Lev Parnas has shown us Trumpism from the inside.
One good thing about surrounding yourself with tawdry gangsters and grifters is that if they flip on you, you can claim they have no credibility because they’re criminals.
Now that Lev Parnas, a key conspirator in Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s plot to shake down Ukraine, is singing, Trump’s defenders are pointing out that he is a disreputable person who can’t be trusted. “This is a man who is under indictment and who’s actually out on bail. This is a man who owns a company called Fraud Inc.,” the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, said on Fox News, the only network on which she regularly appears. (Parnas’s company was actually called Fraud Guarantee, though that’s not any better.)
Grisham is obviously correct that he’s a shady character. He’s certainly not someone you’d want, say, threatening foreign officials on behalf of the president of the United States, as Parnas claimed he did during an extraordinary interview with Rachel Maddow that aired on Wednesday and Thursday on MSNBC.
Trumpists similarly dismissed Michael Cohen, who served as Trump’s personal lawyer before Giuliani did. The day Cohen testified to Congress that Trump is a “racist,” a “con man” and a “cheat,” a Trump campaign spokeswoman blasted him as “a felon, a disbarred lawyer and a convicted perjurer.” (Some of his felonies, of course, were things he did for Trump.) When Rick Gates, Trump’s former deputy campaign chairman, testified against his former boss Paul Manafort, Manafort’s lawyer grilled him, asking, “After all the lies you’ve told and fraud you’ve committed, you expect this jury to believe you?”
Giuliani himself is under federal criminal investigation. In a 2018 text to Parnas recently released by the House Intelligence Committee, Giuliani seemed to joke, apropos of Robert Mueller, “I’m no rat,” but should the prospect of prison ever change his mind, expect Republicans to make a similar case against believing a crooked and paranoid barfly. A willingness to associate with Trump is a sign of moral turpitude, so most witnesses to his venal schemes will necessarily be compromised.
Thus nothing that Parnas said in the Maddow interview should be taken at face value. Important questions remain unanswered, including who was paying all of the bills. (Remember — he was paying Giuliani, not vice versa.) Parnas’s decision to go public in the first place is hard to fathom.
None of that, however, means that his dramatic interview on the eve of Trump’s impeachment trial shouldn’t be taken seriously. That’s because much of what he says has been corroborated, and because the very fact that a person like Parnas was carrying out high-level international missions for the president shows how mob-like this administration is.
You don’t have to take Parnas’s word that he was working at the president’s behest. Last fall, when House impeachment investigators asked for documents and testimony from Parnas and his associate, Igor Fruman, they were initially represented by John Dowd, formerly one of Trump’s defense lawyers in the Mueller inquiry. Dowd, in turn, wrote to Congress that Parnas and Fruman would not cooperate with the impeachment investigation because some of the information the House sought may have been privileged. “Be advised that Messers. Parnas and Fruman assisted Mr. Giuliani in connection with his representation of President Trump,” the letter said. (Documents that Parnas later provided to the House Intelligence Committee show that Trump signed off on Dowd representing them.)
Some of the most disturbing and clarifying information Parnas has provided since turning on Trump involves the administration’s fixation on Marie Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador to Ukraine. It’s true that people around Trump saw her as an obstacle to getting Ukraine’s government to open a politically motivated investigation into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, but that doesn’t quite explain the scale of the animosity toward her.
Trump didn’t just fire her. He told Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, that she was going to “go through some things.” We learned this week that Robert Hyde, a deranged Trumpworld hanger-on and Republican congressional candidate, sent a series of messages to Parnas suggesting he was stalking Yovanovitch. (Ukraine has opened an investigation into Hyde’s activity, and on Thursday he was visited by the F.B.I.) A lawyer and Fox News regular named Victoria Toensing — who has represented a Kremlin-aligned Ukrainian oligarch who is, according to the Justice Department, an upper-echelon associate of Russian organized crime figures — texted Giuliani saying, “Is there absolute commitment for her to be gone this week?” Why the obsession with Yovanovitch?
Parnas added to the evidence that when it came to Yovanovitch, Trump and his crew willingly allowed themselves to be manipulated by Yuri Lutsenko, a disgraced former chief prosecutor of Ukraine who loathed her for her anti-corruption work. (As the State Department official George Kent said during the impeachment hearings, you can’t fight corruption “without pissing off corrupt people.”) In WhatsApp messages to Parnas, Lutsenko expressed fury that Yovanovitch hadn’t been fired yet. He spoke of all he’d done to push the spurious Biden scandal, adding, “And yet you can’t even get rid of one fool.”
“In that text message to you,” Maddow asked on Thursday, “is Mr. Lutsenko saying, in effect, listen, if you want me to make these Biden allegations, you’re going to have to get rid of this ambassador?” Parnas replied: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”
A few months ago, I wrote a column arguing that when it comes to Ukraine, Trump is at once a con man and a mark, and the information Parnas has provided backs this up. Having promised Lutsenko that he’d get Yovanovitch fired, Parnas told Trump, falsely, that Yovanovitch had bad-mouthed him. His text messages show that he pushed Donald Trump Jr. to tweet about her.
Parnas was the vehicle through which a dirty Ukrainian politician pulled Trump’s strings to take revenge on an American official who’d tried to uphold the rule of law. She was threatened, smeared and fired in part because Trump is easily influenced by the goons and bottom feeders in his orbit.
By going public, Parnas has probably done nothing to sway Republicans toward removing Trump from office, not because they don’t believe him, but because they know Trump did what he’s accused of and don’t care. Writing to Politico’s John F. Harris, a Trump supporter recently described the president as “our O.J.,” an apt analogy for Republicans’ vengeful determination to give a guilty man impunity. (As it happens, Trump will be represented by one of O.J. Simpson’s old lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, at his Senate trial.)
But Parnas is worth paying attention to because he’s shown us, once again, what Trumpism looks like from the inside. It’s part “The Sopranos” and part, as he put it to Maddow, a “cult.” The qualities that discredit Parnas are the same ones that let him fit right in.
Watch author and journalist Masha Gessen’s candid, full interview on Putin and allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election – part of FRONTLINE’s media transparency project for our investigation, “Putin’s Revenge.”
46:38But among his first 10 decrees was a decree reinstating primary military education in46:46high schools, and this was something that was, to me, highly symbolic.46:55When I went to school in the Soviet Union, everybody—all the high school students had47:00to learn elementary military trades.47:06I mean, first of all, we had military games, survival games, from the time—I mean, games.47:12We called them games.47:13They weren’t games.47:14They were training sessions, right?47:16But from the time you’re very little, there are bomb raids, and you learn to recognize47:21chemical burns, and you are drilled on how to respond to chemical burns.47:27The thing is, you know, these classrooms that are—where the walls are covered with posters47:33on how to recognize different kinds of chemical weapons, the effects of different kinds of47:41chemical weapons and how to respond to them.47:45And then in ninth and 10th grade, so in high school, which is just two years, you learn47:54to administer first aid in a military situation and to take apart and clean a Kalashnikov48:03and put it back together again.48:07Anybody my age or older will be able to tell you how long it used to take them to take48:13apart and clean and put back together a Kalashnikov.48:16A good amount of time is around nine or eight seconds.48:24That was eliminated when the Soviet Union fell apart.48:29And we forget now how much the 1990s, even though Russia never really sort of fully entered48:36a post-imperial era, but still, it became a demilitarized country.48:43All of a sudden, there was much less emphasis on how every boy was a future soldier, which48:49is the way I was brought up.48:51You would just see very many fewer people in uniform in the streets.48:57When I was growing up, when I used to go meet my mother at the subway station when she was49:04coming home, I would—to entertain myself, I would count the number of people in uniform49:11coming off the trains as I waited for her.49:14Roughly every 10th person would be wearing a military uniform.49:17All of a sudden, that was no longer the case.49:20And of course children stopped learning how to take apart and put back together a Kalashnikov49:24in school.49:26One of the first things that Putin did, on the day that he became acting president, was49:32set in motion the process of bringing that back.49:36And I was convinced that—go ahead.49:38MICHAEL KIRK – Sorry.49:39MASHA GESSEN – No, I was convinced that he was signaling his intention to remilitarize49:45Russian society, which is exactly what he did.49:47MICHAEL KIRK – What does it do to a society to grow up with that eight-second Kalashnikov49:53rebuild and then have it reintroduced?49:57What’s the signal that that sends to people?50:01MASHA GESSEN – Well, different people receive the same signal differently.50:09It frightened me.50:10I didn’t want to live in a militarized society again, and I thought the militarized Russia50:14would be a dangerous country for the rest of the world.50:20Countries don’t militarize in order to be peaceful.50:26For a lot of people, though, it was a signal that they were going back to something that50:32was familiar and comfortable, both on a private level, which is that you would do the same—their50:39children would be doing the same things that they did as children, right, but much more50:43importantly on a public level, so that they would have a chance to identify with a great50:47country again.50:48He would make Russia great again.50:51For so many people in the 1990s, the instability and discomfort that they experienced became51:00concentrated in this idea of no longer belonging to a great power.51:07So a lot of Putin’s early signals were that he would bring back that wonderful feeling51:17of being part of a great power again.51:19MICHAEL KIRK – In a way, it’s right.51:22He’s merging probably how he felt, having missed glasnost and perestroika, not participating51:27in whatever was great about it, but he comes home, he’s shipwrecked, whatever happens51:35to him, it’s a different world than he probably anticipated finishing his life in.51:41That sort of ethos that he shared with the