When Trump’s Thugs Turn on Him

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.

How McKinsey Makes Its Own Rules

The consulting company chases after government contracts, but it has a habit of evading the oversight that comes with them.

This article is copublished with ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative newsroom.

It’s not easy being McKinsey & Company these days.

For most of its 90-odd-year existence, the prestigious management consultancy prided itself on remaining above the fray. McKinsey consultants plied the executive suites of Fortune 500 companies, counseling chief executives with discretion and quietly building a business that, with $10 billion in annual revenues, is now bigger than many of the entities it serves. The substance of the company’s work, and even the identities of its clients, lie concealed under an institutional code of silence. That reticence, enforced by a nondisclosure agreement, bedeviled Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign until last Monday, when McKinsey granted him a rare dispensation to reveal the names of his former clients.

On the occasions when McKinsey’s work has been scrutinized of late, it hasn’t reflected well on the firm. Reporting by The New York Times, ProPublica and others over the past 18 months has raised serious questions about how it does business at home and abroad: corruption allegations against companies McKinsey partnered with in South Africa and Mongolia; a federal criminal investigation into the firm’s bankruptcy practice in the United States; attempts to deny that it helped put into effect controversial Trump administration immigration policies; and evidence that McKinsey cherry-picked nonviolent inmates for a pilot project and made it seem that an attempt to curb violence at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex was working (it wasn’t). McKinsey has denied wrongdoing in each of these instances.

These and other examples of McKinsey’s recent conduct reveal a common dynamic. An examination of these episodes, including thousands of pages of documents and interviews with dozens of current and former McKinsey consultants and clients from multiple projects, suggests McKinsey behaves as if it believes the rules should bend to its way of doing things, not the other way around.

McKinsey’s self-regard has long been uncommonly high. In the firm’s 2010 internal history, a copy of which ProPublica obtained, partners compare the firm to the Marine Corps, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Jesuits: “analytically rigorous, deeply principled seekers of knowledge and truth,” the history’s authors write. One McKinsey partner went a step further, declaring without a hint of irony that the firm’s trait of shared values is more than “even the Catholic Church can promise.”

This attitude works for the firm in corporate consulting, an unregulated field where McKinsey’s reputation leaves it largely free to do things its own way and where its insistence on not being publicly credited has also shielded it from blame for its failures. But as McKinsey has expanded its consulting empire in recent years, it has taken on a growing book of work for government entities, as well as for corporate clients in areas subject to government oversight, such as advising bankrupt companies on restructuring.

In that field, consulting firms confront a web of contracting, disclosure and ethics rules that are designed to dictate and limit their behavior. These rules exist to prevent governments from wasting taxpayer money on underqualified or overpriced contractors and to protect government integrity and avoid conflicts of interests. In recent years, as McKinsey has burrowed deeper into this world, interviews and records show, it has developed a habit of disregarding inconvenient rules and norms to secure, retain and profit from government work.

Consider McKinsey’s imbroglios in South Africa and Mongolia. The firm did not follow the due diligence protocols commonly deployed to avoid running afoul of anti-corruption laws. The result: Its consultants found themselves working alongside dubious local companies that got them entangled in corruption investigations. Only after McKinsey became embroiled in the South Africa corruption scandal did the firm decide it needed to put more stringent safeguards in place.

In the United States, a damning but largely overlooked report issued in July by the Office of Inspector General for the General Services Administration, the hub for federal contracting, depicted McKinsey as ignoring rules and refusing to take no for an answer. The report examined McKinsey’s attempts to renew a major long-running contract in 2016. The firm was asked to provide additional pricing information to satisfy federal contracting rules. Rather than comply, McKinsey went over the contracting officer’s head, lodging complaints with top G.S.A. officials, who refused to exempt the firm from the rules.

Eventually, the firm found a friendly G.S.A. manager who was willing to not only award the contract, but also manipulated the G.S.A.’s pricing tools to increase the value of the contract by tens of millions of dollars. The report concluded the manager “violated requirements governing ethical conduct.”

The pattern repeated itself when McKinsey failed in multiple attempts to win a separate contract around the same time. Stymied, according to the report, McKinsey browbeat the contracting officer, threatening to resubmit the proposal until it got its way. The G.S.A. manager again intervened — for reasons left unexplained by the report — and McKinsey got its contract.

The report’s assessment of McKinsey’s behavior was withering, and it revealed that the firm subsequently used the same friendly manager to help secure contracts at three other federal agencies in 2017 and 2018. “Multiple contracting officers,” the inspector general wrote, told investigators that McKinsey’s requests were “inappropriate” and “a conflict of interest.”

The report recommended that the G.S.A. cancel the contracts, which as of earlier this year had earned McKinsey nearly $1 billion over a 13-year span. In a response to the report, the G.S.A. stated that it would ask McKinsey to renegotiate the contracts to lower the price. “If McKinsey declines” or “renegotiations do not yield a result in the government’s best interest,” the agency wrote, it would cancel them. Neither has happened to date, according to federal contracting records. A McKinsey spokesman said: “We have reviewed the report and the relevant facts, and have found no evidence of any improper conduct by our firm. We are in negotiations with G.S.A. and look forward to completing them soon.” A G.S.A. spokesperson said it is negotiating for “better pricing” and will not award McKinsey any further work under the contracts until those negotiations are concluded.

McKinsey has also taken steps to evade public accountability. As ProPublica reported, a senior partner leading McKinsey’s work at Rikers asked top corrections officials and members of the consulting team to restrict their communications to Wickr, an encrypted messaging app that deletes messages automatically after a few hours or days. That insulated some of McKinsey’s work from government oversight and public records requests. (“Our policies require colleagues to adhere to all relevant laws and regulations,” a McKinsey spokesman said. He neither confirmed nor denied the use of Wickr.)

Speaking more broadly, the McKinsey spokesman said: “We hear the calls for change. We are working hard to address the issues that have been raised.”

McKinsey has so far escaped serious repercussions for its reluctance to follow inconvenient rules. That could change next year.

Consultancies such as McKinsey, which advise companies restructuring under bankruptcy protection, are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest. For the past few years, McKinsey has been locked in a complicated set of court disputes with Jay Alix, the founder of a competing advisory firm, and with the Justice Department’s bankruptcy watchdog over whether McKinsey failed to follow bankruptcy disclosure rules, a subject The Times has covered in depth.

McKinsey has, since then, disclosed a number of new potential conflicts in old bankruptcy cases and paid $32.5 million to creditors and the United States trustee to settle claims over insufficient disclosures. The trustee has said that “McKinsey failed to satisfy its obligations under bankruptcy law and demonstrated a lack of candor.” The firm denies wrongdoing and says it settled “in order to move forward and focus on serving its clients.”

Subsequently, McKinsey has moved, in effect, to rewrite the rules. It drafted a protocol ostensibly meant to clarify what advisers like itself need to disclose. Critics pointed out that McKinsey’s protocol allows such firms to avoid disclosing relationships they deem indirect or “de minimis.”

There remains more to come. Apart from the criminal investigation, a judge in Houston has scheduled a trial in February to decide the merits of Mr. Alix’s allegations. The judge, David R. Jones, has described the trial in apocalyptic tones. It will be, Judge Jones has said, “the ultimate career ender for somebody.” For McKinsey, a trial would mean being called on to defend its work in public — with real accountability and real consequences for its actions. The firm might even benefit in the long run from the sunlight.

The Putin Files: Masha Gessen

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.”

