professor of international relations at University of Southern California.
In the 10 weeks since President Trump was sworn in as the nation’s 45th president, he has faced a growing crisis over allegations his campaign colluded with Russia ahead of the 2016 election. On Thursday, reports surfaced that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is seeking immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony to the FBI and congressional investigators. Meanwhile, The New York Times revealed one of Flynn’s former aides was one of two White House officials to secretly meet with Republican House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes last week on the White House grounds to show him secret U.S. intelligence reports. Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee held its first public hearing Thursday on the issue. "If we want to understand Russia’s point of view, President Putin and those around him—and of course we do—whether or not we agree with it, we need to understand how our adversaries see us, how all other nations see us, through their eyes," says our guest Robert David English, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. "If we do that, we realize very quickly that their frame of reference has a lot to do with the mistakes and, yes, the U.S. interference in Russian politics in the ’90s, when we directly intervened in a presidential election to boost a losing candidate into a winning position—that was Boris Yeltsin."
AMY GOODMAN: Ten weeks ago today, President Trump was sworn in as the nation’s 45th president. Today he is facing a growing crisis over allegations his campaign colluded with Russia ahead of the 2016 election. On Thursday, there were a number of developments. Trump’s former national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, is reportedly seeking immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony to the FBI and Congress. Flynn was fired from his Cabinet post in February for failing to disclose talks with Russia’s ambassador before Trump took office. Flynn is also accused of being paid $65,000 by companies linked to Russia in 2015.
Meanwhile, The New York Times has revealed one of Flynn’s former aides was one of two White House officials to secretly meet with Republican House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes last week on the White House grounds to show him secret U.S. intelligence reports. Nunes said the documents indicated Trump or his associates might have been incidentally swept up in surveillance carried out by U.S. spy agencies as they conducted foreign surveillance. On the day after the secret meeting, Nunes, who served on Trump’s transition team, held a press conference, then traveled back to the White House to supposedly brief the president about the documents the president’s own staff had given him. The New York Times identified Nunes’ sources as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, who once worked for Michael Flynn, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer in White House Counsel’s Office, who was previously counsel to Nunes’s committee.
While Nunes is now facing calls to recuse himself from chairing the House Intelligence probe into Trump’s ties to Russia, the Senate Intelligence Committee held its first public hearing Thursday on the issue. The hearing focused less on the Trump campaign’s alleged dealings with Russia and more on how Russia used what one lawmaker described as "propaganda on steroids" to influence the election and to undermine the U.S. media. During the hearing, Democratic Senator Mark Warner said, quote, "We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but so far there is a great, great deal of smoke."
To talk more about these developments and what it means for U.S.-Russian relations, we’re joined now by Robert David English, professor of international relations at University of Southern California. He recently wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs called "Russia, Trump, and a New Détente." Professor English is author of Russia and the Idea of the West.
So, Professor English, talk about what’s happening right now in Washington, D.C.
ROBERT DAVID ENGLISH: Well, I can’t speak in great detail about the allegations Trump administration officials had improper business ties or colluded with the Russian government or Russian intelligence in meddling in the election. I await these investigations in Washington turning serious. So far, as one of your commenters said, there’s more smoke than fire, and we see the committee members fighting with each other and a lot of partisanship in Washington, so we’re not any closer to the truth.
What’s distressing, what’s concerning, is that this is the show, instead of a serious discussion of U.S.-Russian relations and how we might improve them—things that candidate Trump, you know, back when he was a candidate for president and campaigning, fairly reasonably outlined, that he sought better relations, that the U.S. and Russia could cooperate on a broad range of issues, and essentially that we would meet them halfway. This has now vanished in this political haze and infighting in Washington.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you have, in the committee’s opening remarks, Mark Warner saying Russia sought to hijack our democratic process. He described it as "Russian propaganda on steroids ... designed to poison the national conversation in America." Your response?
ROBERT DAVID ENGLISH: I think that’s somewhat overstated, based on what we know publicly, at least. Again, what do we have? We have the hacking into the Democratic National Committee and release of some emails, that contained nothing classified, national security-related, but were embarrassing because they exposed some kind of internal corruption or misdeeds in the Democratic Party.