people was what he decided to employ as his51:51method.51:56In the end of his first year, George W. Bush becomes president of the United States.52:02One of the things we’ve noticed in tracing the arc of this gigantic narrative is how52:09often an American president arrives to a Russian president with hope that all is going to get52:16better, from Gorbachev on; democracy will flower now, and thank God.52:23…52:24MASHA GESSEN – Well, I want to say one more thing about what happened with George W. Bush52:27becoming president in ’99, or in 2000, is that Putin had just become president in a52:34very orderly manner.52:38He was handpicked by the previous president.52:42An election was scheduled.52:43He won it handily.52:46Everything went according to plan in his popularity.52:50His margin of victory was pretty good.52:53It was, I think, 53 percent in his first election.52:57And his popularity was sky-high.52:58Then America goes and has this ridiculous election that isn’t settled for two months53:08or two and a half months, and that just goes to show you how a democracy is such an imperfect53:15system, and probably an outdated and failed system.53:19I’m convinced that that’s the first time that Putin really watched an American presidential53:24election closely.53:25He’d never thought of himself as somebody who existed on that level.53:30Now he’s waiting to see who his counterpart is going to be, and he can’t even know who53:39his counterpart is going to be for two and a half months, because democracy is such a53:42mess.53:43…53:44MICHAEL KIRK – When they meet, the way the stories go, and especially—I’ve just talked53:46to a lot of American diplomats and ambassadors who were there at that first meeting.53:52This is the “I looked in his eyes and saw his soul” meeting.53:57Some people tell the story that here is a KGB guy who’s the president of Russia, who’s54:03studied Bush, knows he’s an evangelical, knows that he has a penchant and a weakness54:07for a religious story, dredges up a religious story out of his own past, the crucifix-in-the-ashes54:14story, and somehow they connect.54:19Tell me what you know about that version of the story.54:23MASHA GESSEN – Actually, I have nothing to add to that version of the story.54:28What I would say is that early on he was a charmer, early on in his term as president.54:34That’s no longer the case.54:37But everyone I’ve talked to [who] had a meeting with him in the first year or two of his becoming54:46acting president and then president came away transformed, at least for the first few minutes.54:51Well, actually, with one exception: one of the journalists who worked on that official54:56biography.54:58But everyone else felt that he sort of, he turned on the recruiter charm, and he was55:06well-briefed, and he always used a little personal anecdote to connect with you on the55:12grounds that he figured would be good for connecting.55:18A few years down the road, he stopped paying attention.55:21He would start mixing people’s names up or the facts of people’s biographies.55:26By the time I met him in 2012, he wasn’t even briefed.55:32He knew almost nothing about me, like he hadn’t bothered.55:37But early on, he was a real recruiter.55:40And I think he certainly worked his charm on George W. Bush, which apparently wasn’t55:46very difficult.55:47MICHAEL KIRK – There’s a lot of hope, of course, that they’ll do all kinds of things.55:54A lot of people have said—we’ll ask them: “What did Putin want from Bush?56:00What did Russia want from Bush?56:02But more importantly, what did Putin want from Bush and America?”56:06What do you think that was?56:07MASHA GESSEN – Well, Putin wanted the return of a bipolar world.56:15That was his agenda from the very beginning.56:17He wanted to be treated with respect.56:19He wanted people back home to see that he was being treated with respect.56:24This was also coming very soon after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, right, which, for the56:35Russian political establishment and for a lot of Russian people, was a really difficult56:40pill to swallow.56:42…56:43The U.S. and its allies decided to bomb Serbia and Kosovo to resolve the Kosovo crisis without56:50consulting with Russia.56:51And to make matters worse, they started bombing, or the U.S. started bombing when Yevgeny Primakov,57:00the then-prime minister, was in the air, on his way to the United States to meet with57:04Vice President Gore.57:07So they didn’t even make a show of informing Russia before starting bombing, never mind57:13consulting Russia, and that was really insulting for the entire Russian establishment and a57:20lot of Russian people.57:23One of the things that Putin wanted to project was that that kind of thing was never going57:28to happen again.57:30MICHAEL KIRK – Then America pulls out of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, not really57:36consulting.57:37In fact, he begged Bush not to do it.57:41They invade, or we invade Iraq, taking down an authoritarian figure who stands astride57:48a big—somewhat in the sphere of influence of Russia.57:54Russia joins with France and Germany and says: “Please don’t do this.57:57Are you guys going to do this?57:58Are you really going to do this?”58:00And they do it with a certain level of impunity, at least.58:06It seems that the word you used early to describe what he was hoping for, which is respect,58:11was hardly in the air between George W. Bush and the United States of America, and Vladimir58:16Putin and Russia.58:17MASHA GESSEN – And what’s even worse, I think from Putin’s point of view, is the expansion58:22of NATO.58:24It doesn’t ever sort of—in his worldview, it is not a question of these countries asking58:35to be part of NATO.58:36It is merely a question of the United States deciding that NATO should expand to the Russian58:43border.58:44He’s also convinced that the Soviet Union got assurances from the United States that58:52NATO would not be expanded.58:54…58:55The quote that Putin likes to bring up was a quote by the then-NATO commander given during58:59the negotiations about the reunification of Germany.59:05The promise was that there would be no NATO troops stationed on what had been East German59:11territory.59:12That’s the quote.59:13And that was a matter of negotiations.59:16This was, first of all, this was a negotiation with the Soviet Union, and then—and the59:21Soviet Union was pushing for a solution where somehow Germany would be united.59:26But East Germany still wouldn’t be a part of NATO.59:30And the compromise solution was that there would be no troops on what had been East German59:36territory.59:37That has nothing to do with NATO expansion as such, and it also certainly has nothing59:41to do with Russia.59:42I mean, this was being negotiated with the Soviet Union.59:45This was before the demise of the Warsaw Pact.59:50But in 2007, at the security conference in Munich, Putin shocks world leaders by giving59:59a very, very strongly worded speech about how Russia was not going to take it anymore.60:04MICHAEL KIRK – Can you take me there?60:07What has angered him, or what has happened in his world that he can go to Munich and60:12so forcefully declare?60:14It’s not declaring war, but it’s certainly declaring verbal war on, in an unspoken way,60:23the United States of America.60:26MASHA GESSEN – This is the end of his second term, and he has really been transformed.60:32He has already taken over the media in Russia.60:36He’s already canceled gubernatorial elections.60:39He’s canceled elections to the upper house of the Russian parliament.60:44He’s solidified power.60:47He is ruling very much like a dictator.60:50The process of dismantling what democratic mechanisms had existed in Russia was completed60:55in his first term, and this is the end of his second term.60:59Also, Russia has been living for seven years through a period of unprecedented prosperity,61:04because oil prices just keep climbing.61:07Money is just flowing into Russia.61:10Putin has enriched himself.61:12Everyone around him has enriched himself.61:14At the same time, he has emasculated the men who used to be known as the oligarchs.61:20They’ve ceded their political power to him, and a lot of their financial power, in exchange61:25for safety and security of those assets that they’re allowed to keep.61:29He’s really the patriarch of this country.61:34In Russia itself, people perceive him as enjoying the respect of the West, but he doesn’t61:42feel any respect, because the United States has invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq without61:51consulting with Russia, and in fact ignoring Russia’s wishes.61:53The United States has pulled out of the ABM Treaty.61:56And worst of all, NATO has expanded.61:59He’s been saving all of this resentment up because there he is—he feels like he62:07has transformed his country.62:09He’s made it great again, and he still doesn’t get any recognition of that when he meets62:14with world leaders.62:15He is still treated very much like a junior partner by everybody.62:20And so he comes to the security conference in Munich and says, basically: “I don’t62:25have to mince words, do I?62:28I can say what’s on my mind.”62:31And then he just lashes out, and he lists all these resentments, especially the NATO51:56In the end of his first year, George W. Bush becomes president of the United States.52:02One of the things we’ve noticed in tracing the arc of this gigantic narrative is how52:09often an American president arrives to a Russian president with hope that all is going to get52:16better, from Gorbachev on; democracy will flower now, and thank God.52:23…52:24MASHA GESSEN – Well, I want to say one more thing about what happened with George W. Bush52:27becoming president in ’99, or in 2000, is that Putin had just become president in a52:34very orderly manner.52:38He was handpicked by the previous president.52:42An election was scheduled.52:43He won it handily.52:46Everything went according to plan in his popularity.52:50His margin of victory was pretty good.52:53It was, I think, 53 percent in his first election.52:57And his popularity was sky-high.52:58Then America goes and has this ridiculous election that isn’t settled for two months53:08or two and a half months, and that just goes to show you how a democracy is such an imperfect53:15system, and probably an outdated and failed system.53:19I’m convinced that that’s the first time that Putin really watched an American presidential53:24election closely.53:25He’d never thought of himself as somebody who existed on that level.53:30Now he’s waiting to see who his counterpart is going to be, and he can’t even know who53:39his counterpart is going to be for two and a half months, because democracy is such a53:42mess.53:43…53:44MICHAEL KIRK – When they meet, the way the stories go, and especially—I’ve just talked53:46to a lot of American diplomats and ambassadors who were there at that first meeting.53:52This is the “I looked in his eyes and saw his soul” meeting.53:57Some people tell the story that here is a KGB guy who’s the president of Russia, who’s54:03studied Bush, knows he’s an evangelical, knows that he has a penchant and a weakness54:07for a religious story, dredges up a religious story out of his own past, the crucifix-in-the-ashes54:14story, and somehow they connect.54:19Tell me what you know about that version of the story.54:23MASHA GESSEN – Actually, I have nothing to add to that version of the story.54:28What I would say is that early on he was a charmer, early on in his term as