With all the constant hype about Russia, you’d think we were living in a new Cold War. This week on Intercepted: Glenn Greenwald fills in for Jeremy Scahill, and we take a deep dive into the origins and evolution of the Trump-Russia story. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and Glenn find something they can actually agree on (the Democratic establishment’s Russia hysteria), but diverge on Tucker’s coverage of immigration and crime. Glenn responds to stories by Peter Beinart and Jeet Heer. And Russian-American writer Masha Gessen explains how conspiracy thinking is a mirror of the leaders we put in power, and why it’s so tempting — and dangerous — to believe in simplistic reasons for Trump’s election.
Lost Boys: Rufio! Rufio! Rufio! Ru-fi-oooo!
(“Following the Leader”)
Donald J. Trump: Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?
DJT: And by the way, under the Trump administration, you’ll be saying “Merry Christmas” again when you go shopping, believe me.
DJT: Merry Christmas.
Robin Williams as Peter Pan in “Hook”: That’s enough! What is this, some sort of Lord of the Flies preschool? Where are your parents? Who’s in charge here? No. Nooo, Mr. Skunkhead with too much mousse. I want to speak to a grownup!
DJT: Tom, you’re fired!
RW: You are a very poor role model for these kids, did you know that?
RW: I bet you don’t even have a fourth grade reading level.
DJT: Did President Obama ever come to a jamboree?
RW: Someone has a severe caca mouth, do you know that?
DJT: Make America great again.
RW: Substitute chemistry teacher.
LB: Come on, Rufio, hit him back!
DJT: The polls, that’s also fake news. They’re fake polls.
RW: Math tutor. Prison barber. Nearsighted gynecologist.
DJT: Fake media. Fake news.
RW: You lewd, crude, rude, bag of pre-chewed food, dude.
LB: Bangarang, Peter!
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Glenn Greenwald: I’m Glenn Greenwald, sitting in this week for Jeremy Scahill, and I’m coming to you from The Intercept in Brazil. This is episode 24 of Intercepted.
Jared Kushner: Let me be very clear. I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else in the campaign who did so.
GG: Russia has once again dominated the news cycle in the United States this past week. And as part of that discussion, there have been two articles, one published by Peter Beinart in The Atlantic, and another by Jeet Heer published in The New Republic that criticises, quite harshly, multiple people on the Left who, in their view, have been minimizing the Russia election meddling story. And I think that both of these articles are worth discussing, in part because they do extensively critique my own views, and I’d like to respond. But also, I think they highlight some of the really critical points about how this Russia story has been discussed over the course of the last year in the United States, and what the implications are.
And I have two guests who come at this topic from very different perspectives. One is Tucker Carlson, the host on Fox News, who has become one of the more vocal skeptics on the Russia story, and has been subjected to a wide array of accusations. And the other is the American-Russian journalist Masha Gessen, who is a longtime critic of Vladimir Putin, and yet has also expressed some serious concerns about how this story has been discussed. And I think both of those conversations really get to the heart of what these two articles also raise.
So, I want to make a couple of points about both of these articles. One, the one by Peter Beinart, and the one by Jeet Heer. And interestingly, both of them were, I think, rare and commendable good faith attempts to engage the arguments by those of us who have been skeptics on this story from the beginning without purposely distorting our views, or even worse, using innuendo about treason or allegiances to the Kremlin as a way of dismissing or demonizing the arguments about the evidence that we’ve been making. And yet, despite the good faith attempt by both writers in the article to engage the actual arguments without that kind of innuendo, the headline writers for each of these magazines did not have that same integrity.
So, I thought it was extremely telling that the headline in The Atlantic over Peter Beinart’s article was “Donald Trump’s Defenders on the Left.” And then the sub-headline was, “Why Some Progressives are Minimizing Russia’s Election Meddling.” And the headline on the New Republic story might even actually be worse. It was “Why the Anti-War Left Should Attack Putin Too.” That’s the headline. And the sub-headline is “His” — being Putin’s — “Leftist Apologist in the U.S. Media Aren’t Just Blind to Russia’s Election Meddling, But to Putin’s Xenophobia and Homophobia.” And the reason I think those headlines are worth flagging is because there is a valid legitimate debate that I think both Beinart and Jeet are trying to have about how persuasive is the evidence that has been presented publicly about whether the Russian government under the direction of Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking, and whether they were actually motivated by a desire to help Trump, as well as whether or not there was actual collusion in those hacking crimes with the Trump campaign.
And my view has been not an ideological one or a partisan one, but simply an epistemological one, that there’s no tangible evidence presented, or virtually none, by the U.S. government to corroborate the claims of the intelligence community. And one can certainly dispute that. One can disagree with it. Lots of people do. But to cast those questions, that skepticism, that comes not only from me but from the other people the New Republic article names, such as Max Blumenthal, and Noam Chomsky, and Oliver Stone, and others — to cast that skepticism about the evidence as being supporters of Donald Trump, or apologists for Vladimir Putin, is really the lowliest kind of rhetorical tactics that has sullied and corrupted U.S. political discourse for many years.
If you go back to those who questioned the sufficiency of the evidence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons capability in 2002 and 2003, you find that those who were attacking people who were expressing skepticism were accusing them not of being wrong, but of being sympathizers or apologists for Saddam Hussein. You find that those who were questioning the George Bush/Dick Cheney war on terror were accused not of being wrong, but of being al Qaeda sympathizers. And now you find that those of us who question the sufficiency of the evidence about Russia, the Russia hacking story, or the implications of it, are accused not of being wrong, but of being supporters of Donald Trump or apologists for Vladimir Putin.
