Foreign Interference and Russia 2016 Election Special.
Max Bergmann is a senior fellow and director of the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on European security and Russia policy. Previously he served in the U.S. Department of State where he focused on political-military affairs, arms control and international security. He was also speechwriter to Secretary of State John Kerry. A graduate of the London School of Economics, Max joined Misha Zelinsky to discuss foreign interference in democracy, what the Mueller Report uncovered about the US 2016 election, whether the Congress should impeach the President, how Russia interfered in the Brexit referendum, and how democracies can fight back against hostile actors.
Misha Zelinsky: So, Max, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?
Max Bergmann: Good, how are you?
Misha Zelinsky: I’m well, and we are obviously doing this by the miracle of the internet. I think it’s about the end of the day in DC and the start of the day here in Australia, so welcome to the show.
Max Bergmann: Thanks so much for having me.
Misha Zelinsky: And so, I was thinking about the best place to start. Now your background is foreign interference. You have a background in the US State Department and you’re working in foreign interference at the Center for American Progress. I suppose firstly, before we get into the specifics, why does foreign interference matter at all? Why would we at all be concerned about this?
Max Bergmann: Well, I think it matters even more now than it has in the past and it’s partly because of how our politics work now. It’s how people get their information, how the Internet has transformed people’s lives, has made, I think modern societies particularly vulnerable to foreign interference in a way that wasn’t really the case, I think, in previous eras, at least not to the same degree. Partly because, now, it’s very easy to reach people to connect with people, to influence different segments of the population and so, the way foreign governments are interfering, I think is particularly important because for our Democratic politics, both in Australia and the United States and everywhere there’s a democratic country, it’s important that that be an internal conversation. It’s always going to be influenced in some ways by the broader world, by broader dynamics, but when you start having foreign governments saying, “We are going to deliberately get involved and find a way to tip the balance, put our thumb on the scale in a particular direction,” where you start undermining the very legitimacy of democratic politics. And the way we live now with this modern network society, it’s increasingly easy and available to foreign countries to try to put their thumb on the scale.
Max Bergmann: And so, I think it’s a particularly pernicious threat to open societies, to open liberal democratic countries where our openness is our big great advantage and what these foreign governments are trying to do is really undermine that and take advantage of it. And so I think it’s a real worry, it’s a real threat and a real concern and something that all democratic societies now really have to pay attention to.
Misha Zelinsky: And, of course, the most famous example, there are other examples we could get into, the most famous example that’s been debated lately is the 2016 US presidential election and the interference of the Russians there. Before we get into the Mueller report and the political dimensions of all this, what do we know specifically? What are the uncontested facts in this space?
Max Bergmann: Well, so there’s a lot, actually of uncontested facts and Mueller’s 400+ page report I think, most of that, almost all of that, is largely uncontested. But I think when it comes to the foreign interference dimension, in particular, now I think the way the Mueller report has been interpreted, I think, particularly outside of America and abroad is, well it didn’t quite have the smoking gun to nail Trump. I don’t actually think that’s quite true, but the more important part of the Mueller report for foreign countries, for foreign democracies, is the first 50 some odd pages where he outlines a Russian conspiracy against the United States. We forget that Mueller has brought all these criminal charges and what Mueller effectively identifies in Volume I, in the first 50 pages, are two distinct Russian lines of effort to influence American politics. And they’re quite successful in 2016.
Max Bergmann: And that first line of effort was to social media, through the creation of the Internet Research Agency. This is sort of a pseudo-private oligarch funded operation in St. Petersburg. And what does it do? It was trying to influence American, the political discussion on social media, facebook, on Twitter, this is where we hear about the troll farms, the bots, which are automated accounts. And what the Russians effectively figured out is how to game the American debate, how to game the social media companies by, if you amplify content, if everyone’s retweeting the same thing, if you create automated bots that is all retweeting racist content, some of that racist content gets amplified. Lots of people then look at it. He gets promoted. And so that was one major line of effort. Where the Russians were trying to interfere both to sow discord in American politics, basically amplify our racial divisions, amplify aspects of American political debate that they wanted to promote, and then the other aspect was to simply promote Donald Trump. There were a lot of Russian accounts that were promoting Donald Trump. And this was not a Mickey Mouse sized operation. It had roughly 80 people devoted just to the United States, just to the 2016 election with a multimillion dollar budget.
Max Bergmann: Now if you look at the Clinton campaign’s digital operation, this is the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, she had roughly 80 people devoted to digital. So you see what is, in effect, a Russian online campaign, digital campaign, devoted to influencing American politics. And probably, it’s not going to be as effective as the Clinton digital campaign, but, on the other hand, this is the campaign, on the Russian side, willing to say things that normal political campaigns wouldn’t do, push certain messages, attack candidates in ways that people that were had to be true to who they were, had to represent themselves wouldn’t say.
Max Bergmann: And so the second line of effort, so the first line is the social media campaign that Mueller outlined. The second line of effort is the hacking. Now this is basic intelligence operations. A Russian military intelligence unit within the Russian GRU that was devoted, not to hacking the State Department or hacking a diplomat’s phone, but to hacking an actual political campaign. And hacking the personal email accounts of John Podesta, who is the cofounder of Center for American Progress, who I should disclose the place that I work at, but also, penetrating the Democratic Party, which they were able to successfully do.
