RussiaGate Drowns Out US-Russia Discord

As Jared Kushner’s collusion denial dominates the airwaves, the RussiaGate fixation overshadows a new round of U.S. sanctions on Russia and other developments that fuel continued tensions, says The Nation’s James Carden

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.

When talking about Russia news these days, it’s important to make a distinction. On the one hand there’s Russiagate, and on the other there’s Russia, and the two are very different. Russiagate is, of course, the ongoing frenzy over alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion. The latest news to dominate headlines today is the Senate testimony of Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. Speaking outside the White House, Kushner denied the collusion claim.

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. I had no improper contacts. I have not relied on Russian funds for my businesses, and I have been fully transparent in providing all requested information. Donald Trump had a better message and ran a smarter campaign, and that is why he won. Suggesting otherwise ridicules those who voted for him.

AARON MATE: That’s Jared Kushner and the latest development from Russiagate. If Russiagate is about Trump colluding with the Russian government, it’s hard to square that with the actual news these days about Russia. The latest development there is the White House backing a new bi-partisan bill that would impose fresh sanctions on the Kremlin.

SARAH SANDERS: The administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place. The original piece of legislation was poorly written, but we were able to work with House and Senate. The administration is happy with the ability to do that and make those changes that were necessary, and we support where the legislations is now, and we’ll continue working the House and Senate to put those tough sanctions in place on Russia until the situation in Ukraine is fully resolved, and it certainly isn’t right now.

AARON MATE: The White House support for sanctions on Russia comes as it continues to tap Russia hawks for key positions. Kurt Volker was recently named the US envoy to Ukraine, which as we just heard, is a key flashpoint for US-Russia tensions. Former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison has also been nominated for Volker’s old job, US ambassador to NATO. Last week, Hutchison told the Senate she supports the new sanctions against what she called an aggressive Russia.

James Carden is a contributing writer at The Nation, executive editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord. Welcome, James.

JAMES CARDEN: Thanks for having me.

AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. I guess we should start with what everyone is focusing on today. We just heard Jared Kushner and his boyish voice and his slick attire come out deny colluding with the Russians during the campaign. What is your take on this latest development in the ongoing Russiagate saga?

JAMES CARDEN: I’m of a mind to think that Russiagate is mostly a unfortunate distraction. I think that Mr. Kushner’s point is well taken, that Mr. Trump, who was outspent two-to-one by Hillary Clinton, ran a superior campaign, and he won fairly and squarely. We may not like that. I don’t like it. I didn’t vote for him. I didn’t vote for her either. But the fact of the matter is that people voted for Mr. Trump because of his “America First” message, his economic nationalist message.

There’s a new study out that shows that families who had been affected by these 15 years of war were inclined to vote for Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton. The thin margin of Trump’s victories in the Midwestern states, like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, that could’ve very well made the difference. So Mr. Trump’s anti-war position during the campaign, which he has not adhered to since becoming president, that really could’ve made the difference. So Kushner isn’t wrong. He’s silly, but he’s not wrong.

AARON MATE: Yeah, James. That study you mentioned, it did not get very much media attention, but we covered it here on The Real News. Just to quote from it, they found a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump. Their conclusion from that is perhaps the small slice of America that is fighting and dying for the nation’s security is tired of its political leaders ignoring this disproportionate burden.

It’s interesting. When we talk about what Russia is accused of doing, its hacking, fake news, and social media bots, and no one ever says that that had a big impact on the actual vote. Partly, perhaps, because they don’t want to talk about real issues like this that, at least this one study says, is what helped lead voters to not vote for Clinton but choose Trump in the states where it mattered.

JAMES CARDEN: It’s impossible for me to believe, and I think it’s impossible for any sentient person to believe that the contents of John Podesta’s emails swung the election. It’s very, very foolish. I think that maybe we should go back and talk about the original accusation. The original accusation was that Russia hacked the DNC, and then delivered the hacked emails with embarrassing information to WikiLeaks, and somehow the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian effort. Okay. The problem is, is that the intelligence community has, so far anyway, not released any evidence that it was in fact Russia that was behind the DNC leak or the DNC hack.