And both of these writers, the central point that they’re making in these articles and in critiquing those of us who are skeptical — the story is to say, you can be worried about Russian meddling and Russia hacking without actually trying to rejuvenate a Cold War. They’re saying that they’re in the middle. They’re worried about Russian hacking, but they share the concerns that it would be dangerous to revitalize a Cold War. And yet, even in their article, while they deny that they want a new Cold War, they use language that strongly suggests that’s exactly what their view of the world would provoke, whether intentionally or not.
So, Jeet here in his article, for example, has this paragraph that says, “Fighting Trumpism in America is not enough. Leftists have to be ready to battle it in all forms, at home and abroad.” So, while he’s denying that he wants a new Cold War, he’s demanding that leftists battle Putin and Trump and their international ideology in all forms at home and abroad. And this language to me seems to be exactly the language of the traditional Cold War years, that there’s an international ideological movement spreading throughout the world that’s dangerous, that’s coming from the Kremlin, that’s coming from Moscow, and that we as liberals are duty-bound to go fight it, not just here at home, but abroad.
Peter Beinart has a sentence that is even more vivid in terms of the issue of whether it’s really genuine when he says he doesn’t want a Cold War. He says, “In his interview with Tucker Carlson, Max Blumenthal attacked Senator Ben Cardin for calling Russia’s meddling ‘a political Pearl Harbor.’” But, writes Beinart, “in some ways, it’s an apt analogy.” So, you have two nuclear-armed countries who have in the past come very close to nuclear war that would annihilate the species, and the reason those of us who are worried about where this is going are so worried isn’t because we love Vladimir Putin or support Donald Trump. It’s because we’ve seen the effects, the incredibly destructive effects, when this kind of militaristic confrontational rhetoric takes hold of the American opinion elite class, and where that leads to. And it seems, to put it mildly, not worth risking another Cold War, another military confrontation between the United States and Russia, over what, even if you believe the claims of the CIA, notwithstanding that there’s no evidence for it — even if you believe them, it’s nothing more than some garden variety hacking that countries do to one another all the time. And at the very least, I hope going forward that we can have this debate without papering over those actual concerns and trying to suggest that those of us who are skeptical are motivated by nefarious and treasonous motives.
So, I think that is an excellent framework for the discussions that I’m about to have. Joining me now is the host of Weeknights on Fox News, Tucker Carlson. Tucker, welcome to Intercepted.
Tucker Carlson: Thanks, Glenn.
GG: I want to begin by observing that if I had to pick one word to describe U.S. political culture in the wake of Trump’s victory, it would probably be ‘manic.’ And I say that for a lot of reasons, primarily the fact that so many people’s longstanding position seems to be uprooted and kind of scrambled and confused. And a lot of longstanding political alliances and adversaries that have shaped U.S. politics for a long time seem to have shifted in a really short period of time, often radically. And I think that your journey is kind of illustrative of that. Just in the last week alone, for example, you had two very widely discussed — I’d say pretty vituperative exchanges, interviews on your Fox show, one with Max Boot, who’s a longtime pro-war activist. Never met a war he didn’t like.
TC: And then to hear you say we need to knock off the Assad regime and things will be better in Syria — you sort of wonder, like, well, maybe you should choose another profession. Selling insurance, house painting. Something you’re good at.
GG: And the other one is Ralph Peters, who has been a longtime kind of rightwing commentator on Foreign Affairs.
Ralph Peters: He assassinates dissidents and journalists. He bombs women and children on purpose in Syria. He is as bad as Hitler. And yet, you want us to align with the Russians, with Iran, with Assad.
TC: I want us to act in America’s interest —
RP: So do I.
TC: And stop making shallow, sweeping moral claims about countries we don’t fully understand, and then hope everything will be fine in the end. If a country we don’t like takes active steps to kill people who are a threat to us, I’m going to pause and applaud.
GG: And you had very sharp disagreements with them that became kind of hostile. And then in the very same week, you had on your show Max Blumenthal, who is as far to the left as those two have been to the right. And the two of you found a lot of common ground, a lot of harmony on one of the most important or at least widely discussed political issues being discussed, which is Russia.
Max Blumenthal: You know, as someone on the left who’s actually gone out and protested Trump, I didn’t expect this hysteria to completely take over. But now I see what the point is of it. Mark my words, Tucker, when Trump is gone, this narrative, this Russia hysteria will be repurposed by the political establishment to attack the left and anyone on the left.
GG: Do you think that you have changed ideologically or politically over the past few years, or do you think there’s kind of a political realignment or readjustment taking place in the wake of Trump’s victory that explains this? Or is it some of both, or none? What’s your view on all that?
TC: I’d say it’s both. I mean, my views have changed. My views are always changing, and I think, you know, one’s views ought to change. You ought to look up every once in awhile from your ideology and measure it against the results that you anticipated, and ask yourself, “Is this working? Are my preconceptions, my assumptions — are they still valid?” And the one, maybe the best thing about Trump’s election is that it forced a lot of people to kind of traipse up to the mental attic and take stock. And so, you know, certain moments shock you out of your stupor and force you to reassess. The Iraq War did that for me. In December of ’03, I went to Iraq after someone I knew was killed there, and I was starting to become suspicious not just of that war, but of the pretext for it, and of the kind of intellectual predicates that led to it. And that experience kind of freed me from a lot of things that I thought I believed, and allowed me to say what I was coming to believe. And Trump’s election, I think, had the same effect.