 

46:38
But among his first 10 decrees was a decree reinstating primary military education in
46:46
high schools, and this was something that was, to me, highly symbolic.
46:55
When I went to school in the Soviet Union, everybody—all the high school students had
47:00
to learn elementary military trades.
47:06
I mean, first of all, we had military games, survival games, from the time—I mean, games.
47:12
We called them games.
47:13
They weren’t games.
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They were training sessions, right?
47:16
But from the time you’re very little, there are bomb raids, and you learn to recognize
47:21
chemical burns, and you are drilled on how to respond to chemical burns.
47:27
The thing is, you know, these classrooms that are—where the walls are covered with posters
47:33
on how to recognize different kinds of chemical weapons, the effects of different kinds of
47:41
chemical weapons and how to respond to them.
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And then in ninth and 10th grade, so in high school, which is just two years, you learn
47:54
to administer first aid in a military situation and to take apart and clean a Kalashnikov
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and put it back together again.
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Anybody my age or older will be able to tell you how long it used to take them to take
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apart and clean and put back together a Kalashnikov.
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A good amount of time is around nine or eight seconds.
48:24
That was eliminated when the Soviet Union fell apart.
48:29
And we forget now how much the 1990s, even though Russia never really sort of fully entered
48:36
a post-imperial era, but still, it became a demilitarized country.
48:43
All of a sudden, there was much less emphasis on how every boy was a future soldier, which
48:49
is the way I was brought up.
48:51
You would just see very many fewer people in uniform in the streets.
48:57
When I was growing up, when I used to go meet my mother at the subway station when she was
49:04
coming home, I would—to entertain myself, I would count the number of people in uniform
49:11
coming off the trains as I waited for her.
49:14
Roughly every 10th person would be wearing a military uniform.
49:17
All of a sudden, that was no longer the case.
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And of course children stopped learning how to take apart and put back together a Kalashnikov
49:24
in school.
49:26
One of the first things that Putin did, on the day that he became acting president, was
49:32
set in motion the process of bringing that back.
49:36
And I was convinced that—go ahead.
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MICHAEL KIRK – Sorry.
49:39
MASHA GESSEN – No, I was convinced that he was signaling his intention to remilitarize
49:45
Russian society, which is exactly what he did.
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MICHAEL KIRK – What does it do to a society to grow up with that eight-second Kalashnikov
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rebuild and then have it reintroduced?
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What’s the signal that that sends to people?
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MASHA GESSEN – Well, different people receive the same signal differently.
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It frightened me.
50:10
I didn’t want to live in a militarized society again, and I thought the militarized Russia
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would be a dangerous country for the rest of the world.
50:20
Countries don’t militarize in order to be peaceful.
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For a lot of people, though, it was a signal that they were going back to something that
50:32
was familiar and comfortable, both on a private level, which is that you would do the same—their
50:39
children would be doing the same things that they did as children, right, but much more
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importantly on a public level, so that they would have a chance to identify with a great
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country again.
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He would make Russia great again.
50:51
For so many people in the 1990s, the instability and discomfort that they experienced became
51:00
concentrated in this idea of no longer belonging to a great power.
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So a lot of Putin’s early signals were that he would bring back that wonderful feeling
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of being part of a great power again.
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MICHAEL KIRK – In a way, it’s right.
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He’s merging probably how he felt, having missed glasnost and perestroika, not participating
51:27
in whatever was great about it, but he comes home, he’s shipwrecked, whatever happens
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to him, it’s a different world than he probably anticipated finishing his life in.
51:41
That sort of ethos that he shared with the people was what he decided to employ as his
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method.
51:56
In the end of his first year, George W. Bush becomes president of the United States.
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One of the things we’ve noticed in tracing the arc of this gigantic narrative is how
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often an American president arrives to a Russian president with hope that all is going to get
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better, from Gorbachev on; democracy will flower now, and thank God.
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52:24
MASHA GESSEN – Well, I want to say one more thing about what happened with George W. Bush
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becoming president in ’99, or in 2000, is that Putin had just become president in a
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very orderly manner.
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He was handpicked by the previous president.
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An election was scheduled.
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He won it handily.
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Everything went according to plan in his popularity.
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His margin of victory was pretty good.
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It was, I think, 53 percent in his first election.
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And his popularity was sky-high.
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Then America goes and has this ridiculous election that isn’t settled for two months
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or two and a half months, and that just goes to show you how a democracy is such an imperfect
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system, and probably an outdated and failed system.
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I’m convinced that that’s the first time that Putin really watched an American presidential
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election closely.
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He’d never thought of himself as somebody who existed on that level.
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Now he’s waiting to see who his counterpart is going to be, and he can’t even know who
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his counterpart is going to be for two and a half months, because democracy is such a
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mess.
53:43
53:44
MICHAEL KIRK – When they meet, the way the stories go, and especially—I’ve just talked
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to a lot of American diplomats and ambassadors who were there at that first meeting.
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This is the “I looked in his eyes and saw his soul” meeting.
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Some people tell the story that here is a KGB guy who’s the president of Russia, who’s
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studied Bush, knows he’s an evangelical, knows that he has a penchant and a weakness
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for a religious story, dredges up a religious story out of his own past, the crucifix-in-the-ashes
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story, and somehow they connect.
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Tell me what you know about that version of the story.
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MASHA GESSEN – Actually, I have nothing to add to that version of the story.
54:28
What I would say is that early on he was a charmer, early on in his term as president.
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That’s no longer the case.
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But everyone I’ve talked to [who] had a meeting with him in the first year or two of his becoming
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acting president and then president came away transformed, at least for the first few minutes.
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Well, actually, with one exception: one of the journalists who worked on that official
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biography.
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But everyone else felt that he sort of, he turned on the recruiter charm, and he was
55:06
well-briefed, and he always used a little personal anecdote to connect with you on the
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grounds that he figured would be good for connecting.
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A few years down the road, he stopped paying attention.
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He would start mixing people’s names up or the facts of people’s biographies.
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By the time I met him in 2012, he wasn’t even briefed.
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He knew almost nothing about me, like he hadn’t bothered.
55:37
But early on, he was a real recruiter.
55:40
And I think he certainly worked his charm on George W. Bush, which apparently wasn’t
55:46
very difficult.
55:47
MICHAEL KIRK – There’s a lot of hope, of course, that they’ll do all kinds of things.
55:54
A lot of people have said—we’ll ask them: “What did Putin want from Bush?
56:00
What did Russia want from Bush?
56:02
But more importantly, what did Putin want from Bush and America?”
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What do you think that was?
56:07
MASHA GESSEN – Well, Putin wanted the return of a bipolar world.
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That was his agenda from the very beginning.
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He wanted to be treated with respect.
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He wanted people back home to see that he was being treated with respect.
56:24
This was also coming very soon after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, right, which, for the
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Russian political establishment and for a lot of Russian people, was a really difficult
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pill to swallow.
56:42
56:43
The U.S. and its allies decided to bomb Serbia and Kosovo to resolve the Kosovo crisis without
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consulting with Russia.
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And to make matters worse, they started bombing, or the U.S. started bombing when Yevgeny Primakov,
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the then-prime minister, was in the air, on his way to the United States to meet with
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Vice President Gore.
57:07
So they didn’t even make a show of informing Russia before starting bombing, never mind
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consulting Russia, and that was really insulting for the entire Russian establishment and a
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lot of Russian people.
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One of the things that Putin wanted to project was that that kind of thing was never going
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to happen again.
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MICHAEL KIRK – Then America pulls out of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, not really
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consulting.
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In fact, he begged Bush not to do it.
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They invade, or we invade Iraq, taking down an authoritarian figure who stands astride
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a big—somewhat in the sphere of influence of Russia.
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Russia joins with France and Germany and says: “Please don’t do this.
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Are you guys going to do this?
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Are you really going to do this?”
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And they do it with a certain level of impunity, at least.
58:06
It seems that the word you used early to describe what he was hoping for, which is respect,
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was hardly in the air between George W. Bush and the United States of America, and Vladimir
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Putin and Russia.
58:17
MASHA GESSEN – And what’s even worse, I think from Putin’s point of view, is the expansion
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of NATO.
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It doesn’t ever sort of—in his worldview, it is not a question of these countries asking
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to be part of NATO.
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It is merely a question of the United States deciding that NATO should expand to the Russian
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border.
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He’s also convinced that the Soviet Union got assurances from the United States that
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NATO would not be expanded.
58:54
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The quote that Putin likes to bring up was a quote by the then-NATO commander given during
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the negotiations about the reunification of Germany.
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The promise was that there would be no NATO troops stationed on what had been East German
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territory.
59:12
That’s the quote.
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And that was a matter of negotiations.
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This was, first of all, this was a negotiation with the Soviet Union, and then—and the
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Soviet Union was pushing for a solution where somehow Germany would be united.
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But East Germany still wouldn’t be a part of NATO.
59:30
And the compromise solution was that there would be no troops on what had been East German
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territory.
59:37
That has nothing to do with NATO expansion as such, and it also certainly has nothing
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to do with Russia.
59:42
I mean, this was being negotiated with the Soviet Union.
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This was before the demise of the Warsaw Pact.
59:50
But in 2007, at the security conference in Munich, Putin shocks world leaders by giving
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a very, very strongly worded speech about how Russia was not going to take it anymore.
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MICHAEL KIRK – Can you take me there?
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What has angered him, or what has happened in his world that he can go to Munich and
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so forcefully declare?
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It’s not declaring war, but it’s certainly declaring verbal war on, in an unspoken way,
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the United States of America.
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MASHA GESSEN – This is the end of his second term, and he has really been transformed.
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He has already taken over the media in Russia.
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He’s already canceled gubernatorial elections.
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He’s canceled elections to the upper house of the Russian parliament.
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He’s solidified power.
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He is ruling very much like a dictator.
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The process of dismantling what democratic mechanisms had existed in Russia was completed
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in his first term, and this is the end of his second term.
60:59
Also, Russia has been living for seven years through a period of unprecedented prosperity,
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because oil prices just keep climbing.
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Money is just flowing into Russia.
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Putin has enriched himself.
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Everyone around him has enriched himself.
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At the same time, he has emasculated the men who used to be known as the oligarchs.
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They’ve ceded their political power to him, and a lot of their financial power, in exchange
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for safety and security of those assets that they’re allowed to keep.
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He’s really the patriarch of this country.
61:34
In Russia itself, people perceive him as enjoying the respect of the West, but he doesn’t
61:42
feel any respect, because the United States has invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq without
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consulting with Russia, and in fact ignoring Russia’s wishes.
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The United States has pulled out of the ABM Treaty.
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And worst of all, NATO has expanded.
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He’s been saving all of this resentment up because there he is—he feels like he
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has transformed his country.
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He’s made it great again, and he still doesn’t get any recognition of that when he meets
62:14
with world leaders.
62:15
He is still treated very much like a junior partner by everybody.
62:20
And so he comes to the security conference in Munich and says, basically: “I don’t
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have to mince words, do I?
62:28
I can say what’s on my mind.”
62:31
And then he just lashes out, and he lists all these resentments, especially the NATO

