Trump, Putin and Russiagate Collide at G20
Max Blumenthal and Aaron Mate discuss the long-awaited first meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, where Syria and Russiagate topped the agenda
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
At their first ever meeting, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin agreed to a ceasefire in southwestern Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hailed it as a major step forward.
Rex Tillerson: This de-escalation area was agreed. It’s well-defined. Agreements on who will secure this area. A ceasefire has been entered into. And I think this is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria.
AARON MATE: Despite that news, U.S. media appeared more interested in another development from the meeting. Tillerson said Trump confronted Putin about Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
Rex Tillerson: They had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject. The President pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past. The two leaders agreed, though, that this is a substantial hindrance in the ability of us to move the Russian-U.S. relationship forward, and agreed to exchange further work regarding commitments of non-interference.
AARON MATE: Tillerson also said Putin asked Trump for proof of the alleged Russian interference. So far, the “Russiagate” affair has relied on the claims of leading Democrats, some U.S. intelligence agencies, and anonymous officials.
Joining me is Max Blumenthal, best-selling author, journalist, and senior editor of AlterNet’s Grayzoneproject. Welcome, Max.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Good to be with you.
AARON MATE: So, a lot of focus on Trump bringing up election meddling with Putin. But it seems like this Syria ceasefire in southwestern Syria is a pretty big deal. Max, your thoughts on this very hyped-up meeting between these two.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, I’ll start with the alleged ceasefire. I don’t know if it’s a big deal or not. It’s something that should have happened a long time ago. It’s happening within the context of these de-confliction zones.
And the de-confliction zones have been actually a driver of conflict, at least around in eastern Syria on the border of Iraq, around the Al Waleed border crossing near the town of Tanf where the U.S. has set up this 150 kilometer de-confliction zone. The Russians are very upset about that and believe that it will result in, or it sets the stage for, the federalization of Syria. In other words, the breakup of Syria and the partition of it.
Part of the ceasefire plan as it emerges is to leave Assad in power, but we’ve seen the schizophrenia of the Trump administration on display as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while cutting this deal – which is clearly a deal that would leave Assad in power and I don’t know who else they think would come in, like would it be Jabhat al-Nusra? Chief Muhammad Gilani? Like there isn’t really a successor – while cutting this deal, he did call for a transition which sounds like something, you know, from four years ago. It sounds really 2000-and-late to me, so I don’t know what he’s talking about.
Southwestern Syria has been a place that I’ve heard think tank experts from, for example, the Middle East Institute in Washington which is funded by United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and these countries, as a place that would be sort of part of the partition. It would be, you know, not part of, not under the Syrian government control.
So I think we have to wait and see what the ceasefire would lead to. But obviously, any kind of ceasefire, any form of de-escalation, in the near-term is a good thing because it will lead to less people getting killed. And as we’ve seen, a U.N. report that was issued last week found that 440,000 civilians who have been internally displaced by the Syrian civil war – in other words they have fled from rebel-held areas, areas held by the U.S.- and Gulf-funded rebels, into the government areas – have actually been able to return home and reunite with their families because those areas have been retaken from the rebels. So de-escalation is going to actually relieve the refugee crisis.
Going back to the issue of how the meeting with Putin has been covered, I mean the U.S. media … There has been some coverage of the details of the negotiations, but very little. We’ve seen very little detail. I mean, if you’re watching this right now, do a cursory Google search and look for details of the Trump administration’s discussion on the Minsk Agreement with Putin and Russia. That’s the agreement that should lead to a de-escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. There’s very little details the U.S. media is providing. Same with Syria.
What we’ve instead seen is psycho-babble about Vladimir Putin and how he will sort of dominate Trump in this meeting. Now let’s assume that Putin is so clever and so nefarious that he’s going to dominate Trump. It’s very clear that Putin is probably a more competent leader than Trump. I mean, Trump doesn’t have a very high foreign policy or diplomatic I.Q., and he’s clearly a malignant narcissist who operates on receiving approval, like, I’ll go along with all that.