In fact, one of the really sad things about the mass hysteria that’s descended upon Washington is that it has prevented or at least forestalled like a real discussion about what’s important and what we think about it. And, you know, I’ve never been partisan, but I’ve certainly been — which is to say, I’ve never had an emotional allegiance to a political party. I’ve never worked in politics or anything like that. I’ve mostly voted Republican because I’ve been a right-winger my whole life. But all of a sudden, just because I read for a living, I started seeing pieces that I really agreed with, coming from people not only whom I disagreed with, but with whom I’d been at odds for like decades, including you. In fact, I haven’t done this, but I probably should. It’d be amusing to type in both of our names into Google pre-2015 and see how many pieces each of us has written attacking the other. [Laughs] Quite a few.
GG: Right. I kind of thought the Iraq War was gonna be this fundamental political event for people to change how they thought about a whole range of issues. I mean, I wasn’t even working on politics in 2003. I was practicing law. And that’s a big part of what made me start writing about politics. And for a long time, I thought it was gonna change people’s views, not just of the wisdom of those kinds of invasions, but the extent to which we trust anonymous sources, claims from the intelligence community, how the media conducts itself, its relationship to those factions. And for a time, I thought that that was happening, and now I think it isn’t. I mean, I think that the prevailing sentiment among the establishment wings of both political parties is this idea that we do place faith in the intelligence community. We do believe there are claims, even when disseminated anonymously. We still believe in the necessity or virtue of U.S. force; not in self-defense, but to produce good in the world and other countries that we barely understand. Talk a little bit more about what changed for you as a result of what had been your support for the Iraq War, and then your ultimate or subsequent view that that was just terribly wrong.
TC: Well, my support for it was always tepid. Part of the problem for me was I was working on a debate show at the time, Crossfire, on which you sort of had to pick a side. And so, I actually was never comfortable with it. Because I don’t have a super high IQ, I tend to ask the obvious questions, like what does Iraq have to do with 9/11? And I could never get a satisfying answer. So, that made me think, as it always does, if someone can’t give a straight answer that you can understand, either he doesn’t understand it himself, or he’s lying about it. So, it always made me uncomfortable. I was won over to the idea that the government of Saddam Hussein posed this imminent threat to America because of WMD — by someone in the government whom I knew well and was close to from a former life. And he convinced me of that single handedly. And so, I kind of was for it in the last few months. And then I went there, and I was reminded of all the things that I sort of knew were like inchoate thoughts that I had had before. The law of unintended consequences is never gonna be repealed. Like, you don’t know. You think you know what’s gonna happen when you do something, but you really don’t. And so, humility is a prerequisite for wise decision-making. And whenever you have people telling you — people like Max Boot, for example — we know exactly what’s gonna happen when we do this, that’s a tipoff that these are very unwise people who shouldn’t have power. And so, I just thought, boy, this is scary, more than anything, on a political level.
So, basically what you saw in Washington is what you’re seeing now, and what I will be against until the day I die, which is hyperventilating group think, where people convince themselves of a thesis and then stop asking critical questions of that thesis. Like, they start with, here’s what we know, okay? Here’s just — here’s what we know. And by the way, if you don’t agree to that fact, like if you ask any questions at all, then you’re clearly, you know, immoral. You’re a sinner. That’s exactly what happened before the Iraq War in Washington, and that’s exactly what’s happening now with this Russia stuff. And by the way, just to skip ahead, I just want to say this emphatically — I’m totally agnostic on Russia. Never been there. I don’t have strong feelings about its government. I’m glad I don’t live there, you know what I mean? I’m like the last person who’s carrying water for Russia, but it’s almost like my main objection is to the psychological phenomenon I’m watching in progress, and it’s totally the product of a ruling class that’s utterly homogenous, not racially, but culturally.
GG: So, one of the things that I found really interesting was, I think before I even went on your show, you interviewed Congressman Adam Schiff of California, who’s a Democrat, who has become, I guess you could say, the leader of the Democrats, in the House at least, when it comes to sounding the shrill alarm about Russia and Trump and the threat that is posed by the Kremlin. And he had that interview with you where you were just simply asking him for evidence of the claims that he was making about Putin ordering these hacks and about the motive that Putin had in doing so.
TC: You know what? You’re dodging.
Adam Schiff: And, and Tucker? Look, you are —
TC: To look and say, I know they did John Podesta’s emails —
AS: I think that Ronald Reagan would be rolling over in his grave.
TC: Ronald Reagan would be fine. Ronald Reagan —
AS: That you’re carrying water for the Kremlin, which you and the president elect
TC: I’m not carrying water for the — I’m — you’re making — look, you’re a sitting member of Congress on the intel committee, and you can’t say they hawked — hacked —
AS: You’re gonna have to move your show to RT, Russian television, because this is perfect —
TC: You know what? That’s just so —
GG: This has been one of the things that has concerned me most, because I got into writing about politics in the post 9/11 era, when I felt like there was a lot of equating of criticism of the government or questioning of the government line with treason, or equating of dissent with some kind of suspicion about your loyalties. And I see very much, although different people are doing it, those tactics being used now. Would you agree that these kind of tactics that you’re objecting to now that are often being applied to you have been tactics that the right has used for a long time to kind of delegitimize dissent and questioning of government policies?
TC: There’s no question. And I hate to think about the degree to which I participated in it, and I don’t want to ever be confronted with video evidence that I’ve done it. I’m sure I have. It’s too easy. It’s too hard to resist. The obvious example that comes to mind is Barbara Lee’s vote against military action in Afghanistan, which by the way, I think is justified, you know. The Taliban were based in Afghanistan. They were a terrible regime. They hosted al Qaeda, which, you know, sent 19 hijackers here and killed 3,000 Americans. So, like, I don’t know. I would still support military action against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. On the other hand, I think in retrospect, it was probably pretty useful to have at least somebody stand up and say, wait a second, you know. How long are we going there? This seems a little open-ended.