Some people think it’s a leak. A leak and hack, those are different things. The group Veteran Intelligence Officials for Sanity, [inaudible 00:06:24] a group run by Ray McGovern, recently issued a open letter to the President, and these experts seem to believe that it was an internal leak. It was someone on the inside that got the emails and then delivered the emails to WikiLeaks.

So there’s a lot of confusion around these initial accusations. I don’t know. I don’t buy into this conspiracy theory with the unfortunate young man who was murdered who worked for the DNC. I’m not endorsing that at all. All that I am saying is that the evidence is very thin to pointing the finger at Russia for the initial hack of the DNC. It hasn’t been publicly released. It’s not there.

AARON MATE: Yeah, James. You mentioned the anonymous claims of these intelligence officials. Even though they’re so, by default, thinly sourced because they’re anonymous, they keep fueling this constant media cycle where every single anonymous leak then becomes the news of the day. Just a few days ago on Friday, it was some officials telling the Washington Post that intercepts of the Russia ambassador Sergey Kislyak, of his communications with other Russian officials, that those intercepts had shown that he and Sessions had discussed Russia-related issues … Sorry, no, I have to say that again.

Yeah, James. Those anonymous officials that you mentioned, they’ve become the fuel of these constant leaks every single day that then generate headlines that dominate media attention for the day before they go away. The latest was on Friday when you had this news about Jeff Sessions. The Washington Post reported that some officials claimed that the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak had characterized his conversations with Jeff Sessions about Trump and Russia as being different than what Sessions claimed, but that story is based on anonymous officials not even describing actual evidence but characterizing intercepts that they say happened.

JAMES CARDEN: And I think it’s pretty troubling that these intercepts are being leaked to the Washington Post. That seems to me to be deeply problematic because it’s tipping the Russians off as to our capabilities in terms of surveilling them. So I think that if these are coming from inside the government, that’s a problem in and of itself.

AARON MATE: You have to wonder if these officials are so concerned about Russian interference in the US, then why do they keep revealing their supposed intelligence methods, the fact that they have intercepts of someone as high level as the Russian ambassador.

JAMES CARDEN: It’s even worse than that. The Washington Post published a story not too long ago saying that US intelligence had basically a mole inside of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. How could something like that, if that’s true, that is a astounding feat of tradecraft. I very seriously doubt that intelligence officials would leak that information to the Washington Post. Again, we’re in a situation where these leaks are, as you say, kind of feeding this beast.

AARON MATE: Okay. Let’s move on from the beast and talk about actual Russia news as I indicated in the intro to this. You have right now, meanwhile, as all this Russiagate stuff is going on, you have a new sanctions bill coming before Congress that the White House has said it will support sanctions against Russia.

JAMES CARDEN: Right. This is the brainchild of Democratic Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin, who’s been at the … By the way, no relation. He has been at the forefront of the effort to sanction Russia. I think maybe, if I can take a moment to put these sanctions into a broader historical context, I think we have to go back several decades to 1974. What happened in 1974? It’s 1974 the Congress passed Jackson-Vanik. It was a piece of legislation spearheaded by neo-conservative Democrat Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington State and Charles Vanik of Ohio.

The purpose of that legislation was to sanction the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union was prohibiting the emigration of their citizens who were Jewish. So the idea behind that I think was probably very well intended. The problem is that, according to Henry Kissinger who would know, after the legislation was passed, the rate of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union slowed down, so it was counterproductive.

That legislation stayed on the books in the United States well past the end of the Soviet Union. That legislation was, in effect, replaced by the Magnitsky Act, which was spearheaded by Senator Cardin. So in effect, we’ve never stopped sanctioning the USSR/Russia in all these 42 years. The Cardin legislation regarding Magnitsky is pretty troubling because I still fail to see, and I was at the State Department at the time when this was happening, I still really fail to see how US national interests are involved in the death of a Russian accountant who was in the employ of a British hedge fund manager.