Well, let’s just assume Putin gets what he wants and they cut a deal. What deal would take place? Would it mean that the U.S. would hand over its sovereignty to Russia? That Russia would have more freedom to hack our elections? It’s not even clear what would happen, but we’ve seen the most ridiculous psycho-babble.
For example, we saw in the New York Times a absurd rumor that Vladimir Putin once brought a black Lab to a meeting with Angela Merkel in order to intimidate her because she was supposedly afraid of dogs. I don’t know what kind of person, except maybe a bizarre German person, would be afraid of a cuddly black Lab.
But Putin was actually at home in Sochi. The Lab was there. He didn’t bring it to the meeting. The Lab just kind of wandered out. Merkel looked a little bit nervous. And then I looked online for pictures of Merkel and dogs, and there are lots of pictures of her greeting rescue dogs in Italy, for example, and going up and shaking the dog’s paw.
Putin denied that he brought the dog to scare Merkel, but this was just reported as fact and then you see these 5,000 re-tweets from some NBC producer I’ve never heard of. “This is all you need to know about Vladimir …”
Let me give one more example just to show I’m not, you know, nitpicking. The New York Times – I mean, I’ve got to read this; this is awesome – called on a Russia expert to psychoanalyze Russians and the Russian mind. You know, this is like the racist stuff we saw about Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 as we were going into the Middle East for the forever war.
His name is William Taubman and he does appear to be some expert in Soviet history. Here’s the insight he provided. “When they get drunk, Russians will often say, ‘You respect me, don’t you?'” That was his quote in the New York Times. This is how we’re supposed to understand the Putin-Trump meeting? I mean, this is absurd and it’s what led to the juvenile, adolescent display by the U.S. press before Lavrov and Tillerson, where all they could think about was Russian meddling. And what was Lavrov going to say? What was he going to say?
So this is just the quality of the media we’re getting. It’s actually … very much reminds Russians I know who are liberal Russians, who are not very friendly to Putin, of the kind of media they see back home; of the domestic propaganda they get.
AARON MATE: Yeah, Max. You mentioned the New York Times, so I just have to point out that this is the same New York Times that recently published Louise Mensch, this conspiracy theorist whose contributions to the “Russiagate” affair include suggesting that Putin was behind the protests in Ferguson. But, you know, I want to get back to Syria because you mentioned Russia …
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Can I interrupt real quickly?
AARON MATE: All right, but then we’re going back to Syria. Go ahead.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: There’s a guy named Clint Watts who’s a former FBI agent. He’s all over CNN and MSNBC. He’s been in The Daily Beast. The Guardian quoted him yesterday.
AARON MATE: He testified before Congress.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: He testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia was behind Black Lives Matter. So these nut cases are still out there; these Mensheviks are still out there and nobody cares about that. And Louise Mensch is not a bad apple. You have a whole crew of Mensheviks who are pumping their toxicity into the suggestible brains of the elite liberals.
AARON MATE: There’s a lot to talk about “Russiagate,” but just staying with Syria for a second. You mentioned the de-confliction zones. And I just want to clarify for people who aren’t familiar with what that is. That is the zone that the U.S.-led coalition has established inside Syria. And they’ve used these zones to actually fire recently on Syrian forces and Iranian-backed proxies.
And so are you saying that this record here, and the fact that the U.S. has used these de-confliction zones to fire on Syria and its allies, as grounds to be skeptical of this new ceasefire agreement between the U.S. and Russia?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, it’s allowed for a de facto U.S. base in eastern Syria. And Colin Cowell, who was a former advisor to Joe Biden and was in Barack Obama’s National Security Council I think … not exactly, this isn’t Noam Chomsky or someone even crazier, like Max Blumenthal, talking. But he said that we’ve established an Alamo in eastern Syria that we will have to defend. It’s a terrible idea and will only lead to escalation.