Max Bergmann: When we think about political campaigns, political campaigns, especially in the American context, are basically like small start up companies that suddenly balloon overnight and have all these young twentysomethings working for them. And so they are quite actually easy in some ways to penetrate or should be. Actually, the Clinton campaign took cybersecurity incredibly seriously. So the Clinton campaign actually wasn’t breached. It was a personal email account of Podesta and it was the Democratic Party. But so the Russians broke in, stole tens of thousands of emails from both the Democratic Party and from John Podesta. And not only that, they also stole a lot of stuff, like their field operations research, basically their battle plans for the campaign, and we don’t know what they did with that. We know that they release the emails into different waves through Wikileaks, which was an online transparency organization that felt no bones about releasing content that was given to them by Russian intel and release that right before the Democratic convention in July, which was the first release. And then the second release, which came in October was sort of the October surprise of the election.
Max Bergmann: And so it had a huge impact on the race, in a race that was so close there is no doubt that when you look at the impact of both those lines of effort, it definitely swung the election, tilted the election in Donald Trump’s favor. So that’s in the Mueller report and I think it’s something that all countries, that all democratic societies should look at those, especially the first 50 pages, to learn about, hey, if this could happen in the United States, how could this also happen here in our country?
Misha Zelinsky: And I suppose I should apologize on behalf of the Australian people for the role that Julian Assange played in Wikileaks. We won’t get into that too much, but that was a really good run down of the 400 page report and a two-year investigation, but I think you’re right. One of the things that’s fascinating to me is that, you’re right, the question of the smoking gun that if Mueller wasn’t able to find a recording between Vladimir Putin and either Donald Trump himself or someone in the Trump organization, campaign, that this was all going to be a farce of an investigation, that it wasn’t going to be that… One of the things that I think would be good for you to unpack would be all the people in the Trump campaign, that worked on the campaign, that have since been indicted and arrested and charged, and in some cases, imprisoned. So if you could give us some idea, a quick rundown of the rap sheet, I think that would be interesting.
Max Bergmann: Yeah, no sure. The Mueller investigation was probably the most successful special counsel investigation that we’ve ever had in the United States. And the report that he produced is the most damning thing ever written, most damaging official document ever written about a President of the United States. And as you mentioned, the Mueller investigation has led to guilty pleas of Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; his deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates; his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen; his first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn; as well as a Foreign Policy Advisor, a guy name George Papadopoulos. It has produced a tremendous amount of indictments and charges also against Russians and Russian affiliated individuals. So this was an investigation that found a lot of lawbreaking, found a lot of crime.
Max Bergmann: I think when it comes to Donald Trump, what we see here is, in fact, a classic counterintelligence investigation, that what Mueller found was a lot of smoking guns. What he didn’t find was Donald Trump pulling the trigger. When we think about famous, if we go back to the Cold War era or post-Cold War era, where the US was busting a lot of Russian or KGB agents that were embedded in the CIA, the FBI, we have the famous Aldrich Ames case and the famous Robert Hanson case, what happened in both of those, the FBI caught them at the dead drop. They got them in the act of committing this crime. In this case, Mueller was only appointed to investigate a year after the election almost and what seems pretty clear is the FBI was very slow on the uptake in terms of Russian interference during the actual election. Some of this was actually the fault of the Obama administration not being super focused on the threat of Russian interference at the time. It caught everyone off guard. And so that gave people a lot of time to delete messages, to delete emails, to erase things on their phone and coordinate stories.
Max Bergmann: So what we see in the Volume II of the Mueller report is the crime, is the crime that implicates the President of the United States, his obstruction of justice. And we have the famous story here in the US of Al Capone who was this famous mobster during the prohibition era in the 1920s and how did Al Capone go down? Well, of tax evasion. No one says that Al Capone wasn’t this famed mobster, he was avoiding taxes because he was this famed mobster. But it was the tax evasion that got him. And I think what we see here is Robert Mueller, the reason why there’s 198 pages of Volume I devoted to Trump’s Russian contacts, the Russian contacts with Donald Trump in the Trump campaign with Russia is because Mueller was describing a story, a story of something that Donald Trump wanted to hide, wanted to conceal, wanted to obstruct from the investigators that were looking into it.
Max Bergmann: And I think in some cases Donald Trump was successful. But there’s also a lot of smoking guns. Maybe I’ll just run through them quickly. One, they have the campaign chairman, Paul Manafort meeting with someone who the FBI believes is a Russian intelligence agent. But it’s not only the FBI, it’s also Paul Manafort and his deputy, also believe this individual Konstantin Kilimnik is connected to Russian intelligence. And they meet with him on August 2 in the midst of this campaign. Throughout the election, they’re sharing polling data, internal polling data from the campaign. This is sort of the crown jewels of the Trump campaign. This is confidential information about how their polling numbers, the messages they’re looking to push, and they also shared the campaign battle plan, the states they’re looking to focus on. And they’re sharing it with Konstantin Kilimnik, who they know is sharing it with Oleg Deripaska, Who is this Putin connected oligarch who’s been sanctioned by the United States. And why to they want it shared with Deripaska? I think it’s fairly clear that they knew Deripaska was sharing that with the Kremlin more broadly.
