Real News Doesn’t Side with Russian or American Oligarchs
Kim Brown and Paul Jay discuss TRNN’s approach to covering Jeff Sessions and the Trump-Russia connection controversy
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
Periodically we will be bringing you conversations with members of our editorial team, and talking about the process that goes into the stories that we choose to report, and how we present them to you. As you know, here at The Real News, we are a non-profit organization. We don’t rely on any corporate or government funding, so that allows us the freedom and the latitude to present the news in the best interests of you, our audience.
As you know, on Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any potential investigations with the FBI and the Department of Justice that are looking into links between the Trump administration, Russia, and the 2016 election. Today we’re joined in the studio by our senior editor Paul Jay to discuss this very trendy, fast-moving story here. Paul, welcome. Thanks for being here.
PAUL JAY: Thank you.
KIM BROWN: Let’s talk about how this story sort of snowballed rather fast. Life came at Jeff Sessions pretty fast this week with his deciding to recuse himself, even amid calls for his resignation by a number of congressional members. Tell me your thoughts about this.
PAUL JAY: Well, first of all, why is it a story? There’s a dance that goes on between the political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, and the corporate media. And much of what they do is not about policy, it’s not about actually even passing laws. It’s about positioning vis-à-vis the media, because they all want to get re-elected and raise money. I would guess it preoccupies more of their time than actually doing anything. On the other hand, that may not be so bad because when they do do something it’s not usually very good for the rest of us.
The Democrats are going after Sessions clearly for partisan reasons. The meeting with the ambassador in itself is harmless. Who cares? I mean, senators meet with ambassadors. It’s not a big deal.
KIM BROWN: Well, some would say that the reason that it is a big deal is because Russia is alleged to have played a part in interfering with the American election in 2016. So, meeting with the foreign dignitary of the country that’s accused of meddling in the election may not look so good for the Attorney General, or even the potential Attorney General.
PAUL JAY: Well, still, at the moment, the most the Russians did – if they did this, and it’s still not clear that there’s real evidence that they did do it – is release a bunch of stuff to WikiLeaks about the Clinton campaign. Let’s start from the beginning.
We look at news how it affects the well-being of the majority of people. Is it good for most people? Or not? Frankly, leaking that stuff about the Clinton campaign was probably good for most people. It actually made people informed to how the Sanders campaign was sabotaged, how the DNC and Wasserman Shultz was not playing the role that she’s supposed to be – neutral in the Democratic Party primary.
It wasn’t such a great crime. If it affected the outcome of the election, it’s very minor. Nobody really thinks it was anything decisive. Again, it’s a partisan way to go after the Republicans, particularly go after Trump.
There is a wrinkle in it, of course, which is why did Sessions not honestly say he’d had the meeting. Why did Flynn lie about the phone call?
KIM BROWN: Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor, who was forced to resign.
PAUL JAY: Why does Flynn lie to Pence? Never mind to the media. Flynn holds back the conversation. But, again, the substance of it is if Flynn had had the exact same conversation a few weeks later, after the inauguration, nobody would care. It’s not that there’s not something fishy going on with the Trump-Russia relationship. There seems to be some smoke and we’ll see what the fire really is, if there is.
But the corporate media is covering this Sessions thing because they love the partisan political fight. They love the soap opera, and the Democrats and the Republicans play to that. It’s a nice little dance they do, giving the media a story they think is red meat, and then they can run all over it.
Now if you want to cover Sessions, a far bigger Sessions story – if you’re talking about the well-being of most people – is the increase of privatization of the prisons. Sessions take — what he’s doing in terms of the voter rights in Texas — these are the kinds of things that are far more serious for people’s well-being, and that’s what we’re trying to cover. It’s not that Sessions doesn’t deserve to be critiqued and, frankly, in theory, even impeached for some of these positions he’s taken, but the Russian thing is not the big deal.
