This piece originally appeared in American Greatness, April 21, 2018.
Every mass delusion has a beginning.
One day in the Middle Ages, a French nun began meowing. Other nuns soon joined in. Soon, all the nuns in the convent were meowing together several hours a day. They stopped after neighbors complained, and some soldiers threatened to beat up the nuns.
Like the chorus of meowing nuns, the Russia Truther movement began at a particular time and place: a press conference that Donald Trump conducted on July 27, 2016, in Doral, Florida.
In March 2015, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that, while in office, she diverted some 66,000 emails to a server in the basement of her house. As the Associated Press would determine, the server was “vulnerable to hackers” and the setup was “the subject of U.S. government and industry warnings at the time over attacks from even low-skilled intruders.”
After the diversion was discovered, Clinton returned roughly half of the stolen emails. The other half, she claimed, related to private matters and were deleted. Some, it turned out, were destroyed while under subpoena.
Despite the deletions, there was a chance that the stolen emails might be found because Russia and other adversaries probably had their own copies.
In 2015, Mike Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (who would be a Trump adviser), said the odds were “very high—likely,” that Russia and other countries had broken into the system. Mike Morrell, former acting director and deputy director of the CIA, said, “I think that foreign intelligence services, the good ones, have everything on any unclassified network that the government uses.”
Sean Hannity of Fox News and two future Trump advisers, economist Larry Kudlow and security analyst K. T. McFarland, also discussed, in 2015, the likelihood that Clinton’s emails had fallen into Russian hands.
In January 2016, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he agreed on the odds of the Russians, Chinese, Iranians and others having the emails: “the odds are very high.”
In February 2016, former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden, said, “I would lose all respect for a whole bunch of foreign intelligence agencies if they weren’t sitting back, paging through the emails.”
That brings us up to the July 2016 press conference at which Trump, half-jokingly, called on the Russians to turn over the emails they already had. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” He added sarcastically: “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
He added: “She gets subpoenaed, and she gets rid of 33,000 emails? That gives me a problem. Now, if Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I mean, to be honest with you, I’d love to see them.”
About 15 minutes after the press conference, Trump reiterated his point about the emails, via Twitter: “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!”
Anti-Trump forces pounced on Trump’s remarks—that is, on his remarks as they misinterpreted them, deliberately or stupidly. They claimed that he was calling on the Russians to hack into Clinton’s server to get the emails. Given that the emails no longer existed there, doing so would have required the use of a time machine.
The New York Times reported, “Donald J. Trump said Wednesday that he hoped Russia had hacked Hillary Clinton’s email, essentially encouraging an adversarial foreign power to cyberspy on a secretary of state’s correspondence.”
On CNN, David Gregory sputtered: “I’ve run out of words to express my shock.” Trump, he said, was encouraging Russia “to try to hack into Hillary Clinton’s server . . . And I don’t think there’s anybody who would think that was anything but a fair reading of what we’ve seen” at the press conference.
From Rolling Stone, the Miami Herald, Vanity Fair, and countless other outlets, the fake news spread.
“Trump has just publicly called on Russia to cyber-invade the United States to help him get elected: talk about high crimes & misdemeanors,” tweeted Philip Gourevitch of The New Yorker.
Benjy Sarlin, NBC News: “This is mindblowing. Basically asking foreign power to intervene on his behalf on camera.” He called Trump’s comments “embossed invitations to attack” the United States.
Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic: “Trump just asked Russia to spy on his rival, dig up classified U.S. government documents, and release them publicly.”
Philip Rucker, Washington Post: “Remarkable that a presidential nominee is pleading with a foreign state actor to hack & release a political opponent’s private emails.”
Ben Howe, RedState: “The guy saying he’ll build a wall to protect American sovereignty is openly hoping Russia infiltrates us.”
The delusion lives on. In just the past few weeks, Vox, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Business Insider, the U.K.’s Daily Mail, and Chris Hayes, Chris Matthews, Chuck Todd, and political editor Dafna Linzer of NBC/MSNBC have suggested that “Russia, if you’re listening” is evidence of a Trump-Russia conspiracy (because, I suppose, spies communicate with their spymasters via press conference). According to a recent story in the Washington Post, “The comment is also reportedly of interest to Mueller’s investigators.”
And it all began on that July day almost two years ago, when the nuns started meowing.