51:56
In the end of his first year, George W. Bush becomes president of the United States.
52:02
One of the things we’ve noticed in tracing the arc of this gigantic narrative is how
52:09
often an American president arrives to a Russian president with hope that all is going to get
52:16
better, from Gorbachev on; democracy will flower now, and thank God.
52:23
52:24
MASHA GESSEN – Well, I want to say one more thing about what happened with George W. Bush
52:27
becoming president in ’99, or in 2000, is that Putin had just become president in a
52:34
very orderly manner.
52:38
He was handpicked by the previous president.
52:42
An election was scheduled.
52:43
He won it handily.
52:46
Everything went according to plan in his popularity.
52:50
His margin of victory was pretty good.
52:53
It was, I think, 53 percent in his first election.
52:57
And his popularity was sky-high.
52:58
Then America goes and has this ridiculous election that isn’t settled for two months
53:08
or two and a half months, and that just goes to show you how a democracy is such an imperfect
53:15
system, and probably an outdated and failed system.
53:19
I’m convinced that that’s the first time that Putin really watched an American presidential
53:24
election closely.
53:25
He’d never thought of himself as somebody who existed on that level.
53:30
Now he’s waiting to see who his counterpart is going to be, and he can’t even know who
53:39
his counterpart is going to be for two and a half months, because democracy is such a
53:42
mess.
53:43
53:44
MICHAEL KIRK – When they meet, the way the stories go, and especially—I’ve just talked
53:46
to a lot of American diplomats and ambassadors who were there at that first meeting.
53:52
This is the “I looked in his eyes and saw his soul” meeting.
53:57
Some people tell the story that here is a KGB guy who’s the president of Russia, who’s
54:03
studied Bush, knows he’s an evangelical, knows that he has a penchant and a weakness
54:07
for a religious story, dredges up a religious story out of his own past, the crucifix-in-the-ashes
54:14
story, and somehow they connect.
54:19
Tell me what you know about that version of the story.
54:23
MASHA GESSEN – Actually, I have nothing to add to that version of the story.
54:28
What I would say is that early on he was a charmer, early on in his term as president.
54:34
That’s no longer the case.
54:37
But everyone I’ve talked to [who] had a meeting with him in the first year or two of his becoming
54:46
acting president and then president came away transformed, at least for the first few minutes.
54:51
Well, actually, with one exception: one of the journalists who worked on that official
54:56
biography.
54:58
But everyone else felt that he sort of, he turned on the recruiter charm, and he was
55:06
well-briefed, and he always used a little personal anecdote to connect with you on the
55:12
grounds that he figured would be good for connecting.
55:18
A few years down the road, he stopped paying attention.
55:21
He would start mixing people’s names up or the facts of people’s biographies.
55:26
By the time I met him in 2012, he wasn’t even briefed.
55:32
He knew almost nothing about me, like he hadn’t bothered.
55:37
But early on, he was a real recruiter.
55:40
And I think he certainly worked his charm on George W. Bush, which apparently wasn’t
55:46
very difficult.
55:47
MICHAEL KIRK – There’s a lot of hope, of course, that they’ll do all kinds of things.
55:54
A lot of people have said—we’ll ask them: “What did Putin want from Bush?
56:00
What did Russia want from Bush?
56:02
But more importantly, what did Putin want from Bush and America?”
56:06
What do you think that was?
56:07
MASHA GESSEN – Well, Putin wanted the return of a bipolar world.
56:15
That was his agenda from the very beginning.
56:17
He wanted to be treated with respect.
56:19
He wanted people back home to see that he was being treated with respect.
56:24
This was also coming very soon after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, right, which, for the
56:35
Russian political establishment and for a lot of Russian people, was a really difficult
56:40
pill to swallow.
56:42
56:43
The U.S. and its allies decided to bomb Serbia and Kosovo to resolve the Kosovo crisis without
56:50
consulting with Russia.
56:51
And to make matters worse, they started bombing, or the U.S. started bombing when Yevgeny Primakov,
57:00
the then-prime minister, was in the air, on his way to the United States to meet with
57:04
Vice President Gore.
57:07
So they didn’t even make a show of informing Russia before starting bombing, never mind
57:13
consulting Russia, and that was really insulting for the entire Russian establishment and a
57:20
lot of Russian people.
57:23
One of the things that Putin wanted to project was that that kind of thing was never going
57:28
to happen again.
57:30
MICHAEL KIRK – Then America pulls out of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, not really
57:36
consulting.
57:37
In fact, he begged Bush not to do it.
57:41
They invade, or we invade Iraq, taking down an authoritarian figure who stands astride
57:48
a big—somewhat in the sphere of influence of Russia.
57:54
Russia joins with France and Germany and says: “Please don’t do this.
57:57
Are you guys going to do this?
57:58
Are you really going to do this?”
58:00
And they do it with a certain level of impunity, at least.
58:06
It seems that the word you used early to describe what he was hoping for, which is respect,
58:11
was hardly in the air between George W. Bush and the United States of America, and Vladimir
58:16
Putin and Russia.
58:17
MASHA GESSEN – And what’s even worse, I think from Putin’s point of view, is the expansion
58:22
of NATO.
58:24
It doesn’t ever sort of—in his worldview, it is not a question of these countries asking
58:35
to be part of NATO.
58:36
It is merely a question of the United States deciding that NATO should expand to the Russian
58:43
border.
58:44
He’s also convinced that the Soviet Union got assurances from the United States that
58:52
NATO would not be expanded.
58:54
58:55
The quote that Putin likes to bring up was a quote by the then-NATO commander given during
58:59
the negotiations about the reunification of Germany.
59:05
The promise was that there would be no NATO troops stationed on what had been East German
59:11
territory.
59:12
That’s the quote.
59:13
And that was a matter of negotiations.
59:16
This was, first of all, this was a negotiation with the Soviet Union, and then—and the
59:21
Soviet Union was pushing for a solution where somehow Germany would be united.
59:26
But East Germany still wouldn’t be a part of NATO.
59:30
And the compromise solution was that there would be no troops on what had been East German
59:36
territory.
59:37
That has nothing to do with NATO expansion as such, and it also certainly has nothing
59:41
to do with Russia.
59:42
I mean, this was being negotiated with the Soviet Union.
59:45
This was before the demise of the Warsaw Pact.
59:50
But in 2007, at the security conference in Munich, Putin shocks world leaders by giving
59:59
a very, very strongly worded speech about how Russia was not going to take it anymore.
60:04
MICHAEL KIRK – Can you take me there?
60:07
What has angered him, or what has happened in his world that he can go to Munich and
60:12
so forcefully declare?
60:14
It’s not declaring war, but it’s certainly declaring verbal war on, in an unspoken way,
60:23
the United States of America.
60:26
MASHA GESSEN – This is the end of his second term, and he has really been transformed.
60:32
He has already taken over the media in Russia.
60:36
He’s already canceled gubernatorial elections.
60:39
He’s canceled elections to the upper house of the Russian parliament.
60:44
He’s solidified power.
60:47
He is ruling very much like a dictator.
60:50
The process of dismantling what democratic mechanisms had existed in Russia was completed
60:55
in his first term, and this is the end of his second term.
60:59
Also, Russia has been living for seven years through a period of unprecedented prosperity,
61:04
because oil prices just keep climbing.
61:07
Money is just flowing into Russia.
61:10
Putin has enriched himself.
61:12
Everyone around him has enriched himself.
61:14
At the same time, he has emasculated the men who used to be known as the oligarchs.
61:20
They’ve ceded their political power to him, and a lot of their financial power, in exchange
61:25
for safety and security of those assets that they’re allowed to keep.
61:29
He’s really the patriarch of this country.
61:34
In Russia itself, people perceive him as enjoying the respect of the West, but he doesn’t
61:42
feel any respect, because the United States has invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq without
61:51
consulting with Russia, and in fact ignoring Russia’s wishes.
61:53
The United States has pulled out of the ABM Treaty.
61:56
And worst of all, NATO has expanded.
61:59
He’s been saving all of this resentment up because there he is—he feels like he
62:07
has transformed his country.
62:09
He’s made it great again, and he still doesn’t get any recognition of that when he meets
62:14
with world leaders.
62:15
He is still treated very much like a junior partner by everybody.
62:20
And so he comes to the security conference in Munich and says, basically: “I don’t
62:25
have to mince words, do I?
62:28
I can say what’s on my mind.”