Max Bergmann: So we have a very unique chain of events to Russian intel from the trunk campaign to Russian intel with very few actors in between. Now Mueller identified all that. His problem was Paul Manafort was a cooperating witness, decided to not cooperate about why he was providing that information to Konstantin Kilimnik. And so Mueller withdrew the cooperation agreement, Manafort’s now going to jail for a very long time and the question is why did Manafort not want to disclose that information? And I think the conclusion is pretty clear. It’s because he was sharing that information with the intent that it was going to get to the Russian government.
Max Bergmann: Now there’s other examples of Donald Trump’s advanced knowledge and awareness of the WikiLeaks releases. In fact, not only that, instructing his campaign to establish a back channel to WikiLeaks knowing that WikiLeaks was getting the content for the releases from Russian intel. And why did they know that? And this is the other bombshell, because the Trump campaign was told about it. The Trump campaign was informed by this Maltese professor, Joseph Mifsud, in London that the Russians had “dirt on Hillary Clinton” that they had thousands of emails. And this was in April and May before it was known to the world.
Max Bergmann: So what we see are all these sort of… this awareness on the part of the Trump campaign about what the Russians were doing, this willingness to share internal Trump campaign data and information that would be very useful to the Russian campaign that they were running, that I mentioned earlier. And so Trump’s awareness of this crime, Russia was doing and his willingness to say go out, collude, connect, meet with the Russians. The Trump campaign effectively ran toward the crime. And that’s what Mueller outlines.
Max Bergmann: Now he says, I wasn’t able to find any tangible agreement, tacit or expressed, that could amount to a conspiracy between the Russian efforts and the Trump efforts, but he did find a lot of collusion and then he found a lot of obstruction of justice in the Volume II.
Misha Zelinsky: And so, I’m keen to turn to, I suppose, where this goes from here. But just going back a step, you talk about, you outlined a very concerning and alarming series of facts, the concerning part, I think, is some of this was known. The Obama administration certainly knew. The FBI had some concerns. Why was there no red flag going up before the election? Why was this, in effect, sat on and we didn’t hear about it until after the fact?
Max Bergmann: So I think there’s a few reasons and it’s a great question. I think, one, I think everyone was just caught off guard. We’re the United States of America, no one messes with our internal democratic politics. It’s just not a threat that we expected or anticipated, partly because we can deter foreign actors from doing that by the very nature of us being the world’s largest superpower. And so I think there was a little bit of just lack of imagination that occurs in every major intelligence failure, whether it’s 9/11, whether it’s Pearl Harbor, of just not anticipating how a foreign actor would actually go about attacking you.
Max Bergmann: When the DNC, the Democratic Party was hacked, and it became known on June 14, 2016, it was actually reported in the Washington Post that day, the initial response from US government or thought process was that, well, this is happened before. It’s not unusual for foreign countries to want to hack a political party, political campaign. Barack Obama’s campaign was hacked by the Chinese in 2008. Lots of Washington think tanks are hacked all the time by China, by Russia. And so it was sort of viewed as this was traditional intelligence gathering, this wasn’t about influencing events, it was about, you know that the Russians wanted to know where the Clinton campaign may be going or where the Democratic Party may be going on certain issues. You could very quickly scratch the surface there and say, well that didn’t quite add up based on what they were doing. I think that was the basic sense at the time.
Max Bergmann: That all changed on July 22 when the Russians, through WikiLeaks, release the DNC emails right before the Democratic convention. This was a huge deal. This resulted in the resignation of the head of the Democratic party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, at the time, it left a massive rift between the Clinton and Bernie supporters. And so suddenly, at that moment, there is a realization in the US government that they have a problem.
Max Bergmann: After this point where the FBI, who had sort of been slow on the uptake of conducting counterintelligence investigation gets information from a good Australian diplomat in London who had actually had drinks with George Papadopoulos in early May where Papadopoulos who’s a foreign policy advisor to Trump, told him that the Russians had this dirt and were going to release it. This information is passed to the FBI. The FBI opens a counterintelligence investigation. But then what we see… Donald Trump’s stance during the election was problematic. Because he was saying, dismissing the notion that Russia was involved, it meant that if President Obama got involved and said the Russians were doing this, they were worried it would be seen as partisan, they were worried it would be seen as tipping the scale on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
Max Bergmann: And so what we saw, in September and October, was the Obama White House going to the Republicans in Congress, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who were the two leaders in Congress, and saying, “Hey, let’s issue a bipartisan statement.” And both of them turned it down and said no. We think this would be partisan. And so what we saw was actually a breakdown, I think, it wasn’t just a failing on the Obama administration, it was also a failure on behalf of the Republican Party. We have political parties to act as guardrails for our democracy and here was a Republican Party failing to step up.
Max Bergmann: Now that being said, there’s no doubt that the Obama administration’s response was way too weak, was way too timid. They should have gone out and spoke out more loudly than they did. When they did try to speak out, well, there was two things that happened. One, they tried to pick up the red phone and tell the Russians, the red phone was used during the Cold War to avert a nuclear crisis, this was actually picked up where John Brennan, the head of the CIA, told his counterpart, “Cut it out. We know you’re doing this.” And Obama told Putin at the G 20 summit, I believe in China.