president.54:34That’s no longer the case.54:37But everyone I’ve talked to [who] had a meeting with him in the first year or two of his becoming54:46acting president and then president came away transformed, at least for the first few minutes.54:51Well, actually, with one exception: one of the journalists who worked on that official54:56biography.54:58But everyone else felt that he sort of, he turned on the recruiter charm, and he was55:06well-briefed, and he always used a little personal anecdote to connect with you on the55:12grounds that he figured would be good for connecting.55:18A few years down the road, he stopped paying attention.55:21He would start mixing people’s names up or the facts of people’s biographies.55:26By the time I met him in 2012, he wasn’t even briefed.55:32He knew almost nothing about me, like he hadn’t bothered.55:37But early on, he was a real recruiter.55:40And I think he certainly worked his charm on George W. Bush, which apparently wasn’t55:46very difficult.55:47MICHAEL KIRK – There’s a lot of hope, of course, that they’ll do all kinds of things.55:54A lot of people have said—we’ll ask them: “What did Putin want from Bush?56:00What did Russia want from Bush?56:02But more importantly, what did Putin want from Bush and America?”56:06What do you think that was?56:07MASHA GESSEN – Well, Putin wanted the return of a bipolar world.56:15That was his agenda from the very beginning.56:17He wanted to be treated with respect.56:19He wanted people back home to see that he was being treated with respect.56:24This was also coming very soon after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, right, which, for the56:35Russian political establishment and for a lot of Russian people, was a really difficult56:40pill to swallow.56:42…56:43The U.S. and its allies decided to bomb Serbia and Kosovo to resolve the Kosovo crisis without56:50consulting with Russia.56:51And to make matters worse, they started bombing, or the U.S. started bombing when Yevgeny Primakov,57:00the then-prime minister, was in the air, on his way to the United States to meet with57:04Vice President Gore.57:07So they didn’t even make a show of informing Russia before starting bombing, never mind57:13consulting Russia, and that was really insulting for the entire Russian establishment and a57:20lot of Russian people.57:23One of the things that Putin wanted to project was that that kind of thing was never going57:28to happen again.57:30MICHAEL KIRK – Then America pulls out of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, not really57:36consulting.57:37In fact, he begged Bush not to do it.57:41They invade, or we invade Iraq, taking down an authoritarian figure who stands astride57:48a big—somewhat in the sphere of influence of Russia.57:54Russia joins with France and Germany and says: “Please don’t do this.57:57Are you guys going to do this?57:58Are you really going to do this?”58:00And they do it with a certain level of impunity, at least.58:06It seems that the word you used early to describe what he was hoping for, which is respect,58:11was hardly in the air between George W. Bush and the United States of America, and Vladimir58:16Putin and Russia.58:17MASHA GESSEN – And what’s even worse, I think from Putin’s point of view, is the expansion58:22of NATO.58:24It doesn’t ever sort of—in his worldview, it is not a question of these countries asking58:35to be part of NATO.58:36It is merely a question of the United States deciding that NATO should expand to the Russian58:43border.58:44He’s also convinced that the Soviet Union got assurances from the United States that58:52NATO would not be expanded.58:54…58:55The quote that Putin likes to bring up was a quote by the then-NATO commander given during58:59the negotiations about the reunification of Germany.59:05The promise was that there would be no NATO troops stationed on what had been East German59:11territory.59:12That’s the quote.59:13And that was a matter of negotiations.59:16This was, first of all, this was a negotiation with the Soviet Union, and then—and the59:21Soviet Union was pushing for a solution where somehow Germany would be united.59:26But East Germany still wouldn’t be a part of NATO.59:30And the compromise solution was that there would be no troops on what had been East German59:36territory.59:37That has nothing to do with NATO expansion as such, and it also certainly has nothing59:41to do with Russia.59:42I mean, this was being negotiated with the Soviet Union.59:45This was before the demise of the Warsaw Pact.59:50But in 2007, at the security conference in Munich, Putin shocks world leaders by giving59:59a very, very strongly worded speech about how Russia was not going to take it anymore.60:04MICHAEL KIRK – Can you take me there?60:07What has angered him, or what has happened in his world that he can go to Munich and60:12so forcefully declare?60:14It’s not declaring war, but it’s certainly declaring verbal war on, in an unspoken way,60:23the United States of America.60:26MASHA GESSEN – This is the end of his second term, and he has really been transformed.60:32He has already taken over the media in Russia.60:36He’s already canceled gubernatorial elections.60:39He’s canceled elections to the upper house of the Russian parliament.60:44He’s solidified power.60:47He is ruling very much like a dictator.60:50The process of dismantling what democratic mechanisms had existed in Russia was completed60:55in his first term, and this is the end of his second term.60:59Also, Russia has been living for seven years through a period of unprecedented prosperity,61:04because oil prices just keep climbing.61:07Money is just flowing into Russia.61:10Putin has enriched himself.61:12Everyone around him has enriched himself.61:14At the same time, he has emasculated the men who used to be known as the oligarchs.61:20They’ve ceded their political power to him, and a lot of their financial power, in exchange61:25for safety and security of those assets that they’re allowed to keep.61:29He’s really the patriarch of this country.61:34In Russia itself, people perceive him as enjoying the respect of the West, but he doesn’t61:42feel any respect, because the United States has invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq without61:51consulting with Russia, and in fact ignoring Russia’s wishes.61:53The United States has pulled out of the ABM Treaty.61:56And worst of all, NATO has expanded.61:59He’s been saving all of this resentment up because there he is—he feels like he62:07has transformed his country.62:09He’s made it great again, and he still doesn’t get any recognition of that when he meets62:14with world leaders.62:15He is still treated very much like a junior partner by everybody.62:20And so he comes to the security conference in Munich and says, basically: “I don’t62:25have to mince words, do I?62:28I can say what’s on my mind.”62:31And then he just lashes out, and he lists all these resentments, especially the NATO62:37expansion, referring to a nonexistent agreement, a nonexistent promise that NATO would never62:44expand.62:45It’s a total change of tone that comes as a complete surprise to his Western counterparts.62:51MICHAEL KIRK – Then one of the other things we do is we’re tracking the development62:58of military power, including hybrid power and including cyber and information war and63:06hard power.63:13Things begin to happen.63:14Estonia is two months later.63:17Then Georgia 1, or Georgia 2, Ukraine—all of it begins to happen, and all of it feels63:25like a rehearsal for something, or a perfecting of the military might.63:34Help me understand what he’s doing in terms of military power and where that fits into63:40this sense I’m getting from you, that he’s looking for not only making Russia great again,63:45but making people believe Russia is great again.63:48MASHA GESSEN – So he starts increasing military spending.63:55First it’s not extraordinary.63:56Now it’s quite extraordinary, the amount of money that Russia has been spending on64:01the military.64:03But he’s certainly interested in military reform.64:07A lot of people believe that he has militarized the Russian power establishment.64:11There are some counterarguments against that, but I mean, he loves his generals, and he64:18loves talking about how he’s bringing the military back.64:23He’s also investing money in ways of waging hybrid warfare, and an excuse to test some64:34of that presents itself.64:36Really, it’s just—it’s even hard to call it—it’s a pretext.64:41In the spring of 2007, Estonia moves a monument to64:55a Russian soldier, right?64:58When the Soviet Union occupied Eastern and Central Europe in 1945, it erected monuments65:13to the liberation of those countries, in the centers of every capital of those occupied65:21countries.65:23Now, some countries have chosen to look the other way, like Austria, which still has a65:28giant monument to its liberation by the Soviet soldiers in central Vienna.65:38But for some countries, it was much more problematic.65:40And for Estonia, which had been not only under Soviet occupation for half a century, but65:49really based its post-Soviet identity on the idea of occupation, right, to have that monument65:59in the center of town was really problematic.66:03It also became a focal point for both Estonian nationalists who would deface the monument66:13and [for] pro-Russian gatherings.66:19Estonia has a huge ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population of non-citizens.66:25So this was—it was a problem in town.66:32They decided to solve this problem by moving the monument to a military cemetery.66:36The monument included 12 graves, so they moved the monument to a military cemetery, and Russia66:45really could have reacted in any number of ways, but Russia reacted with outrage.66:49Now, another thing that Putin had been doing is he had been creating these youth movements66:52sort of semi-vigilante, military in style if not—though not armed, basically para-armies67:07of young people to support the Kremlin.67:11So they are unleashed on the Estonian Embassy in Moscow.67:16The Estonian Embassy is essentially occupied for three days, and these so-called activists67:25demand that the Estonian ambassador go home.67:30The ambassador finally went home officially on vacation, but they said, “OK, our job67:35is done,” and left.67:36But at the same time—and Estonia is the most technologically advanced country in the67:45world.67:47Its entire government is electronic.67:49It’s the first country to offer e-citizenship.67:53Everything is on a chip.67:54You get stopped for a traffic violation or you go see a doctor, you use the same ID card67:59with a chip in it.68:00And all of a sudden, the entire Estonian system of government goes down because of pretty68:08primitive but enormous DDoS attack, [Distributed] Denial of Service attack launched on Estonia.68:18At the time, Russia denies that it’s involved.68:20Two years later, the leader of one of those youth movements says, “Yeah, it was an army68:25of volunteer hackers who unleashed that war.”68:31But it really shows Estonia who’s boss, because Estonia may be the most technologically68:38advanced country in the world, and it may have built a great democracy, but it’s just68:401.2 million people, and you unleash 1.2 million hackers on them, and they can’t stand up to68:49it.68:50MICHAEL KIRK – How much of this and the Orange and Rose Revolution responses by Russia are68:58manifestations of Putin’s temper?69:00MASHA GESSEN – I think it’s both his temper and his perception of