62:31
And then he just lashes out, and he lists all these resentments, especially the NATO
62:37
expansion, referring to a nonexistent agreement, a nonexistent promise that NATO would never
62:44
expand.
62:45
It’s a total change of tone that comes as a complete surprise to his Western counterparts.
62:51
MICHAEL KIRK – Then one of the other things we do is we’re tracking the development
62:58
of military power, including hybrid power and including cyber and information war and
63:06
hard power.
63:13
Things begin to happen.
63:14
Estonia is two months later.
63:17
Then Georgia 1, or Georgia 2, Ukraine—all of it begins to happen, and all of it feels
63:25
like a rehearsal for something, or a perfecting of the military might.
63:34
Help me understand what he’s doing in terms of military power and where that fits into
63:40
this sense I’m getting from you, that he’s looking for not only making Russia great again,
63:45
but making people believe Russia is great again.
63:48
MASHA GESSEN – So he starts increasing military spending.
63:55
First it’s not extraordinary.
63:56
Now it’s quite extraordinary, the amount of money that Russia has been spending on
64:01
the military.
64:03
But he’s certainly interested in military reform.
64:07
A lot of people believe that he has militarized the Russian power establishment.
64:11
There are some counterarguments against that, but I mean, he loves his generals, and he
64:18
loves talking about how he’s bringing the military back.
64:23
He’s also investing money in ways of waging hybrid warfare, and an excuse to test some
64:34
of that presents itself.
64:36
Really, it’s just—it’s even hard to call it—it’s a pretext.
64:41
In the spring of 2007, Estonia moves a monument to
64:55
a Russian soldier, right?
64:58
When the Soviet Union occupied Eastern and Central Europe in 1945, it erected monuments
65:13
to the liberation of those countries, in the centers of every capital of those occupied
65:21
countries.
65:23
Now, some countries have chosen to look the other way, like Austria, which still has a
65:28
giant monument to its liberation by the Soviet soldiers in central Vienna.
65:38
But for some countries, it was much more problematic.
65:40
And for Estonia, which had been not only under Soviet occupation for half a century, but
65:49
really based its post-Soviet identity on the idea of occupation, right, to have that monument
65:59
in the center of town was really problematic.
66:03
It also became a focal point for both Estonian nationalists who would deface the monument
66:13
and [for] pro-Russian gatherings.
66:19
Estonia has a huge ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population of non-citizens.
66:25
So this was—it was a problem in town.
66:32
They decided to solve this problem by moving the monument to a military cemetery.
66:36
The monument included 12 graves, so they moved the monument to a military cemetery, and Russia
66:45
really could have reacted in any number of ways, but Russia reacted with outrage.
66:49
Now, another thing that Putin had been doing is he had been creating these youth movements
66:52
sort of semi-vigilante, military in style if not—though not armed, basically para-armies
67:07
of young people to support the Kremlin.
67:11
So they are unleashed on the Estonian Embassy in Moscow.
67:16
The Estonian Embassy is essentially occupied for three days, and these so-called activists
67:25
demand that the Estonian ambassador go home.
67:30
The ambassador finally went home officially on vacation, but they said, “OK, our job
67:35
is done,” and left.
67:36
But at the same time—and Estonia is the most technologically advanced country in the
67:45
world.
67:47
Its entire government is electronic.
67:49
It’s the first country to offer e-citizenship.
67:53
Everything is on a chip.
67:54
You get stopped for a traffic violation or you go see a doctor, you use the same ID card
67:59
with a chip in it.
68:00
And all of a sudden, the entire Estonian system of government goes down because of pretty
68:08
primitive but enormous DDoS attack, [Distributed] Denial of Service attack launched on Estonia.
68:18
At the time, Russia denies that it’s involved.
68:20
Two years later, the leader of one of those youth movements says, “Yeah, it was an army
68:25
of volunteer hackers who unleashed that war.”
68:31
But it really shows Estonia who’s boss, because Estonia may be the most technologically
68:38
advanced country in the world, and it may have built a great democracy, but it’s just
68:40
1.2 million people, and you unleash 1.2 million hackers on them, and they can’t stand up to
68:49
it.
68:50
MICHAEL KIRK – How much of this and the Orange and Rose Revolution responses by Russia are
68:58
manifestations of Putin’s temper?
69:00
MASHA GESSEN – I think it’s both his temper and his perception of the world as essentially
69:08
hostile.
69:09
He personally perceives the world as essentially hostile, not just hostile to Russia, but hostile
69:18
to him, hostile to people he loves, just a really dangerous place.
69:27
So every time something happens, it’s probably a sign of danger, and the revolutions in both
69:35
Georgia and Ukraine were signs of danger.
69:39
In fact, in 2004 Ukraine had an election.
69:44
The election was very clearly rigged.
69:46
People started protesting in the streets, and eventually the Supreme Court, the Ukrainian
69:51
Supreme Court, ruled that—invalidated the results of the election and called for a third
69:57
runoff election to set things right.
70:00
Now, there were a couple of things that, for Putin, I think, were indications of danger.
70:05
One is— there’s an obvious one—which is that an independent judiciary is really dangerous
70:11
for a leader who relies on the rigged elections.
70:14
But again, people in the streets is a really frightening sight to Putin.
70:21
People in the streets can make all sorts of things happen, so instead of sort of watching
70:25
it and thinking, oh, we don’t have an independent judiciary, so people can come out in the streets
70:30
and then go right back home, because they can’t set in motion any mechanisms, because
70:37
he’d long since reversed judicial reform in Russia, which didn’t get very far in
70:41
the first place, instead he sees people in the streets wreaking havoc.
70:46
But he’s also convinced that people don’t just come out into the streets.
70:51
They have to be driven by somebody.
70:53
There has to be a puppet master.
70:55
Somebody’s funding them, and it’s probably the United States.
71:00
That’s actually when he started creating these youth armies.
71:07
There’s a wonderful Australian scholar named Robert Horvath who calls it “Putin’s preventive
71:11
counterrevolution.”
71:14
He launched a counterrevolution in his own country without waiting for a revolution to
71:18
happen, but he was terrified of a revolution like the one in Ukraine or the one in Georgia.
71:24
The one in Ukraine is known as the Orange Revolution, and the one in Georgia is known
71:27
as the Rose Revolution.
71:29
Nothing like that would ever happen in Russia, because there was already an army of young
71:33
people in place to basically to fight the protesters in the streets if they should come
71:37
out into the streets.
71:39
MICHAEL KIRK – By the time Obama comes in—we’re talking about the reset—[Dmitry] Medvedev
71:47
is in.
71:49
Is it an obvious fiction—was it an obvious fiction to you what it was going to be, or
71:57
is it an irrelevant fiction?
71:58
He [Putin] is still the most powerful guy in the country no matter what?
72:01
I know to Obama and Hillary, it seems like they—and we’ve talked to lots of people
72:07
who are around them—they really had high hopes that it was a true reset moment.
72:13
MASHA GESSEN – … I think at this point I can probably say it.
72:22
I was able to observe a little bit of that policymaking, and part of it was this idea,
72:30
this cynical and I think overconfident idea that if the United States empowered Medvedev,
72:38
then he would become the actual president.
72:43
I think that there were certainly intelligent people in the State Department at the time
72:48
who knew perfectly well that it was a fiction, and the basic understanding in the State Department
72:53
was that yes, it’s a fiction, but maybe we can make it real.
72:58
MICHAEL KIRK – So what did you witness?
73:01
What did you see?
73:02
What can you talk about?
73:07
MASHA GESSEN – I witnessed some of those, sort of the policymaking, and the idea—I
73:15
mean, everybody on the team, on the Russia team, I think in the State Department, did
73:21
realize that Medvedev was a fiction; he was a placeholder.
73:26
But there was a hope that sometimes these things take on a life of their own.
73:32
They really do.
73:33
I don’t think it’s—it’s not a crazy idea.
73:36
In fact, Putin was very much that kind of phenomenon as well, right?
73:41
He was sort of a fake accidental president, and then he was a real one.
73:47
I think that what they underestimated hugely was just how entrenched the clan system that
73:56
Putin had put in place was by 2008 when he put Medvedev in that chair as a placeholder.
74:08
I think that’s best described as a mafia state, which is a term invented by a Hungarian
74:15
scholar named Bálint Magyar, who actually makes a very strong argument that it’s important
74:21
to understand that it’s not crony capitalism or a kleptocracy; it’s a mafia state.
74:27