Now, this overlaps with the thing. There’s this split in the Republican party over the question of what attitude to take towards Russia. And the Democrats are using this issue not just because it gets the media involved. It splits the Republican Party, and you have John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who are very associated with the kind of getting a new Cold War against Russia going, and it seems, on the face of it, really just to be connected with the arms industry. Which I think is part of why Trump is throwing so much money at the military and at the industrial-military complex. You give them $54 billion it takes away some of McCain’s argument, because McCain thought he needs this Cold War with Russia to help promote the interests of the military-industrial complex.
Well, now, Trump’s thrown this money at them, McCain doesn’t have that card as much anymore, but McCain hates Trump.
KIM BROWN: They seem to hate each other pretty well.
PAUL JAY: Well, there’s a history here, and corporate media is not talking very much about it. But it goes back another step. Which is Robert Mercer, who is the billionaire backer of Trump, and who Bannon worked for, and Mercer owns a major piece of Breitbart News. Kellyanne Conway, as everyone knows, is now the senior advisor to Trump and ran Trump’s campaign — they both worked for this billionaire Mercer, and, after the Republican convention, Mercer came in and essentially helped take over, reshape the Trump campaign, and they won.
Mercer is co-CEO of a company called Renaissance Technologies. Well, Renaissance Technologies is fighting over an almost $7 billion tax bill with the IRS, and the co-CEO – co-CEO with Mercer of Renaissance Technologies, and I’m sorry, I forget his name right now [Peter Brown] – but he had testified in front of a Senate Committee about the tax fight and who’s on that Senate Committee grilling the Renaissance guy? John McCain. And what happens now when Mercer backs Trump, and they have not a very good history anyway, McCain and Trump, but during the Republican primary, leading up to the last election, Trump backs the opponent of McCain and they try to unseat McCain. So, you’ve got Trump’s agenda, you have Mercer’s agenda, and you have, at that level, a real feud going on. But on a bigger level, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party – sections of the Democratic Party – have been establishing this anti-Russia psychology that backed as if it was the days of the Cold War.
KIM BROWN: Well, let’s talk about that. Because something about Russia in the American psyche triggers fear. Triggers a curiosity. Of not only culture but wondering about whether or not Russia will ever attack us. Whether or not Russia is infiltrating America via the promotion of the Communist Party during the ’20s, and then onward through the civil rights movement. So, there’s this issue about Russia in terms of how Americans generally perceive Russia. It’s something that is ingrained in most of us, that are from here, but at the same time the relationship with Russia has changed quite a bit since the fall of Communism there. And then there’s this enigmatic figure in Vladimir Putin who seems to be this somewhat perfect villain who Donald Trump, at times, speaks about in tremendous admirable and glowing terms.
So, it seems like there has been a shift in how Russia is perceived, and by whom, because we’re seeing really liberals and Democrats sort of take up the mantle, as you said, of Cold War hawks of being anti-Russia. So, how do we perceive that and how are we able to unpack that?
PAUL JAY: Well, the first thing is we need to recognize who’s fighting with who here? And it’s two sets of oligarchs. The American corporate media and the sections of the preponderance, majority of the elite politicians, both Democrat and Republican, they talk about the dictator Putin and they talk about all these billionaires and oligarchs that are around Putin, and so on. It’s all true.
KIM BROWN: All true.
PAUL JAY: But it’s true here, too.
KIM BROWN: Yes.
PAUL JAY: You know, when Bernie Sanders was saying you have to fight the oligarchy – American oligarchy – it’s very similar. Maybe the difference is the oligarchy here is way bigger. There’s more of them.
KIM BROWN: Someone argued that Putin’s oligarchy is more gangster, though, because of opponents being killed, journalists also being killed, and somewhat assumed to be at the behest of Vladimir Putin. So, who’s more gangster here, Paul? Russians or Americans?
PAUL JAY: It’s possible, and I don’t know the domestic Russian situation enough. But let’s say what you said is true. Russia, domestically, may be more gangsterish, meaning they break laws, they use direct violence. Let’s say that’s true. And I haven’t investigated that directly enough to say so, but a lot of people say so.
