CMR’s Smear Campaign

The Propaganda of Doubt and Distrust

McMorris Rodgers is ideologically and educationally incapable of acknowledging human-caused global warming. Every time climate change comes up she dodges the question by pivoting to her support for the “clean power” produced by the Snake River dams. Even so, she and many of her fellow Republicans don’t dare be transparent about their scorn because a majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and are in favor of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. However, Republicans can opportunistically take a different tack: smear organizations that support renewable energy. That’s exactly what they are doing—with McMorris Rodgers in the lead. 

McMorris Rodgers (R-CD5, Eastern Washington) is the ranking member (the most senior member of the minority party serving on a committee) of the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the U.S. House of Representatives, her only committee assignment. 

The E&C [Energy and Commerce Committee] Republicans maintain a website where they post “News”. On March 10, 2022, they posted “E&C Republicans Question Environmental Groups Over Possible Collusion with Russia—Were They Influenced by Putin’s Dark Money to Shut Down American Energy?” This headline alone is breathless propaganda. The “news” article announces that the E&C Republicans have “sent a letter” to the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club. The three letters are identical apart from addressees. Each asks a series of leading questions reminiscent of the old classic, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” For example, one question asks, “Does _____ currently or has _____ ever have received funds from the Russian government or anyone connected with the Russian government.” The basis for the question is an allegation posed in the passive voice:

It has been alleged that Putin is using a San Francisco-based eNGO, the Sea Change Foundation (Sea Change), to funnel money into U.S.-based environmental advocacy efforts designed to undermine American energy production. 

“Has been alleged” is nothing but a smear. Who made the allegation? What is the evidence? The implication of the “news” is that the organizations questioned exist solely to undermine the fossil fuel industry. Of course, these organizations’ efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and transition to renewable energy are not acknowledged, since the Republican Party is ideologically opposed to even recognizing the threat. To the marginally informed reader who lacks the time and interest to dig into the details, the Committee’s “news” offers support for the decades of Republican framing of anything with the word “environmental” attached as toxic and anti-American.

A close reading of the the letters offers some clues about the origin of the allegations: references to articles in conservative media, mostly from five or six years ago, suggesting that Putin was funneling some money and using cyberspace to support the anti-fracking movement. That should come as no surprise, since it is abundantly clear that Putin has been undermining American society and politics since before (and then during) Trump’s 2016 election. The real question concerns the magnitude of and effects of the funding. The letters focus on the Sea Change Foundation, “a private family foundation currently dedicated to addressing global climate change”, co-founded in 2006 based on a considerable family fortune by U.S. siblings Nat Simons and Laura Baxter-Simons . The E&C Republicans, without specific numbers, imply that somehow a meaningful amount of additional funding has come from Putin, and, furthermore, again without specifying, that somehow that money has funneled to and tainted the work of three environmental organizations. 

The timing of the “news” is also rich. Now that Putin has invaded Ukraine and is on most people’s s-list, the E&C Republicans have suddenly resurrected allegations against Putin’s meddling in U.S. domestic policy. They were anxious to ignore these same allegations when the leader of their party, Donald Trump, was praising Putin, and, again, when, in a widely publicized telephone call, Trump extorted the President of Ukraine for dirt on the Hunter Biden by threatening to withhold already authorized defensive equipment to Ukraine. All but ten House Republicans determined that that egregious act of documented extortion wasn’t grounds for impeachment and voted against it, including McMorris Rodgers. (The other two Republicans from Washington State in the U.S. House, Herrera-Beutler and Newhouse, to their credit, voted to impeach, votes that look much better now to many Republicans.)

The E&C Republicans’ letters are a reach too far. They ought to be met with derision. The allegations and demand for funding details are particularly ironic when one considers the vast web of interlocking non-profits fueled by the Koch Donor Group that produce Republican position papers and talking points (as disclosed in excruciating detail by Jane Mayer in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right). 

Every House Republican, including McMorris Rodgers, voted against the For the People Act. For the People would have required that any person or entity donating more than $10,000 to a campaign be identified. These same Republicans now demanding to know the details of the funding of (certain) non-profits apparently would rather not make it clear where their own funding comes from. 

The smear of the E&C Republicans’ “news” was taken up almost immediately by parts of the Republican media machine. The very same day as the Republican Committee’s posting, Townhall, an online purveyor of right wing propaganda, published “Lawmakers Demand Answers From Leftist Environmental Groups Over Possible Collusion with Russia”. The allegation fans Republican confirmation bias against environmental groups. To be effective for this purpose such allegations require no basis in fact—only enough plausibility to plant the idea.

McMorris Rodgers and her minority E&C Republicans are shoveling coal for the fossil fuel industry. Being in the minority they are powerless to attempt greater damage by, for instance, holding public hearings, but in the meantime they can stoke their base while they wait on the sidelines for the next election. 

Keep to the high ground,