Max Bergmann: The second thing that happened was they decided to go public. On October 7 about noon, this was a Friday they released from the head of the Department of Homeland Security the head of the director of national intelligence, a statement about Russian interference. Then a few hours later the biggest bombshell of the election happens, which is Trump’s Access Hollywood tape comes out and this is where Donald Trump is basically bragging about committing sexual assault on a hot mic. And then 29 minutes after that tape is released, we have this good Australian, Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks, releasing at 4:32 PM on the Friday on October 7, the John Podesta emails. And so, suddenly announcing to the public that yes, Russia was doing this just got completely buried in the news cycle and no one paid any attention.
Max Bergmann: So I think what we have is a failure of imagination, slow in how to respond and how to react, being hamstrung by Republicans, and finally acting and then it getting consumed in the broader news environment. So that’s a pretty long answer to the simple question, but I think anyone in the Obama administration who says they would do it exactly the same as they did it is lying. I think everyone looks back, and also has the assumption… The last thing I should say is everyone assumed she was going to win. So it’s easier not to do something. It’s always easier not to act than to act, especially when you could say well she’s going to win it.
Misha Zelinsky: They certainly weren’t alone in predicting that Hillary was going to win. I was certainly on board with that prediction as well. So I think… Thank you for that really concise answer.
Misha Zelinsky: So I suppose she sort of touched on a bit of the politics. I think it’s a good time, because this has now become political but first there is a National Security element discuss, but there’s a political dimension to this.
Misha Zelinsky: The Mueller report itself has become politicized. So I’m curious of your take, the Republicans are effectively now saying through the Attorney General William bar put out a summary of the report, effectively saying that case closed. The president is saying he’s exonerated. Some Democrats think it’s time to move on. Is it time to move on from this in your opinion?
Max Bergmann: No. As you and your listeners could probably tell, I’m fairly committed to this topic. No, I think it’s the exact opposite. I think the last few months of inaction on the Democratic side of the house, the stonewalling from the White House, have been a real disservice. I think there’s a real need to act. I think what’s broadly happened here is, to step back for a minute, the last two years the Democrats were in kind of a tough spot actually. They were wanting to let the process play out, not prejudge an ongoing criminal investigation. Now Donald Trump was not doing that. Donald Trump was working the rest. Donald Trump was basically running, for the last two years a campaign against being impeached. He was telling the American people there’s nothing there, this is all a hoax, no collusion, no collusion, no collusion. I didn’t do this. I didn’t do this. And so he sent a very clear message while the Democrats’ message has been where basically protect the Mueller investigation, wait for Mueller, which isn’t really a clear message.
Max Bergmann: And I think that continued after the Mueller report where what you now have is, I think a Democratic Party that wasn’t prepared for the Mueller report to be as damaging as it was. And so, partly because of that, they’ve also had to view this through a more political lens of is this a smart political step to move forward with impeachment because, perhaps if we move forward on impeachment, then Donald Trump will be able to say that we’re just obsessed with impeaching him and the public will view us as not really focused on their interest but focused on just getting a Donald Trump.
Max Bergmann: I don’t really view it that way. I think that what this is… That impeachment is bad, that being impeached is bad. It’s not something anyone wants. It’s fairly simple and that if the Democrats in the house move forward on impeachment, that will send a real signal to the public that Donald Trump’s actions have been unacceptable. I think they’re walking… There’s all these other competing domestic political issues as well, but I think that’s the basic thrust here is that it is important for House Democrats to hold Donald Trump accountable for the action that’s outlined in the Mueller report, because failure to do so, I think essentially means that what the Mueller report then will become is, that sort of a new guide, it’s a new precedent for how you can actually collude with the foreign intelligence service in running a political campaign and get away with it. And I think that’s a terrible precedent to set, especially getting into a 2020 election cycle.
Misha Zelinsky: So what about the facts. Not to make the arguments for the House Democrats, because you’re certainly more plugged into the Democratic Party than I could hope to be, but the argument seems to be, yes the House could impeach Donald Trump now that there’s a majority since the midterms. Then the Republican Senate would likely exonerate, given the way that you require a super majority to remove a president and the Senate to find him guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. So is that a relevant point? Do you think that’s relevant? And would that make the case for exoneration greater?
Max Bergmann: No, I think that’s a very relevant point. And that’s the argument that House Democrats are making saying that this is a symbolic exercise. Here’s the thing, is that every piece of live legislation that Democrats in the House are passing as well is a symbolic exercise because there’s this roadblock called Mitch McConnell who runs the Senate and is the Republican leader and is not going to pass any legislation that goes forward and actually impeaching… My counterargument would be, look, Republicans in the Senate have been like frightened turtles over the last two years. They haven’t wanted to talk about this. It has been something that they are very glad not to have to be confronted with. The problem, I think… I think that if Democrats were to move forward and actually impeach and then move it forward to the Senate and there would be a trial in the Senate. That has happened very rarely in American history. Bill Clinton, it happened in 1999. Richard Nixon, we never got to that point because he resigned. And then it happened in 1866, I believe, with Andrew Johnson, after Abraham Lincoln.
Max Bergmann: So this would send, I think, a big signal to the country. It would be treated very seriously in the press. And then you’d be forcing Republicans in the Senate to stand up and to defend the actions and conduct as outlined in the Mueller report. And I think where it makes sense for me to do this is I think you’ll actually get some Republicans to join forces with Democrats. No I don’t think you’re going to get the two thirds majority to remove Donald Trump, but I think you could see a real strong bipartisan rebuke. And that will also be very useful for a Democratic candidate opposing Donald Trump in 2020 that can then run on the argument that Donald Trump is, in fact, a criminal and should be going to jail. That strikes me as a strong argument to make in 2020.