I think I even saw John Podesta criticized this idea. Some who’s … the Podesta Group just took up a $1.7 million contract with the Saudi Arabian government to lobby for them. So it’s not like it’s a far-left, anti-imperialist … that criticism of this is limited to the left. This is clearly a bad idea, but it’s what the Trump administration is doing to establish leverage with Russia as at least the U.S. moves towards a kind of partition.
Now, the most dangerous area that I don’t think we’re discussing, there isn’t much discussion. If you want to read analysis of that de-confliction zone, we covered it at the Grayzoneproject that AlterNet analyzed. Ben Morton wrote a great analysis for us.
But the issue of Raqqa is, this is going to be a huge problem if we don’t understand what the U.S. agenda is for Raqqa, and for the towns around it. Raqqa is an Arab city. It is a Syrian-Arab city. Its interior is still partly controlled by ISIS. They’re going to be ousted by the Syrian Defense Forces, which is armed and trained by the U.S. It’s mostly Kurdish militia, which is now kind of acting as an arm of American power in eastern Syria.
When ISIS is removed, what happens to the Arab residents of Raqqa when a mostly Kurdish force moves in? The U.S. seems to be indicating that the Syrian government will not be allowed to take control of Raqqa. Brett McGurk is already – who’s the head of the U.S. coalition against ISIS – has already taken tours of town near Raqqa which have been captured. And those towns are not able to pay their teachers, their electricity hasn’t come on, and it’s because of the U.S. de-confliction line. It will not allow the Syrian government to restore control, and so people there are suffering.
I spoke to someone who I would describe as close to the Kurdistan regional authority some weeks ago, and that person told me that the residents of Raqqa will quote-unquote “decamp.” Will the Arab residents of Raqqa, the Sunni Arab residents of Raqqa be ethnically cleansed by a mostly Kurdish force under U.S. control to prevent the Syrian government from reestablishing its authority in eastern Syria? That sounds like a terrible scenario to me, and something very dangerous as we move forward in Syria. And also something that anyone who’s remotely concerned with human rights should be worried about, along with the weapons and the mass civilian casualties the U.S. is causing there already.
AARON MATE: Well, Max, let me ask you on the point of the Kurds. I mean, do they have a record inside Syria to suggest that that possibility might happen? And haven’t they said, or taken great pains to stress many times, that they don’t have designs on territory beyond what they already control in northern Syria?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: No, there’s no record of it in Rojava or Manbij and these areas. These are Kurdish areas, but now they’re moving outside areas that are Kurdish. The U.S. is pushing them to do so. What happens? Who holds the de-confliction line for the U.S.? What if the people of Raqqa have a different idea in mind? What if the teachers and the public employees want their salaries restored?
Brett McGurk told the New York Times – this is the head of the U.S. coalition against ISIS – that while the U.S. intended to provide chalkboards and desks in this area, it was basically going to turn to the U.N. for everything else and displace all responsibility for the civilian population onto the U.N. to avoid allowing Syria to take control back of Syria.
This is not only classic imperialism, something that Russia is not doing in Syria because Russia is returning territory to the Syrian government. It is a recipe for complete disaster and more human catastrophe.
AARON MATE: So Max, in terms of how Putin and Trump are discussed here in the U.S., I want to play for you a clip from today. This is the former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, being interviewed by Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC.
Andrea Mitchell: If President Trump does not raise the issue of Russian hacking, Russian meddling in our election, what’s the impact?
James Clapper: Well, I think one thing is that Putin will be even more emboldened to continue their activities. And looking ahead to 2018-2020 elections, they’re going to be more aggressive about it. In fact, a report that came out yesterday about increased Soviet … Freudian slip … Russian collection activity in this country, which I think is probably part of this, and he’s simply …
Andrea Mitchell: They’re sending more spies here.
James Clapper: Exactly.