What happens in the United States is the oligarchs use laws to make what they do legal. And if they want to go after somebody, they go after them. They go after them through the IRS, so they go after them in other ways. But there is still more framework of laws governing how billionaires deal with billionaires, how multimillionaires deal with multimillionaires. They do still want to have a certain level of law and order, and they do still want the state to play a role in making sure that not one section of billionaires is completely let loose on the other. They don’t care that much about the rights of ordinary people. You go to Baltimore, even the Department of Justice said the police were violating people’s constitutional rights here every single day.
So, for much of America there’s no such thing as constitutional rights. Already. But, for the wealthy, for the elites, and there’s a lot of people in the American elite, and even geographically, very spread out throughout the country, they want to make sure that you don’t have one small little clique of billionaires take over the White House and take over the Department of Justice. And that’s what they’re worried about right now.
KIM BROWN: We’re looking at Trump’s Cabinet. Isn’t that precisely what’s happening?
PAUL JAY: Well, it’s precisely what’s happening. And so, I mean, why did so many even Republican elites back Hillary Clinton? They don’t want to break this kind of overall legal judicial framework of how elites deal with elites in America. And they’re afraid that this Trump thing is a very small circle that’s going to use the apparatus of the state to go after even competitive millionaires and billionaires. Which is why people are calling about the ‘deep state’ or the ‘permanent state.’ Whether it’s in the intelligence agencies or otherwise. They’re also worried that this clique is going to kind of be able to assert a kind of power that creates too-centralized a power that’s going to really piss off the rest of the elites.
Go back to this question: so, you have Russia and the United States. Well, who’s done more gangsterish activity on the international level? While domestically there may be more use of law and order than there is in Russia. Internationally it’s not even a comparison. Whatever Russia’s done in the Crimea, or the Ukraine, or Georgia, it’s nothing compared to the invasion of Iraq. I mean, it’s not even close. It’s nothing to working with the Saudis, and the Turks, and the Qataris, to destroy this Syrian society, to destroy Libya.
There’s nothing Russia’s done on the international stage that’s as gangsterish because they have, America and its allies, have violated every basic principle of international law. From an illegal war in Iraq to the overthrow of Gaddafi and so on.
So, let’s keep in perspective that when the Democrats, and some Republicans, are screaming about links with the Russians, the hypocrisy is just dripping off them. Including interfering in an election. Now, okay, maybe Russia released the WikiLeaks stuff. Maybe that had some influence to play. Maybe they had some contacts with the Trump camp saying, you know, if you get elected, maybe they prefer the Trump camp. Is there an election on earth that the United States doesn’t interfere with?
KIM BROWN: It’s a little bit of schadenfreude from the rest of the world, at least countries where the United States has been known to interfere in elections, and a lot of people were asking us, you know, how does it feel?
PAUL JAY: Well, the essence of American exceptionalism is we can do horrible things all over the world because we do them for good reasons. Nobody else can do it to us. Because if you do anything to us, you’re clearly doing it for bad reasons.
The corporate media plays along with the hypocrisy. So, what we’re trying to do when we address the Jeff Sessions story is kind of understand what are the real forces are in play and how it will affect people’s well-being? And I’ll go back to what I said before: what Jeff Sessions’ doing in terms of the kind of laws he wants to bring in, or the Trump administration as a whole, like, in terms of climate change denial, in terms of completely taking off any kind of regulation on finance, gutting the EPA, there’s so much more important to how people’s lives are going to be affected. But this is such a, you know, sexy, juicy story about espionage and all this kind of crap.
KIM BROWN: Yes. And especially that 50-some page dossier that BuzzFeed printed – unsubstantiated dossier that BuzzFeed printed, that had some salacious details in it. People seized upon that, because like you said, it is sexy. But is it more important that Russia allegedly interfered with the 2016 election, or is it more important that the Department of Justice now under Attorney General Jeff Sessions is dropping any inquiry into the State of Texas for voter fraud, for voter ID? Because when we talk about meddling in elections, the fact that American citizens are being precluded from voting freely in a number of states, mainly controlled by Republicans, I mean, you would think that should be the bigger scandal as to whether or not Russia hacked the DNC.
