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Katrina vanden Heuvel: We Need “Robust Debate” in Reporting on Russia, Not “Suffocating Consensus”

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President Trump drew bipartisan outrage from lawmakers and media outlets Monday after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and lashing out at his own intelligence agencies over the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, calls the Trump and Putin press conference “bizarre and surreal,” but says the media reaction lacked perspective: “I think that people kind of lost their bearings.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel, you’re the person who credentialed Sam Husseini, or your news organization, The Nation


AMY GOODMAN: —credentialed Sam. Can you talk about what happened yesterday?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I can talk about the importance of a journalist like Sam Husseini or a journalist like Amy Goodman or Juan González in a culture in which tough questions are rarely asked, whether at press conferences or in other formats. These are times when the comfortable should be afflicted by tough, tough questions. I remember—dates me—the run-up press conference with George W., the run-up to the Iraq War. There was not a single tough question. Maybe Helen Thomas tried. And I think the idea of journalists as lapdogs or stenographers to power is a failure, a malfunction of our democracy, which is already, as we’ve learned, under siege.

So I think Sam Husseini has a long record of asking tough questions. He goes to State Department conferences. He also does something quite clever. I don’t think he does it anymore, but Stakeout.com, a project he started. He would go to the studios, where, as you know—you’ve done those shows, Amy, the Sunday talk shows, where you don’t learn much. You get talking points. And he would ask—try to ask tough questions outside. I believe he got suspended from the National Press Club in 2011 for asking pointed questions of a Saudi foreign minister or Saudi minister.

There is a role in our democracy for tough public accountability journalism. And I want to thank you and Democracy Now! in the context of this moment, because The Nation is with you in the idea of not policing, but fostering, debate, unconventional views, often viewed as heresy in our political media culture. But the debate you held between Joe Cirincione and Glenn Greenwald, about the summit, about engagement with Russia, about meddling in the election and all of these related issues, was done at a level which our media culture would benefit from, because we’ve seen a lot of name calling and a kind of moral media political panic on the eve of the summit, I mean, and in the wake of the summit.

But, you know, The New York Times had a headline, I think, “Putin comes out ahead—by meeting him, Putin comes out—Trump comes out ahead.” But the idea that it’s a zero-sum game, I think, is a mistake, when you deal with a summit, which, let’s remind people, a summit, been held since ’43, I think—Roosevelt, Tehran, with Stalin—to negotiate, to de-escalate conflict, to find resolution and to try to avoid hot war, in the context of a summit.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about this summit.


AMY GOODMAN: And, folks, by the way, you can go to democracynow.org to see the debate, both on the air and after the air, between Joe Cirincione, who is president of Ploughshares Fund, very much for pushing—has been a longtime anti-nuclear activist, but did not feel this summit should take place, that Trump made the wrong decision, and Glenn Greenwald, who felt exactly the opposite, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Go to democracynow.org. But the summit and what happened—


AMY GOODMAN: —and the news conference, the outcry across the United States? It’s not just CNN and MSNBC.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: But not across the—it’s not across the United States, it’s across the media universe of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, not just CNN and MSNBC, but Fox, as well.


AMY GOODMAN: And the bipartisan, between the Democrats and Republicans, attack on what just took place, on President Trump saying he believed President Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 elections over his own intelligence agencies, specifically calling out Dan Coats.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, there’s a kind of maniacal defensiveness on the part of Trump to defend the legitimacy of his election, which leads to this—what we saw at the press conference, which was kind of bizarre and surreal. Was it treasonous? Did it rise to high crimes and misdemeanors? Was it surrender? Was it akin to 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, as some have called? I think the rhetoric was disproportionate to what we saw. We saw a Trump, who we’ve already seen bully his way across Europe, who can very well look unhinged, and it was not America’s—it was kind of ugly and shameful to watch, but I think that people kind of lost their bearings.

To me, there were three points that I come out of. One is that the investigation into Russian interference in our election must continue, must be protected, that our electoral system must be strengthened so that it is free and fair. That’s going to be a lot of work. And number three is that we don’t isolate Russia, we engage. And that does not mean legitimizing an authoritarian leader. We have an American authoritarian, they’ve got a Russian authoritarian. But it does mean understanding the context of two countries holding 90 percent of the nuclear weapons, that The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock a minute or so ahead. Midnight is doomsday. We’re a more perilous situation than we have been in since the Cuban missile crisis. So, I think we need to step back.

And I think it’s worth asking, in the context of media, Amy, which you raised in the treatment of Sam Husseini: Where were other alternative voices? There are alternative voices in this country, which could have touched a different note, one of more—that Sam was raising: discussions of a nuclear weapon ban treaty, or what do we do about to truly resolve the conflict in Syria, and not just let Putin and Trump issue talking points about what they were going to do. How do we resolve Ukraine? These were issues that came up, but it was partly because it was a summit of such low expectations, under siege from the beginning, but also loose planning, that the press conference became talk. And how it moves forward is hard to see, considering the assault on the idea of a U.S.-Russian engagement process moving forward.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But apart from the media fixation on the personality figures here, of Putin and Trump, does your sense, in terms of where Trump is trying to take U.S. foreign policy, away from international groupings and more into bilateral relationships between powers? Is that—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: That’s such an interesting question, Juan. Our defense correspondent, Michael Klare, filed a piece last night, which is just to that point, which is to move away from those international institutions—we already see the U.N. under assault by the Trump administration; the EU, which he’s assaulted; NATO, which he’s assaulted but then want more of, 4 percent of GDP defense spending—and to pull it out, and so that these two monopolistic superpowers organize the world as they see. But I don’t think that’s possible, because Trump is undisciplined, to say the least, untethered often from reality. And while there may be some strategy coming out of this—it may look like some strategy coming out of this summit, I think it’s going to be incoherent, inchoate.

