On Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov addressed journalists inquiring about a gruesome chemical attack on civilians in Syria that took dozens of lives over the weekend. He insisted that there was little evidence to support the consensus opinion that this was the familiar work of the Assad regime. The Russian defense ministry went a step further, calling the ghastly footage of writhing victims and lifeless children “yet another fake.”
This reprehensible whitewashing of culpability for mass murder should disgust all Americans. But it does not. Sadly, Donald Trump’s most committed defenders in the conservative press didn’t have to wait for Moscow to send out marching orders before anticipating the Kremlin’s line and repeating it uncritically for American audiences.
On Monday night, Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson suggested that this weekend’s nightmarish chemical attack on Douma might not have been the work of the Assad regime, if it happened at all. “All the geniuses tell us that Assad killed those children, but do they really know that? Of course, they don’t really know that,” he said. “They’re making it up.”
Carlson added that “both sides in the Syrian civil war possess chemical weapons” and asked how it would “benefit Assad” to deploy either chlorine or a substance like Sarin against civilians? He added for emphasis that the April 2017 sarin attack on Khan Shaykhun that resulted in the Trump administration’s ordering strikes on a Syrian airfield was “propaganda” that was “designed to manipulate Americans.” These and other assertions in this sprawling monologue represent nothing less than undiluted Russian propaganda.
Don’t take my word for it. Just peruse Kremlin-funded sources of misinformation broadcast into the West, and you’ll find Carlson’s conclusions are common to a particular form of agitprop. The Kremlin-backed news outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) ran reports in 2017 alleging that “the rebels themselves” were responsible for their own gassing because of the power that their victim status conferred. It’s the same line they’ve taken since 2013, when the Damascus suburb of Ghouta was the target of a vicious Sarin attack that killed hundreds and injured 1,700 more. Another RT piece questioned what Assad would have to gain from such attacks. And, after all, Syria surrendered all its chemical weapons upon Moscow’s urging in 2014. Remember? Most recently, another Russian propaganda farm, the online publication Sputnik, insisted that the Douma attack, like the 2017 gassing of civilians in Khan Shaykhun, was a false flag operation orchestrated by the rebels themselves. RT agreed with this assessment.
To support Carlson’s claim that it was the rebels wot done it, Carlson cited a February confession by Defense Secretary James Mattis revealing that the United States did “not have evidence” to establish the Assad regime’s culpability in the 2017 attack that led to a U.S. cruise-missile attack on a Syrian airbase. This assertion is cited frequently by apologists for the genocidal regime in Damascus and its benefactors in Moscow and Tehran. It also appears to stem from an ambiguously worded Associated Press article summarizing Mattis’s comments. Politico’s military-affairs reporter, who was present when those comments were made, noted in his dispatch that Mattis acknowledged the validity of the “groups on the ground, NGOs, fighters” and others who substantiated the details of this chemical attack. His confession was merely the acknowledgment that the Pentagon—which does not have assets on the ground in Western Syria—was working to confirm those reports (which included a definitive account from the UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism establishing Assad’s culpability).
So why would Carlson willfully mislead his audience and advance Russian geopolitical narratives in defense of a blood-soaked regime that threatens American interests? Well, perhaps it was his presumption that this is what Donald Trump really wants, whether he knows it or not.
Trump’s commitment to defending Putin’s honor was once so steadfast that he erected vacuous moral equivalencies that denigrate his own country and those who dedicate their lives to national service. It was that shallow impulse that surely led the American right to wrap their arms around a sordid figure like Julian Assange even though many of those same people denounced him as an enemy of the United States only a few years earlier. Long after Trump’s behavior made it clear that U.S. interests in the Levant conflicted with Moscow’s, Carlson continued to promote Russia’s value as an ally in Syria.
The right-wing media class has yet to acknowledge the extent to which the Trump administration has turned on Russia. For over a year now, this White House pursued an admirable policy of containment. It has instituted an unforgiving sanctions regime targeting close Putin associates, sold energy and weapons to Moscow’s adversaries, and thwarted its diplomatic endeavors. Even if Trump personally still clings to the fantasy that he can orchestrate a rapprochement with Russia, the president hasn’t been shy about implicating Moscow for the bloodshed in Syria. So, why has the #MAGA right stood so steadfastly by Putin on Syria even as Trump is abandoning him? Perhaps because they don’t mirror Trump; Trump mirrors them. What’s more, they know it.
Donald Trump has had much of his agenda imposed on him by media professionals. It wasn’t Donald Trump who endorsed “America First” to describe his preferred foreign policy; it was New York Times reporter David Sanger. Trump just agreed with him. The themes on which Trump ran, from retrenchment and protectionism to opposition to “political correctness,” were expressions of an ethos that was nurtured more by talk radio than the Republican governing class. And it is no secret that the president enjoys consuming Fox News Channel programming in search of feedback. Why wouldn’t the conservative alternative press become convinced that Trump is the vessel for their movement and not the other way around?
Particularly when it comes to the use of force abroad and the maintenance of America national interests, conventional Republicans have largely convinced Trump to abandon his campaign’s themes. Perhaps Carlson and those like him are attempting to incept in the president’s imagination the notion that Moscow has America’s best interests in mind. Why else would ostensibly patriotic American opinion-makers disseminate Russian propaganda if it wasn’t to advance a particular political agenda? That only raises the question: Who’s really in charge here?