the world as essentially69:08hostile.69:09He personally perceives the world as essentially hostile, not just hostile to Russia, but hostile69:18to him, hostile to people he loves, just a really dangerous place.69:27So every time something happens, it’s probably a sign of danger, and the revolutions in both69:35Georgia and Ukraine were signs of danger.69:39In fact, in 2004 Ukraine had an election.69:44The election was very clearly rigged.69:46People started protesting in the streets, and eventually the Supreme Court, the Ukrainian69:51Supreme Court, ruled that—invalidated the results of the election and called for a third69:57runoff election to set things right.70:00Now, there were a couple of things that, for Putin, I think, were indications of danger.70:05One is— there’s an obvious one—which is that an independent judiciary is really dangerous70:11for a leader who relies on the rigged elections.70:14But again, people in the streets is a really frightening sight to Putin.70:21People in the streets can make all sorts of things happen, so instead of sort of watching70:25it and thinking, oh, we don’t have an independent judiciary, so people can come out in the streets70:30and then go right back home, because they can’t set in motion any mechanisms, because70:37he’d long since reversed judicial reform in Russia, which didn’t get very far in70:41the first place, instead he sees people in the streets wreaking havoc.70:46But he’s also convinced that people don’t just come out into the streets.70:51They have to be driven by somebody.70:53There has to be a puppet master.70:55Somebody’s funding them, and it’s probably the United States.71:00That’s actually when he started creating these youth armies.71:07There’s a wonderful Australian scholar named Robert Horvath who calls it “Putin’s preventive71:11counterrevolution.”71:14He launched a counterrevolution in his own country without waiting for a revolution to71:18happen, but he was terrified of a revolution like the one in Ukraine or the one in Georgia.71:24The one in Ukraine is known as the Orange Revolution, and the one in Georgia is known71:27as the Rose Revolution.71:29Nothing like that would ever happen in Russia, because there was already an army of young71:33people in place to basically to fight the protesters in the streets if they should come71:37out into the streets.71:39MICHAEL KIRK – By the time Obama comes in—we’re talking about the reset—[Dmitry] Medvedev71:47is in.71:49Is it an obvious fiction—was it an obvious fiction to you what it was going to be, or71:57is it an irrelevant fiction?71:58He [Putin] is still the most powerful guy in the country no matter what?72:01I know to Obama and Hillary, it seems like they—and we’ve talked to lots of people72:07who are around them—they really had high hopes that it was a true reset moment.72:13MASHA GESSEN – … I think at this point I can probably say it.72:22I was able to observe a little bit of that policymaking, and part of it was this idea,72:30this cynical and I think overconfident idea that if the United States empowered Medvedev,72:38then he would become the actual president.72:43I think that there were certainly intelligent people in the State Department at the time72:48who knew perfectly well that it was a fiction, and the basic understanding in the State Department72:53was that yes, it’s a fiction, but maybe we can make it real.72:58MICHAEL KIRK – So what did you witness?73:01What did you see?73:02What can you talk about?73:07MASHA GESSEN – I witnessed some of those, sort of the policymaking, and the idea—I73:15mean, everybody on the team, on the Russia team, I think in the State Department, did73:21realize that Medvedev was a fiction; he was a placeholder.73:26But there was a hope that sometimes these things take on a life of their own.73:32They really do.73:33I don’t think it’s—it’s not a crazy idea.73:36In fact, Putin was very much that kind of phenomenon as well, right?73:41He was sort of a fake accidental president, and then he was a real one.73:47I think that what they underestimated hugely was just how entrenched the clan system that73:56Putin had put in place was by 2008 when he put Medvedev in that chair as a placeholder.74:08I think that’s best described as a mafia state, which is a term invented by a Hungarian74:15scholar named Bálint Magyar, who actually makes a very strong argument that it’s important74:21to understand that it’s not crony capitalism or a kleptocracy; it’s a mafia state.74:27It’s administered by a patriarch, and power is distributed by the patriarch, just as money74:32is distributed by the patriarch.74:34Putin was still the patriarch.74:35It doesn’t matter what title he had.74:38I think they also didn’t realize, and I didn’t realize this until probably a couple74:42of years into the so-called Medvedev administration, that Medvedev just had absolutely no resources.74:51He had a couple of people working for him, a press secretary and an assistant, and like74:56one other guy.74:58Everything was concentrated around Putin.75:01At the same time, Medvedev had—legally, he had the right to fire Putin.75:07The president can fire the prime minister.75:09MICHAEL KIRK – But he’s not going to do that.75:13MASHA GESSEN – Well, one could hope that he would do that.75:16Then it’s very hard to sort of to discuss a counterfactual.75:21Like if the United States had not gone for the reset, would it have worked any better?75:29I don’t know.75:31I think that the fact that the reset came after the war in Georgia, and the war in Georgia75:43was technically fought under the Medvedev administration, and to sort of come to Russia75:52and say, “We’re willing to write it off, you know, write off the annexation of a third—of75:59a neighboring country,” it’s deeply immoral.76:07It also so happens that it was completely ineffective.76:11So the U.S. sacrificed some of its key foreign policy principles for nothing.76:20MICHAEL KIRK – It seems like it all falls apart, really falls apart starting with the76:29Arab Spring, from [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak to [Libya’s Muammar al-]Qaddafi and the76:37vote Medvedev makes.76:42But when do you think it—what was the tipping point in that sort of false presidential moment?76:49What happens?76:51MASHA GESSEN – The false presidential moment?76:53MICHAEL KIRK – Well, it makes Putin reassert himself actually and say, “I’m going back76:57in.”76:58MASHA GESSEN – Oh, I think he was always planning to go back.77:00MICHAEL KIRK – No matter what?77:02MASHA GESSEN – Yeah, I don’t think that he ever considered the possibility of not77:09running for election again.77:11If he did, it was more of a possibility of changing the constitution to make it basically77:17a parliamentary republic.77:18MICHAEL KIRK – And then he’d have it anyway.77:20MASHA GESSEN – And then he’d have all the power legally.77:22There was no way he was going to stay in a legally less powerful position for more than77:30four years.77:32The fact that the first thing that Medvedev did when he came into office was change the77:36constitution to extend the presidency to six years indicates that, from the very beginning,77:42the plan was for Putin to then come back in for six years.77:46Then it was, you know, it was done right away, and it wasn’t being done for Medvedev’s77:52benefit.77:53MICHAEL KIRK – When the people hit the streets in the midst of the announcement that he’s78:01coming back, and Hillary says, the statement she says around the election, the unfairness78:08of the election, and Putin reacts so negatively, negatively enough that, whether it’s a pretext78:16or not, he seems to remember it, a lot of people are saying it’s a motivation for78:20the attack in 2016.78:22How do you read what was happening with the people on the street?78:26Here we are again, people on the street, Putin; it’s becoming a familiar pattern.78:31But how do you read that, Hillary’s statement and the effect it had on Putin?78:37What did that look like from Putin’s perspective?78:39MASHA GESSEN – Well, so from Putin’s perspective, I mean by 2011-2012, he has completely lost78:49the ability to distinguish himself from his regime, his regime from the country—from78:55the state, and the state from the country.78:57When he sees people coming out into the streets to protest him and his regime, he sees them79:05protesting Russia itself.79:07I think that’s a sincere view of the world.79:11He knows what’s best for Russia.79:13They want to destroy Russia.79:15If they want to destroy Russia, then obviously they’re not Russians.79:19So they must be—their puppet master—and he’s always been convinced that there are79:24puppet masters behind any protest—but their puppet master has to be whoever is opposed79:30to Russia.79:31Well, obviously, what’s the only thing that’s powerful enough to oppose Russia and to incite79:42these protests?79:43It has to be the U.S. State Department, because it would be insulting to think that it was79:46anything else, anything less than that.79:50And Hillary is the secretary of state, so obviously it’s her fault, personally.79:56MICHAEL KIRK – Let’s address Sochi, Crimea, Ukraine, all in a kind of moment, if you can.80:06What does Sochi mean?80:09It’s been going on since late November, early December , down in Ukraine.80:12I don’t really need to know the details since I know about [Ukrainian President Viktor]80:17Yanukovych and all the rest.80:19But it’s to Putin this glorious moment.80:22This other thing is happening.80:24He hates it for all the reasons you’ve just articulated, and he’s got a kind of plan,80:28I guess, to go after Crimea and then down into Ukraine, using his new hybrid forces,80:34I suppose.80:35MASHA GESSEN – I think that by 2014, really military buildup has become his number one80:43priority, and there are a few reasons for this.80:46One is that he loves the military.80:49He sees it as Russia’s ultimate greatness.80:51But the other thing is that he has to become a mobilizational leader.80:57The bargain that he had with the population, which is basically exchanging sort of a sense81:08of overwhelming prosperity that he was giving them for unlimited power that they were giving81:14him, that’s not working anymore, because the Russian economy is becoming stagnant.81:20Oil prices haven’t started dropping yet, but because of corruption and because of the overreliance81:27on extractive economy, the economic growth has basically slowed to a crawl by 2013, by81:37the end of 2013.81:41He still has to throw this big party, which he’s been planning for many years.81:45He went to Guatemala City personally to lobby for the Olympics.81:51Not only that, he gave a speech in English, which he’d never done before.81:55I think it was—or was it French?81:58Anyway, it was a language that he doesn’t usually use.82:05So he has been planning for this great moment.82:10And the Olympics—remember, the last Olympics in Russia were the Moscow Olympics in 1980,82:19which were supposed to also be a symbol of greatness, and turned into something entirely82:24different because the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics over the invasion of Afghanistan.82:31So it’s also partly taking revenge for that humiliation of 1980.82:40All of that is on one pile.82:41And then in the fall of 2013, it turns out that a lot of Western countries aren’t sending82:51their luminaries, the first—I think it was the president of Germany [Joachim Gauck] who82:59said he wasn’t coming, then Belgium, then someone else.83:03Then finally Obama announces his delegation, which doesn’t