Prof. Stephen Frand Cohen is an American scholar of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University and a contributing editor of The Nation. His academic work concentrates on modern Russian history since the Bolshevik Revolution and the country’s relationship with the United States.
Bipartisan allegations that Trump is a "puppet” of or "compromised” by the Kremlin have grown into latter-day McCarthyism with grave threats to America and the world.
Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen regrets the subject of tonight’s discussion. He prefers to focus his decades of scholarly study and personal experience on loftier developments in Russia and issues in US-Russian relations. But the bipartisan, nearly full-political-spectrum tsunami of allegations that President Trump has been seditiously "compromised” by the Kremlin (Thomas Friedman, New York Times, February 15), with scarcely any non-partisan pushback at any influential political or media levels—and without any yet verified facts—is deeply alarming. Begun by the Clinton campaign in mid 2016, and exemplified now by the strident innuendos of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and equally unbalanced bookings at CNN and elsewhere, the practice is growing into a kind of latter-day McCarthyite red-baiting and hysteria. Such politically malignant practices are to be deplored anywhere they appear, without exception, whether on the part of conservatives or liberals or progressives. They are driven by political forces with various agendas: the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party that wants to maintain its grip on the party in its internal struggle ahead by insisting she did not lose the election but it was stolen by Russian President Putin for Trump; by enemies of Trump’s proposed détente with Russia, who want to discredit both him and Putin; by Republicans and Democrats outraged that Trump essentially ran and won without either party, thereby threatening the established two-party system, etc. Whatever the motivating factors, the ensuing slurring of Trump, which is already producing calls for his impeachment, poses grave threats to US and international security and to American democracy itself.
Cohen does not deny that one or more of the allegations against Trump may be true, as might be almost anything in modern-day political history. Instead, he insists that no verified facts have actually been presented for the allegations. And without facts, all of us—professors, politicians, doctors, journalists—are doomed to malpractice or worse. (Though Cohen welcomes an impartial and independent investigation to search for such facts, which would then be evaluated objectively, he doubts one is possible in the current political atmosphere.)
Meanwhile, Cohen can find no facts or logic to support the following six related allegations leveled against Trump as having been (implicitly) treasonously "compromised” by Putin’s Kremlin:
1. Trump has "lavished praise” on Putin (New York Times, February 12). All Trump has said in this regard is that Putin is "a strong leader” and "smart” and that it would be good "to cooperate with Russia.” These are empirically true statements. They pale in comparison with, for example, the warm words of FDR about Stalin, Nixon about Brezhnev, and particularly President Clinton about Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whom he compared favorably with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR. Only against the backdrop of unrelenting US media demonizing of Putin could Trump’s "praise” be considered "lavish.” Unlike virtually every other mainstream American politician and media outlet, Trump simply refused to vilify Putin—as in declining to characterize him as "a killer,” for which there is also no evidence.
2. Trump and his associates have had, it is charged, business dealings in Russia and with Russian "oligarchs.” Perhaps, but so have many major American energy and mineral extraction corporations, Delta Airlines, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC, and Starbucks. Their Russian partners are often "oligarchs.” Moreover, unlike many international hotel corporations, Trump tried but failed to build his, or anything else permanent, in Russia. The "Russian assets” about which his son spoke seem to be from selling condos and coops in the United States to cash-bearing Russians in search of a luxury brand, but not a mortgage, New York City and South Florida being prime and entirely legitimate examples. It is said that Trump’s tax returns, if revealed, would expose nefarious Russian money. Considering the financial documents of ownership he has made public, that seems unlikely. Perhaps—but also an allegation, not a fact.
3. Trump’s "associate,” and briefly campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is alleged to have been "pro-Russian” when he advised Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, who was subsequently deposed unconstitutionally during the Maidan "revolution” in February 2014. This makes no sense. A professional political expert, Manafort was well paid, like other American electoral experts hired abroad. But his advice seems to have been to urge Yanukovych to tilt toward the ill-fated European Union Partnership Agreement, away from Russia, as Yanukovych did, in order to get votes in Ukraine beyond his constituency in Southeastern regions. (Nor was Yanukovych, whom Putin loathed for this and other reasons, considered pro-Russian in Moscow prior to late 2013, or presumably Manafort either.)