Max Bergmann: And if you get the 2020, and it doesn’t poll well, you can always just run on other issues. But, to me, the conduct outlined in the Mueller report just cannot stand, and I think the political calculation here, the political machinations don’t make a lot of sense to me, number one. Number two, even if they did, I think there’s a duty on the part of members that took an oath to uphold our Constitution to act. We’re not a parliamentary system. We only have one way to remove a leader and that is through the impeachment process And the impeachment process-
Misha Zelinsky: As an Australian, mate, I should probably say that removing leaders is not without its problems, but sorry not to cut you off.
Max Bergmann: That is a good flag. On the other hand, not removing leaders that are hugely problematic, having to sit out and wait for four years, is also a problem. And the designers of our Constitution back in 1770s, 1780s, put this in there for a reason. And they put it in there for a guy like Donald Trump who is basically used corrupt means to gain the office, who has committed high crimes and misdemeanors while in office in the obstruction of office. So if you’re not going to use it now, then when? And I think not acting just sets an incredibly terrible precedent for the future of our democracy.
Misha Zelinsky: And so you talked about Watergate. The Clinton comparison, I mean I think it’s an interesting one given when you consider the relative conduct, I think it speaks for itself, but the Watergate ones more instructive because that was a Republican president in the end who while was not impeached, was removed because the Republicans Senate abandoned him or the Republican senators. Do you have any confidence that that’s the case given where the Republican Party is at now? And is it not relevant political calculus? You’ve talked about some may be coming over, but is that enough, really, in the…
Max Bergmann: So the Nixon example, I think is one that we… in America’s not been totally internalized. It’s viewed through this, All the President’s Men movie with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman where, aha, Woodward and Bernstein got it and then Nixon resigned fairly quickly. But it was a two-year process. It was very similar. It was the slow burn of information that came out. It wasn’t until the very end that political support for Nixon collapsed. Nixon’s approval ratings had gone down throughout the process and Watergate helped push them down, but Republicans actually stood by his side up until the very end. And suddenly the dam broke and it broke completely and Nixon saw that there was no future. And so I think the… Here’s what I would tell the Democrats in the modern age is that you don’t know unless you try. You don’t know unless you push forward.
Max Bergmann: And why did Nixon’s support collapse? Because House Democrats were moving forward with an impeachment inquiry. It was the impeachment inquiry which then elicited new information, get more information out there, the tape broke, but it was that that was the forcing function that put pressure on Republicans to justify it. And the political results through the Democratic Party in the 1974 election, it was the biggest wave election, I think, in modern history where Democrats won by 17% and two thirds majority in the house. And then, the only Democrat to win in the period between 1968 and 1992 was Jimmy Carter in 1976. And why did he win? Partly on this backlash, this anti-Watergate backlash.
Max Bergmann: And so I think, if I were the Democrats, I would look at that example as the high-end. Nixon resigning essentially confirmed everything that everyone was saying about him. And then you’d look at the ’98, ’99 Clinton scandal. And what happened in ’98 was Republicans lost five seats in the house. This wasn’t this huge backlash against Republicans for pushing it, for pushing impeachment. And then George W. Bush won in 2000 based off of basically restoring honor and integrity back to the White House. He ran against Bill Clinton’s image.
Max Bergmann: If the Clinton case is the backlash example of pursuing an unjustified impeachment process and it only, the backlash is that minimal, losing five seats, having George W. Bush sneak through in the controversial election in 2000, okay. And then you look at the 1974 and if that’s the high-end, where we are, at the very least, with the Mueller investigation, why I think it’s a bigger scandal than Watergate, the political dynamics are different. We’re much more in the Watergate space than we are in the Clinton space. And I think if Democrats push this and pursued it and actually made this a big political issue, I think it would bear political fruit for them, but they’re very reticent to do so.
Max Bergmann: And I think there’s a number of reasons for that that go beyond there’s a larger psychology here. Democrats don’t like to run a scandal. While the Republicans, their whole, what drives them when they run political campaigns is to search for political scandal, for Clinton emails, for some sort of Obama-ish scandal that they could make a big deal out of. The Democrats like to talk about policy and are very wonky in some ways lovable and sort of boring in that sense. And that’s, I think, really hurting them here.
Misha Zelinsky: That’s an interesting point. The progressives don’t tend to dial up the outrage on those types of things, they like to make it about the issues. We’re often outraged about the issues but it’s a really valid point. The 2020 election is anyone talking about this to your mind? We just had the debates, do you think this is getting enough air time because there’s been significantly a pivot to perhaps the issues health education, etc. Do you think that this is getting enough air time or are the candidates still mind waiting to see what that House does and see if there’s a tailwind there?
Max Bergmann: Well actually the Democratic political candidates have led on this. I think Elizabeth Warren, in particular, was the first major political figure to come out in favor of impeachment. She was then followed by a number of other Democratic presidential candidates. And most of the top-tier candidates have all come out calling for Donald Trump to be impeached and for the House to move to an impeachment inquiry. So I think they’ve actually led. The debates that occurred, I was sort of surprised that there weren’t more questions related to impeachment. There was one on the first night, not on the second, in that this hasn’t played a bigger role in the questioning.
