The Slatest

The Times’ Attempt to Create a Bernie-Russia Scandal Is an Embarrassment

Sanders looks toward the camera with a beleaguered expression on his face in a crowded elevator.
This was the only photo in the Getty archive under “Bernie Sanders Russia” (apparently he was going to vote on Capitol Hill on a day when Donald Trump’s Russia scandal was in the news) and his facial expression seemed appropriate. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Here is the headline on a story the New York Times published Thursday night about Bernie Sanders and the Soviet Union.

A New York Times headline reads: As Bernie Sanders Pushed for Closer Ties, Soviet Union Spotted Opportunity. The subhead reads: Previously unseen documents from a Soviet archive show how hard Mr. Sanders worked to find a sister city in Russia when he was a mayor in the 1980s. Moscow saw a chance for propaganda.
New York Times

You know the context here. Sanders’ prospective general-election opponent, Donald Trump, was privately pursuing a real estate project in Moscow during the 2016 campaign cycle while publicly speaking in flattering terms about Russian President Vladimir Putin. His top advisers attended a meeting that was pitched to them as an expression of the Russian government’s support for the campaign, and he benefited from the Russian hack and release of Democratic emails while advocating for Russia-friendly policy positions on NATO and Ukraine. His campaign manager shared internal data with a Soviet-born business partner who was later described by the Department of Justice as having active ties to Russian intelligence, and his national security adviser resigned after lying to the FBI about efforts to deescalate tensions with Russia over sanctions during the presidential transition. Eventually Trump was impeached in part for pressuring Ukraine’s new president to announce an investigation into whether Ukraine had framed Russia for the hack of the Democratic emails.

In sum, the incumbent president of the United States has been used as a tool by the Russian government. And now, there’s evidence that maybe Bernie Sanders has too??? That’s the gist.

The Times piece describes itself as an exclusive look at documents that depict “the Soviet effort to exploit Mr. Sanders’s antiwar agenda for their own propaganda purposes.” It goes on:

The New York Times examined 89 pages of letters, telegrams and internal Soviet government documents revealing in far greater detail the extent of Mr. Sanders’s personal effort to establish ties between his city and a country many Americans then still considered an enemy despite the reforms being initiated at the time under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet general secretary.

Crazy! Bernie Sanders, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, tried to betray the United States! Wow! Really?

Ah, no:

Nothing in the documents suggests that Mr. Sanders was the only local American official targeted for propaganda, or even that he was particularly receptive to it, though they do describe him as a socialist.

And what year was this taking place?

At the time of Mr. Sanders’s announcement in 1987 that Burlington would seek a Soviet sister city, several dozen other American cities already had such a relationship or had applied for one.

A sister-city program in 1987! Well into the period of U.S.-USSR détente initiated by … ah … let’s see here … Republican President Ronald Reagan?

And what was Sanders’ “antiwar agenda,” anyway?

Mr. Sanders reached out to the Soviet Union via an organization based in Virginia, requesting a sister-city partnership with the Cold War adversary in an effort to end the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Bernie Sanders was against nuclear annihilation? Quite a scandal we have on our hands—a mayor participating in the kind of cultural exchange, encouraged by an anti-Communist Republican president, that helped end the Cold War!

The piece’s justification for its headline and lead is that internal documents show that the Soviets intended to use these friendly visits—in general, there’s nothing in the piece suggesting Sanders was treated any differently than anyone else in the U.S. who participated—to spread the idea that Gorbachev also wanted to reduce the threat of nuclear war.

In a letter to Moscow seeking approval for travel to the United States, Yaroslavl officials pledged that they would talk about the “peace-loving foreign policy” of the Soviet Union and the changes being implemented by Mr. Gorbachev. They attached a seven-point “plan for information-propaganda work” on their visit to Burlington, with specific talking points for each of the delegation’s three members.

Gorbachev did, in fact, want to prevent nuclear war and liberalize the Soviet government, as evidenced by the fact that this is exactly what he succeeded in doing—a project that, again, was directly beneficial to United States interests at the time, as delineated by the U.S. president.

Participating in Ronald Reagan’s successful effort to avoid nuclear war—is that the same as using the power of the presidency to reward and encourage personal favors from a leader like Putin who pursues the destruction of democratic and human rights regimes through theft, bribery, extrajudicial and ethno-nationalist violence, and disinformation? Is the candidate who joined in the national project of deescalating tensions with a country “many Americans then still considered the enemy” (by taking a visiting delegation on “a pilgrimage to the ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s,” among other things) basically on the same footing as the president who profited politically from covert operations against his own country? No, but the Times institutionally doesn’t believe that things like proportion or context are its job to worry about, so now the rest of us have to deal with it, possibly for the next eight months or eight years.

For more analysis of the Democratic race, listen to this week’s Political Gabfest.