PAUL JAY: Well, it’s certainly the bigger scandal in terms of people’s well-being. Now if it turns out that there’s direct collusion between the Trump camp and the Russians to try to actually undermine Clinton’s election campaign, and there’s this sort of conspiracy where Russia actually facilitated the election of Trump, it’s a legitimate story. It’s a legitimate inquiry. But it’s not as significant as the things that are really going to affect people’s lives.
KIM BROWN: So, when it comes to that, Paul, I mean, how should we cover that best? Because a lot of this is inference, right? People are assuming because the DNC was hacked by Russia that perhaps the RNC was also hacked, but that has just not been disclosed by WikiLeaks. There’s been assertions that WikiLeaks has a direct relationship with the Kremlin and it’s sort of working at the behest of the Kremlin to make the American liberals portrayed in a worse light than American conservatives, especially now with Donald Trump.
But if the question remains that something got hacked, but we don’t have proof in terms of what the FBI knows – they’re not disclosing the fruits of their investigation – I mean, how do we cover that? Because the mainstream media does a lot of inferring on these issues.
PAUL JAY: Yeah. We do keep up with it. We cover it. Honestly, it’s going to play itself out. We’re more interested when it comes to the Trump-Russian connection into how deeply do the financial shenanigans go with the Trump-Tillerson, the now Secretary of State who was at ExxonMobil. There are deep ties to the fossil fuel industry in Russia. There looks like there’s some big play that’s going to go on there. I think for quite a while the Western oil companies, and Western finance, have not liked Putin’s kind of nationalism where he defends certain areas of the Russian economy, and keeps them under Russian oligarch hands. Now, again, it’s for Russian oligarchs. It’s not for the Russian people. But still, there’s a fundamental principle of US foreign policy. You must submit. They don’t like any country that doesn’t submit to US American strength. And the fact that Putin could push back in Syria, the fact that Putin can even push back in Russia, in terms of protecting certain areas, the Americans don’t like.
Now, there looks like Trump smells like there is some kind of deal going on here with the Russians. And part of it might be good for people, if it does reduce tensions, if it reduces potential military conflict, well, that’s good for people.
On the other hand, if this is going to be some kind of rape of Russian resources and some deal to enrich Russian oligarchs, and American and Western oligarchs, then we’ll say that, too. See, we don’t have a partisan horse in this race. We see this as a fight between two different sections of the global oligarchy, if you want. And for the people’s interests, one, we should understand what’s really at stake here, and two, for the people’s interests, we want to get rid of the oligarchy. We want to get rid of the American oligarchy, get rid of the Russian oligarchy, and have, well, people keep claiming of democracy, well, let’s have some real democracy.
So, our approach is we have no problem critiquing any section of the oligarchy, and we don’t need to pick a side of one oligarchy against the other. And some of the people on the left are picking the Russian oligarchs, and having rose-colored glasses about who Putin and the Russian oligarchy are. I think there’s pretty good evidence that people, journalists have been killed in Russia, dissent is being quashed. We interviewed a Russian economist named Buzgalin. He calls Russian capitalism “Jurassic capitalism” because it’s so obvious and brutal and banal how the wealth of Russia has been accumulated in a tiny handful of hands. A tiny number of hands.
So, we’ll say that, too. We don’t need to be on one side or the other, because we’re on the people’s side. We’re not on the oligarch’s side.
KIM BROWN: When it comes to Jeff Sessions, do you think that calls for his resignation are going to be successful? Do you think that Jeff Sessions will end up stepping aside?
PAUL JAY: Well, I’m not an expert in American, that kind of politics. I doubt it. I think in the end what he did was… even if he didn’t answer truthfully in Congress, he’ll find a way to fudge around and he already has. The Republicans are not going to vote to get rid of him. It’s too big a blow to the administration. And the right, and the right controls the Republican Party, in Congress at least, they love Sessions. That would be a big, big give for them to bring him down.