4. A "dossier” of "black” or "compromising” material purporting to document how the Kremlin could blackmail Trump was leaked to CNN and published by Buzzfeed. Compiled by a former British intelligence official, whose shadowy partners in Russia and perhaps Ukraine abetted his commercial projects, the "report” was initially contracted by one of Trump’s primary opponents, apparently Senator Marco Rubio, and then paid for by the Clinton campaign. Its 30-odd pages are a compilation of the entirely innocent, unverified, preposterous, and trash for sale in many political capitals, including Moscow. More recently, CNN exclaimed that its own intelligence leakers had "confirmed” some elements of the dossier, but thus far nothing that actually compromised Trump. Generally, more fact checking is done at tabloid magazines, lest they be sued for libel. (Nonetheless, it is reported that Senator John McCain, a rabid opponent of any détente with Russia, gave a copy of the dossier to the FBI. No doubt the agency already had copies, rumors of which had been floating around for months, but understood McCain wanted it leaked, as eventually it was by someone.)
5. But the crux of pro-Kremlin allegations against Trump was, and remains, the charge that Putin hacked the DNC and disseminated the stolen e-mails through WikiLeaks in order to put Trump in the White House. A summary of these "facts” was presented in a declassified report released by the "intelligence community” and widely published in January 2017. Though it has since become axiomatic proof for Trump’s political and media enemies, virtually nothing in the report’s some 13 pages of text is persuasive. About half the pages are assumptions—or "assessments”—based on surmised motivations, not factual evidence of a Russian operation on behalf of Trump. The other half is merely an outdated evaluation deploring broadcasts by the Kremlin-funded television network RT, at worst a run-of-the-mill "propaganda” outlet. (Some viewers think that its Washington bureau, staffed by many Americans, favored Bernie Sanders, not Trump.) Moreover, a number of American hacking experts insist that Russian state hackers would have left no fingerprints, as US intelligence claimed they had. Indeed, the group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity believes that the damaging DNC documents were not hacked but leaked by an insider. If so, it had nothing to do with Russia at all. (The NSA, which has the capacity to monitor the movement of e-mails, was only "moderately confident” in the report it co-signed, while the CIA and the FBI were "highly confident.”) Still more, at his final presidential press conference, Obama referred to the DNC scandal as a leak, not a hack, and said he did not know how the e-mails got to WikiLeaks—this despite the allegations by his own intelligence agencies. (No one seems to have asked Obama if he misspoke!) On the other side of this alleged conspiracy, nor is it clear that Putin so favored the erratic Trump that he would have taken such a risk, which if discovered would presumably have compromised Trump and greatly favored Clinton. Judging from discussions in Kremlin-related Russian newspapers, there was a serious debate as to which American presidential candidate might be best—or least bad—for Russia.
6. Finally, there is the resignation (or firing) of General Michael Flynn as Trump’s national security adviser for having communicated with Russian representatives about the sanctions imposed by Obama just before leaving the White House and before Trump was inaugurated. Flynn may have misled Vice President Mike Pence about those discussions, but they were neither unprecedented nor incriminating, so far as is known. Other American presidential candidates and presidents-elect had communicated with foreign states—as Nixon seems to have done to prevent a Vietnam peace agreement that would favored Humphrey, or perhaps as Reagan did with Iran to prevent release of its American hostages before the election. Indeed, it seems to have been a common practice. For example, Obama’s own subsequent top Russia adviser, Michael McFaul, told The Washington Post recently (February 9) that he visited Moscow in 2008, before the election, for talks with Russian officials. The Post reporter characterized this as "appropriate conduct.” Certainly, it was not unprecedented. Nor was Flynn’s, it seems, though perhaps inept. More generally, if Flynn’s purpose was to persuade the Kremlin not to overreact to Obama’s sanctions, which were accompanied by a provocative threat to launch a cyber attack on Moscow, this seems wise and in America’s best interests. Unless our political-media establishment would prefer the harshest possible reaction by Putin, as some of its Cold War advocates apparently do.
In concluding, Cohen suggests that it is less Putin who is threatening American democracy than is the Kremlin-bating of President Trump—unless facts can be produced for its allegations. Less Putin who is endangering US and international security than the American enemies of détente who resort to such tactics. Less Putin who is degrading US media with "fake news”—unless facts are presented to support the mainstream media allegations against Trump regarding Russia. And less the "former KGB thug Putin” who is poisoning American politics than the US intelligence leakers who are at war against their new president.
President Eisenhower eventually stopped Joseph McCarthy. Who, Cohen asks, will stop the new McCarthyism before it spreads even more into the professed "soul of democracy”? Facts might do so. But in lieu of facts there are only professional ethics and patriotism.