We also have, of course, what he’s calling "propaganda on steroids." That would be Russian state TV, the RT—RT—or Sputnik networks, as well as various internet sources, that certainly are propagandistic. The problem for me in Warner’s remarks is that these vehicles reach so few people. Right? RT has a minuscule portion of the American or European television market, and same with the others, that this kind of propaganda can be as high on steroids as it wants to be, it’s just not having much impact.
So I wish the committees would get past this rehashing of what’s already been said a dozen times in various intelligence reports, you know, and exaggerated, and get to the heart of the matter. Was there illegal collusion? Was there cooperation between the Trump administration, campaign or future officials and the Russian government? Right now it’s just sort of rehashing and inflaming, you know, a lot of smoke, but still very little fire.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments by Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who revealed during Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that he was the target of Russian hacks right then, he and his former presidential staff.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: In July of 2016, shortly after I announced that I would seek re-election to the United States Senate, former members of my presidential campaign team, who had access to the internal information of my presidential campaign, were targeted by IP addresses with an unknown location within Russia. That effort was unsuccessful. I’d also inform the committee that within the last 24 hours, at 10:45 a.m. yesterday, a second attempt was made, again, against former members of my presidential campaign team who had access to our internal information, again targeted from an IP address from an unknown location in Russia. And that effort was also unsuccessful.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Robert David English, can you comment on this?
ROBERT DAVID ENGLISH: No, I can’t possibly know what that consisted of. It may be true. There are a lot of explanations for false flags or IP addresses that leave a trail in one place, when it’s coming from another. I don’t know what information in Marco Rubio’s email or those of his staff would be of interest to this or that hacker. You know, I can’t—I simply can’t comment on the details of something that was just revealed of this sort. If it’s part of a broad pattern, of course it’s disturbing. Again, it didn’t turn the election. It was one of many factors.
And maybe this is a moment, right? Maybe the real conclusion here is, let’s step back and consider Russia’s meddling in our politics and our meddling in their politics, of which there is also plenty, and address the sort of brave new world of cyberthreats and this kind of intersection of propaganda, news, public affairs, secrecy, surveillance, in a more comprehensive way. You know, we have the best cyberwar capabilities in the world. Believe me, we’re not pure, as well.
But as far as Rubio, who knows? I can’t know until, again, all of these investigations get to some substance and not just momentary allegations.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me go, finally, to General Flynn, the former national security adviser, his bid for immunity, following his remarks last September blasting Clinton campaign staffers for accepting immunity in exchange for their testimony to the FBI about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
MICHAEL FLYNN: Five people around her have had—have been given immunity, to include her former chief of staff. When you are given immunity, that means that you’ve probably committed a crime.
AMY GOODMAN: Also, at one of Donald Trump’s campaign rallies last year, Trump himself referred to claims Clinton had been granted immunity by saying, "The reason they get immunity is because they did something wrong. If they didn’t do anything wrong, they don’t think in terms of immunity." So, the significance of Flynn appealing for immunity, if he is to speak to Congress or the FBI, and what you think what he has to say? And then we’ll talk about this bigger picture of what a number of people are calling Russian hysteria.
ROBERT DAVID ENGLISH: I can’t possibly know. We can’t know what it is that General Flynn may be worried he’d be liable to prosecution for. Based on what’s publicly available, likely as not, it has to do with monies he received, consulting fees, payments for appearances from Russian state television or for other services, as it does to sort of political collusion. We know that he was a guest of Russian state television, that he had given various addresses, received various consulting fees. It could simply have to do with improper use of money. Again, how can I possibly know?