GG: Yeah, given that we’re — 16 years later, not only are we still there, but the Taliban’s still there.
TC: Exactly. That’s exactly right. So, yes. To answer your question in a word, yes. This is an old tactic. It’s been employed by the Right. Again, I’m sure it has been employed by me, and I’m ashamed of that. But what I’m so surprised by in this moment, and I’m sure it happened after 9/11 too, and I know it happened during the run up to the Iraq War, is: skepticism is being treated as sinful. And that’s when you know you’re not really part of a policy debate. This is a theological debate. You know these are people looking for apostates. And I just feel like it’s incumbent upon all of us in this business to assert our right to express skepticism. And I have to say, you know, I don’t want to log roll here or, you know, be ass-kissy. But, you know, you wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago in which you went after the press, not on behalf of Trump — you’re obviously not a Trump supporter — but on the basis of their willingness, you attacked them for accepting intelligence information or intel from the intel agencies on a background basis without ever vetting it, and accepting it as true. That is not what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re supposed to be relentlessly skeptical about everything we hear. And the press all of a sudden isn’t, and it’s bad.
GG: There’s a lot of criticism of you that I think is very partisan in nature, very ideological in nature, stuff that comes from Media Matters and the like that is boring and worthless and worth ignoring. And then there’s some criticism of what you do on your show that I think is at least legitimate and valid enough to discuss. And I wanted to ask you about a couple of those lines of critique.
GG: One of which is the way in which you cover crime, domestic crime in the United States, is extremely selective and designed to advance an agenda as opposed to giving a realistic depiction of what the nature of violence in the United States is. And I wanted to ask you about a couple of areas, the first of which is police abuse. Last week, there were two really talked about cases involving police violence. One was, there’s a police officer in Bald Springs, Texas. His name is Ray Oliver. He’s a white police officer who was indicted for the fatal shooting of a black teenager, Jordan Edwards. News of that indictment broke on July 15th, the same day that the fatal shooting took place in Minneapolis, where a Somali-American police officer shot a white Australian woman. Your show covered the Minneapolis shooting, I think, on at least several occasions, including you emphasizing that the police officer was an immigrant from Somalia, and you asked —
TC: Well, there’s a lot going on in this story, a lot of we don’t know. Mohammed Noor was an immigrant from Somalia. Is that a relevant fact? We don’t know. But it’s being treated as one by many news organizations. How do you know that? Because they’re not reporting it.
GG: But didn’t talk about the indictment of this white police officer. Now, I realize, you know, I get criticized for selective coverage, and as one person with one show, you can only cover certain things. You have only an hour each night. You’re gonna necessarily leave out newsworthy stories. But do you think it’s at least a valid point that in choosing which stories to cover, that it’s important not to inflame tensions against particular groups of people, especially given the impact of the platform you have? And do you think it’s a fair critique that you tend to focus on violence when committed by minorities more than violence committed by white people?
TC: I would say part of that criticism is fair. My coverage is selective. I mean, by the nature of the show, I select what to cover, and it’s informed by a lot of other opinions that I have that have nothing to do with the particular crime. Now in this case — I just pulled this up as you were talking — maybe this is embarrassing. I was not aware of the shooting of Jordan Edwards. So, maybe I’m reading the wrong things. I didn’t know that that happened. So, there’s that.
GG: Well, the case in Minneapolis, like why was that case so interesting to you?
TC: I’ll tell you. Because I’m very upset about immigration in the United States. I think the whole system is destabilizing to the country. I don’t think you can have this much demographic change and not have all kinds of unintended consequences. But the main reason I’m upset by it is because I think it’s driven by economic factors, and I think that the people who are benefiting from it are really disingenuous about that.
GG: How does this incident shed light on that concern? I mean, this is a guy who came to the U.S. as a kid. By all accounts, he’s been law-abiding his whole life. If he became a police officer — I mean, don’t you see why there’s a view that the reason this case is of interest to a Fox News audience is because of how inflammatory it is? It’s a Somali-American immigrant cop shooting a white woman who’s Australian, whereas the majority of controversies involving police abuse are white police officers shooting black people under suspicious circumstances. And so, if you focus so much on the former and give little attention to the latter, this concern arises that you’re using your platform to fuel resentments against people who are more vulnerable and marginalized.
TC: Right. I hope I’ve been clear on my show and other shows that I’ve had, I am worried about the behavior of police. I’ve defended body cam requirements for all cops for that reason. I am. I don’t like the abuse of power, and I think that some police officers engage in it, and I think they too often get a pass from conservatives. And I’ve said that. I continue to think it. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve been hassled twice in a big way by the police, and I know that it happens, and I don’t like it. Second point I would make, is that I really don’t want to do anything to inflame racial tensions. And so, you know, that’s certainly unintentional. I don’t like that I’m worried about racial tensions in the United States. I’m worried about tribalism. And so, I don’t want to be a part of that at all. I really kind of —
GG: But there is tension between those two objectives, right? Because you can legitimately be concerned about immigration without having racist motives.
GG: And in fact, there was a lot of concern on the left for a long time about the effect that immigration would have on depressing the wages of U.S. workers. So, no question about that. But at the same time, you would acknowledge, right, that the reason why immigration can be such an inflammatory issue, not just in the U.S. but around the world, is because we are tribal beings by instinct. We have other instincts that balance that, and we can suppress that, like we can with all those things. So, you agree that it’s important at least to be careful in talking about, say, the perils of immigration, if you’re somebody who believes that there are dangers to it, not to inflame those kind of terrible tribal instincts that are certainly part of —
GG: The immigration debate in the United States and elsewhere.