include an elected official.83:14The highest placed official that it includes is a deputy assistant secretary of state,83:18which is just an insult.83:20And, to add more insult, there are two openly gay former Olympians in the delegation.83:29This is about a year and a half into Putin’s anti-gay campaign, because the way that he83:34ended up dealing with the protesters was by queer-baiting them and by sort of focusing83:40Russia’s ire on the LGBT population.83:44There are no good photo ops in Sochi.83:48It’s basically, instead of a party, it’s a disaster.83:52At the last minute, Putin tried to clean up his act by releasing [Mikhail] Khodorkovsy,83:57the former oligarch, who had been a political prisoner for 10 years; releasing the members84:02of Pussy Riot, who had been in jail for nearly two years; releasing the 30—I think [thirty]84:08two members of Greenpeace who were in a ship that Russia had hijacked in neutral waters,84:15in international waters in September, a ship flying the Dutch flag.84:22So they release all of those people.84:24But it’s too late to save Sochi.84:27That adds more resentment to his feelings around Sochi.84:32Meanwhile, Ukraine, which is not just Russia’s closest neighbor but very much sort of the84:39country that Russia identifies with, and really, really identifies with, right—I mean, Russians84:44of all kinds look at Ukraine to understand their own country, and Putin is no exception.84:50In Ukraine, there have been these protests going on for now several months, and it’s84:56because Ukrainians want a closer association with Western Europe rather than [with] Russia.85:06He interprets those protests as anti-Russian.85:10But they’ve thrown the country into absolute turmoil.85:14Now, so all of that is in place.85:16And his military buildup is in place.85:19I don’t think it’s a matter of having plans for the Crimea in place.85:23It’s a matter of having plans for everything in place.85:27It’s like Chekhov’s gun hanging on the wall, except that they have a plan for invading85:32every country on the wall, right?85:35That’s what a lot of the investment of the military has been, is making plans for how85:39are we going to fight this war and this other war?85:41How are we going to re-annex parts of Finland, and how are we going to re-annex the Baltic85:48states and Moldova and Ukraine?85:51So here is the moment to take Crimea.85:55And it’s clear, from the way that the Crimean operation was carried out, that it was indeed86:00a well-planned operation.86:01It was carried out on the spur of the moment when he saw the opportunity, but the plans86:07for the operation had long since been designed.86:13It was just a matter of implementation.86:16Then there are a lot of people around him who want to go further, who want to go into86:22Ukraine, and he has nothing to lose by going into Ukraine—not that he actually thinks86:27about his losses.86:28He’s a brilliant opportunist and not a planner.86:32Actually, Sochi is a perfect example of how little he plans.86:36Usually, the Olympics aren’t very often held in dictatorships, and dictatorships usually86:43clean up their act a year or two before the Olympics, and then do things like arrest all86:49the political dissidents and reinstate the death penalty like China did the day after86:54the Olympics ends.86:55But not Russia.86:56Russia didn’t clean up its act because Putin is not a planner, right?86:59Putin realized that he had to do something six weeks before the actual Olympics and released87:04everybody, but it was too late.87:05It’s not like he’s looking ahead to what’s going to happen if he invades Ukraine.87:10He invades Ukraine because he can, and because it’s good for mobilization, and it’s worked87:17really well for him.87:19If you look at his popularity curve, it goes up vertically again, just like it did in September-October87:301999, when he promised to hunt down the terrorists.87:33It goes up vertically again, just as the economic expectations curve goes down.87:45You never actually see that in a normal country.87:48You never see a leader whose popularity is up and holding while people’s subjective87:54economic well-being is down, drops down precipitously and holds.88:02Sociologists will tell you that those lines have to meet.88:05In fact, they have to cross in opposite direction.88:08But that doesn’t happen in Russia.88:12And I think the reason it doesn’t happen in Russia is because ultimately, Russia has88:17reverted to this state of mobilization identification with the state.88:24He has delivered what he promised, which is to bring back to people the feeling of identifying88:30with something great.88:31MICHAEL KIRK – And when they’re hammered with sanctions, does that diminish him in some88:41way?88:42Does it diminish him with his people?88:43MASHA GESSEN – Well, did something really interesting with the sanctions.88:51The U.S. and the European Union and Australia and I think a couple other countries introduced88:57sanctions, which were designed to—they were based on a ridiculous premise that comes from89:14a basic misunderstanding of the way that Russia works, that if they squeezed him economically89:22a little bit, his popularity would suffer, people would protest, and then he would have89:33to change his behavior.89:34First of all, Putin had been power, by that point, for 15 years.89:44He had never shown an ability to change course.89:49He had never shown that he reacts to pressure with anything but aggression.89:55But also, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how his dialog with his people was working.90:01By this time, he had cracked down in the wake of the protests, so Russia was two years into90:06a full-fledged political crackdown.90:09It’s not like he was worried about feedback, and it’s not like protests were a real option.90:18But they also clearly weren’t looking at how much more popular he had become because90:23of the invasion.90:26So sanctions—I’m not opposed to sanctions.90:29I just think that sanctions should be based on moral considerations and values, not on90:35the idea that they could squeeze him into changing his behavior.90:40But after sanctions went into effect, Putin did something extraordinary, which is he made90:45the sanctions worse.90:47He introduced countersanctions, banned the import of food products from all the countries90:57that had joined the sanctions, with the exception of Switzerland.91:04That actually was a huge blow to the Russian economy, but especially to sort of individual91:11economy, because at the time, nearly all Russian food was imported, partly because it’s an91:19extractive economy.91:20The ruble had been very strong for many years.91:23There was no reason for Russians to make their own food.91:27They were importing it.91:31The saner rationale for those countersanctions was to jumpstart Russian food production,91:38but of course, that’s not how it works, right?91:42Prices went through the roof.91:44People really felt the squeeze.91:46But that actually made the sense of being at war stronger.91:49Even though people suffered, Putin’s popularity didn’t suffer, and it still hasn’t suffered.91:58The reason that he hates the sanctions is not because they put the squeeze on the Russian92:03economy.92:04He is concerned about a different set of sanctions.92:08He’s concerned about personal sanctions against that—that really make things difficult92:15for him and his friends who are banned from entry to this country, who are banned from92:20having assets in this country, and who are essentially banned from doing any business92:25involving U.S. currency, which really hampers their style.92:30MICHAEL KIRK – So let’s take ourselves to the summer of 2016.92:37Why does Vladimir Putin, really in 2015 and in the spring of 2016, initiate, unleash the92:48hounds if that’s what he did, decide to go in to, invade the presidential election92:57in the United States of America in 2016?93:00MASHA GESSEN – A couple of things.93:02One is that Russia has actually made a habit of being a disruptive force in Western elections93:14for a few years now.93:15It didn’t begin with the American presidential election.93:22A better way to ask the question might be, why wouldn’t Russia try to meddle in American93:28elections when it’s made a habit of meddling in democratic elections?93:32Now, the reasons for meddling in elections are obvious, and I would actually begin with93:40psychological reasons rather than strategic reasons.93:43The psychological reason is that Putin is really and truly convinced, and the people93:48around him are really and truly convinced, that democracy is an unsound way of running93:52things.93:54It is messy.93:56It is, as he saw with Bush and Gore, doesn’t run very well, and it also probably isn’t94:06as honest as everybody says, right?94:10In fact, when you ask a Russian official or a Russian patriot about rigged Russian elections,94:21they will always say, “You think your elections are so honest?”94:24That’s a sense of relief.94:27It’s not, you know, this bit of—it’s not hypocritical “What about-ism?”94:30It’s sincere “What about-ism?”94:32They’re really arguments that democratic elections are rigged.94:34Well, if their democratic elections are rigged, why wouldn’t you want a part of the rigging94:40if you have an interest in the outcome?94:42Of course Russia has an interest in the outcome of American elections.94:47It also has an even deeper interest in proving that democracy is as rotten as they say it94:53is.94:55To prove that democracy is as rotten as they say it is, it is good to help it along in95:01becoming more rotten.95:05The other thing is that I think in this country, we’ve come to imagine the Russian system95:11of meddling as a well-oiled machine or a well-commanded army.95:21That’s not what it is at all.95:23There are a lot of technically savvy and not so savvy people who want to get federal grants,95:32and the Kremlin throws a lot of money at organizations that will sell a good pitch of being able95:42to meddle in something or wreak some sort of havoc somewhere, where havoc ought to be95:48wreaked, right?95:50It’s not so much that Putin sends out an army of hackers; it’s that there are groups95:55of hackers who want to take the initiative of doing something really awesome, which is,96:00of course, how we get two different groups hacking the Democratic National Committee96:06at roughly the same time, without apparently being aware of each other.96:09MICHAEL KIRK – Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear.96:12MASHA GESSEN – Right, Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear.96:17The whole thing is self-perpetuating and messy in different sorts of ways.96:23But of course there’s also the element of his personal hatred for Hillary Clinton, and96:27it’s not just hate her.96:28I think it’s like Hillary Clinton was impossible as a U.S. president.96:33To imagine that he would have to deal with her as a senior partner, a woman—I mean,96:38he already has to deal with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel.96:44The lengths that he has gone to to assert his masculine dominance over Merkel is amazing.96:52He literally sicced dogs on her.96:57He has made indecent jokes in front of her, just to try to discomfort her.97:07He hates dealing with a strong woman, and one as president of the United States would97:13be just awful.97:14I don’t think he ever believed that he was going to be able to help get Trump into office.97:19I think in that sense, the people who prepared his briefs read all the same sources as