Populist strongmen use the same disinformation tactics wherever they are in the world.
And so it was last week with US President Donald Trump’s reaction to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Trump’s reaction followed the same playbook as Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s reaction to Attorney General Peter Grech’s summary of the Egrant report.
Defaulting on the promise to publish in full
A few weeks ahead of the Mueller report’s completion, Trump told the press about the report: “Let it come out. Let people see it — that’s up to the Attorney General”.
The only sight we have had of Mueller’s 300-plus page report is Barr’s four-page summary, which told congress there was not enough evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice, a criminal offence that is punishable with up to 20 years in prison.
While the report specifically states that it “does not exonerate” Trump, it has allowed the President and his media machine to claim “complete and total exoneration”, even though Mueller brought charges against 34 people, including six Trump associates, and three companies.
Muscat claimed repeatedly that he wanted to release the full Egrant report, firmly undertaking to do so even despite Attorney General Grech’s ‘objections’.
A series of excuses for non-publication were then provided that included Grech’s reported discomfort, magistrate Aaron Bugeja’s reported discomfort, and a lawsuit brought by Opposition Leader Adrian Delia against Grech to have the report released.
All the while, Muscat’s personal lawyers – Pawlu Lia and Justice Minister Owen Bonnici – received copies of the report (as well as the OPM’s Head of Communications Kurt Farrugia) . The Labour Party’s lawyer, Lia (whose daughter-in-law has been earmarked for a spot on the bench as a magistrate) is personally redacting it.
The 49-page summary of the 1,500-page report, which says that Bugeja found insufficient evidence to link Muscat and/or his wife to Egrant, has allowed Muscat and his media machine to claim that he has been exonerated, even though it may provide evidence of criminality by entities and persons around the Prime Minister.
As with Trump and his advisors, the selective and shrewd dripping of information from the Egrant report by Muscat is feeding propaganda that twists the narrative before people are able to digest and question, and even then the key pieces of the puzzle are hidden.
Muscat has accused opposition politicians and journalists of a “frame up” although there is no mention of this in the summary of the report.
Like Trump, Muscat first falsely signalled transparency and then turned to weaponised secrecy. Both now falsely claim that ‘not enough evidence’ to support a criminal charge is the same as no evidence at all.
Attacks on investigator
Even before the Egrant report’s completion, Muscat placed pressure on Bugeja that “went beyond all limits of prudence and responsibility”, according to the Chamber of Advocates.
Muscat was asked how he would respond if he were to lose the election and resign, only to be cleared by Bugeja’s inquiry. He replied that Bugeja would have to “shoulder responsibility” in such a scenario.
Trump repeatedly called Mueller’s report a “witch hunt,” a “hoax,” and alleged that Mueller was “best friend” to James Comey, the FBI Director whom Trump fired, triggering the Mueller inquiry in the first place.
While their respective investigations were ongoing, both Trump and Muscat refused to allow the judiciary to carry out its duties freely and without any interference or pressure. There are another two inquiries involving the Prime Minister’s chief of staff that have never even seen the light of day.
Setting the agenda
Barr’s summary played into the narrative that Trump has been building for two years: the Mueller investigation as “deep State” conspiracy and a frame up. He is now more than ever embracing the role of victim in the run up to the 2020 election.
More strategically, Trump repeated “no collusion” over 200 times in the past two years knowing that, first, his weak spot was in fact obstruction of justice and, two, “collusion” with Russia is not the crime being investigated. Conspiracy was, which is far narrower.
The Egrant inquiry similarly covers other areas, but just the one claim was made to dominate it – whether Muscat and/or his wife can be linked to Egrant.
Not only do we lack an answer as to who owns Egrant, but we lack substantive evidence as to whether Muscat and wife, Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi or John Dalli engaged in illicit deals with Azeri PEPs through Pilatus Bank – the other question.
That Muscat called the inquiry allowed him to claim he is open and transparent, but its advantage to him was that he limited the inquiry, cutting it away from his weak spots:
- Acts of corruption, money laundering or suspicious transactions by those five people with persons other than Azeri PEPs;
- Illicit dealings by persons other than those five individuals even if with Azeri PEPs and using Pilatus Bank accounts;
- Whether all was fine and dandy at Pilatus Bank, Mossack Fonseca or Nexia BT or whether the persons named should have used their services at all; or
- Illicit dealings even by those five individuals (including their Panama companies) or any of them with Azeri PEPs using other bank accounts than those at Pilatus Bank (such as banks in Dubai).