Max Bergmann: Some of that is because it’s a lot of the folks agree internally, but I am a little surprised it’s hasn’t been a bigger issue. I think it’s now been a few months since the Mueller report has dropped. It shows that how if you don’t react and if there’s no outrage, the outrage will decline over time, people’s attention spans are short especially with Donald Trump in the White House and there’s a scandal every 15 minutes. But we’re about to have a big thing happen in a couple weeks where Robert Mueller is going to testify, or is scheduled to testify, and I think that’s going to put this back into the news. I think it’s going to put more pressure on House Democrats. And what we’ve been seeing is this trickle of more and more House Democrats are coming out for impeachment. So the numbers are sort of ticking up and I think the big question is…
Max Bergmann: August is sort of this mythical month actually in American politics where there’s no news, boring eras, like the 1990s, August will be dominated by news of shark attacks and other things. But it’s also a month that because it’s a limited new cycle there’s not much happening that one issue could sort of dominate and perhaps the one issue to dominate might be Russia, and I think that’s one of the big, the Russian investigation. In 2009, it was the Tea Party movement sort of developed then. Two years ago it was Charlottesville. It was Donald Trump’s racism dominated. So we’ll see what sort of drives the news in August. And if it drives the news, this investigation drives the news, I think you could see House members coming back from that long recess, having been home speaking to their constituents, and say okay, I can’t look my constituents in the eye and not move forward on this. We’ll see.
Misha Zelinsky: You’re right, I think Mueller testifying will be interesting because in his report, as I understand it, he’s effectively said, you can’t indict a sitting president and the mechanism for that as you pointed out is an impeachment through the Constitution. So that case might come out and that evidence as well.
Misha Zelinsky: We talked a lot about US, there are obviously other democracies in the world and quite a bit of interference, particularly in the European context. What sort of work are you doing looking at the level of Russian interference or foreign interference in the European elections or particularly in the Brexit election? How concerning is that, given that you talked about driving to those schisms that exist within societies?
Max Bergmann: Been doing a significant amount of work looking into those. I think one of the things that when we think about, at least in the Russian case, Russian interference, is that they look to exploit the gaps that our domestic politics make available to them. In the United States there’s lots of gaps in terms of the financing of campaigns of money… And the Russians were able to identify those gaps. I think in the Brexit case, for example, we see a lot of the same similarities. So a lot of the things happening in the United States were happening in the UK.
Max Bergmann: I think one of the things that’s most troubling about Brexit is that while we’ve had this two-year long investigation and discussion and focus on Russian interference that has resulted in the Mueller report, and the one thing the United States can firmly say is we know Russia interfered in the 2016 election. The one thing that you still cannot say about Brexit, or at least that is not accepted in UK politics, I think you can say it, but is not accepted as conventional wisdom in UK politics is that Russia interfered in the Brexit Referendum. And to me, there’s very little doubt that that occurred. And you just have to look at the way Aaron Banks, who is the main financier of one of the Leave campaigns, what we see is exactly the same thing that was happening with Donald Trump. Almost exactly at the same time.
Max Bergmann: Donald Trump was being offered this Trump Tower in Moscow, this too good to be true business deal and at the same time he was then running for office in which, and Donald Trump was using his pro-Russian statements throughout the campaign as a way to advance his business deal that involved working with the Russian bank, involved coordinating with the Kremlin. And we see the same thing with Aaron Banks, where he essentially he’s being offered this too good to be true deal to take to run the merger of these gold mines in Russia, something that would be well beyond his depths. It would be incredibly lucrative. He’s having meetings with the UK and the Russian ambassador with in the UK. He’s in talks with a Russian bank and so you see very similar, a lot of similarities. You also see the Russian online social media arm, the Internet Research Agency didn’t just start operating in 2016. It started years before that. And Brexit would be something that the Russians would have definitely worked to promote. There’s a lot of digital, computer scientists that have looked at the Brexit referendum and have seen the same sorts of social media activity in the UK during that period that we saw in the United States.
Max Bergmann: But the UK has not conducted a similar sort of investigation. And when they have, when the Parliament did, it found a lot of there there, referred Aaron Banks to the National Crime Agency, the FBI equivalent, and it raised a lot of questions about some of the digital campaigns, one being digital companies, Cambridge Analytica, who worked on the Trump campaign who is now out of business because of the practices that it used. And so, I think that is a particularly worrying case of lack of actual energy and resolve on behalf of British authorities to actually protect their politics from Russian interference.
Misha Zelinsky: It would be a significant win for for Vladimir Putin and Russia to split apart the EU. That’s a foreign-policy aim of the Russian government.
Max Bergmann: Yeah, I think particularly, one of the things that occurred, I think, after 2014 is pre-2014, so pre the Ukraine crisis, the EU was seen in Russia as a second-tier thing. NATO was the major focus. But what the Ukraine, the Maidan Revolution was about, which then resulted in the collapse of the pro-Russian, pro-Kremlin government of Viktor Yanukovych, It was about whether Ukraine was going to have an economic agreement with the EU. And Russia was offering an economic agreement with Russia, the Eurasian union as they described it. And Yanukovych decided to go with Russia. It led to mass protests in the streets, which then an occupation of Maidan Square, which lasted for months. And so here was a revolution started, essentially by EU bureaucrats, not realizing, basically, how far they were going and offering Association agreements with the EU. And the power of the EU that countries like Georgia and Ukraine wanted to be part of the European Union. They looked at countries like Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia, their neighbors, that were part of the EU and said we want that.
