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Masha Gessen: Russiagate Has Become a Conspiracy Trap Obscuring How Trump Is Damaging Nation

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Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen talks about how President Trump has benefited from what she calls the “conspiracy trap” around Russia’s role in the 2016 election. She wrote last year, “Russiagate is helping him—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about a piece you wrote last year in The New York Review of Books called “Russia: The Conspiracy Trap,” in which you wrote, “Russiagate is helping [Trump] … by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.”

MASHA GESSEN: I couldn’t have said it better myself. But yeah, I mean, look, he is doing unspeakable damage to our political culture, to American institutions, to politics as we have known it, which hasn’t been perfect, but it’s certainly—you know, it’s being badly damaged. And I think I’m really worried that it’s been damaged in ways that will make it extremely difficult to recover. And we don’t have endless bandwidth. We don’t have endless column inches available, even on the internet, right? And every time that we talk about Russiagate, we are not talking about immigration. Every time we talk about Russiagate, we’re not talking about the decimation of the State Department. Every time we talk about Russiagate, we’re not talking about deregulation.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Russia is not the only one doing it. And interestingly, in a piece Saturday, right after the indictments came down on Friday, The New York Times, in the jump to the inside page, has a little phrase that says, “Of course, it’s not that the CIA hasn’t done this kind of thing before.”

MASHA GESSEN: I mean, that’s an interesting conversation, right? I mean, I think that there are perfectly valid arguments to be made to—when we say, OK, that it’s not—you know, it’s not the same, right? Some foreign interference may be acceptable or justifiable, and some may not be. You know, if it’s us doing it, it’s one thing. If it’s them doing it, it’s another thing. Fine. But look at—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you look at—

MASHA GESSEN: But let’s engage with those arguments, right? Let’s not act like any foreign country trying to influence the outcome of the American election is a priori wrong. And, you know, this is not a popular argument, but I think it’s an important one. This president is putting every person in the world at risk of dying in a nuclear holocaust. This president is putting every person in the world at risk of living on a planet where irreversible damage has been done to the climate. And so, to say that the world has no business in—has no stake in the outcome of the American election is actually irresponsible and wrong and also xenophobic, right? I mean, it’s very Trumpian to sort of say, “You know, we’ll do whatever we want here, because we’ve got our sovereignty.” Think about that. Right? And then make a reasoned argument for keeping Russians out of the American public sphere, because they are so disruptive, misleading, bad-faith, etc. But it has to be a good, reasoned argument and not just this knee-jerk xenophobia.

AMY GOODMAN: And Trump saying, talking about these indictments, that they’re sowing, creating—”If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S. then, with all of the Committee Hearings, Investigations and Party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They are laughing their asses off in Moscow”?

MASHA GESSEN: You know, after a little bit over a year of Trump, there’s a tweet that I actually agree with. I don’t know what to do with myself now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have this serving all sorts of purposes. When you heard this was—well, the latest in the Russian indictments, which Rod Rosenstein was very clear in saying, “This does not implicate the, you know, Trump campaign.”

MASHA GESSEN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: “We’re just saying that they’re doing this.” And what does it mean to say that these people and these companies have been indicted? I mean, they don’t live here. They’re in Russia. They’re not going to be extradited here.

MASHA GESSEN: Right. I mean, we can conjecture that perhaps one or more of them will be offered an opportunity to come here and testify in exchange for something, and maybe that’s why this indictment is useful. But I have no idea. You know, I mean, I think it’s really important, in dealing with this stuff, to actually deal with what’s out there, like the information that’s available. The information that’s available is pretty scant, pretty unconvincing, and does not yet justify the amount of attention that we’re paying to it and the importance that we’re assigning to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, of course, one of the things that Trump is doing is saying, “OK, if this happened”—and he’s saying this under enormous pressure—”you should be investigating President Obama.” He tweeted, “Question: If all of the Russian meddling took place during the Obama Administration, right up to January 20th, why aren’t they the subject of the investigation? Why didn’t Obama do something about the meddling? Why aren’t Dem crimes under investigation? Ask Jeff Sessions!” the president tweeted.

MASHA GESSEN: Yeah. I mean, this is—this sort of reaches the limit of being able to engage with a Trumpian tweet. I mean, I think it’s a reasonable question, you know, why the Obama administration didn’t do anything about the interference. But we know a little bit about it. I mean, there’s actually been pretty decent reporting on it. We know that the Obama administration believed that Hillary was going to win, and didn’t want to put his finger on the scale by taking measures against Russians. I think it’s entirely possible that they were looking at the material and thinking, “You know, it’s pretty ridiculous material. We may be seen as overreacting. And since she’s going to win anyway, you know, why bother?” That’s a good journalistic story. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything there to investigate.