we97:28do.97:29They were just as convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to win the American election as97:35The New York Times was convinced that she was going to win the American election.97:41MICHAEL KIRK – So in 2008 and other times, it was obviously espionage, and everybody97:48steals everything from everybody.97:49It’s when it’s activated through WikiLeaks and others that it changes into pure politics?97:56MASHA GESSEN – Well, that’s where it gets really—I mean, we don’t know, right?98:05I think that Julian Assange has his own megalomaniacal views of his role in the world.98:16He’s certainly alone against the entire world.98:22Who made the decision to release the products of the leaks at that particular time?98:27I think there’s actually every indication it was Assange.98:31How long had he been sitting on that material?98:33Did he get it on the eve of the leak, or months and months before?98:38We actually don’t know.98:42MICHAEL KIRK – One question in passing.98:49Nobody’s actually reached out and tried to stop Putin along this long narrative we’ve98:55been discussing, that we know of.98:59When Ukraine happens, we don’t fire back cyber stuff or close a bank.99:04…99:05With the lethal arming of Ukrainian rebels or Ukrainian soldiers, one might have said,99:12“Well, we’ve stepped up to him and stood up to him,” but maybe not.99:15And, as you have articulated, it might have pissed him off, and off we go again further99:20and further along.99:21We get here, we know it.99:22[Then-Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper knows it.99:25Eventually the FBI knows it.99:26Certainly Obama knows it.99:28And there were certainly arguments: “We’ve got to push back here.99:31We’ve got to let him know.”99:33From what you know about Putin, and what you’ve been talking about this afternoon, how would99:38Putin have reacted if there would have been pushback?99:41MASHA GESSEN – Again, it’s very hard to argue a counterfactual, and I don’t think99:49that Putin’s reaction should be the consideration.99:53I think we have known for a very, very long time that Putin is dead set on a particular99:59course, and he’s going to pursue it.100:01When he gets very strong pushback, he steps back, and then he comes back again in the100:06exact same direction, doing the exact same thing.100:11The question should not be, what does Putin do?100:14Obviously it’s responsible to consider it, but it’s not terribly complicated to predict100:20what he is going to do.100:21The question should be, what are our values, and what do we do in accordance with our values100:29in this situation?100:30The sanctions, I think, are a very good example, right?100:34The sanctions, as a strategic move, are a failure, and a predictable failure.100:40The sanctions, as an expression of American values, wouldn’t have been a failure if100:45they had been framed and implemented that way, right?100:48It is wrong to do business with a dictator.100:51It is wrong to do business with a head of state or with a state that carries out the100:55first forcible annexation of land in Europe since World War II.101:00In accordance with those considerations, what does the United States do?101:03It probably introduces similar sanctions.101:05Doesn’t do it step by step the way it was done, because it is not gradually more and101:13more wrong to do business with that kind of state.101:15It is instantly wrong to do business with that kind of state.101:18So you introduce sanctions all at once, and perhaps in somewhat different areas, or perhaps101:24not.101:25But you don’t do it step by step, because the step-by-step process was intended to show101:28Putin that we mean business, and he has to stop.101:31Like hell he’s going to stop, right?101:33That’s not the kind of pushback that will make him stop.101:37You know, again, there’s also basic misunderstanding that he thinks that making life worse for101:42his people—I mean, we think that making life worse for Russians is going to make Putin101:47stop.101:48He has been making life worse for Russians for years, and it certainly hasn’t made101:54him stop.101:56MICHAEL KIRK – So what do you think Trump—what do you think Putin thinks of Trump?102:04…102:05MASHA GESSEN – Oh, he very clearly sees Trump as a buffoon.102:10Trump is, in some ways, the expression of everything that Putin disdains.102:14He disdains lack of control.102:18One thing that he also has cultivated as part of his image is his never betraying emotions.102:25That’s not true.102:26He actually betrays emotions quite a lot, but his idea of himself is somebody who has102:33a flat affect and purposefully never shows any emotions and is always calculated in everything102:42he does and says.102:43Also not true, but that’s how he thinks of himself.102:46Trump is the exact opposite of that.102:49I mean, I think that that kind of lack of control over his words and actions and emotions102:58and reactions makes Putin look down on him.103:03And I think, at this point, Putin feels also a little bit betrayed, because along with103:09much of the media establishment, and certainly much of Russian media, he has bought the idea103:14that he elected Trump.103:16He loves that idea.103:17He took a couple of victory laps after the election.103:21And now Trump hasn’t delivered.103:26In a way, Russia is worse off with Trump in office than it was with Obama in office.103:33MICHAEL KIRK – Because?103:34MASHA GESSEN – Sanctions remain in place.103:36There’s no sign that they will ever be removed.103:38Trump is less predictable.103:40Obama was always—you could basically easily predict that he was going to go for the least103:45engagement possible in any given situation.103:48It’s not true of Trump.103:51Trump liked firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria.103:55Trump loved dropping the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan.103:58It looks really good on television.104:00As Trump gets pushed into a corner, what is he going to do to make himself to look good104:07on television again?104:09Putin understands that kind of thinking very, very well.104:14As we speak, things are getting pretty rocky in Syria between Russia and the U.S.104:22I was just in Moscow recently, and Russian television is talking about how Trump hasn’t104:30sort of made good on his promises.104:32Russian television is also spending a lot of time on Syria, on how Russia is waging104:38a heroic war against ISIS and Syria, and American-backed terrorist forces are pushing back.104:48That’s the narrative.104:50America is backing terrorist forces in Syria, and Russia is waging war against them.104:57It’s hard to get Russians mobilized behind the Syrian effort.105:02It hasn’t been nearly as popular as Ukraine.105:05But it’s important to Putin personally.105:08And he will not step back from it.105:10MIKE WISER – So one of the questions is by 2016 election, there’s a lot of talk of Russian105:18botnets, propaganda, influence on social media.105:22How does that happen?105:28Going back to 2011 and 2012, the Russian government, what does Putin see when, at that point, it’s105:34Facebook and social media seem to be driving protests, change and the Arab Spring?105:40Is there a moment where they’re reconsidering tactics, are realizing the power and the danger105:46of social media after 2012?105:49MASHA GESSEN – I wouldn’t overemphasize it.105:53I was just talking recently to Adrian Chen, who did that wonderful story on the Russian105:59troll factory, and he said, “If I had known that the intelligence agencies were going106:04to use my article so prominently in their report, I would have emphasized how incompetent106:10they are.”106:12It’s not all that we imagine it to be.106:18They did catch onto social media.106:19They caught onto social media late, and not every agency has even figured out that social106:27media exists.106:28When the political crackdown began, they didn’t employ social media at all in their investigations.106:35They would go through people’s printed out photographs and handwritten notes to try to106:43figure out context.106:44They never went online to try to figure out how to crack down on people’s actual networks.106:50So it’s—they have a lot of money to throw around.106:54They are interested in increasing their electronic influence around the world.107:00This is true.107:01And there are some companies that are enterprising in sort of absorbing that money and doing107:06stuff for that money, and they have no scruples about what they do.107:10But to imagine it as a concerted effort and as sort of an all-out war on Western democracy107:16through high-tech means gives them a little bit too much credit.107:20MIKE WISER – But does he change his approach even inside Russia after those protests?107:26How does Putin change once he sees all those people in the street?107:29MASHA GESSEN – Oh, well, no, what changed when he saw people in the streets was actually107:34much more conventional.107:36They started arresting people.107:38They changed the laws.107:40They changed the laws to enable them to prosecute anybody for perceived violations of public107:49assembly laws.107:50So it used to be that—I mean, the laws were very restrictive in the first place, right?107:58You had to get a permit to hold a demonstration, and on that permit you had to indicate how108:04many people were coming to the demonstration, and if the number of people who came to the108:07demonstration exceeded the number of people on the permit, then you went to jail for 15108:13days.108:14But that still only hit the organizers of these protests, right?108:18So that’s what happened, for example, after the first protest, the first large protest.108:22People had a permit for 300 people because that’s how many people used to show up,108:27and 10,000 people showed up.108:29So the people whose names were on the permit application went to jail for 15 days for all108:36those people who showed up.108:37What they did, when Putin cracked down, is they changed those laws to be able to prosecute108:43anybody who participated in the protests for violations.108:49That is a basic instrument of state terror.108:54You have to create the mechanism of random prosecutions, because by definition, you can’t109:00apply a law like that uniformly.109:04If 50,000 people come to a protest, you can’t arrest 50,000 people.109:10You can only arrest some of them.109:11You certainly can’t send 50,000 people without reinstating the Gulag.109:15You can’t send 50,000 people to prison colonies, put them through the courts, etc., etc., so109:19you have to pick out a few to make the threat credible to the many.109:23But they can’t be the leaders, right?109:26They have to be ordinary people.109:28So they did that.109:30And they prosecuted—at this point, the number of people who have been prosecuted in connection109:33with the 2012 protests is over 30, and most of them have gone to jail for three or four109:40years.109:41These are just ordinary people, right, going to jail for peaceful protests.109:47They’re picked out at random, and they’re picked out at random times.109:50It can be two years after the protest.109:52They say, “We found videotape of you beating up an officer,” and then that person is109:59picked up.110:00So that’s one thing they did.110:01Another thing they did is the “foreign agents law,” which creates unbearable burdens for110:12functioning of any NGO [nongovernmental organization] that receives foreign funding.110:17Basically they’ve decimated civil society through doing this, and they’ve prosecuted110:22a