Like Trump, Muscat made out that he was a victim of a “frame up for power,” a slogan spread by the Labour Party and its media machine. He announced the summary of the Egrant report at a full-regalia press conference, during which he paused to cry.
His wife gave an interview to Saviour Balzan’s government-funded TV programme, in which she said: “If there is someone who wants Daphne Caruana Galizia to be alive today, that is me. When I heard the news about what happened to her I think I was more sorry than her own family. Her family could go on to make her a saint; but at the time I said to myself: ‘Now I will have to live with her lies’.”
Call for resignations
Trump seized on Barr’s summary to call for the resignations of his most vocal critics in congress. Adam Schiff, a Democrat congressman who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, was one of them. Trump tweeted, “Congressman Adam Schiff, who spent two years knowingly and unlawfully lying and leaking, should be forced to resign from Congress!”
Nancy Pelosi, Democrat speaker of the House, reacted to Trump’s tweet by saying: “They’re afraid of the truth; they’re afraid of competence; they’re afraid of a leader who is recognised in our country for being calm, professional, patriotic”.
Schiff has reiterated his determination to fully investigate Trump and his associates, and to have the Mueller report published in full.
Our country cannot restore its credibility before it brings the Prime Minister’s friends exposed in #PanamaPapers to #justice. That’s the long and short of it. No amount of spin or half-hearted ‘justice reforms’ can change that. pic.twitter.com/0GsBkAn3DN
— Simon Busuttil (@SimonBusuttil) March 29, 2019
The parallels with Muscat and former Opposition Leader Simon Busuttil are clear. In his teary press conference, Muscat’s tone quickly changed to anger when he called for the immediate resignation of Busuttil from his parliamentary seat, from the Nationalist Party, and from any positions he holds in the European Union.
In the following days, the Labour Party frothed at the mouth for Busuttil’s demise. Busuttil was accused of leading a “frame up” of Muscat in an un-named propaganda effort that included billboards, stickers, radio and television broadcasts, and an aggressive social media campaign.
Media Today editor Saviour Balzan, pitched in, tweeting the unfounded claim, “Fabricating a lie is a crime – they knew #efimova/caruanagalizia/busuttil/portelli”. When the Egrant scandal was in full swing, Balzan had tweeted that “he could confirm” there was no safe holding documents related to Egrant in Pilatus Bank’s kitchen – Balzan was not in the country at the time.
Busuttil remains Muscat’s foremost critic, and he has repeatedly called for the full publication of the Egrant report. He is fighting for judicial inquiries into the money laundering of Schembri, Mizzi, and Adrian Hillman, former Managing Director of Allied Newspapers which publishes The Times of Malta.
Weaponising the report against the media
A more harmful disinformation tactic used both by Trump and Muscat was to weaponise the inquiries against the media.
“The Mainstream Media is under fire and being scorned all over the World as being corrupt and FAKE,” Trump tweeted. “For two years they pushed the Russian Collusion Delusion when they always knew there was No Collusion. They truly are the Enemy of the People and the Real Opposition Party!”
“I think Democrats and the liberal media owe the president and they owe the American people an apology,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
It was a sad spectacle to see in Malta that the assault on the media did not need much encouragement from Muscat’s government.
Without access to the report or any of the evidence, independent media outlets engaged in a process of self-flagellation in which they apologised for their failings.
Government-funded Media Today editor Saviour Balzan went one further, tweeting: “The first thing that should happen is for the @TheTimesofMalta and @IndependentMlt to apologise to its readers,” echoing Trump’s press secretary Sarah Saunders and her counterpart in Malta.
In another tweet, Balzan wrote that Egrant “was the worst experience in journalism,” ignoring the fact that journalists do not need to prove criminal acts beyond reasonable doubt. Their role is to report the facts as they know them.
Caruana Galizia reported on available evidence that Egrant is linked to the Muscats. No journalist, or magistrate, has since come any closer to understanding the ownership of Egrant, the third company exposed in the Panama Papers. The other two were owned by Mizzi and Schembri, who remain at the helm of government.