TC: I do. I do think that. And I’m sure that there are many times when I’ve fallen down in doing that, and not thought through my language enough, or have gotten upset and been unfair. I mean I — you know, that’s a constant struggle for me, to try to be fair even when I’m mad about something, or even when I think there’s a larger and more important point at stake, or again, to be unfair. I don’t want to be unfair. So, I’m sorry if I was.
Fox News: So, you want to stop all legal immigration?
FN: So, people like, people like me [crosstalk] —
TC: You, you look at it — no, I’m talking about not a hundred years ago or 50 years ago or 20. I’m talking about 2015. You look into the faces of the tens of millions of unemployed in this country and say, I’m bringing in new people. How does that help you? You have to answer that question. You’re not even trying.
FN: So, during the Great Depression —
GG: You know, Peter Beinart wrote this article about your show that I largely agree with, which is that he said, you know, even though he disagrees with you on a lot — I forget exactly the terminology, but he said that your show is kind of what conservative cable news could be if it’s intellectually engaging. And he talked about how you advocate positions that are even “too dovish for mainstream Democrats,” including telling Ralph Peters that you don’t even know for certain that Iran is an actual domestic threat to the U.S., which is something that you would never hear any mainstream Democratic politician saying. I agree with the praise that he had for your show. But you had this segment a couple weeks ago that I do think highlights the validity of this critique that I was asking you about. And I have to say, this is the one that bothered me the most, about this friction that you said took place or was emerging between residents of California, Pennsylvania, which is this tiny little town of 6,000 people, and this ethnic Roma population that had come from Romania seeking asylum in the U.S., and I think there was a grand total of like three dozen of them. And the segment kind of played into all of these negative stereotypes about the Roma, who are one of the most marginalized and hated groups on the planet.
TC: Roma are seeking asylum, saying they suffered racism in their native Romania. Immigration is not going well. According to residents, the Roma have little regard, either for the law or public decency. Citizens say they defecate in public, chop the heads off chickens, leave trash everywhere, and more. They’re upset. Some of them are, anywhere. George Eli is a filmmaker who —
GG: It’s this tiny little conflict that, I don’t know, didn’t seem to have any repercussions to me, and had little effect on what I think on your audience other than to kind of inflame tensions about the Roma. I’m just wondering why, with a platform as significant as yours, given the conflicts that are so important in the world to cover, you do cover this. Because I do have to say, it does seem like pandering to the Fox audience when you do stuff like that. I’m just interested in —
TC: I’ll tell you exactly — I’ll tell you exactly why. No, that was sincere on my part. And for whatever it’s worth, I think the Roma are actually kind of interesting, and I’ve read a bunch of books on them just because I’m interested in any culture that remains distinct over a thousand years through a dozen countries. So, I think there’s a lot that’s cool about the Roma. But I personally think that the most marginalized population in America is rural people, or people living in post-industrial parts of the country, whose life expectancy is actually in decline. Now, I live for a fair amount of the year in rural Maine in a post-industrial area that was, you know, all paper companies, timber products. It’s totally collapsed. And I’ve seen this exact thing happen there, where Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services or some group that thinks it’s doing good moves refugees into a depressed community and then leaves. And it’s massively disruptive for the people who live there. Massively. And nobody cares. And that drives me insane.
And so, if — I guess to be totally blunt with you — if 30 Roma had been moved into, you know, Beverly Hills or Cambridge or Northwest D.C., where I live, you know, I would have felt a lot better about it. I feel like the middle of the country is just a dumping ground for refugees. And the point of it, of course, is to make the people facilitating it feel virtuous, and then they never deal with the consequence. So, what about the people who live there? This is disruptive to them, and nobody cares about them. And that actually drives me bananas. And just the number of people I know who support these policies but never have to face the consequences of them, that’s what it was about. I’m not against the Roma. It’s just, I’m sort of for the people who’ve — who wake up, and they’re like, what is this? Nobody asked me, you know? And that’s what bugs me. I just think that that is a kind of — that’s a ruling class mindset that’s deeply corrupt, and it’s causing this, all this social drama. And I’m for a stable social strata, you know? And these people are making it impossible.
GG: I think that’s totally legitimate. I guess I just think that in addition to those people that are — I mean, it’s just like if you go into, you know, working class neighborhoods that have been decimated by free trade in rural America, and subsumed by the opiate crisis, and are being ignored, you really empathize with the people and what they’re going through, and the effects that these policies have on them. But the same is true if you go into immigrant communities or people who are fleeing hideous situations and coming to kind of embrace the promise of America that all of our, you know, ancestors and the like were able to take advantage of. I mean, you, you start empathizing with their plight too, and the genuine fears that they have over what’s gonna happen to their kids and to their lives as well. So, I think there’s a way to highlight the plight of rural America and working class America without pitting them against groups that are at least as vulnerable, if not more so, particularly given the makeup of the Fox audience and the dangers that those kind of stories can have.
TC: If you go through New England, which is the region I know best, all the towns along the Merrimack River — Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, up in New Hampshire, Manchester — all those towns, the bottom fell out from them economically, right? And somebody decided these were great places to send a lot of refugees. And what are they gonna do? I mean, how cruel. It’s not actually good for the people who live there, and it’s not good for the people who are being imported to there to be moved to a place with no jobs. Like, the whole thing is insane. And nobody ever says anything about it.
GG: So, this was really interesting for me, and I’m super glad we were able to do this. Tucker, good talking to you.
