Trump-Russia collusion did affect an American election — the one in 2018

Now that we know for sure that special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerLewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation MORE, the U.S. intelligence community and Republicans on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees found no evidence that President TrumpDonald John TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it MORE conspired with Russia to hijack the 2016 election, it is worth stepping back and evaluating the electoral impact of one of the greatest faux scandals in history.

Before doing that, though, let’s summarize what we now know about the origins of the investigation.

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Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGiuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it Sanders hits 1 million donors Democrats will not beat Trump without moderate policy ideas MORE and the Democratic National Committee asked their law firm, Perkins Coie, to hire the political opposition research firm Fusion GPS to dig up dirt during the 2016 election on Trump and Russia. Fusion, in turn, hired former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele, who turned to a “retired” Russian intelligence officer in the United States to get most of this dirt.

Steele took his information to the FBI and senior Justice Department official Bruce Ohr to interject it into law enforcement circles and make it a criminal matter. According to Ohr, Steele was “desperate” to defeat Trump and viewed his dossier as raw intelligence that was not verified. To augment that research, the Clinton campaign had a Democratic operative working with Ukraine’s embassy in Washington to research Trump's Russia ties, as well as a Ukrainian lawmaker feeding information to Fusion GPS.

In another words, the main evidence used by the FBI to justify a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to spy on the Trump campaign in its final weeks before the 2016 election, and for much of 2017, came from a political dirty-trick operation paid by Trump’s Democratic rival and run by a foreigner who disliked Trump.

That operation gathered uncorroborated evidence from foreigners in Russia and Ukraine who had their own motives for influencing the election.

Now, if the FBI probe ran with the secrecy of a normal counterintelligence operation, Americans never would have heard all of this, especially when the core allegations — in the Steele dossier — turned out to be bogus.

But the FBI, Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson, Steele, U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers briefed in Congress all leaked various details to the news media, creating a furor unseen since Watergate. The only difference is, Watergate involved proven crimes by a president and the Russia-collusion narrative ultimately did not.

Simpson acknowledged in a conversation with Ohr that his and Steele’s last-minute contacts with reporters during the 2016 election were a “Hail Mary attempt” to influence voters.

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Over the past two years, I have talked with law enforcement and U.S. intelligence officials who unequivocally told me they found no evidence that Trump and Russia colluded. Yes, Russia hacked Democratic emails and bought some Facebook ads to influence the election, but such activity was not coordinated with the Trump campaign.

Yet, key lawmakers such as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) continued to insist there was evidence of collusion, circumstantial or otherwise. They were talking to the same FBI and intelligence agencies as Mueller and I did — and that means what they said in public was not consistent with what they were told in private.

But Schiff, Warner and others found a receptive audience in the news media, where misinformed or inexperienced reporters delivered a 24/7 barrage of stories intended to corroborate a collusion plot that did not exist.

CNN, for example, reported there was evidence a Russian bank’s servers secretly transmitted instructions to the Trump Tower. The FBI said it did not.

The New York Times reported senior Trump campaign officials met with senior Russian intelligence to collaborate during the election. The FBI, Congress, U.S. intelligence and Mueller found no such meeting happened, and former FBI Director James Comey publicly debunked the newspaper report.

Carl BernsteinCarl BernsteinA journalist brought Epstein to justice and Acosta's resignation — so stop demonizing the press Carl Bernstein knocks media coverage of Mueller report: 'I think we've made a big mistake' Carl Bernstein calls Trump 'the most authoritarian president' MORE, the reporter of Watergate fame, declared another Nixonian-sized scandal was brewing and that Mueller’s report would prove how Trump helped Russia “destabilize” the United States. The report did not.

Former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanTrump lashes out at former intel officials for criticism of Iran tweet Trailer shows first look at Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein Webb: Questions for Robert Mueller MORE boldly predicted on MSNBC that Mueller had secured numerous sealed indictments. He had not.

In all, more than 530,000 stories were written between May 2017 and this month about a Trump-Russia investigation that, ultimately, found no collusion. The earned media impact of that negative coverage likely would have cost billions of dollars if a Democratic candidate had tried to buy such coverage.

But the news media provided it free of charge, fanned by the commentary of lawmakers and intelligence officials such as Brennan and former National Intelligence Director James ClapperJames Robert ClapperTrump lashes out at former intel officials for criticism of Iran tweet Trump knocks news of CNN hiring ex-FBI official McCabe Conservatives lash out at CNN for hiring Andrew McCabe MORE, whose public comments contrasted with the secret intelligence.

As the “Impeach Trump” machine raged with fuel provided by Democrats and an errant media, a funny thing happened: More than three dozen Republican incumbents in Congress announced they were retiring in 2018, leaving the GOP with a gaping hole in the House that Democrats exploited.

Polls showed the impact of the Russia coverage on voters. About half of American voters declared they believed Trump or his aides had colluded with Russia, even though they hadn’t.

It is the most compelling proof in a long time that false information repeated long enough becomes truth for many people.

Although we are still coming to grips with the finality of the Mueller report, one thing has become increasingly clear: The Russia collusion narrative — fanned by foreigners, dirty tricksters and a willing media — did, in fact, impact an American election. Not the one in 2016, but the midterm that came two years later.

John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He serves as an investigative columnist and executive vice president for video at The Hill.