Jurisprudence

Putin’s Story About Russian Interference in 2016 Sounds an Awful Lot Like Trump’s

Vladimir Putin talking to Donald Trump.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump speak during a photo session of world leaders on the closing day of the APEC Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11.
Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

Where have I heard that story before?

Friday night, NBC will air an hourlong special featuring a sit-down interview between Megyn Kelly and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A preview for it shows Putin putting his own spin on what happened during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He tells Kelly the Russians who supposedly interfered in the U.S. election could have been Americans, or they could have been Russians working for an American company. Who knows. “These are not my problems,” he says.

Here’s the full exchange:

Kelly: Why would you allow an attack like this on the United States?

Putin: Why have you decided the Russian authorities, myself included, gave anybody permission to do this? Nothing has changed since you and I talked last time in St. Petersburg. Some names have—popped up. So what? They could just as easily have been the names of some Americans who are sitting here and—interfering in your own political—process.

Kelly: But it wasn’t—Americans. It was Russians. And it was hundreds of people, a monthly budget of $1.25 million all designed to attack the United States in a cyberwarfare campaign. You’re up for re-election right now. Should the Russian people be concerned that you had no idea this was going on in your own country, in your own hometown?

Putin: Listen, the world is very large. And very diverse. And there is a fairly complicated relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. And some of our people have their own opinion about this relationship. You mentioned a number of names … some individuals. And you’re telling me that they’re Russians. So what? Maybe being Russians they are actually working for some kind of American company. Perhaps, one of them used to work for one of the candidates. I have no idea. These are not my problems.    

His remarks echo those made by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska (yes, the same Deripaska to whom Paul Manafort supposedly owes a ton of money) in an op-ed published by the Daily Caller, a conservative American news site, this week. In his piece, Deripaska suggests the story around Russian interference in the election has been fabricated and manipulated by a conspiracy of “Deep State” American insiders with “military-industrial commercial interests.”

This version of events rang a bell. I had just watched (for a separate piece) a public lecture Carter Page gave during a December 2016 trip to Moscow and his words were still ringing in my ear when I listened to the Putin interview.

When asked by NBC News’ Richard Engel about the CIA’s assessment that Russia had intervened to help Trump win the election, Page said he’d seen no hard evidence to support that claim and even suggested that someone—unclear who—could have framed it to look like a Russian operation.

“The security experts, having worked in the Pentagon and knowing a lot of people both from a technology standpoint but also a national security standpoint, and discussing these issues with them, it’s very easy to make it look like it was country X, in [this] case Russia, that did this,” Page said.

Now, all of this is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the story Trump supporters on the right—like Fox News’ Sean Hannity and others—tell about what happened during the election. They describe a vast anti-Trump conspiracy involving corrupt actors at the FBI and CIA, in cahoots with the Hillary Clinton campaign, trying to bring down President Donald Trump through the collusion story.

For the most part, they walk right up to the line but don’t cross it when it comes to saying: Russia didn’t even interfere in the election. Like, Trump, they will reluctantly acknowledge that Russia may have meddled in the election, but they will not accept that a Kremlin-directed disinformation campaign had any effect on the election results. And of course, the Trump campaign had nothing to do with it.

But Trump himself continues to muddy the waters on whether Russia was even responsible for interfering in the election. As recently as this week he said:

The Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever. But, certainly, there was meddling and probably there was meddling from other countries and maybe other individuals.

To believe any of this, you have to disbelieve the U.S. intelligence community and also the evidence laid out in special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies. You also have to take Putin at his word, something Trump has been willing to do in the past.

“Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said in November.

Sitting across from Putin, Megyn Kelly is less willing to give the Russian president the benefit of the doubt. And for the rest of us, as we struggle to understand what exactly happened during the election, it’s important to keep track of who’s telling the same story.

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