AARON MATE: Max, so that’s James Clapper and Andrea Mitchell. And what I found interesting there was, we’re not just talking now about 2016 and how Russia helped Trump win through their fake news and hacked emails, but now they’re talking about sending more spies to the U.S. And the discussion I’m seeing now is how this is going to influence the next elections and how we all have to get ready.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: First of all, this is James Clapper, who lied under oath to Congress and has twice said in recent weeks that he believes that Russians are genetically primed to interfere in foreign countries. That they’re genetically primed to subvert. This is a language you would expect from someone maybe titled “Obergruppenfuhrer Clapper.” But it’s not any language that portrays an objective analysis of Russian goals or the Russian geo-political agenda.
We heard a lot of hysteria – I guess it was somewhat justified – we heard a lot of outrage about statements Trump made in Poland about western civilization being under attack from without and from within by subversion – he even used the term “subversion” – this being kind of classic Fascist rhetoric. And it does sound like a lot of the neo-Fascists in Europe.
But it also sounds a lot like the liberals. And if you browse the headlines at The Daily Beast – I just did a quick browse – you’ll see headlines warning that Russia aims to subvert the entire west from within. And you’ll hear rhetoric like Clapper’s about the genetic tendencies of Russians. So there’s a hysteria on the other side by Trump’s opponents about subversion of the west from without and from within, and in many ways it’s unfounded. I don’t believe that Russia has the ability to subvert a democracy that’s already in deep decline. It does have the ability to allow us to project our internal contradictions and our problems onto a foreign country.
Clapper was referring in that report to completely anonymously-sourced CNN report about ramped up Russian spy activity. I don’t know if that means that Russian spies are taking Adderall now, or that there are more Russian spies. But when CNN reported it, it was sourced entirely to anonymous intelligence officials, anonymous official, anonymous senior intelligence official. So whatever anonymous intelligence officials say, CNN believes, and the opponents of Trump swallow it whole.
I don’t know where the evidence is, and it’s just like Russian hacking. We have nothing to evaluate here. We have no concrete evidence to analyze or evaluate. We simply have to believe all spooks. And that’s, once again, it’s dangerous because it prevents kind of the internal reflection and the confrontation with ourselves that need to have, along with an objective analysis of what diplomacy with Russia should look like, and what the U.S. can accomplish cooperating with Russia to de-escalate conflicts in places like Syria and Ukraine.
AARON MATE: Yeah, Max. And amidst all this discussion and focus on Trump and Russia, it’s easy to lose sight of what we’re talking about in terms of what Russia’s accused of doing. It’s fake news and hacking emails, which is just so relatively trivial compared to the kind of interference that the U.S. does around the world. It’s an obvious leftist point to make, but yet it’s just lost on so many people.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, I mean even if Russia had hacked the DNC, for example, that would be elegant compared to what the United States did to Russia in Ukraine, what the United States did to Russia in the 1990s, and what we sought to do to them again and again, or what we’re currently doing with every country that rejects a total U.S. alignment, from Venezuela to North Korea. It’s just, there’s simply no comparison.
But the larger point to make just about media coverage is that there’s fake news, and CNN is pumping out a lot of fake news. But there’s also non-news, and I think non-news is more dangerous than fake news. There’s very little issue-based coverage, and there are a lot of issues out there.
The acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer kind of passed without much outrage at all. I don’t know how that took place. It was one of the most outrageous things that took place, and the media was just consumed with this narrative of foreign subversion.
When CNN’s Russian meddling narrative started to fall apart with the suspension or firing of three reporters over it’s report on Scaramucci, the former Trump transition official, I thought “Okay. Finally we’re going to move on. We might see some real coverage.”
And then Trump tweets out a gif which was silly and harmless, but obviously idiotic and un-Presidential, and we see the return of the non-news; this kind of mock battle between an elite media and a loutish President, with all of these corporate shills pretending that they’re rebel dissidents under attack like they’re Roman Christians hiding in the catacombs because a President tweeted out a gif.
And so we had another week of non-news. And so I think we need to discuss the deliberate deployment of non-news to paper-over real issues.
AARON MATE: Well, Max Blumenthal, I want to thank you for joining us.
Max Blumenthal, best-selling author, journalist, senior editor of AlterNet’s Grayzoneproject. Thanks, Max.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.