Max Bergmann: And so, think after 2014, you see a particular Russian focus on how do we undermine the European Union. One of the ways, you cultivate and you build up and you amplify the far right leaders of Europe and seek exits, Brexit. Brexit would totally be in Russian interests, but then you also see it in France with Marine Le Pen. This is probably a much clearer example Marine Le Pen’s National Front party was funded by a Czech Russian bank, they got around €10 million to operate. There was lots of online social media support from Marine Le Pen’s campaign and attacks against Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 election. And then, of course, what did the Russians do? They also hacked Macron’s campaign and released the emails a la the same thing we saw in 2016. And Marine Le Pen was running on an anti-EU, anti-NATO, pro-Russian platform.
Max Bergmann: And we’re seeing it now in Italy with Matteo Salvini government where he’s potentially a recipient of millions of dollars from Russia, or at least his party is. And so the playbook is very straightforward. It’s the idea that you can corrupt politicians. And so why not corrupt Democratic politicians, especially those on the far right who, in fact, seem more corruptible than those on the left and seek to cultivate them and amplify them and try to promote their candidacies. It’s been particularly effective and I think it’s one thing that I think were seeing in Europe, one positive, is that there’s been a strong backlash actually against Brexit and so the EU seems, in some ways, more solid than it was a few years ago in 2016.
Misha Zelinsky: One of the things you talked about and I think is relevant to basically all these issues that were having with foreign interference is this question of openness versus closed systems. Up until now, the theory’s been that openness wins liberalism wins markets, tends to win, democracy wins. As you said, they’re driving, foreign interference creates schisms in society. They’re already pre-existing but the openness And messiness of democracy and the openness of the media, the openness of social media, in particular, seems to now being a tool used against liberal democracies in the West and Europe and other parts of the world. And so how do democracies guard against that, that openness, without losing a sense of self?
Max Bergmann: It’s a great question. I think it’s in some ways the question of our age. Now I think step one is to have a degree of confidence in the success of open systems. I think in some ways close systems are more afraid of us then we should be of them. There’s a reason why Vladimir Putin, in particular, is striking back at the West. It’s because he is incredibly nervous of a color revolution, of a liberal uprising happening within Russia. Why would that happen? It’s because Russian citizens decide they want to have more of a democratic society. They want to be more open, more like us. And so Putin needs to make, and I think China as well, democratic societies seem unattractive. And so, I think it’s one where we need to have a degree of confidence.
Max Bergmann: The second thing is, I think we need to be aware of this challenge, of this threat, of the fact that we done all this business, we need to pivot, reassess that after the 1990s we assumed that if we opened our economies and opened our societies to autocratic governments it would change them, and it wouldn’t change us. And, to a degree, we were right. It has changed autocratic societies, but it hasn’t changed them to the degree we thought it would. In this glide path to democratization, I think we have to reassess. And in some ways it’s also changed us. So it doesn’t meet that we need to close off an autocratic societies, but I think we need to be more guarded. We need to have a real focus on transparency within our democratic politics, really focus on our rules and legislation, foreign interference, foreign registration, other areas where how do we make sure that yes, we can have foreigners here in our society, but they can’t covertly influence our politics. So that remains, I think, a critical challenge.
Max Bergmann: I think the other larger aspect is that it means that we need to go back and look at our democratic allies and partners and value them much more and work together much more closely, look to have our economies of democratic societies linked together more closely. As opposed to having it be just generally open, we should focus on like-minded partners, democracies. And so, I think that is both a broader challenge in terms of… And also protecting ourselves in our political systems.
Max Bergmann: And the third component is that I think we do need to go on offense a bit more. There does need to be a bit more of pushing public diplomacy of competing more with autocratic states, particularly in areas like the Balkans and areas in Asia and Africa where authoritarian countries are moving in, offering lots of resources, working to corrupt those countries and turn them away from liberal democracy. And we need to counter that.
Misha Zelinsky: One of the other areas, and we talked a lot about safeguarding systems and making sure that the institutions themselves are safe, but I think one of the areas that we need to address as societies are the schisms that you’re seeing between rural and urban, between educated and uneducated, between the economic uplift that people are experiencing or not experiencing, these are relatively present in most advanced economies and advanced democratic societies. And I think there’s probably a need for us to address the schisms themselves. We can stop them from being exploited but the best way to stop them being exploited is to probably try to remove them as best we can. I’m sure you probably agree with that.
Max Bergmann: Yeah, no I think that’s dead on. And I think one of the ways that foreign interference works is that it can tap into discontented populations within society. And it’s particularly problematic when a large portion of your democratic population is extremely discontent. A lot of the discontent is over the different economic inequalities, economic setbacks that have occurred, divergence between urban and rural areas I think is particularly something we see very strongly here in the United States. We used to talk about red states, blue states, but now it’s really blue cities, red country. The dynamic is very clear. And so part of that is because, and part of the resentment of globalization that were seeing, resentment of liberalism is that from rural areas where economic growth in the United States has flat-lined over the last 20 years and, in particular, were particularly hard-hit by the great recession. Cities like Washington DC have thrived, actually in the past 20 years and have become super expensive, have become plugged into the global economy, to the global intellectual architecture, the hub of ideas that are flowing around the world. And I think there’s a resentment of that and a willingness on the part of large parts of the population to vote for anyone that will change the system, that will break the system.