lot of people from various organizations for failing to register as foreign agents.110:31They’ve paralyzed the work of many organizations, basically, with these prosecutions.110:37Let me just finish.110:41The third thing they did is the anti-gay campaign.110:44The anti-gay campaign is, it’s much more of a sort of standard scapegoating campaign.110:51But queer is a perfect stand-in for everything that Putin perceives the protesters to be.110:56They’re foreign; they’re other; they are something that didn’t exist in the Soviet Union.111:01We’ve only had queers since the Soviet Union collapsed.111:06They’re a stand-in for everything Western and everything imported.111:12And it gets traction with sort of this desire to return to an imaginary past with the traditional111:18values, whatever they were.111:20That’s also unleashed a lot of violence on people who are perceived to be gay.111:26So that channels a lot of the violent impulses in the population.111:31MIKE WISER – So what does Putin want now?111:35He started wanting respect from Bush.111:37But where are we at this point?111:38What’s his approach to the West?111:40MASHA GESSEN – Oh, he still wants the same thing.111:42He still wants a bipolar world.111:45The Syria story is actually a perfect example of how this unfolded.111:49You know, Putin’s happiest moment came in September 2013, when he hijacked Syria.111:55If you recall, Obama said there was a red line, and then he couldn’t get congressional112:02support for intervention in Syria.112:04Then he decided not to do it without congressional support, and he basically was losing face.112:11Putin stepped in and allowed him to save face and said that he was going to negotiate a112:19chemical disarmament with [Bashar al-]Assad.112:22He wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, which the Times published, that was just perfect112:30Soviet use of American rhetoric against the United States, calling out the U.S. for its112:39willingness to violate international law.112:41I mean, this is the man who annexed huge chunks of neighboring countries.112:50So that was—he was on top of the world then.112:54And then, a year later, suddenly he is an international pariah.112:59Nobody comes to his party.113:03He’s under sanctions.113:05I mean, Ukraine, he could have anticipated that there would be a strong reaction.113:09But the anti-gay campaign, he certainly never anticipated that there would be an international113:14outrage over it.113:16So he comes back to the U.S. for the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, Sept. 20,113:212015, with a proposal.113:28He spoke at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and he basically articulated his113:31proposal.113:32His proposal was that a new international coalition, an anti-ISIS coalition modeled113:38after the anti-Hitler coalition should be formed.113:45What he means is, because the Soviet Union was part of the anti-Hitler coalition, the113:51Soviet Union got to be a superpower and got to have Eastern Europe.113:58He wants the same thing.114:01He wants to enter into this coalition with the United States and get to be a superpower114:05again, and also take parts of the world that he wants, which is not necessarily former114:11Soviet territories, but certainly what he’s already taken and some more.114:15Obama didn’t even meet with him.114:19He was completely snubbed.114:24He went back to Moscow humiliated, untended to.114:32Russia started bombing Syria a week later, and has been ever since.114:36The war, Russia’s participation in the war in Syria, is basically an attempt to blackmail114:44the United States into giving Russia its superpower status back.114:49JIM GILMORE – I think you missed the back in September of 2004, Beslan and what it represented,114:57and why it was important to understand about what was going on there.115:11MASHA GESSEN – Beslan was, if you could imagine, an even more shocking terrorist attack than115:17the explosions that killed people in their sleep.115:19That was Beslan, the siege of a school in the south of Russia, where nearly 1,000 people115:29were taken hostage.115:31Then more than 300 people died, most of them children.115:37As we learned, thanks to an independent investigation carried out over the next couple years, the115:46deaths of those children were really the FSB’s doing, the federal troops’ fault.115:55They shelled the school at point-blank range.116:00They fired at it from tanks.116:04A lot of the children who burned alive because of a fire that raged, because the school was116:13shelled at point blank range.116:19I think that they were trying to do everything to maximize the number of casualties, to maximize116:23the shock effect.116:24It’s also possible that they were just so inhumane that they would just do it without116:33even having that goal in mind.116:37But Putin used Beslan as a pretext for canceling gubernatorial elections.116:46He framed it as an antiterrorism measure.116:52It was a cynical move, because clearly his very detailed decree in canceling gubernatorial116:57elections had been prepared before Beslan happened.117:03But at the same time, it also expresses, I think, his basic belief that anything democratic117:10is always messy, and the way to respond to extreme violence and to extreme disorder is117:17to create more dictatorial powers.117:20MICHAEL KIRK – So now my last question, which is, are we at war?117:25Is he at war with us?117:27MASHA GESSEN – He is.117:30Putin has portrayed and the Kremlin-controlled Russian media have portrayed both the wars117:36in Ukraine and the wars here as proxy wars against the United States.117:41Russia does not perceive itself as being at war with Ukraine.117:47It perceives itself as being at war with the United States by proxy of Ukraine.117:53And it certainly doesn’t perceive itself as being at war with ISIS, even though it117:58says that it’s firing at ISIS fighters.118:01It perceives itself as being at war with forces that are backed by the United States in Syria.118:09They’re quite open about it, on television.118:14It would be beneath Russia’s station to go to war with Syria or to go to war with118:19Ukraine.118:20Only the United States is big enough to go to war against, and only the United States118:24is grand enough to mobilize people enough to have the kind of popularity that Putin118:32has come to depend upon. …
On September 26, 2019, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam held her first listening session after seventeen weeks of protest. Her government, which had spent the summer nearly incommunicado, had settled on these encounters as a way to heal social divisions and identify the mysterious goals of a movement whose five demands, now that school was back in session, could be recited by any schoolchild.
Writing in a New York Times op-ed titled “Hong Kong, I Am Listening” on the eve of the event, Lam promised that this encounter with the public would be “the first of many community dialogues to air the public’s grievances and identify the issues this society faces.” She reminded readers of her 2017 campaign slogan: ‘We Connect.’
Hong Kongers who wanted to open their hearts to the government were invited to enter a random drawing online. Out of some 20,000 people who applied, 150 were chosen by lot to attend the event, at Queen Elizabeth Stadium (despite the name, a very regular looking building in a residential pocket of Wan Chai). The rest of the city tuned in to watch the session on TV.
Police cordoned off the venue with their usual light touch, blocking a dozen streets to traffic and giving a normally busy neighborhood the feeling of a ghost town. The large municipal pool was closed. An LED notice board on the side of Ammar Mosque blinked its friendly greetings to no one. Protesters who filtered into the area lined up opposite the building, while the usual scrum of press milled around, looking for something dramatic to film.
A subversive element had placed a chair out front, with a note that it was reserved for Carrie Lam. No one sat in it. Two hours before the session started, the street was packed with people hoping for a glimpse of their listening leader.
Police were everywhere. Blue-jacketed media liaisons (meant to be the kindler, gentler face of the Hong Kong police force) admonished everyone to stay on the sidewalk. Every so often a red taxi parted the crowd to disgorge a lucky citizen, like the winner of a Willy Wonka golden ticket, who would be allowed inside to ask, for the first time in 17 weeks, just what the hell the Hong Kong Chief Executive thought she was doing.
Carrie Lam is a Theresa May-like figure who seems to thrive on a performative stoicism, standing firm in the face of a self-inflicted crisis that a more capable politician would simply wiggle out of. She is a tragic figure in the same way that a pilot who points the nose of the aircraft at a mountain and refuses to listen to the passengers screaming for her to turn is a tragic figure. You puzzle over her motives while also wishing that someone, anyone, would throw her out of the plane.
But while May was at least an elected politician, Carrie Lam is an administrator down to her bones, a career civil servant who was elevated to power in 2017 and sees her role as a protector of order. Her litany throughout the crisis has been that Hong Kongers who are not the police must respect the rule of law, even when that law (as would happen a week after this event) is imposed by emergency decree. A former head prefect at her Catholic school, she has all the empathy of a supervisor at the department of motor vehicles explaining that your car will be compressed into a cube because of overdue parking fines.
Lam seems to have an innate aversion to the mob, the rabble, the people who in luckier places we would call voters. After a quarter of the city’s population marched in July, she called the protesters “a small minority of people” who “had no stake in their society.”
In November, she would refer to protesters more chillingly as ‘enemies of the people’, language that carries murderous connotations in China.
Lam’s preference is always for closed-door meetings, where she can speak to business leaders and other chosen audiences about how limited her options are, and how she can do nothing without permission from the center. In one such session that was surreptitiously recorded and leaked in August, Lam said she would not allow herself self-pity before reciting a litany of complaints. She wanted nothing more than to apologize and resign, she said, but Beijing wouldn’t let her. On policy matters, her hands were tied. Black-clad protesters had made her life a hell. She couldn’t even visit the hair salon in Hong Kong without fear of getting swarmed.
Tonight, though, she would be facing the public. Her hair looked amazing.
When the crisis in Hong Kong began, it was universally believed that Carrie Lam was executing a subtle plan dictated from Beijing. The attempt to rush an extradition law through the Legislative Council looked like a move in China’s long geopolitical chess game to erase constitutional protections in Hong Kong without spooking international finance.
So it was a shock to everyone when it emerged later in the crisis that the extradition law had been Carrie Lam’s own initiative. Rather than playing six-dimensional chess, it appeared that Beijing had accidentally appointed the most inflexible politician in China to head the Hong Kong S.A.R., and was now watching the ensuing disaster unfold as helplessly as everybody else.