It’s administered by a patriarch, and power is distributed by the patriarch, just as money
74:32
is distributed by the patriarch.
74:34
Putin was still the patriarch.
74:35
It doesn’t matter what title he had.
74:38
I think they also didn’t realize, and I didn’t realize this until probably a couple
74:42
of years into the so-called Medvedev administration, that Medvedev just had absolutely no resources.
74:51
He had a couple of people working for him, a press secretary and an assistant, and like
74:56
one other guy.
74:58
Everything was concentrated around Putin.
75:01
At the same time, Medvedev had—legally, he had the right to fire Putin.
75:07
The president can fire the prime minister.
75:09
MICHAEL KIRK – But he’s not going to do that.
75:13
MASHA GESSEN – Well, one could hope that he would do that.
75:16
Then it’s very hard to sort of to discuss a counterfactual.
75:21
Like if the United States had not gone for the reset, would it have worked any better?
75:29
I don’t know.
75:31
I think that the fact that the reset came after the war in Georgia, and the war in Georgia
75:43
was technically fought under the Medvedev administration, and to sort of come to Russia
75:52
and say, “We’re willing to write it off, you know, write off the annexation of a third—of
75:59
a neighboring country,” it’s deeply immoral.
76:07
It also so happens that it was completely ineffective.
76:11
So the U.S. sacrificed some of its key foreign policy principles for nothing.
76:20
MICHAEL KIRK – It seems like it all falls apart, really falls apart starting with the
76:29
Arab Spring, from [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak to [Libya’s Muammar al-]Qaddafi and the
76:37
vote Medvedev makes.
76:42
But when do you think it—what was the tipping point in that sort of false presidential moment?
76:49
What happens?
76:51
MASHA GESSEN – The false presidential moment?
76:53
MICHAEL KIRK – Well, it makes Putin reassert himself actually and say, “I’m going back
76:57
in.”
76:58
MASHA GESSEN – Oh, I think he was always planning to go back.
77:00
MICHAEL KIRK – No matter what?
77:02
MASHA GESSEN – Yeah, I don’t think that he ever considered the possibility of not
77:09
running for election again.
77:11
If he did, it was more of a possibility of changing the constitution to make it basically
77:17
a parliamentary republic.
77:18
MICHAEL KIRK – And then he’d have it anyway.
77:20
MASHA GESSEN – And then he’d have all the power legally.
77:22
There was no way he was going to stay in a legally less powerful position for more than
77:30
four years.
77:32
The fact that the first thing that Medvedev did when he came into office was change the
77:36
constitution to extend the presidency to six years indicates that, from the very beginning,
77:42
the plan was for Putin to then come back in for six years.
77:46
Then it was, you know, it was done right away, and it wasn’t being done for Medvedev’s
77:52
benefit.
77:53
MICHAEL KIRK – When the people hit the streets in the midst of the announcement that he’s
78:01
coming back, and Hillary says, the statement she says around the election, the unfairness
78:08
of the election, and Putin reacts so negatively, negatively enough that, whether it’s a pretext
78:16
or not, he seems to remember it, a lot of people are saying it’s a motivation for
78:20
the attack in 2016.
78:22
How do you read what was happening with the people on the street?
78:26
Here we are again, people on the street, Putin; it’s becoming a familiar pattern.
78:31
But how do you read that, Hillary’s statement and the effect it had on Putin?
78:37
What did that look like from Putin’s perspective?
78:39
MASHA GESSEN – Well, so from Putin’s perspective, I mean by 2011-2012, he has completely lost
78:49
the ability to distinguish himself from his regime, his regime from the country—from
78:55
the state, and the state from the country.
78:57
When he sees people coming out into the streets to protest him and his regime, he sees them
79:05
protesting Russia itself.
79:07
I think that’s a sincere view of the world.
79:11
He knows what’s best for Russia.
79:13
They want to destroy Russia.
79:15
If they want to destroy Russia, then obviously they’re not Russians.
79:19
So they must be—their puppet master—and he’s always been convinced that there are
79:24
puppet masters behind any protest—but their puppet master has to be whoever is opposed
79:30
to Russia.
79:31
Well, obviously, what’s the only thing that’s powerful enough to oppose Russia and to incite
79:42
these protests?
79:43
It has to be the U.S. State Department, because it would be insulting to think that it was
79:46
anything else, anything less than that.
79:50
And Hillary is the secretary of state, so obviously it’s her fault, personally.
79:56
MICHAEL KIRK – Let’s address Sochi, Crimea, Ukraine, all in a kind of moment, if you can.
80:06
What does Sochi mean?
80:09
It’s been going on since late November, early December [2014], down in Ukraine.
80:12
I don’t really need to know the details since I know about [Ukrainian President Viktor]
80:17
Yanukovych and all the rest.
80:19
But it’s to Putin this glorious moment.
80:22
This other thing is happening.
80:24
He hates it for all the reasons you’ve just articulated, and he’s got a kind of plan,
80:28
I guess, to go after Crimea and then down into Ukraine, using his new hybrid forces,
80:34
I suppose.
80:35
MASHA GESSEN – I think that by 2014, really military buildup has become his number one
80:43
priority, and there are a few reasons for this.
80:46
One is that he loves the military.
80:49
He sees it as Russia’s ultimate greatness.
80:51
But the other thing is that he has to become a mobilizational leader.
80:57
The bargain that he had with the population, which is basically exchanging sort of a sense
81:08
of overwhelming prosperity that he was giving them for unlimited power that they were giving
81:14
him, that’s not working anymore, because the Russian economy is becoming stagnant.
81:20
Oil prices haven’t started dropping yet, but because of corruption and because of the overreliance
81:27
on extractive economy, the economic growth has basically slowed to a crawl by 2013, by
81:37
the end of 2013.
81:41
He still has to throw this big party, which he’s been planning for many years.
81:45
He went to Guatemala City personally to lobby for the Olympics.
81:51
Not only that, he gave a speech in English, which he’d never done before.
81:55
I think it was—or was it French?
81:58
Anyway, it was a language that he doesn’t usually use.
82:05
So he has been planning for this great moment.
82:10
And the Olympics—remember, the last Olympics in Russia were the Moscow Olympics in 1980,
82:19
which were supposed to also be a symbol of greatness, and turned into something entirely
82:24
different because the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics over the invasion of Afghanistan.
82:31
So it’s also partly taking revenge for that humiliation of 1980.
82:40
All of that is on one pile.
82:41
And then in the fall of 2013, it turns out that a lot of Western countries aren’t sending
82:51
their luminaries, the first—I think it was the president of Germany [Joachim Gauck] who
82:59
said he wasn’t coming, then Belgium, then someone else.
83:03
Then finally Obama announces his delegation, which doesn’t include an elected official.
83:14
The highest placed official that it includes is a deputy assistant secretary of state,
83:18
which is just an insult.
83:20
And, to add more insult, there are two openly gay former Olympians in the delegation.
83:29
This is about a year and a half into Putin’s anti-gay campaign, because the way that he
83:34
ended up dealing with the protesters was by queer-baiting them and by sort of focusing
83:40
Russia’s ire on the LGBT population.
83:44
There are no good photo ops in Sochi.
83:48
It’s basically, instead of a party, it’s a disaster.
83:52
At the last minute, Putin tried to clean up his act by releasing [Mikhail] Khodorkovsy,
83:57
the former oligarch, who had been a political prisoner for 10 years; releasing the members
84:02
of Pussy Riot, who had been in jail for nearly two years; releasing the 30—I think [thirty]
84:08
two members of Greenpeace who were in a ship that Russia had hijacked in neutral waters,
84:15
in international waters in September, a ship flying the Dutch flag.
84:22
So they release all of those people.
84:24
But it’s too late to save Sochi.
84:27
That adds more resentment to his feelings around Sochi.
84:32
Meanwhile, Ukraine, which is not just Russia’s closest neighbor but very much sort of the
84:39
country that Russia identifies with, and really, really identifies with, right—I mean, Russians
84:44
of all kinds look at Ukraine to understand their own country, and Putin is no exception.
84:50
In Ukraine, there have been these protests going on for now several months, and it’s
84:56
because Ukrainians want a closer association with Western Europe rather than [with] Russia.
85:06
He interprets those protests as anti-Russian.
85:10
But they’ve thrown the country into absolute turmoil.
85:14
Now, so all of that is in place.
85:16
And his military buildup is in place.
85:19
I don’t think it’s a matter of having plans for the Crimea in place.
85:23
It’s a matter of having plans for everything in place.
85:27
It’s like Chekhov’s gun hanging on the wall, except that they have a plan for invading
85:32
every country on the wall, right?
85:35
