President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during the Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, July, 7. (CNS photo/Handout via Reuters)

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy frequently accused the reporters who stood up to his broad-brush anti-communist campaign in the 1950s of being Russian “dupes.” But who are the Russian “dupes” now?

President Donald Trump, whose efforts to delegitimize the “fake news” media echo McCarthy’s attacks, is left to take refuge in the notion that his election campaign operatives were no more than “unwitting” tools of Russian propagandists. “NO COLLUSION!”

That is the shallow victory the president claimed from the very detailed indictment that special counsel Robert Mueller signed last week to charge the Internet Research Agency and thirteen Russians with a conspiracy to defraud the United States: to be no worse than a dupe.

In McCarthy’s time, it was cold comfort to be called a “dupe” since the Republican senator tended to pair the unwitting with the “traitors,” insisting that both “had to be exposed”—including “well-meaning dupes of the Kremlin.”

The indictment does indeed suggest that as of June 2016, the Russian electioneering enterprise lacked the kind of strategic guidance that could have come from the lowest-level Trump campaign employee, or for that matter, anyone who watched five minutes of cable TV news. It says that the Russians, posing online as American activists, learned from a grassroots organization in Texas that efforts to sway the election in favor of Trump and against Hillary Clinton would be most effective if pursued in battleground states. If that was new information for the conspirators after two years of planning, this seems the most solid evidence to date for Trump’s case that his campaign did not conspire with Russian interference in the election. But that’s not the whole story.

It’s significant that the latest indictment refers only to “unwitting” American cooperation with the Internet Research Agency and its alleged operatives.

Four months ago, Mueller publicly asserted a link between the Trump campaign and the Russian government’s effort to undermine the U.S. election. That came in court documents accompanying the guilty plea of former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos. Mueller is investigating how far that connection went, and whether efforts were made to obstruct the investigation of it.

It’s significant that the latest indictment refers only to “unwitting” American cooperation with the Internet Research Agency and its alleged operatives. But there are many more moving parts to the Russians’ machinations and thus to the Mueller probe. In the same month when the Internet Research Agency was learning about the role “purple states” play in presidential elections, Donald Trump Jr., responded gamely to an email that said the Russians could provide information to “incriminate Hillary.”

So we don’t know.

What we can say is that in the light most favorable to him, President Trump was the Russians’ dupe, since he accepted Vladimir Putin’s denial that his country intervened in the election. “FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists. Probably…” he tweeted at 3:11 a.m. on January 13, 2017.

Or this, on July 25, 2016: “The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me.”

He tweeted this the next day: “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!” And this: “Funny how the failing @nytimes is pushing Dems narrative that Russia is working for me because Putin said `Trump is a genius.’ America 1st!”

Or this, on February 16, 2017: “The Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly (306), so they made up a story - RUSSIA. Fake news!” [Trump had 306 votes in the electoral college.] And the next day, in full McCarthy mode: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

It’s even clearer now than it was a year ago that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Those who reported on it were doing the job democracy requires of journalism, exposing themselves to much hostility. That’s no less necessary now than it was in the heyday of Joseph R. McCarthy. 

Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

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