse in an insightful way. But the time and investigative zeal that Maddow has devoted to Russia has come at the cost of any such analysis. Maddow has shunned critical issues such as the Democratic establishment’s embrace of neoliberal financial policies and rejection of economic populism. Her audience has heard next to no discussion of why a segment of Obama voters abandoned Democrats for Trump or didn’t vote at all. Instead, lengthy segments have suggested that Clinton and the Democrats were done in by such Russian “active measures” as anti-Clinton bot attacks (their key target, a Bernie Sanders Facebook fan page in San Diego); hackers interfering in Congressional races; and fake news stories and social media posts.
Maddow has also avoided substantive post-mortems on Clinton team fumbles such as its absence of policy messaging or neglect of swing states. Clinton campaign guests have faced almost no challenge or criticism. Interviewing Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director, on December 12, Maddow asked about how Russia, FBI Director James Comey, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein fueled Clinton’s loss. Her toughest question on the campaign’s mistakes: “You guys did out raise and outspend Trump two to one. How could you have taken better advantage of your cash advantage?”
On several occasions, Maddow has described Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 race as an “attack on our election.” On March 21, she went further:
This is not part of American politics. This is not, you know, partisan warfare between Republicans and Democrats. This is international warfare against our country. And it did not end on Election Day. We are still in it.
But whatever Russia may have done, it was not “international warfare.” And it was most likely far less consequential than U.S. interference in other countries over many decades, including Russia itself.
“If the worst is true,” Maddow warned on March 17, “if the presidency is effectively a Russian op, if the American presidency right now is the product of collusion between the Russian intelligence services and an American campaign — I mean, that is so profoundly big, we not only need to stay focused on figuring it out. We need to start preparing for what the consequences are going to be if it proves to be true.”
But what if the allegations are ultimately disproved or go nowhere? Maddow and likeminded influential liberals will have led their audience on a fruitless quest, all the while helping foment anti-Russia sentiment, channeling Democratic Party energy away from productive self-critique, and diverting focus from the White House’s actual policies. Trump would be handed a further gift via the damaged credibility of his “enemy”: the media responsible for holding him to account.
And what if the media’s focus on the “Russia Connection” ends up goading Trump to become more bellicose with Russia? The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved its doomsday clock to its highest point since 1953. Among many contributing factors, the Bulletin warned: “The United States and Russia—which together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons—remained at odds in a variety of theaters.”
The need for caution was perhaps most starkly underscored last week with Trump’s Syria bombing, which prompted the Kremlin to warn that Russia and the U.S. are “on the verge” of military conflict. Rather than raising the ludicrous theory that the attack on Syria was orchestrated by Putin, as Maddow and O’Donnell speculated, it’s worth asking if Trump was motivated at least in part to show the media – a top presidential preoccupation – that Putin isn’t pulling the strings.
But Maddow shows no signs of slowing down. Her top story on Monday night was about the detention in Spain of a prominent Russian spammer, Pyotr Levashov, at the FBI’s request. Levashov’s wife has told reporters that his arrest may be linked to a computer virus “associated with” Trump’s election victory. The FBI has offered no details. “This is the news,” Maddow reported in her 13-minute segment. “The Russian guy just got arrested.”