That’s what a lot of the investment of the military has been, is making plans for how
85:39
are we going to fight this war and this other war?
85:41
How are we going to re-annex parts of Finland, and how are we going to re-annex the Baltic
85:48
states and Moldova and Ukraine?
85:51
So here is the moment to take Crimea.
85:55
And it’s clear, from the way that the Crimean operation was carried out, that it was indeed
86:00
a well-planned operation.
86:01
It was carried out on the spur of the moment when he saw the opportunity, but the plans
86:07
for the operation had long since been designed.
86:13
It was just a matter of implementation.
86:16
Then there are a lot of people around him who want to go further, who want to go into
86:22
Ukraine, and he has nothing to lose by going into Ukraine—not that he actually thinks
86:27
about his losses.
86:28
He’s a brilliant opportunist and not a planner.
86:32
Actually, Sochi is a perfect example of how little he plans.
86:36
Usually, the Olympics aren’t very often held in dictatorships, and dictatorships usually
86:43
clean up their act a year or two before the Olympics, and then do things like arrest all
86:49
the political dissidents and reinstate the death penalty like China did the day after
86:54
the Olympics ends.
86:55
But not Russia.
86:56
Russia didn’t clean up its act because Putin is not a planner, right?
86:59
Putin realized that he had to do something six weeks before the actual Olympics and released
87:04
everybody, but it was too late.
87:05
It’s not like he’s looking ahead to what’s going to happen if he invades Ukraine.
87:10
He invades Ukraine because he can, and because it’s good for mobilization, and it’s worked
87:17
really well for him.
87:19
If you look at his popularity curve, it goes up vertically again, just like it did in September-October
87:30
1999, when he promised to hunt down the terrorists.
87:33
It goes up vertically again, just as the economic expectations curve goes down.
87:45
You never actually see that in a normal country.
87:48
You never see a leader whose popularity is up and holding while people’s subjective
87:54
economic well-being is down, drops down precipitously and holds.
88:02
Sociologists will tell you that those lines have to meet.
88:05
In fact, they have to cross in opposite direction.
88:08
But that doesn’t happen in Russia.
88:12
And I think the reason it doesn’t happen in Russia is because ultimately, Russia has
88:17
reverted to this state of mobilization identification with the state.
88:24
He has delivered what he promised, which is to bring back to people the feeling of identifying
88:30
with something great.
88:31
MICHAEL KIRK – And when they’re hammered with sanctions, does that diminish him in some
88:41
way?
88:42
Does it diminish him with his people?
88:43
MASHA GESSEN – Well, did something really interesting with the sanctions.
88:51
The U.S. and the European Union and Australia and I think a couple other countries introduced
88:57
sanctions, which were designed to—they were based on a ridiculous premise that comes from
89:14
a basic misunderstanding of the way that Russia works, that if they squeezed him economically
89:22
a little bit, his popularity would suffer, people would protest, and then he would have
89:33
to change his behavior.
89:34
First of all, Putin had been power, by that point, for 15 years.
89:44
He had never shown an ability to change course.
89:49
He had never shown that he reacts to pressure with anything but aggression.
89:55
But also, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how his dialog with his people was working.
90:01
By this time, he had cracked down in the wake of the protests, so Russia was two years into
90:06
a full-fledged political crackdown.
90:09
It’s not like he was worried about feedback, and it’s not like protests were a real option.
90:18
But they also clearly weren’t looking at how much more popular he had become because
90:23
of the invasion.
90:26
So sanctions—I’m not opposed to sanctions.
90:29
I just think that sanctions should be based on moral considerations and values, not on
90:35
the idea that they could squeeze him into changing his behavior.
90:40
But after sanctions went into effect, Putin did something extraordinary, which is he made
90:45
the sanctions worse.
90:47
He introduced countersanctions, banned the import of food products from all the countries
90:57
that had joined the sanctions, with the exception of Switzerland.
91:04
That actually was a huge blow to the Russian economy, but especially to sort of individual
91:11
economy, because at the time, nearly all Russian food was imported, partly because it’s an
91:19
extractive economy.
91:20
The ruble had been very strong for many years.
91:23
There was no reason for Russians to make their own food.
91:27
They were importing it.
91:31
The saner rationale for those countersanctions was to jumpstart Russian food production,
91:38
but of course, that’s not how it works, right?
91:42
Prices went through the roof.
91:44
People really felt the squeeze.
91:46
But that actually made the sense of being at war stronger.
91:49
Even though people suffered, Putin’s popularity didn’t suffer, and it still hasn’t suffered.
91:58
The reason that he hates the sanctions is not because they put the squeeze on the Russian
92:03
economy.
92:04
He is concerned about a different set of sanctions.
92:08
He’s concerned about personal sanctions against that—that really make things difficult
92:15
for him and his friends who are banned from entry to this country, who are banned from
92:20
having assets in this country, and who are essentially banned from doing any business
92:25
involving U.S. currency, which really hampers their style.
92:30
MICHAEL KIRK – So let’s take ourselves to the summer of 2016.
92:37
Why does Vladimir Putin, really in 2015 and in the spring of 2016, initiate, unleash the
92:48
hounds if that’s what he did, decide to go in to, invade the presidential election
92:57
in the United States of America in 2016?
93:00
MASHA GESSEN – A couple of things.
93:02
One is that Russia has actually made a habit of being a disruptive force in Western elections
93:14
for a few years now.
93:15
It didn’t begin with the American presidential election.
93:22
A better way to ask the question might be, why wouldn’t Russia try to meddle in American
93:28
elections when it’s made a habit of meddling in democratic elections?
93:32
Now, the reasons for meddling in elections are obvious, and I would actually begin with
93:40
psychological reasons rather than strategic reasons.
93:43
The psychological reason is that Putin is really and truly convinced, and the people
93:48
around him are really and truly convinced, that democracy is an unsound way of running
93:52
things.
93:54
It is messy.
93:56
It is, as he saw with Bush and Gore, doesn’t run very well, and it also probably isn’t
94:06
as honest as everybody says, right?
94:10
In fact, when you ask a Russian official or a Russian patriot about rigged Russian elections,
94:21
they will always say, “You think your elections are so honest?”
94:24
That’s a sense of relief.
94:27
It’s not, you know, this bit of—it’s not hypocritical “What about-ism?”
94:30
It’s sincere “What about-ism?”
94:32
They’re really arguments that democratic elections are rigged.
94:34
Well, if their democratic elections are rigged, why wouldn’t you want a part of the rigging
94:40
if you have an interest in the outcome?
94:42
Of course Russia has an interest in the outcome of American elections.
94:47
It also has an even deeper interest in proving that democracy is as rotten as they say it
94:53
is.
94:55
To prove that democracy is as rotten as they say it is, it is good to help it along in
95:01
becoming more rotten.
95:05
The other thing is that I think in this country, we’ve come to imagine the Russian system
95:11
of meddling as a well-oiled machine or a well-commanded army.
95:21
That’s not what it is at all.
95:23
There are a lot of technically savvy and not so savvy people who want to get federal grants,
95:32
and the Kremlin throws a lot of money at organizations that will sell a good pitch of being able
95:42
to meddle in something or wreak some sort of havoc somewhere, where havoc ought to be
95:48
wreaked, right?
95:50
It’s not so much that Putin sends out an army of hackers; it’s that there are groups
95:55
of hackers who want to take the initiative of doing something really awesome, which is,
96:00
of course, how we get two different groups hacking the Democratic National Committee
96:06
at roughly the same time, without apparently being aware of each other.
96:09
MICHAEL KIRK – Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear.
96:12
MASHA GESSEN – Right, Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear.
96:17
The whole thing is self-perpetuating and messy in different sorts of ways.
96:23
But of course there’s also the element of his personal hatred for Hillary Clinton, and
96:27
it’s not just hate her.
96:28
I think it’s like Hillary Clinton was impossible as a U.S. president.
96:33
To imagine that he would have to deal with her as a senior partner, a woman—I mean,
96:38
he already has to deal with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel.
96:44
The lengths that he has gone to to assert his masculine dominance over Merkel is amazing.
96:52
He literally sicced dogs on her.
96:57
He has made indecent jokes in front of her, just to try to discomfort her.