TC: Me too. Thanks a lot, Glenn.
GG: Up next, I speak with the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen about what she calls the unhinged conspiracy theories about Russia.
GG: I’m Glenn Greenwald, filling in this week for Jeremy Scahill, and we’re back here on Intercepted. Joining me now is the Russian-American journalist and activist who has been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, as well as Donald Trump. Masha Gessen, welcome to Intercepted.
Masha Gessen: Thank you so much, Glenn. I’m so happy to be here.
GG: Yeah, I’m happy you’re here as well. And obviously, one of the things that we’re gonna spend a good amount of time talking about is the debate which has dominated the news in the United States for, I guess I’d say roughly the last year or so, which is the debate about Russia and its relationship, both to the United States and to the Trump campaign first, and now the Trump presidency. And one of the things I find very interesting about talking to you about those topics is that this debate has been incredibly polarizing. People are firmly entrenched on one side of the debate or other because of the stakes that are — the high stakes for all parties, and for people’s political fortunes. And yet, you’ve been, I think, quite nuanced in your commentary and analysis. On the one hand, you are a vehement critic of Vladimir Putin and have been for a long time. You have very, I think, clearly warned of the dangers he poses, not just domestically, but also internationally. And yet, on the other side, you have often been skeptical about claims made by the U.S. government concerning the role played by the Russian government and Putin specifically, in hacking, and in other matters. You’ve called for more evidence. You’ve also warned of some of the kind of extreme conspiracy theories and hysteria that has consumed the debate at times.
And I want to talk to you about the specifics of all of that, but first, I wanted to ask you something that I’ve heard from actually a lot of people who were born in Russia or who were Russian citizens, but have lived in the U.S. for a long time, who have said that the climate in the United States, because of heightened tensions with Russia and the nature of this debate has become kind of oppressive, a little bit intimidating. They feel somewhat like they’re being castigated unfairly as Russians, that everything Russian has become toxic. And I wanted to get your view on that as somebody who was born in Russia, who came — who lived in Russia for a long time recently, and now works in the U.S. What do you see as being the climate here for people who are Russian?
MG: First, I want to say that I’m not alone in trying to offer a nuanced view. And in fact, I think that people’s willingness to latch onto this conspiracy theory that basically says that, “Russia gave us Trump” is inversely proportionate to their expertise on Russia. The more people know about how Russia works and how Putin works, the less likely they are to sort of embrace it wholeheartedly, which is not to say that they’re denying, or that we’re denying, or that I’m denying that there was any Russian interference. But what I’ve taken to saying is that the possible existence of a conspiracy is a poor excuse for conspiracy thinking.
But to answer your question about how Russians are perceived, I mean, I haven’t felt it myself, I don’t think. I’m not aware of my friends feeling it. But at the same time, most of my Russian speaking friends are queer New Yorkers, asylum seekers, or asylees who don’t spend a lot of time in the larger sort of Russian immigrant community, which is actually total Trumpland. And that’s been one of the small tragedies of the Trump election, is the way that families of Russian immigrants here or communities have broken apart along this incredibly polarizing line of whether or not they supported Trump.
For the larger Russian public, it’s been flattering and fabulous to see that their president has appointed the American president. I mean, Putin took a victory lap after — during his annual press conference in December on the subject of the American election. And he very much feels like the most powerful man in the world. But you know, the fact that I haven’t felt it personally is not to say that I haven’t observed it personally. And most recently, you know, there was a tweet out from Donna Brazile. So, there was a Russian tweet demanding that that property be restituted to the Russians. And Donna Brazile tweeted, “Now communists are dictating policy.” And that, to me —
GG: [Laughing] That’s — I mean, that — it’s amazing.
MG: It’s like the apogee of, uh, you know, this completely unselfconsciousness sort of remake of the McCarthy era, but as even more farcical.
GG: Well, I wanted to ask about a specific comment that you made along those lines in an interview that you did with Slate, where you said, “We’re seeing the reemergence of Russia as the ultimate toxic paintbrush you can scare anyone with, and hope that it ends their political career.” What did you mean by that?
MG: Right, yeah. Unfortunately, when we were talking on the phone, what I said was “smear” and not “scare,” but “scare” works as well. But what I mean is that there’s a definite feeling among Democratic Party operatives that as long as you can taint somebody with a Russia connection, that person’s political career is over.
You know, it’s magical thinking on the face of it. In fact, from everything we know, voters don’t particularly care about Russia. Certainly not Trump voters don’t particularly care about the possible Russia connection. But there is this magical idea that if you sort of create a enough of a cloud, a Russia cloud, and get it to attach to the current administration, it will somehow spell the end of this administration.
GG: And why do you think that that’s a — and I mean, I think that word actually — I’m glad that you corrected that, because I think it makes even more sense now, and it’s sort of more — it’s a stronger claim that way. Why do you regard that as kind of a smear tactic, or a toxic paintbrush? I mean, what about the view that, you know, Russia is an adversary of the U.S. government, Russia attacked the U.S. through hacking and through other means, Russia is supporting extremist rightwing parties throughout Europe and here in the U.S. as well, and therefore people who meet in secret with Russians ought to be held at least under a suspicious light, if not a guilty one?