The British hedge fund manager, who used to be American, he disavowed his American citizenship a number of years ago over tax reasons, is a gentlemen by the name Bill Browder. Browder has sort of become a human rights crusader with the help of Benjamin Cardin, but it’s little noted that Browder was one of Putin’s biggest fans in the early 2000s and actually cheered when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sent away to prison. So Browder’s involvement in this legislation, I find is deeply troubling.

The current round of sanctions that you just mentioned basically ties the hands of the president and will basically forbid him from acting to lift sanctions against Russia with regards to Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine and their alleged role in hacking the 2016 elections. So all in all, these sanctions, while I think they have the effect of making Congressman and Senators feel good and look busy, tend to be pretty counterproductive.

AARON MATE: Okay, James. I want to get to more Russia-related news in terms of especially the appointments that I mentioned earlier, but let me ask you a sort of a side question about the Magnitsky Act because I was surprised to learn recently that there might even be reason to question the official story there. There was a piece up on the website consortiumnews.com, which you write for, called “How Russia-gate Met the Magnitsky Myth” by Robert Parry.

He references a documentary by a Russian filmmaker who’s known as a critic of Putin named Andrei Nekrasov, and the film was called The Magnitsky Act – Behind the Scenes. The story there is that this filmmaker Nekrasov was supposed to collaborate with that hedge fund manager who you mentioned, Browder, on a film until the filmmaker started questioning his whole story about Magnitsky. The filmmaker contends that Magnitsky himself might’ve been implicated in the fraud that he is credited with exposing.

JAMES CARDEN: Right. I attended that controversial screening in Washington that has been written about. The movie itself is pretty bad, but the issue for me was that Browder had used his money to threaten other places from showing it. He successfully managed to basically censor the movie showing in various venues in Europe, but he was unsuccessful in the United States. So I think that there was a free speech, First Amendment issue there.

The movie has some very, very entertaining footage towards the end of Mr. Browder running away from being handed subpoenas and the like. It’s worth watching. I’m not entirely sure whether or not the filmmaker, his thesis is correct, that Magnitsky was implicated in the theft. I simply don’t know. What I do know is that a British hedge fund manager has absolutely no business using his money to influence US legislation.

AARON MATE: Right. There’s another side issue, which I’ve been pointing out recently, which is that Renaissance Capital, the Russian investment firm, paid Bill Clinton half a million dollars to go give a speech to them, and that coincided with Hillary Clinton coming out against the Magnitsky sanctions, raising a possible conflict of interest question there I think.

JAMES CARDEN: That’s the Clintons for you. Everyone knows that for the past 15 years, Bill Clinton has been using that charity to enrich himself and his family. That, too, might be a reason why Mr. Trump did rather well against Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. Maybe it wasn’t really Russian hacking. Maybe it was because the country at large is really sick and tired of the corruption of the Clinton family.

AARON MATE: Okay. Let’s get to the Russia news again. We heard in the intro that clip from Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying that these sanctions are going to be in place until the Ukraine issue is involved. On that front, the Trump administration has just appointment Kurt Volker to be the envoy to Ukraine. The significance of that appointment, James, and what you think is being maybe overlooked right now in the story around Russia, Ukraine, and the US.

JAMES CARDEN: Right. I think the appointment of Volker is deeply troubling. Volker is a long-time outspoken critic of Russia, and he is a long-time neo-conservative operative. He’s been involved with the McCain Institute. Volker is a bad choice because he can’t possibly act as an honest broker. So again, Trump’s appointments sort of undercut his campaign message of an “America First” foreign policy. He’s fallen in with the worst kinds of neo-conservatives.

AARON MATE: Meanwhile, also, Kay Bailey Hutchison as the new ambassador to NATO in her Senate testimony last week, she talked about confronting an aggressive Russia and coming out in support of these sanctions.

JAMES CARDEN: Yeah, I don’t know what Kay Bailey Hutchison knows about this stuff. This appointment is about as puzzling to me as the appointment of Callista Gingrich to be ambassador to the Holy See. I guess Trump is maybe checking off boxes when he’s making these appointments. It’s bizarre.

AARON MATE: James Carden, contributing writer at The Nation, thanks very much.

JAMES CARDEN: Thank you.

AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us at The Real News.