Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Intelligence...

Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in July 2019. Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik

Nearly four years after special counsel Robert Mueller wrapped up his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible connections between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives, “Russiagate” continues to make news and stir passions.

Most recently, the Columbia Journalism Review published a lengthy report that severely critiques the media’s handling of the story. For Russiagate skeptics, the CJR report is conclusive proof that the Trump/Russia scandal was a hoax. But while some of the media criticism is certainly justified, the “hoax” narrative is not.

The report by veteran investigative journalist Jeff Gerth is on target in much of its criticism of the media—pointing out, for instance, the overreliance on anonymous sources as well as frequent failures to acknowledge facts that didn’t fit the story a journalist wanted to tell.

The often-credulous treatment of the dossier compiled by retired British counterintelligence agent Christopher Steele as paid opposition research for Democratic groups, published by the Buzzfeed news site in January 2017, was a particularly low point for the press. The dossier, full of unverified material, not only alleged extensive Trump/Russia ties, but suggested that Trump was under Kremlin control via blackmail through a salacious video involving Trump and Russian prostitutes.

Other, less sensational reporting still overreached in suggesting that Trump and his associates actively collaborated with Russian efforts to help Trump—an extremely serious charge the Mueller investigation was unable to substantiate.

Yet the CJR report itself overreaches by appearing to downplay not only the reality of Russian meddling (which led to several indictments), but the de facto complicity of Trump and his associates. In the summer of 2016, Donald Trump Jr., then working on his father’s campaign, readily agreed to meet with a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton “as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Gerth stresses that the dirt turned out to be a dud. That doesn’t change the fact that the Trump campaign signaled its willingness to accept help from the Kremlin.

The report also glosses over the fact that Trump eagerly exploited the WikiLeaks disclosures of Democratic National Committee emails potentially embarrassing to Clinton, despite the near-certainty that those disclosures were a Russian hack-and-leak operation—and that one of Trump's top advisors, Roger Stone, tried to obtain those emails before they were released (very possibly with Trump’s knowledge). It’s hard to tell how much the stolen emails, spun to falsely suggest that the Democratic nomination was stolen from Bernie Sanders, hurt Clinton in the general election. But their role cannot be discounted.

Finally, as president of the United States, Trump repeatedly denied Russian election interference, denigrating U.S. intelligence agencies in the process and suggesting that Vladimir Putin was more credible.

This gross malfeasance is not mitigated by journalists’ professional lapses. Yet many Republicans (and maverick anti-establishment leftists) are using the CJR report to validate Trump’s claim that Russiagate was a malicious “witch hunt.”

Trump/Russia collusion hype undoubtedly harmed American political life, feeding paranoia about Russian vote-tampering and literal treason in the White House—and feverish expectations of Trump’s removal and arrest. But exaggerated claims about the “Russia hoax” have their own dangers: In some quarters, they are already being used not only to excuse Trump’s lies and paranoid fantasies about the 2020 election “steal,” but to suggest that U.S. support for Ukraine is driven by anti-Russian paranoia.

The Trump/Russia saga is still waiting for a full and fair assessment.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.

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