KIM BROWN: Because he’d have to be some…
PAUL JAY: He’d have to be impeached.
KIM BROWN: He’d have to be impeached inside the Senate…
PAUL JAY: Or resign. I don’t think the heat’s at the level, unless something comes out. I mean, if there’s another big Flynn-like moment that it turns out that they’ve got him on tape, and I would guess those conversations with the ambassador were listened to. I mean, this is what I don’t understand about Flynn: how could he not know the NSA wasn’t listening to every word? But the same thing goes for Sessions. Does he really believe that the Russian ambassador can have…? I doubt he can read in the toilet without the NSA knowing what he’s reading.
KIM BROWN: Probably. But… so this is interesting… going to be challenging going forward covering the Trump administration. In your opinion, does it seem like Donald Trump being so ambivalent towards the press and, you know, Barack Obama also had transparency issues, as well, but Donald Trump walked in day one with transparency issues with his refusal to release his tax returns, his refusal to formally divest from his businesses, he still owns Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., which is… it sits in the old federal post office building, which is federal land, which has him in violation – supposedly – of the emoluments clause because an elected official can’t also be landlord and lessee to the federal government.
So, what are the particular challenges, especially for us covering this particular administration? As a difference from Barack Obama’s.
PAUL JAY: Well, in some ways, they’re connected. First of all, Trump’s tax returns and all the rest, we don’t spend much time talking about it. There’s enough going on in the corporate media and the Democrats keep yelling about it, and yes, maybe it will reveal some connection to the Russians, or that he doesn’t have as much money as he says he does, or he has more money.
KIM BROWN: I think it’s more about who he owes, though, right?
PAUL JAY: It may be. And we’ll see. It will come. It’s not our preoccupation. We’re far more preoccupied with what is known. The policy is terrible. You know, the appointments are terrible. The gutting of the EPA is terrible. Go through every single department and every Secretary, what they’re doing is terrible for the people. The mass deportations, the attack on immigrants, these undocumented immigrants. That’s what’s terrible. If it turns out something comes out of his tax returns, fine. Because we’re not in this for partisan reasons. The partisan political angle just wants to hit him where it hurts. And what does that mean? Where the media will pick up on it, and make a big deal out of it. In fact, we’re far more interested in also trying to talk to people that voted for Trump. And if you want to talk to people that voted for Trump, then just screaming about this stuff, which I think everybody really understands is relatively secondary, then it just means you’re just trying to trash the guy because you’re pro-Democrat. But we’re not pro-Democrat, we’re pro-people. And so, we’re trying to go after the issues of substance.
There’s one other thing. The challenge for us in covering Trump is he does so many… his policy, at least, and you’ll see as it’s executed, you know, whether it’s the wall or the other things, it’s terrible. It’s a vicious assault on the rights and economic well-being of the people. That’s the story that will really unfold over the next few years: how badly it affects people’s economics.
But we can never just focus on that without reminding people that the reason we have Trump is because we had Obama, and because we had Clinton. That if it wasn’t for that corporate Democratic economics and politics where the wage gap increased, where the income and wealth cap so increased, the inequality so increased. Just keep repeating this number: that 90% of the income growth after the ’07-’08 crisis went to 1% of the population.
KIM BROWN: That’s right.
PAUL JAY: Well, that’s under Obama. If that hadn’t happened, and if Clinton hadn’t even facilitated the de-industrialization – and Trump’s right about one thing, but for the wrong reason – crappy free trade agreements – if it wasn’t for all of that, there’d never be a Trump. So, as we report on Trump, we have to kind of keep reminding everyone, well, yeah, but, don’t forget why we’re here. And that’s a piece of context that we just have to keep working into our stories.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. Paul, we’re going to have to leave it right there. We’ve been joined with our senior editor Paul Jay here at The Real News. As you heard it from him, we are pro-people at The Real News. We appreciate you guys tuning in.