BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I’m Bob Garfield. Everywhere you look these days, you see Russia.
DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ROD ROSENSTEIN: Good afternoon. Today a grand jury in the District of Columbia returned an indictment presented by the Special Counsel’s Office. The indictment charges 12 Russian military officers by name for conspiring to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The 2018 World Cup kicking off today in Moscow --
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The White House today confirmed that President Trump will be speaking one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their July 16th summit in Finland.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The British home secretary is calling on Russia to come clean after another case of the nerve agent Novichok was detected in the South of England.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Today a team of Republican senators were in Moscow meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov…
BOB GARFIELD: This is not to mention Trump’s thumbs up to the annexation of Crimea because the citizens speak Russian. This is not to mention mounting fear in Estonia about being the next Russian annex. But what if Russia isn’t just everywhere you look but also everywhere you don't look? And what if it isn't just these days but the last three decades? What if when the president said, I have nothing to do with Russia, he actually meant, I've been accepting their patronage since 1987 and am the “Manchurian candidate,” only with more financial crimes and illicit sex?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: BuzzFeed published a dossier of alleged Russian dirt on Donald Trump and his campaign.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: That dossier alleged that Russians had a so-called “pee tape” of prostitutes that Trump had paid to urinate on each other and his bed in a Russian hotel suite.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s terrifying, also titillating, so much so that activist writer Glenn Greenwald this week excoriated the government and the media for what he sees as anti-Russia hysteria on par with McCarthyism. This is what he said to Putin mouthpiece RT Television while he, himself, was in Moscow.
GLENN GREENWALD: Any kind of connection with or interaction with Russia is viewed as inherently suspicious or even worse, and it's extremely dangerous and extremely toxic, and it’s one of the reasons why I decided to come here, because I think it's very important to combat that attitude.
BOB GARFIELD: But just when you think that maybe you have been caught up in a conspiratorial hysteria, along comes a New York Magazine piece by Jonathan Chait who assembles a large number of documented entanglements between Trump and the Kremlin to imagine, as a thought experiment, a president utterly compromised by Russian intelligence and working overtime to destabilize the Western Alliance.
JONATHAN CHAIT: Chait lays out what could be considered the worst-case scenario for Trump-Russia collusion, that Donald Trump has been a Russian intelligence asset since 1987.
BOB GARFIELD: So which is it? As a citizen and a media consumer, do you tamp down your imagination along Greenwald lines or go full John le Carré along Chait’s? For this, we consult Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College, an expert on national security matters related to Russia. He addressed the Chait scenario this week in Politico.
TOM NICHOLS: What Chait points out is that Trump has a long, very deep varied set of contacts with the Russians. And people who are critical of the Chait piece want to strawman that into a kind of red president, you know, episode of The Americans, and that's not how anything in the real world works. It's more useful to think of Donald Trump or any prominent American not as an agent or an asset doing the bidding of Moscow but rather as an investment.
BOB GARFIELD: And how historically does Russian intelligence invest?
TOM NICHOLS: Entangle them in deals and favors and contracts and make it all seem very normal and that you’re among friends, that you're not really being asked to do anything untoward and then, as you get deeper, then you start doing favors, perhaps doing things that might not be totally aboveboard. And over time, you find that you've been kind of trapped in this spider, web without even realizing it. And then, by the time you do realize it, you’re in so deep, you don't need direction; you start to anticipate the needs of the people that you've been relying on for years and years and years.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the temptation is to dismiss that scenario because it supposes that somehow the Russian intelligence services knew in 1987 that this guy was potentially going to be the president of the United States and if they just invest carefully, why, they can help make that come to pass. But the Russians do this to a lot of people.
TOM NICHOLS: Right. Right, when they started to invest in Donald Trump, the man, he was a junk stock. He was a cheap investment. Now, he's a blue chip. The Russians invest in a lot of people. Some of it pays off, some of it never pays off. We really have to get away from this notion that somehow the Russians groomed him to be president.
BOB GARFIELD: Based on your understanding of how Moscow develops sources, how does Trump as a personality fit into the picture?