I think what Trump did on this trip, between Europe and the Helsinki summit, is he played to his base. He’s reconfiguring the Republican Party so that it becomes more consistent with its isolationist roots, its roots as going it alone, not tethered by international institutions, and also sympathetic to strongmen. I mean, I think Trump is more a con man than a strongman, but he certainly has an affinity. I don’t have much use for those who say, “Look, he’s guilty, because he never says a bad word about Putin.” Problem is, he never says a bad word about Bibi Netanyahu, doesn’t say a bad word about the Saudi leaders, nor does he say a bad word about the murderous Duterte in the Philippines. So he does have an affinity for those strongmen, which I think does lead him and guide a kind of foreign policy. So we need, as small-D democrats, to counter and not accept—what I talked to Amy about last week—the failed bipartisan foreign policy establishment as our default. We should not go back to policing the world, indispensable nation, but instead have a demilitarized foreign policy that truly deals with the challenges of our time, which most of are not going to be met with a military solution.

AMY GOODMAN: And the delegitimizing of views that question, for example, well, Rand Paul, who may actually—The Intercept just reported this morning, may be one of those who votes against the new Supreme Court nominee because of his concerns around issues of privacy and surveillance.


AMY GOODMAN: But even on the issue of Russia and comparing Russia and the United States.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The vilification of alternative, dissenting views or linking those views to a foreign power—in many people’s views, an implacably hostile foreign power—is the degradation of our political media culture. When Rand Paul, who is interesting on foreign policy, reminds, as The New York Times has over the last—you know, that America has meddled in other countries’ elections, has interfered, has overthrown countries’ governments, and MSNBC contributors tweet “traitor”? And I would also mention Glenn Greenwald. We talked of him earlier. Malcolm Nance, a very ubiquitous commentator on MSNBC on intelligence and other issues, said Glenn was—I’m going to read it, because it’s so outrageous—”an agent of Trump & Moscow … deep in the Kremlin’s pocket.” This is—we’ve seen this in our history before. And I think it is—it’s dangerous when you have a suffocating consensus instead of a full, robust debate.

And it should be about issues. Juan is right. When we fix so much on personalities, we’re feeding the beast, we’ve seen, of media malpractice, this obliteration of the line between news and entertainment, the conglomeratization, the decimation of local news. These are issues which collide with an administration which does want to delegitimize public accountability, if they know public accountability journalism, delegitimize any check on abuses. And we, as representatives of a media which seek to speak to the issues, seek debate, to foster, not police, debate, need to stand up and continue to do our work despite these fake news and—people are despairing about the issue of news, about facts, about—anyway. But I think what—the tweeting, to call someone a traitor because they have a point of you don’t agree with, we’re in a dangerous territory.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: At the same time, it would seem to me, looking at it from the perspective of the Trump supporters, the reality that these indictments came out last Friday, just before Trump headed to the NATO summit and then to meet with Putin, it makes it—the Trump supporters see this as the deep state trying to affect the work of President Trump. I mean, from the point of view—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of a prosecutor, you could choose the date you’re going to release an indictment.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: How often—how often—July, hot Friday in D.C., July, this came down. I mean, there’s a long—there’s a—listen, the investigation should proceed, must proceed. Its integrity must be protected. But, we have seen, there’s a long history of summits being derailed by these kinds of last-minute interventions. So, no wonder teeing up that announcement 11:30, I believe, on Friday—no wonder you come into a summit where instead of maybe Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty being a top question, it’s all framed by the Russian meddling.

And so, you know, I don’t know about deep state, don’t know what that means. Wiser people than I have used it, have tried to analyze it. I think that, you know, the swamp, we certainly see, and the idea that Donald Trump was going to drain the swamp. Anyway, I think it—I think we need to—I think—again, I come back.

Let us find ways to proceed to engage and have dialogue and diplomacy, because the alternative is nuclear catastrophe. As we said in our letter, our open letter, which, by the way, has received secure—for secure elections, for true national security, over 30,000 people have signed from around the country. And it’s interesting to hear people and their thoughts, and not just a media establishment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Katrina vanden Heuvel, we want to thank you for being with us. When we come back, a man who critiques every level of the state. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, also a co-signer of the magazine’s open letter, “Common Ground: For Secure Elections and True National Security,” letter signed by Dan Ellsberg, Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky, Governor Bill Richardson, Reverend Dr. William Barber, Michael Moore and others. We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.

When we come back, Boots Riley. Stay with us.

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