MG: Well, because we live in a world in which Russia is a major player — perhaps not as major as Russia would like to be — but it is still very much sort of a part of world politics. And when it gets to the point where meeting, say, with the Russian ambassador is perceived as somehow suspect, when it’s the ambassador’s job to meet with people. And when we find out that these supposed secret meetings were actual conversations had at cocktail parties during the Republican convention, which is like the purpose of those cocktail parties, is to give people access to one another and to facilitate socializing. That’s what a cocktail party is for, especially at a thing like the Republican convention. And so, when that becomes toxic, then you know, what we see happen is the pathologizing of sort of normal political practices. That breeds paranoia, and that doesn’t actually constitute a response to any real danger. The danger posed by Russia does not reside in conversations with the Russian ambassador.
GG: Obviously, there are differences between the McCarthy era and the climate that is prevailing now among the — which are the fact that Moscow is shaped by a completely different ideology than it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But do you think there are similarities in terms of the way in which this kind of, as you call it, a toxic paintbrush is being used as a smear on people to sort of deter them from questioning claims about Russia or from deviating at all from standard orthodoxy within U.S. opinion-making circles?
MG: Well, absolutely. And I wouldn’t even say that there were similarities. What I would say is that there is a legacy, that the reason that this sort of idea has caught on so fast, and the reason that so many people perceive it as such an effective political tactic is because the reflex is still so familiar, and that’s why, you know, I react so strongly to something like the Donna Brazile tweet or the Time magazine cover from a week ago or two weeks ago that had a picture of Don Jr. on the cover and said, “red handed,” right? Those are clear references to the communist period, to the Cold War. And I find it nauseating that people are willing to claim the legacy of the Cold War so readily because it’s politically expedient.
GG: Now, I wanted to ask you about an article that you wrote in the New York Review of Books in March that was headlined, “Russia: the Conspiracy Trap.” Now, that was four months ago. There have been a lot of headlines made about the Trump/Russia connection since then, not necessarily all of them or even any of them substantive in terms of providing additional evidence. But I’m curious to know whether your views on those particular points have changed significantly over the last four months since you wrote it.
MG: I wouldn’t say they’ve changed significantly. I mean, I think that it’s not quite as strongly intelligence leaks-driven anymore as it was four months ago. My basic issue with the Russia story says the same, which is that I think conspiracy thinking is dangerous to politics. The way I would phrase it now would probably be a little bit different. The way I would phrase it is that conspiracy thinking, in a way, it’s a symmetrical response to the rise of Trump. And Trump has succeeded largely on promoting an aggressively simplified view of the world that basically sort of says, look, you know, this modern, complicated world is too scary to live in. Here’s a recipe for making it simple and livable and comfortable, and not quite as frightening. And the rise of that kind of leader almost always calls for all kinds of conspiracy thinking in the opposition as well. And I feel that that’s exactly what’s happened.
GG: Yeah. That happened among Russians who are —
MG: Oh, absolutely.
GG: Opposed to Putin?
MG: It’s happened among Russians who are opposed to Putin. And I think that my basic problem with the Russia conspiracy theory remains the same, which is that it’s like the one size fits all theory that tells us how we got Trump, which is that he’s a Russian agent, and that gets us out of the really frightening and complicated task of understanding how Americans voted for Trump, right? And it also creates this idea of how we’re gonna get rid of Trump, which is that magically — and I keep using the word “magically” quite consciously because there is no straight line from any amount of Russia revelations to an impeachment, not to mention that there’s no straight line from impeachment to actually getting rid of Trump. But magically, people believe that if the Russia collusion or the Russia conspiracy is proven, then that will somehow get rid of Trump, and the national nightmare will be over.
GG: But I want to ask you to zero in for a minute on this specific sentence in your March article from the New York Review of Books, in which you said, “Nor have we yet been given any hard evidence of the act of collusion by Trump officials.” Now, at the time that you wrote that, collusion was used to mean participation by Trump campaign officials in Russian hacking, either before the act itself or working collaboratively with them on how to distribute the fruits of the hacking. The goalposts have kind of been moved about what collusion means ever since the Donald Trump, Jr. emails came out, in which it was proven pretty definitively that Trump officials, including his son, were willing passively to receive dirt about Hillary Clinton from Russian officials, much the way Democrats were willing to receive dirt on Trump from Ukrainian officials or even from Russian officials. But on the question of whether there’s any hard evidence now, four months since you wrote this, showing collusion between Trump officials and the Russian government on criminal actions such as hacking, I personally don’t know of any hard evidence four months later after you wrote this that has been presented publicly. Do you affirm this statement still?
MG: Yes, I absolutely affirm this statement. And furthermore, I would say that what we learned from the Don Jr. email exchange was that he basically said in secret, in a confidential email exchange, exactly the same thing that his father said in public. You know, his father said in public, “Please get the emails addressing the Russians.” You know, it’s actually — this is another hallmark of conspiracy thinking, when we attach more value to something that is said in confidence than to the exact same thing that is said in public.
GG: If we convince ourselves that the reason Trump won was because the Russians engaged in nefarious behavior and dastardly deeds, and kind of implanted this Manchurian candidate and manipulated corruptly the American political process, which used to be pristine and yield positive results, and that’s the only reason why, was because this bad foreign regime gave us Trump, and then we get to believe that it’s — he’s not really an American phenomenon, which I absolutely think is a big part of what’s going on.
But I wonder if you agree with the following theory as well about why this conspiracy thinking has become so attractive, which is there is this underlying collective sentiment that you find in a lot of countries, where people are just extraordinarily furious and disgusted with and angry about the prevailing political order. In order to address those underlying positives, we have to kind of confront a lot of unpleasant questions about ourselves, like did we embrace policies as an elite class that kind of recklessly or indifferently trampled over people’s security, and do we need to change those policies in order to prevent those people from continuing to suffer, and embrace radicalism and extremism. And instead, it’s so much easier to just say, oh, this was the Russians who did it, because it relieves us of that responsibility. And I’m wondering, A, if you agree with that, and then B, whether you share my confusion about this eagerness to get rid of Trump. Because even if you get rid of Trump, the sentiments underlying Trump’s election aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they may actually worsen or become more extreme if there’s a perception that their democratic choice has been reversed. And I’m interested in your view on that component of this conspiracy thinking.