TOM NICHOLS: The president as a man, especially as a younger man, was pretty much a menu of recruit-able weaknesses: money trouble, zipper trouble, vanity, ego. I and many others have pointed out that if the Russian intelligence services hadn’t been interested in a wealthy New Yorker with Donald Trump's personality characteristics back in the 1980s and ‘90s, they would have been guilty of malpractice.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me please what we should be looking at that really raises the possibility that Trump’s entanglements with Russia could truly be evidence of compromise.
TOM NICHOLS: There are several things to look at, once you brush away all of the kind of kooky conspiracy stuff. The very first is that after he comes back from the Soviet Union in the ‘80s he decides that he needs to start advising Ronald Reagan about what to do about nuclear arms control. He cannonballs right into national debate with a full-page ad in the New York Times, which is pretty weird behavior.
After that I think the most interesting things about Trump’s relationship with the Russians are things that a forensic accountant would really want to look at. You know, who’s buying these buildings? This is a long history of Russian money flowing through the Trump organization, then getting deeper and deeper into the shadowy world of the oligarchs and the millionaires and the people wanting to buy real estate in places like New York. And there is no way that you can innocently deal with that level of money and power in Russia and not be dealing with the Russian state and the Russian intelligence community because they are all part of the same world. And then, when we get closer to the campaign, then, then things start getting really kind of freaky with the hiring of people like Paul Manafort and some of the other things that have happened during the campaign.
BOB GARFIELD: Manafort who was a hired gun for all sorts of despots and evil regimes around the world and was paid on the order of $10 million to help a Russian-friendly Ukrainian political leader.
TOM NICHOLS: And, by definition, a Putin-friendly political leader. Manafort has logged a lot of frequent flyer miles back and forth to Ukraine, trying to keep Putin’s crony in power. I mean, look, it’s not illegal to be a lobbyist for bad people in the world and it's not even uncommon in Washington, but for someone with those kinds of contacts to the Kremlin that are, you know, barely one step removed, by working with Ukraine to suddenly be in charge of the presidential candidacy and campaign of a major party candidate, that's the part where if you put it in a movie script they, they would send it back to you as just too fantastic and silly.
BOB GARFIELD: It makes me wonder if considering Donald Trump's personality, considering the Russians’ needs and considering his eagerness to oppose those who oppose him, you wouldn’t need any extortion, you wouldn’t need any “pee tape.” You wouldn't need any money laundering and extortion material. All you have to do is realize that by just manipulating his personality and playing to his ego he will serve your needs without you even asking him to do so.
TOM NICHOLS: I think that's absolutely right and I think, if you want to leave the Russians out of it for a moment, I think that's exactly what the North Koreans just did. The North Koreans just took the president for a complete ride, based on his ego and his interest in having a big splashy television event of a summit that he has clearly, now he's gotten what he wanted and the North Koreans have gotten what they wanted, the president is no longer interested. He has a very short attention span about the stuff. So I, I think that's a good point, that this notion that you have to have these, you know, tough as nails people in, you know, disguises walking around New York warning Trump about what to do is just silly. It’s just nonsense.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, I want to end this conversation where it began and that is to talk about the dangers of trading in conspiracy theories. Why is this conversation not something that could have been plucked from the archives of, of Glenn Beck? It’s pretty out there.
TOM NICHOLS: Well, in terms of how the Russians or, again, any foreign intelligence service compromises human beings, it's not out there. It’s, this is normal. This happens every day to people around the world, whether they’re in business or the military or diplomacy, whoever. This is just how it’s done. So it’s not really out there.
The part that's out there is the Russians created this guy almost like, in a hydroponic spy tank to take down the Americans 30 years down the line. That's just ridiculous and it leads to all of these fantasies about how the Russians hijacked our election and they put this guy in there. You know, if you don't like the fact that Donald Trump is president then you need to turn to your fellow voters and to engage them about it. The Russians, obviously, had a preference. They bombarded us with a lot of propaganda. They clearly tried to interfere in our election, the way they do with information warfare. But this was not some, you know, 30-year plan to create a red president. The actual world that we’re talking about here is much more mundane, it's much more boring, it's far less glamorous.
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I think if people approach it with that much more realistic kind of view they’ll understand this.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom, thank you very much.
TOM NICHOLS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom Nichols is a professor at the US Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.
Coming up, what if great investigative journalism falls in the forest and doesn't make a noise? Fifteen years later, it becomes a movie. This is On the Media.