97:07
He hates dealing with a strong woman, and one as president of the United States would
97:13
be just awful.
97:14
I don’t think he ever believed that he was going to be able to help get Trump into office.
97:19
I think in that sense, the people who prepared his briefs read all the same sources as we
97:28
do.
97:29
They were just as convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to win the American election as
97:35
The New York Times was convinced that she was going to win the American election.
97:41
MICHAEL KIRK – So in 2008 and other times, it was obviously espionage, and everybody
97:48
steals everything from everybody.
97:49
It’s when it’s activated through WikiLeaks and others that it changes into pure politics?
97:56
MASHA GESSEN – Well, that’s where it gets really—I mean, we don’t know, right?
98:05
I think that Julian Assange has his own megalomaniacal views of his role in the world.
98:16
He’s certainly alone against the entire world.
98:22
Who made the decision to release the products of the leaks at that particular time?
98:27
I think there’s actually every indication it was Assange.
98:31
How long had he been sitting on that material?
98:33
Did he get it on the eve of the leak, or months and months before?
98:38
We actually don’t know.
98:42
MICHAEL KIRK – One question in passing.
98:49
Nobody’s actually reached out and tried to stop Putin along this long narrative we’ve
98:55
been discussing, that we know of.
98:59
When Ukraine happens, we don’t fire back cyber stuff or close a bank.
99:04
99:05
With 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.
99:15
And, as you have articulated, it might have pissed him off, and off we go again further
99:20
and further along.
99:21
We get here, we know it.
99:22
[Then-Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper knows it.
99:25
Eventually the FBI knows it.
99:26
Certainly Obama knows it.
99:28
And there were certainly arguments: “We’ve got to push back here.
99:31
We’ve got to let him know.”
99:33
From what you know about Putin, and what you’ve been talking about this afternoon, how would
99:38
Putin have reacted if there would have been pushback?
99:41
MASHA GESSEN – Again, it’s very hard to argue a counterfactual, and I don’t think
99:49
that Putin’s reaction should be the consideration.
99:53
I think we have known for a very, very long time that Putin is dead set on a particular
99:59
course, and he’s going to pursue it.
100:01
When he gets very strong pushback, he steps back, and then he comes back again in the
100:06
exact same direction, doing the exact same thing.
100:11
The question should not be, what does Putin do?
100:14
Obviously it’s responsible to consider it, but it’s not terribly complicated to predict
100:20
what he is going to do.
100:21
The question should be, what are our values, and what do we do in accordance with our values
100:29
in this situation?
100:30
The sanctions, I think, are a very good example, right?
100:34
The sanctions, as a strategic move, are a failure, and a predictable failure.
100:40
The sanctions, as an expression of American values, wouldn’t have been a failure if
100:45
they had been framed and implemented that way, right?
100:48
It is wrong to do business with a dictator.
100:51
It is wrong to do business with a head of state or with a state that carries out the
100:55
first forcible annexation of land in Europe since World War II.
101:00
In accordance with those considerations, what does the United States do?
101:03
It probably introduces similar sanctions.
101:05
Doesn’t do it step by step the way it was done, because it is not gradually more and
101:13
more wrong to do business with that kind of state.
101:15
It is instantly wrong to do business with that kind of state.
101:18
So you introduce sanctions all at once, and perhaps in somewhat different areas, or perhaps
101:24
not.
101:25
But you don’t do it step by step, because the step-by-step process was intended to show
101:28
Putin that we mean business, and he has to stop.
101:31
Like hell he’s going to stop, right?
101:33
That’s not the kind of pushback that will make him stop.
101:37
You know, again, there’s also basic misunderstanding that he thinks that making life worse for
101:42
his people—I mean, we think that making life worse for Russians is going to make Putin
101:47
stop.
101:48
He has been making life worse for Russians for years, and it certainly hasn’t made
101:54
him stop.
101:56
MICHAEL KIRK – So what do you think Trump—what do you think Putin thinks of Trump?
102:04
102:05
MASHA GESSEN – Oh, he very clearly sees Trump as a buffoon.
102:10
Trump is, in some ways, the expression of everything that Putin disdains.
102:14
He disdains lack of control.
102:18
One thing that he also has cultivated as part of his image is his never betraying emotions.
102:25
That’s not true.
102:26
He actually betrays emotions quite a lot, but his idea of himself is somebody who has
102:33
a flat affect and purposefully never shows any emotions and is always calculated in everything
102:42
he does and says.
102:43
Also not true, but that’s how he thinks of himself.
102:46
Trump is the exact opposite of that.
102:49
I mean, I think that that kind of lack of control over his words and actions and emotions
102:58
and reactions makes Putin look down on him.
103:03
And I think, at this point, Putin feels also a little bit betrayed, because along with
103:09
much of the media establishment, and certainly much of Russian media, he has bought the idea
103:14
that he elected Trump.
103:16
He loves that idea.
103:17
He took a couple of victory laps after the election.
103:21
And now Trump hasn’t delivered.
103:26
In a way, Russia is worse off with Trump in office than it was with Obama in office.
103:33
MICHAEL KIRK – Because?
103:34
MASHA GESSEN – Sanctions remain in place.
103:36
There’s no sign that they will ever be removed.
103:38
Trump is less predictable.
103:40
Obama was always—you could basically easily predict that he was going to go for the least
103:45
engagement possible in any given situation.
103:48
It’s not true of Trump.
103:51
Trump liked firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria.
103:55
Trump loved dropping the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan.
103:58
It looks really good on television.
104:00
As Trump gets pushed into a corner, what is he going to do to make himself to look good
104:07
on television again?
104:09
Putin understands that kind of thinking very, very well.
104:14
As we speak, things are getting pretty rocky in Syria between Russia and the U.S.
104:22
I was just in Moscow recently, and Russian television is talking about how Trump hasn’t
104:30
sort of made good on his promises.
104:32
Russian television is also spending a lot of time on Syria, on how Russia is waging
104:38
a heroic war against ISIS and Syria, and American-backed terrorist forces are pushing back.
104:48
That’s the narrative.
104:50
America is backing terrorist forces in Syria, and Russia is waging war against them.
104:57
It’s hard to get Russians mobilized behind the Syrian effort.
105:02
It hasn’t been nearly as popular as Ukraine.
105:05
But it’s important to Putin personally.
105:08
And he will not step back from it.
105:10
MIKE WISER – So one of the questions is by 2016 election, there’s a lot of talk of Russian
105:18
botnets, propaganda, influence on social media.
105:22
How does that happen?
105:28
Going back to 2011 and 2012, the Russian government, what does Putin see when, at that point, it’s
105:34
Facebook and social media seem to be driving protests, change and the Arab Spring?
105:40
Is there a moment where they’re reconsidering tactics, are realizing the power and the danger
105:46
of social media after 2012?
105:49
MASHA GESSEN – I wouldn’t overemphasize it.
105:53
I was just talking recently to Adrian Chen, who did that wonderful story on the Russian
105:59
troll factory, and he said, “If I had known that the intelligence agencies were going
106:04
to use my article so prominently in their report, I would have emphasized how incompetent
106:10
they are.”
106:12
It’s not all that we imagine it to be.
106:18
They did catch onto social media.
106:19
They caught onto social media late, and not every agency has even figured out that social
106:27
media exists.
106:28
When the political crackdown began, they didn’t employ social media at all in their investigations.
106:35
They would go through people’s printed out photographs and handwritten notes to try to
106:43
figure out context.
106:44
They never went online to try to figure out how to crack down on people’s actual networks.
106:50
So it’s—they have a lot of money to throw around.
106:54
They are interested in increasing their electronic influence around the world.
107:00
This is true.
107:01
And there are some companies that are enterprising in sort of absorbing that money and doing
107:06
stuff for that money, and they have no scruples about what they do.
107:10
But to imagine it as a concerted effort and as sort of an all-out war on Western democracy
107:16
through high-tech means gives them a little bit too much credit.
107:20
MIKE WISER – But does he change his approach even inside Russia after those protests?
107:26
How does Putin change once he sees all those people in the street?
107:29
MASHA GESSEN – Oh, well, no, what changed when he saw people in the streets was actually