MG: So, I think you’re right. I think that part of the reason that the Russia theory’s so compelling is that it gets us out of considering our — you know, us, sort of the educated class, the wealthy, whatever, the political class — out of considering our own culpability for the rise of misery, right, that fuels the rise of somebody like Trump. But I think it’s even more than that. I think it’s — in a way, it’s again, the mirror of that misery, which is that it’s a fear of complexity. It’s — because if you consider what we need to challenge, what kind of sort of accepted political wisdoms need to be challenged in order to really try to come to terms with why people voted for Trump, then all sorts of things that we hold to be self-evident in the contemporary political world begin to topple, and we suddenly find ourselves — and again, by “we,” I mean people who are comfortable in the current political sort of disposition — we sort of find ourselves as disoriented, as frightened of all the things that start tumbling down as the people who voted for Trump. So, it’s a real fear response. It’s the “don’t drag me down into your abyss” kind of response. Because if I look into your abyss, I will find an abyss of my own.
Another aspect of it, which is related but distinct, is that the longer this goes on, the longer we watch Trump in power being unhinged, the more compelling the Russia conspiracy becomes for another reason, which is that at least somebody’s in charge. If you imagine that Putin is a cunning mastermind who’s really secretly taking over the world, then at least somebody is in charge. You know, maybe an evil grownup, but a grownup, right? I — having met Putin and having written in great detail about him, can tell you that he is actually not that different from the insane clown president that we have here. And nobody’s in charge. Nobody’s driving the bus.
GG: So, I know that there are gonna be a large number of people who listen to this discussion who are going to respond with the following. I’m sure you’ve heard it a zillion times. I certainly have. “Okay, it’s all well and good that you’re warning about certain kind of particularly unhinged people engaging in conspiracy theory, but the fact remains that Russia attacked our democracy. Putin ordered the Democrats hacked in order to help Donald Trump get elected, both to sow chaos in the U.S. and weaken our democracy.”
I want to ask you about that particular claim by asking you about something that you wrote, again in the New York Review of Books, back in January when Homeland Security issued what it called its report about the election year hacking, which was instantly accepted not just as evidence, but as proof, I think, widely through the U.S. media and kind of the chattering class. And it was issued on behalf of three different intelligence agencies. And it essentially concluded that not only did Russia, the Russian government — not only were the behind the hacking of the DNC and John Podesta’s emails, but that Vladimir Putin himself specifically ordered it with the intention to help the campaign of Donald Trump. And about that report, you wrote, “A close reading of the report shows that it barely supports such a conclusion. And indeed, it barely supports any conclusion.”
Do you still agree that six months later, as of — to this date, that the U.S. government still hasn’t presented any concrete evidence on the kind of original core question of whether not just Russians, but specifically the Russian government, acting under the direction of Vladimir Putin, ordered the hacking of John Podesta and the DNC’s emails? And secondly, do you think that it’s plausible that if America’s top intelligence agencies unite unanimously with high confidence in support of a conclusion, that there’s really any meaningful chance that that’s so fundamentally wrong?
MG: I’m not saying that it’s so fundamentally wrong, right? I’m not in a position to question the claim that John Podesta’s email was hacked on orders of the Russian government. I think the idea that there were personal orders from Putin, you know, at this point, we haven’t seen any evidence. It’s entirely plausible. And it seems reasonable to claim the two email hacks carried out by two different actors were affiliated with the Russian government and possibly carried out on Kremlin orders.
My issue is with the leap from that to influencing the outcome of the election, right? Because this is where the argument gets problematic. Basically, what the intelligence agencies are arguing is that the Russian government hacked the DNC and used the product of those hacks to influence American public opinion out in the open to help Donald Trump. The illegal and problematic part of it is the hacking. But then, with the participation of the New York Times, the Washington Post, a variety of cable channels, the products of those hacks influenced public opinion, which influenced the outcome of the election. Whether or not that kind of influence was actually legitimate journalistic activity on the part of Americans is something that we need to have a conversation about.
Let’s accept the one claim of fact, right? I mean, you can’t argue about facts. So, I can say I’m not willing to accept that claim of fact unless they show evidence, or I can say, okay, fine, let’s assume that that’s true, which is really what I’m saying. Let’s assume that Russians hacked the DNC and gave the products of those hacks to WikiLeaks. Let’s assume that happened. How does it amount to a Russian conspiracy to influence the election to throw to Donald Trump? It doesn’t. That’s the problem.
GG: Well, I want to thank you so much, not just for taking the time to talk to me today, but for your work on all of this over the past year. I think it’s been really invaluable the way you brought your expertise about Russia to this debate, which has been sorely lacking in expertise. So, thanks very much for both of things.
MG: Thank you, Glenn. And thank you for being a voice of sanity.
GG: Masha Gessen is a journalist, and you can follow her on Twitter @MashaGessen.
GG: And that does it for this week’s show. If you want to get in touch, you can find us on Twitter @Intercepted. And if you haven’t yet, please subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss an episode. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We are distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Rick Kwan mixed the show. We had production assistance from Elise Swain. Our music was composed by DJ Spooky. Jeremy Scahill will be back next week. I’m Glenn Greenwald. You can find my reporting at theintercept.com, and you can follow me on Twitter @ggreenwald.