Max Bergmann: So one immediate remedy for addressing foreign interference, and it’s complicated, but is to try to address that broader discontent. And if your public is not as discontent about the current situation, then democratic societies will thrive, you’ll create less space for foreign interference. And so I think that is a major focus, should be a major focus of policymakers. I think one good thing we’re seeing here in the Democratic political discussion is a lot of focus on that in a way that hasn’t actually occurred in modern memory.
Misha Zelinsky: I completely agree. Democracy needs to deliver. It’s not purely just of voting process of itself. They need to deliver for people. If it delivers for people than the rest takes care of itself. The one thing I was curious to take you on, we talked a lot about Russia. There’s been an enormous focus from the administration on the question of China and the use of Huawei potentially moving liberal democracies and the concerns about its links to the Chinese Communist Party and whether or not… It’s a company in Australia that’s been banned from joining the 5G network. Do you see perhaps… Is China the main game when it comes to interference? We talk about it a lot in Australia. It’s tended to dominate the discourse a little bit in the US, but from a public policy point of view, how do you see the threat posed by the use of Huawei and the use of Chinese interference?
Max Bergmann: I think it’s a really significant threat. I think it’s one where… Sometimes the Trump administration isn’t wrong. And the problem is we’re used to them just being wrong all the time that when they’re right it becomes a little bit… It can fall on deaf ears. But I think this is super problematic because if you control the broader telecommunications architecture of a democratic society and that’s being controlled by an autocratic government that has its own political designs and intentions, I think that the potential for abuse is huge. Now, we’ve worried in the past about Russians hacking into the communications links of sea cables under the sea, of satellites of intercepting all sorts of communication. And so if you basically allowed China to control your information technology backbone structure, I think you’re potentially exposing yourself, not just from a potential foreign interference, China’s potential ability to observe and monitor Australian society or whatever society they’re in, but in a national security contingency, in an event where there’s a conflict or if something were to happen, then you’re already compromised and how to combat that threat and challenge.
Max Bergmann: And so I think one thing for countries to assess, especially if you’re Australia, is what is the potential contingency like? What side would you want to be on, and I hope that would be, I think as we see the new sort of geopolitics of the day, it’s clear that the US and China are, I think, hopefully will always avoid conflict, but they’re going to be two competitors and I think the alliance between the US and Australia, and I saw this at the end of the Obama administration, has sadly actually come to supplant the special relationship with the UK and its importance. That’s partly because of the UK’s own actions of austerity, of Brexit, but it’s also because Australia’s now pivotal role in a pivotal region. It’s also Australia’s partnership throughout the years with the United States. And I think part of that is our democratic values that are so closely aligned. We speak the same language, we have similar forms of government, we’re democracies. And I hope, and I think that is something that… So if Australia when it’s making a geopolitical decision here, sees that as the trend line to be with the United States or to make a choice, I don’t think China’s the right bet.
Max Bergmann: Now it’s hard to make that case when we have Donald Trump in the White House, someone who, I think, is not quite an attractive figure and makes America, I think embarrasses the country a lot, but we are a democracy. We’ll have an election next year and hopefully, at least from my perspective that will pivot. I think having a Chinese company control something so vital is something to really be wary of.
Misha Zelinsky: You’ve ended on an uplifting message there. And as one of my famous clunky sort of segues, you managed to bring it back to the Australian American alliance So I can pivot out of that to say, the last question I ask every guest, foreign guests, who are the three Australians that you might reluctantly, perhaps there’s not enough of us, but that you would bring to a barbecue at Max Bergmann’s place? I should give you up the fact that you were desperately googling famous Australians so I’m curious to see who you came up with in the top three Google searches?
Max Bergmann: No, the problem is I got distracted. And I wasn’t really able to go through it. I think so… Famous Australians. Well I mean I think I would have to have dinner with the former Australian ambassador to the UK, Ambassador Downer, who met with Papadopoulos. So I think that’s a no-brainer given my role. I’m sort of friends with another Australian ambassador who used to be posted here in the United States who would also get me drunk quite frequently, but I won’t say his name because I don’t want to get him in trouble… So the famous Australian NBA player Bogarts would be one. And then, oh Tim Cahill of soccer, also played for the New York Red Bulls, who’s not my team, I’m a DC United supporter, but Tim Cahill seems like a great guy. So I think that’s, that’s three.
Misha Zelinsky: Alexander downer, Tim Cahill, and Chris Bogut at and an unnamed ambassador who would be bringing the booze, I assume. So that sounds like a good barbecue.
Max Bergmann: Yeah… Often times Americans are bad at dissecting American accents, often times from our movie stars were all be like that person’s not American? Or that person is not British? So I know there’s more Australians among us that should be brought to the dinner party.
Misha Zelinsky: Will there’s a whole heap of Australians that are actually New Zealanders that we claim, like Russell Crowe. So there’s a whole system in place where if you become famous your Australian, if you’re notorious you become a Kiwi right?
Max Bergmann: Yeah.
Misha Zelinsky: Anyway, look thank you so much for joining the show, Max, it’s been a pleasure. And thank you for your time.
Max Bergmann: Yeah, my pleasure, thanks for having me.