AMY GOODMAN: And this latest news of the Trump administration actually applying the sanctions that Congress called for, under enormous pressure, this week? What kind of effect would that have on Russia?

MASHA GESSEN: OK, so—

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of effect does it have on Putin? They’re just considering this.

MASHA GESSEN: Right. So, a couple things. First of all, I mean, there is the issue of sanctions being required by law and the Trump administration missing its deadline for imposing those sanctions. And that’s a problem, right? I mean, that’s a problem regardless of the substance of these sanctions and how useful they might be and whether we think they’re justified, right? I think that that’s the problem not so much of Trump—we should be focused less on the problem of Trump not imposing sanctions on Russia, and more on the problem of having a president who can just dismiss a law passed by Congress, just ignore it. I mean, that, in the long run, is much more damaging to our political system than whether it’s Russia or not, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Would you call it very Putinesque?

MASHA GESSEN: I would call it very Putinesque. I mean, it’s—I would call—but it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Would Putin do that?

MASHA GESSEN: Putin would absolutely do that, yeah. But, I mean, it’s not like Putin has an independent legislature to deal it, but certainly, yeah, Putin will ignore laws or reinterpret them or redraft them as suits his purposes. But, you know, I mean, that’s sort of the autocratic mentality: “Well, I’m president. Why should I do something that I don’t want to do?” And I think that’s very much sort of—that’s Trump, that’s Putin, and that’s every other autocrat on the planet. And there are lots of them now.

A second issue is: Are these sanctions at all useful, and should they be imposed? And my position is, actually, that we need to stop thinking of sanctions as instruments for changing Putin’s behavior, because they don’t work like that. They’ve never worked like that. They will not work like that. You know, the only thing that they can do is annoy him. And that means when he’s extremely annoyed, then you know they’re well-designed sanctions. I think the Magnitsky law sanctions are extremely well designed—and I can explain why. But they’re not going to get him to change his behavior, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how.

MASHA GESSEN: And yet—well—

*AMY GOODMAN:* What you mean by “well designed.”

MASHA GESSEN: Oh, so, the Magnitsky law sanctions, which are personal sanctions against people who are—whom the U.S. government believes to be implicated in grave violations of human rights. But they focus on people who are fairly close to Putin, who are wealthy, and they essentially lose their ability to—not just to own assets and to travel here, but to do any business with U.S. currency. So it’s a serious blow to their businesses. The reason they’re well designed is not because it’s such a serious blow to their businesses, although it is, but because Putin positions himself as the patriarch who distributes money and power within the clan. And those sanctions actually directly attack his ability to distribute money and power, because the U.S. government basically takes away the money and the power that he has gifted. And I think there’s brilliance to those sanctions, and that’s exactly why those sanctions are the ones that get the biggest reaction out of Putin.

Now, the conceit behind these sanctions, there are a couple of theories behind them. One is that we’ll get the elites so mad that they will coalesce against Putin. That’s not going to happen. Another is that it will hurt the Russian economy, and Putin will get worried about becoming less popular. And that’s also not going to happen. The kind of regime that Putin has built actually thrives on economic scarcity. He is not going to be hurt by sanctions. And, in fact, the counter-sanctions that he has imposed, in response to the sanctions imposed because of the Ukraine—the war in Ukraine, the counter-sanctions have had a bigger impact on the Russian economy than the sanctions themselves.

Still, I think sanctions are the right thing to do. And they’re the right thing to do, not because they can affect Putin’s behavior, but because it’s wrong to do business with a dictator. It’s wrong to be partners with a country that claims to be fighting terrorism when actually it’s waging war against several nations within its own empire in the guise of fighting terrorism. And what I found even more disturbing than Trump’s failure to impose sanctions was that, that very week, when he was supposed to impose sanctions, three Russian spy chiefs, who are under U.S. sanctions, came into the country to discuss cooperation on fighting terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Here.

MASHA GESSEN: Here.

AMY GOODMAN: Came to the United States.

MASHA GESSEN: Came to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: At the invitation of the Trump administration?

MASHA GESSEN: At the invitation of the Trump administration, which basically overrode the sanctions in order to bring them to the country for—and they clearly think that it’s politically safe to do that because it’s fighting terrorism. But actually what it is, it’s being in bed with a bloody dictator who imprisons and kills his opponents and who, in the guise of fighting terrorism, has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

AMY GOODMAN: Another plea agreement was announced, this one with a 33-year-old attorney, Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Trump campaign official Rick Gates. Apparently, he deleted email with him. Van der Zwaan, a son-in-law of German Khan, a Ukrainian Russian billionaire, one of the richest men in Russia and the owner of Alfa Group. Can you tell us about who he is and the significance of this, if there is significance?

