Russia, the NRA and Fake News

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Washington in 2016 saw one of most audacious dirty tricks in political history: the

Donald Trump

-Russia collusion claim. Now it’s happening again—same partisans, same media; new conspiracy, new victims, including the National Rifle Association.

Remember how the Trump-Russia trick played?

Hillary Clinton’s

campaign hired opposition-research firm Fusion GPS to compile a dossier of salacious Trump allegations. The Fusion team delivered it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, then, when briefing reporters, cited the bureau’s interest to establish the document’s credibility. To this day the accusations in the dossier have not been corroborated.

To pull this off, Clinton partisans needed government officials willing to entertain wild claims and media willing to propagate them. Both still exist in abundance, as we now witness a new conspiracy theory elevated into news.

Starting in February 2017, media outlets began issuing stories about a Russian central banker named

Alexander Torshin

and a Russian gun-rights activist named

Maria Butina.

Most broadly claimed the duo had been cozying up to U.S. conservatives; they specifically noted that they had an interest in the NRA. What was weird was that so many journalists were simultaneously doing this story—among them

Michael Isikoff

of Yahoo News, the self-described “old friend” of Fusion GPS co-founder

Glenn Simpson,

who was also among the first to write about the dossier—at Mr. Simpson’s pitch.

This January, the House Intelligence Committee released its transcript of Mr. Simpson’s November testimony, in which he regaled incredulous committee Republicans with a wild new tale—of how the Russians had “infiltrated the NRA.” Fusion GPS had “spent a lot of time investigating” a “Mafia leader named Alexander Torshin” and a “suspicious” and “big Trump fan,” Maria Butina. Mr. Simpson provided zero detail to back up this claim—no names, dates, money transfers or specific actions.

But never mind. The day Mr. Simpson’s conspiracy-laden transcript was due to go public,

McClatchy

ran this headline: “FBI investigating whether Russian money went to NRA to help Trump.” The story cited only two unnamed “sources familiar with the matter.” The article admitted it “could not be learned” whether the FBI had any evidence involving the NRA, but it nonetheless went on at length about the group. A flurry of articles from other news organizations followed, while Democratic

Sen. Ron Wyden

fired off letters demanding the NRA account for itself. House Democrats jumped in, with

Rep. Adam Schiff

positing “an effort by Russia to create a back channel or assist the Trump campaign through the NRA.” Another flurry of articles. All still based on nothing but Mr. Simpson’s infiltration claim.

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In a response to Mr. Wyden, the NRA flatly denied the accusation. It explained how it scrupulously monitors its donations and noted that all its political decisions are made by U.S. citizens. It also reported it had had no contact with the FBI. House Intelligence Committee Democrats nonetheless last week issued a document demanding they get to continue investigating the “NRA’s relationship” with Mr. Torshin and Ms. Butina as well as . . . Washington lawyer

Cleta Mitchell,

who hasn’t done legal work for the NRA in a decade.

A few days later, the same two McClatchy reporters were out with this: “NRA lawyer expressed concerns about group’s Russia ties, investigators told.” It again cited two anonymous sources claiming Congress was investigating Ms. Mitchell’s worries that the NRA had been “channeling Russia funds into the 2016 elections to help Donald Trump.” Ms. Mitchell tells me she told McClatchy before publication that this was false, that she has spoken to no one about the NRA’s actions in 2016, and that she believes the entire NRA-Russia story line is preposterous. She asked the reporters to explain to whom she supposedly said this, when and in what context. They couldn’t, but ran the story anyway. Ms. Mitchell calls it “the quintessential definition of fake news.”

Ms. Mitchell notes that other news outlets backed off the story after she denied it, with one reporter agreeing in email that he did not want to “be associated with some left-wing conspiracy.” A McClatchy investigative editor emailed me that since the “central assertion” of the story was that “congressional investigators are looking at information” that Ms. Mitchell said something, it didn’t matter if she had denied it. The editor noted that McClatchy had published her denial, and corrected its headline to reflect that she is not a current NRA lawyer. Fusion GPS did not respond to a request for comment.

No one has provided a scintilla of evidence to support the claim the NRA was “infiltrated”—and it is appalling that it or Ms. Mitchell must defend against baseless claims. But these days all it takes to turn the most outlandish accusation into “news” is the whispers of a couple of Democratic lawmakers or an anonymous reference to the FBI. Let’s see what’s next.

Write to kim@wsj.com.

Appeared in the March 23, 2018, print edition.



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