Don’t mention Russia around Chris Poulton. Don’t use the word “collusion.” And don’t dare question Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory by his own mettle.
No. The whole l’affaire Russie is a creation of a liberal media for Poulton. And among the thousands of activists huddling at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference here, he is not alone in that view. “The indictments keep coming, although there is no link to the President,” the 34-year-old Charlotte, N.C., man said in the hallway at CPAC, a red Make America Great Again atop his head. “Russia did something, but to what end? I don’t think they had anything to do with the election.”
The Justice Department last week indicted 13 Russians for meddling in the election. At least two former Trump advisers have pleaded guilty in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling, whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians and whether Trump or anyone in his orbit obstructed justice. Intelligence committees in the House and Senate are running their own investigations, and White House lawyers are working overtime to keep up with queries from everyone poking into what role Russia played during the 2016 presidential election and beyond.
But none of that has validity for many of these activists and their influencers. When in doubt, they blame the journalists, always a popular target at CPAC. “If you find any collusion under your seat, please hand it off to the press,” Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam mocked from the main stage of the three-day conference.
Erielle Davidson, a scholar at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, added: “Russia is the only country with which we have nuclear parity, and for that reason, she will always have a special place in our hearts.” She said media coverage of the Russia probe feeds Russian propaganda and should be seen as hostile to American democracy. “There comes a point when criticism becomes unhealthy,” she said.
And former Ambassador John Bolton dismissed the investigations as partisan witch hunts. “There is no allegation of collusion by the Trump campaign or anyone else,” he told the crowd.
So, for the three days when thousands of conservatives rail against liberals and Democrats until they are breathless, talk of Russia is largely relegated to a punch line or dismissed as a creation of the media. It is a remarkable shift for a conference that dates its eminence to Ronald Reagan’s star turn here in 1974. What Reagan called the Evil Empire has now become just another nation.
“It’s a whole lot of nothing,” said Ellen Paul, a 57-year-old woman from Rockville, Md. “It’s pathetic. They’re sweeping up a whole lot of people who have nothing to do with the President or his campaign. After two years, they have nothing to show.”
That’s not entirely true. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced from his job and into a guilty plea. A foreign policy adviser also has entered a guilty plea. The former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates are under federal indictment. A California man has pleaded guilty to helping funnel Russian cash into the United States. And by all accounts, Muller is just getting started.
But none of that rings true for the CPAC crowd.
“Russia isn’t that much of a threat. We actually have troops on their doorsteps in Estonia, so why should be we surprised that they’re fighting back?” said Nathan Petri, a 19-year-old politics student at Hillsdale College. Although he said he “despises Russia,” he also says he’s realistic about global affairs: “Every government tries to interfere. We do it all the time.”
And none of it matters, in Petri’s mind. “If Americans actually fell for these tricks, you’d have to think Americans are really stupid.” For the record, Petri said he does not.
So between sessions that assert journalists are not-so-secret collaborators with liberals and Democrats, that university campuses indoctrinate young people with progressive ideology and that Hillary Clinton is, in fact, an un-indicted criminal, Russia is an afterthought.
“They are totally ignoring her email,” said Fran Wendelboe, a veteran conservative New Hampshire activist. “The biased media did more to help Hillary than Russia did for Trump. It’s a shame you’re talking about Russia and not Hillary or the President’s tax cuts or his cuts to regulation or his help to the economy.”
Update: The original version of this story truncated Davidson’s comments. This story has been updated with her full quote.