MASHA GESSEN: Again, it’s hard to tell, right? I mean, Alfa Group, the name of Alfa Group has surfaced repeatedly in conversations about the potential ties between Russia and Trump. There was that story about a server in Trump Tower that seemed to be exclusively—to exist exclusively to facilitate connections to Alfa-Bank. At the time, the FBI told The New York Times—this was now over a year ago—that they didn’t see anything conspicuous about that server, that maybe it was just a disused server that Alfa-Bank was—that accidentally became the target of Alfa-Bank spam. My guess is that that’s not really the case, that there was something going on. But, you know, we just don’t have enough information at this point to say, “OK, Alfa Group, you know, this Dutch guy who’s been indicted, Khan’s son-in-law, oh, you know, it’s all—we can piece it all together now.” We can’t piece it all together yet, and it’s still an open question whether Mueller can piece it all together.

AMY GOODMAN: And the media’s obsession with Russiagate? I mean, if you turned on CNN, if you turned on MSNBC—I was talking to a Russian cab driver the other day, and he said, “You know, I left Russia to escape Putin, and all I see is Putin in the United States.”

MASHA GESSEN: Well, you know what? On the other hand, all you see is Putin in the United States. On the other hand, my friends who are foreign correspondents in Moscow are just desperate because they haven’t had an opportunity to write about Russia for over a year now, because all their editors are interested in is what Russia did to the American election. And, actually, that’s a really great example of how incredibly sort of circular in our thinking we have become and how even more self-obsessed than before the Trump election.

AMY GOODMAN: And the effects, overall, on the critical issues that are facing people in this country. I wanted to, as we begin to wrap up, ask you about the news agencies that are now registering as foreign agents in the United States, most recently RIA Global, which produces content for the Russian state-owned news outlet Sputnik, registered as a foreign agent last week, and, I believe, in November, RT also did.

MASHA GESSEN: Yeah. So, they’ve been required by the federal government to register as foreign agents, with, I think—I mean, legally, it seems to be—there seems to be a very solid case, for they certainly are foreign agents. They’re agents of a foreign state, and, you know, especially RT, which broadcasts here. It’s a reasonable to question to ask about, you know, sort of the relevance and consequences of the requirement to register as foreign agents, because, first of all, Russians are going to react—they have reacted by putting more pressure on foreign journalists there. I bet they’re going to start requiring regular, you know, independently owned American media to start registering as foreign agents, which will make it much more difficult for these media to function—not that they’re having a great time working in Moscow in the first place. It also seems to just fuel the sort of xenophobic attitude without having any real consequences. I mean, who—like what is the benefit of having these companies register as foreign agents? But, you know, like I wouldn’t waste a lot of breath debating this.

AMY GOODMAN: And I just want to end at a point you made at the very beginning, with the networks obsessed with the Russia connection, and what it means about—what it leads to, which is this lack of self-reflection when it comes to President Trump being elected president of the United States.

MASHA GESSEN: Right. So, ultimately, we keep talking about how Russians elected Trump. And even if everything that—the wildest hopes of people who are watching the Russia investigation with bated breath, even if their wildest hopes come true and it can be shown that Russia influenced the outcome of the election, Russia will have influenced the outcome of the election by influencing American public opinion, which brings us to square one, which is to ask why and how did so many Americans decide that they wanted Donald Trump for president. And that’s the conversation we should have been having for the last year and a half, instead of obsessing about Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: And you think it serves the Democratic Party, or at least those entrenched in power now, to continually say, “Look outside. It couldn’t have been us”?

MASHA GESSEN: I don’t actually serves—I don’t think it serves the Democratic Party. I think that—because it’s—you know, I don’t think that the problem is that the Democratic Party gets to cover up its failures. I think the problem is that the Democratic Party is not pushed to try to figure out what it needs to be doing now. You know, it’s not pushed to confront the very basic fact that there were a lot of people in this country who went to the polls consciously to cast a protest vote, not because they thought that Donald Trump was going to make life better for them and that he’s going to bring back manufacturing, but because the system hasn’t worked for them for so long, because they conscientiously went and voted, and they were told that their life was going to get better, and their life gets worse, and they don’t see a cause-and-effect relationship between the votes that they cast for politicians, who promised them things, and their lives. And they finally say, you know, “If Donald Trump is the grenade that I can throw at the system, then I’ll do that.”

AMY GOODMAN: Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. Her most recent piece for The New Yorker magazine is headlined “The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller’s Russia Indictments.”

When we come back, world-renowned filmmaker Raoul Peck. He’ll respond to Wayne LaPierre attacking gun control advocates as communists. His new film, Raoul Peck’s, is called The Young Karl Marx. Stay with us.

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“Young Karl Marx” Director Raoul Peck Responds to NRA Chief Calling Gun Control Activists Communists

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