But what would really matter to us is if there was, what some suspect, collusion—right?—that the Trump campaign people, future administration officials like Flynn, knew about the email hacking, actually coordinated in the release of those emails to maximally embarrass Hillary Clinton and tilt the campaign. That’s the smoking gun. That’s the real crime, if it’s there. If there was improper use of money, if—you know, if Paul Manafort has money in a Cypriot bank, if he worked or others took fees for consulting for some shady oligarchs, that’s a different matter already. That sounds a lot like Halliburton and other oil money in the George W. Bush administration. Not nice, but not extraordinary. It’s the political collusion, that we can’t know about, that’s the real bombshell, if indeed it exists.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor, you wrote "Russia, Trump, and a New Détente." And you started by saying, "In his first press conference as president of the United States, Donald Trump said no fewer than seven times that it would be 'positive,' 'good,' even 'great' if [quote] 'we could get along with Russia.'" And you say, "In fact, for all the confusion of his policies toward China, Europe, and the Middle East, Trump has enunciated a clear three-part position on Russia, which contrasts strongly with that of most of the U.S. political elite." Can you talk right now—as we speak today, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, now secretary of state, is in Brussels for a major NATO meeting. He almost wasn’t there. It was announced he wouldn’t be attending NATO, but he would be going later in the month to meet with Russian officials. That disturbed many, and so he ended up in Brussels. But the significance of NATO, Donald Trump’s relationship with NATO, and what the U.S.-Russia relationship can be, that you perceive?
ROBERT DAVID ENGLISH: Well, there’s a lot in that question. I don’t—again, I can’t comment on whether he went to Moscow first or Brussels first and exactly what Secretary Tillerson is planning. My larger point was that, in very simple terms, Trump had said—and again, I outline it there very simply—three things that made sense with regard to Russia. Right? That the bad relations we have right now, that we’ve had for some years, are not solely Russia’s fault, but U.S. mistakes have played into it, as well, that’s first. Second, we consequently should meet Russia halfway. And thirdly, that if we do so, then there’s a great possibility of cooperation, that will benefit both parties, that will benefit the entire world, if we can cooperate on issues such as fighting terrorism, a transition in Syria, de-escalating conflict in Ukraine, in central Europe, possibly even cooperating on the Arctic, where, very intriguingly, President Putin of Russia yesterday seemed to propose a meeting in Helsinki in May with Donald Trump, kind of a summit, centered around the Arctic Council. To my way of thinking, that would be a great venue for a fresh start. But we’re not going to get there, so long as we have—we continue to fight internally over who knew what, who took what fee, you know, who did what in the campaign period. We need to get that out there, have these investigations really get to the heart of the matter, and not see congressmen and women fighting with each other, and then move past, take whatever corrective or punitive action is necessary, but then get on with foreign policy and not fighting about foreign policy.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor English, you write, "Few Russians who endured this corruption and humiliation have much sympathy [with] U.S. anger over Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And with any perspective on the [1990s], it is hard to fault them." Can you elaborate on what the U.S. has done in Russia?
ROBERT DAVID ENGLISH: Sure. Now we’re going back 20 years or more. But what I wrote, in part, about in that article was, if we want to understand Russia’s point of view, President Putin and those around him—and of course we do—whether or not we agree with it, we need to understand how our adversaries see us, how all other nations see us, through their eyes. And if we do that, we realize very quickly that their frame of reference has a lot to do with the mistakes and, yes, the U.S. interference in Russian politics in the '90s, when we directly intervened in a presidential election to boost a losing candidate into a winning position—that was Boris Yeltsin—and even earlier, when we meddled in parliamentary elections and a constitutional referendum. One way or the other, the U.S. played a meddling, interfering role in Russian politics at that crucial juncture in the ’90s that's far greater than what the Russians are alleged to have done now in the 2016 election. Now, two wrongs don’t make a right, but, again, we need to understand why President Putin, why the political elite in Moscow, kind of sees us as acting under a double standard and a lot of hypocrisy when we object to their meddling in our elections.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Robert David English, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of international relations at University of Southern California. We’ll link to your piece in Foreign Affairs, "Russia, Trump, and a New Détente." Professor English is the author of Russia and the Idea of the West.
This is Democracy Now! We’ll move from Russia to Secretary State Tillerson in Brussels today at NATO, having just come from Turkey. Many are concerned Turkey is making—with its new referendum, is leading to a dictatorship. Stay with us.