Lam had plunged the financial capital of China into a crisis that required finesse, tact, and strategic retreat, and was attempting to solve it with tear gas and truncheons. Her bumbling radicalized a famously apolitical city, destroyed the Hong Kong police force, and welded an amorphous and diverse set of interests into something like a national identity.
A movement that had started with Christian hymns and a Les Miserables song now had its own national anthem, complete with a professionally produced video in which a symphony orchestra dressed in gas masks plays amidst clouds of tear gas. By September, the whole city had learned it by heart, and performed it at shopping malls, sporting events, schools, and spontaneously on the street. Tonight, if she cared to, she could hear it being sung outside her listening event.
Like a player scoring an own goal through an otherwise impenetrable defense, Lam had achieved by accident what no Chief Executive could have done through years of toil. She had forged Hong Kong into a nation. She was the accidental mother of her country.
Xinqi Su is a dynamo of Hong Kong journalism who finds a way to livetweet every significant protest event. True to form, on this night she was translating and posting audience questions almost in real time. Groups of six questioners were chosen by lot out of the audience. Each person got three minutes to speak. After everyone in a group had spoken, Lam (flanked by silent members of her cabinet) made her reply.
Many of the questioners wore masks. Perhaps they were mindful of what had happened the last time Lam held such a televised debate. All five student leaders who confronted her on television in the summer of 2014 were later arrested; three of them went to prison.
Possibly the audience was thinking of more recent events, like the August 29 attack in broad daylight on Jimmy Sham, head of the Civil Human Rights Front (Sham would be viciously beaten again on October 16), or a similar attack on legislator Roy Kwong, assaulted just two nights before the listening event.
(These fears were not misplaced. A second legislator, Stanley Ho, would be beaten three days after this event, on September 29, while several prominent opposition figures would be arrested on September 30.)
Two of the questioners stressed in their remarks that they were not suicidal, reflecting a pervasive belief among young people that a spate of police murders had been disguised as suicides. While not supported by evidence, these rumors, along with stories of deaths and disappearances at the Prince Edward MTR station, were deeply woven into the fabric of fear in Hong Kong, and no one in government had the moral authority or legitimacy to refute them.
Not surprisingly, this toxic level of mistrust was the central theme of the night. Person after person got up and asked Lam essentially the same thing—why did she refuse to set up an independent public inquiry into police brutality? Why had no one resigned or faced any disciplinary action after a summer of escalating abuses of power?
The sole questioner who used her time to praise the police and call for an investigation into the demonstrators was soon outed by internet sleuths as an off-duty cop. The message was not flattering: the government was so incompetent they couldn’t even rig their own listening event.
Lam gave each of these questioners the same answer as ever, which was no answer at all. There’s already an organization for handling police complaints, she said, shall we wait for them to finish their work?
No one on either side of the conflict , then or now, has a satisfactory theory of why Carrie Lam won’t form an independent inquiry into police violence, the demand that is the emotional core of the protests.
It’s obvious why the fifth demand, universal suffrage, poses a serious threat to China.
But why couldn’t there be an independent investigation into the police? Surely a career bureaucrat like Lam could think of a thousand ways to set up a commission that wouldn’t have teeth? It could study the situation for years, immunize everyone against prosecution, and eventually emit a report criticizing both sides for the excesses of the summer. If done with finesse, such a commission might even split the protest movement, the government’s cherished dream.
In other word, it was a bureaucratic lay-up. And yet Lam wouldn’t budge.
This was still September, before the police had shot a high schooler in the chest, before Lam’s government invoked emergency law for the first time since 1967, before the siege of the universities, before anyone had died at a protest. Total arrests on the eve of her listening session were 1,500 (today they are over 5,500). But already the police were the greatest threat to public safety in Hong Kong.
An emotional point of no return had come on July 21, when triad thugs burst into the Yuen Long MTR station and beat passengers at random. Two police officers who were witnesses to the scene had simply walked away. Nearby police stations pulled down their steel shutters as residents banged on them pleading for help. A police commander later revealed that five triads had spent weeks planning the event, either undetected by the police, or with their tacit connivance.
The Yuen Long attack was too much even for some Hong Kong cops to stomach. The triads were the enemy, not an auxiliary force to call in when a crowd needed to be roughed up without directly implicating the police. To the public, Yuen Long was the ultimate proof that the police were irredeemable.
When riot cops burst into Prince Edward station six weeks later and beat up passengers in an echo of the July attack, it simply confirmed the police and triads were interchangeable. 721 and 831 became numerical shorthand for the lawlessness and perfidy of the police.
Lam insisted at this listening event (and continues to insist today) that police should only investigate itself through the Independent Police Complaints Council, a sort of administrative oversight board for internal investigations. The IPCC lacks subpoena power and cannot protect witnesses against police retaliation.
It also can’t take complaints directly from citizens. Instead, they are supposed to report it first to a local police station, through a group ominously called CAPO (Complaints Against Police Office). The requirement that abuse be reported to the perpetrators puts people in absurd, awful situations—if you are assaulted at a police station, for example, the correct procedure is to turn around and go back inside to file your complaint.
When police officers involved in misconduct took to removing their badge numbers, which was the universal behavior by August, citizens had no redress at all. The police simply lied, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence. In one famous incident, they insisted that film showing a man in a yellow shirt being beaten by police in an alley showed only a “yellow object” who could not definitively be called a human being.
This abusive behavior at the hands of the Hong Kong police force was no longer an aberration, but policy. The police had adopted a counterinsurgency strategy that assumed the existence of a hard core of several hundred frontline demonstrators. The sooner those troublemakers could be arrested, the police logic went, the quicker the protests would come to an end. All other considerations went out the window.
The transformation of police into an occupying army left ordinary Hong Kongers without redress. The IPCC had been set up to catch the occasional corrupt cop, not to second-guess policy decisions made at the highest levels. Its members were all appointed by the Chief Executive.
A clear example of how broken the system was came just a day after this listening session, when a 22 year old woman was taken into in the Tsuen Wan police station, in the New Territories, and allegedly raped by four masked men. On October 22, she filed a complaint with the Complaints against Police Office. A few days later, the police obtained a search warrant for her medical records, including closed-circuit footage from her doctor’s clinic.
While the search warrant was finally quashed in court on November 28, the message it sent to potential accusers still hangs over Hong Kong: if you accuse the police, your life will be an open book, with the most private details leaked by the investigators you were forced to turn to in your search for justice.
And so it was that by early September, half of Hong Kongers said that on a scale of zero to ten, they had zero trust in police. Stories continued to surface about physical and sexual abuse in custody. Wilder rumors circulated, too, with no way to gainsay them. Carrie Lam’s approval rating dropped below twenty percent, a record for a Hong Kong chief executive. Seventy four percent said that if there were an election, they would vote against her.
But of course, there wasn’t going to be an election. That was the whole problem.
Once the listening event was over, Carrie Lam faced a new challenge—how to get out of the building. It was 10 PM and there were perhaps a couple of hundred protesters outside. Word had filtered out that Lam had told police not to disperse the crowd—even her awful political instincts could tell her not to tear gas her own listening event. I had gone home for the night, but this situation seemed too ripe to miss, so I retraced my steps through the now empty streets of Wan Chai.
It was eleven by the time I reached the stadium. The listening event had been over for an hour, and the neighborhood was quiet. Around Queen Elizabeth Stadium, the ranks of the protesters had thinned. Most of the chanting was being done from a garden wall by an elderly uncle who was working his way through a six pack.
The police officers occupying the glass-walled lobby looked tired. Sometime towards midnight, their commander gave them permission to sit along the base of the wall, and within minutes several were sleeping. A long weekend of oppression and police violence lay ahead of them, as the city braced for the National Day celebrations on October 1. Tonight’s event was supposed to have been an easy night off. Instead, Hong Kong’s finest were in for another cold dinner and cheerless homecoming.
Hong Kongers are savage when it comes to taunting the cops. They find the most resourceful ways to get under the police’s armor and sting them in the heart. At a recent rally, somebody had yelled “while you’re here, your wife’s at home banging a frontliner!” Tonight, the policeman’s wife and the frontliner would have time to cuddle. No one was coming home anytime soon.
A few minutes past midnight, the drunk uncle finished his last beer and zigzagged away. The police were sound asleep. The protesters sat and waited, while the press corps continued their stakeout of the parking garage. Every once in a while, the journalists would spook themselves into a burst of activity, like chickens do when the fox is near. But it was always a false alarm, and they retreated back into their phones.
By one o’clock, only a dozen or so protesters remained, far outnumbered by the press. I saw the blinds part in a window above the parking garage, and two eyes peer out through the gap. A small voice from the street called out in English:
“Carrie Lam, come out!”
But Carrie Lam stayed in.
Around 1:30, a senior policeman woke up his colleagues in the lobby. They shuffled off somewhere, and soon after, a squad of them in riot gear burst out a side door into the alley, flashing strobe lights and making a racket. Two cameramen jogged over to film them and got yelled at. The police unit trotted off into the night.
More waiting. Then, finally, an unmistakable burst of activity in the parking garage. SUV doors opened and engines rumbled to life. The reporters rushed forward to film, forming a semicircle in front of the parking ramp. A few hoarse voices, all that was left of the protesters, began to chant. I counted no more than ten. The SUVs roared up the ramp, then turned off their engines.
It was a feint. The handsome black SUVs had been sent to deke us out while Carrie Lam was hustled out the door on the opposite side of the building, where a camera captured her escape. She looked serene as ever, still smiling, still poised, surrounded by the police who from now on would be her only point of contact with the public. They led her to a waiting car, protecting her from a threat that existed only in her imagination.
And that was the last time the government held a listening session in Hong Kong.
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