107:34
much more conventional.
107:36
They started arresting people.
107:38
They changed the laws.
107:40
They changed the laws to enable them to prosecute anybody for perceived violations of public
107:49
assembly laws.
107:50
So it used to be that—I mean, the laws were very restrictive in the first place, right?
107:58
You had to get a permit to hold a demonstration, and on that permit you had to indicate how
108:04
many people were coming to the demonstration, and if the number of people who came to the
108:07
demonstration exceeded the number of people on the permit, then you went to jail for 15
108:13
days.
108:14
But that still only hit the organizers of these protests, right?
108:18
So that’s what happened, for example, after the first protest, the first large protest.
108:22
People had a permit for 300 people because that’s how many people used to show up,
108:27
and 10,000 people showed up.
108:29
So the people whose names were on the permit application went to jail for 15 days for all
108:36
those people who showed up.
108:37
What they did, when Putin cracked down, is they changed those laws to be able to prosecute
108:43
anybody who participated in the protests for violations.
108:49
That is a basic instrument of state terror.
108:54
You have to create the mechanism of random prosecutions, because by definition, you can’t
109:00
apply a law like that uniformly.
109:04
If 50,000 people come to a protest, you can’t arrest 50,000 people.
109:10
You can only arrest some of them.
109:11
You certainly can’t send 50,000 people without reinstating the Gulag.
109:15
You can’t send 50,000 people to prison colonies, put them through the courts, etc., etc., so
109:19
you have to pick out a few to make the threat credible to the many.
109:23
But they can’t be the leaders, right?
109:26
They have to be ordinary people.
109:28
So they did that.
109:30
And they prosecuted—at this point, the number of people who have been prosecuted in connection
109:33
with the 2012 protests is over 30, and most of them have gone to jail for three or four
109:40
years.
109:41
These are just ordinary people, right, going to jail for peaceful protests.
109:47
They’re picked out at random, and they’re picked out at random times.
109:50
It can be two years after the protest.
109:52
They say, “We found videotape of you beating up an officer,” and then that person is
109:59
picked up.
110:00
So that’s one thing they did.
110:01
Another thing they did is the “foreign agents law,” which creates unbearable burdens for
110:12
functioning of any NGO [nongovernmental organization] that receives foreign funding.
110:17
Basically they’ve decimated civil society through doing this, and they’ve prosecuted
110:22
a lot of people from various organizations for failing to register as foreign agents.
110:31
They’ve paralyzed the work of many organizations, basically, with these prosecutions.
110:37
Let me just finish.
110:41
The third thing they did is the anti-gay campaign.
110:44
The anti-gay campaign is, it’s much more of a sort of standard scapegoating campaign.
110:51
But queer is a perfect stand-in for everything that Putin perceives the protesters to be.
110:56
They’re foreign; they’re other; they are something that didn’t exist in the Soviet Union.
111:01
We’ve only had queers since the Soviet Union collapsed.
111:06
They’re a stand-in for everything Western and everything imported.
111:12
And it gets traction with sort of this desire to return to an imaginary past with the traditional
111:18
values, whatever they were.
111:20
That’s also unleashed a lot of violence on people who are perceived to be gay.
111:26
So that channels a lot of the violent impulses in the population.
111:31
MIKE WISER – So what does Putin want now?
111:35
He started wanting respect from Bush.
111:37
But where are we at this point?
111:38
What’s his approach to the West?
111:40
MASHA GESSEN – Oh, he still wants the same thing.
111:42
He still wants a bipolar world.
111:45
The Syria story is actually a perfect example of how this unfolded.
111:49
You know, Putin’s happiest moment came in September 2013, when he hijacked Syria.
111:55
If you recall, Obama said there was a red line, and then he couldn’t get congressional
112:02
support for intervention in Syria.
112:04
Then he decided not to do it without congressional support, and he basically was losing face.
112:11
Putin stepped in and allowed him to save face and said that he was going to negotiate a
112:19
chemical disarmament with [Bashar al-]Assad.
112:22
He wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, which the Times published, that was just perfect
112:30
Soviet use of American rhetoric against the United States, calling out the U.S. for its
112:39
willingness to violate international law.
112:41
I mean, this is the man who annexed huge chunks of neighboring countries.
112:50
So that was—he was on top of the world then.
112:54
And then, a year later, suddenly he is an international pariah.
112:59
Nobody comes to his party.
113:03
He’s under sanctions.
113:05
I mean, Ukraine, he could have anticipated that there would be a strong reaction.
113:09
But the anti-gay campaign, he certainly never anticipated that there would be an international
113:14
outrage over it.
113:16
So he comes back to the U.S. for the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, Sept. 20,
113:21
2015, with a proposal.
113:28
He spoke at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and he basically articulated his
113:31
proposal.
113:32
His proposal was that a new international coalition, an anti-ISIS coalition modeled
113:38
after the anti-Hitler coalition should be formed.
113:45
What he means is, because the Soviet Union was part of the anti-Hitler coalition, the
113:51
Soviet Union got to be a superpower and got to have Eastern Europe.
113:58
He wants the same thing.
114:01
He wants to enter into this coalition with the United States and get to be a superpower
114:05
again, and also take parts of the world that he wants, which is not necessarily former
114:11
Soviet territories, but certainly what he’s already taken and some more.
114:15
Obama didn’t even meet with him.
114:19
He was completely snubbed.
114:24
He went back to Moscow humiliated, untended to.
114:32
Russia started bombing Syria a week later, and has been ever since.
114:36
The war, Russia’s participation in the war in Syria, is basically an attempt to blackmail
114:44
the United States into giving Russia its superpower status back.
114:49
JIM GILMORE – I think you missed the back in September of 2004, Beslan and what it represented,
114:57
and why it was important to understand about what was going on there.
115:11
MASHA GESSEN – Beslan was, if you could imagine, an even more shocking terrorist attack than
115:17
the explosions that killed people in their sleep.
115:19
That was Beslan, the siege of a school in the south of Russia, where nearly 1,000 people
115:29
were taken hostage.
115:31
Then more than 300 people died, most of them children.
115:37
As we learned, thanks to an independent investigation carried out over the next couple years, the
115:46
deaths of those children were really the FSB’s doing, the federal troops’ fault.
115:55
They shelled the school at point-blank range.
116:00
They fired at it from tanks.
116:04
A lot of the children who burned alive because of a fire that raged, because the school was
116:13
shelled at point blank range.
116:19
I think that they were trying to do everything to maximize the number of casualties, to maximize
116:23
the shock effect.
116:24
It’s also possible that they were just so inhumane that they would just do it without
116:33
even having that goal in mind.
116:37
But Putin used Beslan as a pretext for canceling gubernatorial elections.
116:46
He framed it as an antiterrorism measure.
116:52
It was a cynical move, because clearly his very detailed decree in canceling gubernatorial
116:57
elections had been prepared before Beslan happened.
117:03
But at the same time, it also expresses, I think, his basic belief that anything democratic
117:10
is always messy, and the way to respond to extreme violence and to extreme disorder is
117:17
to create more dictatorial powers.
117:20
MICHAEL KIRK – So now my last question, which is, are we at war?
117:25
Is he at war with us?
117:27
MASHA GESSEN – He is.
117:30
Putin has portrayed and the Kremlin-controlled Russian media have portrayed both the wars
117:36
in Ukraine and the wars here as proxy wars against the United States.
117:41
Russia does not perceive itself as being at war with Ukraine.
117:47
It perceives itself as being at war with the United States by proxy of Ukraine.
117:53
And it certainly doesn’t perceive itself as being at war with ISIS, even though it
117:58
says that it’s firing at ISIS fighters.
118:01
It perceives itself as being at war with forces that are backed by the United States in Syria.
118:09
They’re quite open about it, on television.
118:14
It would be beneath Russia’s station to go to war with Syria or to go to war with
118:19
Ukraine.
118:20
Only the United States is big enough to go to war against, and only the United States
118:24
is grand enough to mobilize people enough to have the kind of popularity that Putin
118:32
has come to depend upon. …

Idle Words: The Siege of Carrie Lam

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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