Despite ordering an "influence campaign" to help Donald Trump in last year's election, the Kremlin is scrambling to respond to a win it didn't expect, New Yorker editor David Remnick and staff writer Evan Osnos tell Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
Remnick, who lived and worked in Moscow from 1988 to 1992, and Osnos say Trump's victory has created unintended consequences for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"This was like a bank heist that, instead of blowing the doors off the safe, they blew the safe up entirely," Osnos says.
Remnick adds that Russia's state-controlled media, which was full of praise for Trump during the campaign, has changed its outlook of late: "We've now had a month of chaos, and they've decided to take much more of a wait-and-see attitude."
Osnos and Remnick collaborated with contributor Joshua Yaffa to report on Trump, Putin and the "new Cold War" for the current issue of The New Yorker. The title of their article, "Active Measures," is a reference to the type of intelligence operation in which the goal is to take active measures to influence events and undermine a rival power.
On why the White House's response to the DNC hacking was "muted"
Osnos: There was a robust, a really intense debate going on within the White House and the national security community about what the best response would be. In September the Obama White House went to Mitch McConnell and said, "Look, we believe that the Russians were involved and that they may be threatening the integrity of the vote," and they said, "We want to issue a bipartisan statement that would encourage state voting authorities to keep an extra eye on the security and integrity of the vote." Basically a bipartisan gesture, and Mitch McConnell, this is now public, he has said that he would regard that as a partisan gesture.
That was one of the reasons ... why the Obama White House was reluctant to go too far in being very public about this. There are people in Hillary Clinton's camp who, one of whom was quoted in our article, saying, "We look back and wonder why this was not" — in the words of this person — "a five-alarm fire in the White House."
On Russian TV news coverage of Trump and his administration
Remnick: I've been watching Russian TV a lot, which you can do really easily on YouTube. Initially, there was great celebration, enormous celebration. Champagne corks popping. People going on the air and saying, "Ding dong, the witch is dead," practically, and showing great enthusiasm for Trump because Trump, of course, has been incredibly complimentary of Putin, says much nicer things about Vladimir Putin than Barack Obama or anybody else.
But now, things are different. We've now had a month of chaos. We've had the Michael Flynn firing or resignation. Suddenly the order goes to Russian television, which is completely under Putin's control, "Enough about Trump. Enough compliments. Let's play it down. Let's take it easy."
On differing perceptions of the end of the Soviet Union
Remnick: What I witnessed was the dissolution of an empire, these 15 republics going each their own way, the end of Communist ideology and the rise of things like a free press and artistic freedom — and the rise of politics, actual politics, of competition of ideas and the filth and tumult that that all brings, and it was incredibly exciting.
I think most Westerners experienced it and many Russian intellectuals and people of the rising, the nascent, middle class and educated people in particular, and people in cities, they experienced it largely as a great passage forward in history. And we forget that even then ... a lot of people were made deeply anxious about this.
A Cold War, which had been fought for two generations, had been lost. This was experienced not as a triumph by so many, but also as an incredibly disorienting, humiliating passage of history in which the great empire had disintegrated. ... An economic depression came along that, for many people, was incredibly painful, like the '30s in the United States. ... A lot of people in Russia, exemplified by Putin, saw this as a crash followed by chaos, followed by poverty.
On Trump's calling the press the "enemy of the American people"
Remnick: It goes back to Robespierre. ["Enemy of the people"] is an ugly, ugly phrase. I don't know how self-aware Donald Trump is of that kind of phrase. I guarantee that Steve Bannon knows what "enemy of the people" means. Stalin used it to keep people terrified. If you were branded a vrag naroda, an "enemy of the people," you could guarantee that very soon there would be a knock in the middle of the night at your door and your fate would be horrific.
To hear that kind of language directed at the American press is an emergency. It's an emergency. It's not a political tactic, and if it's a political tactic, it's a horrific one and that needs to be resisted, not just by people like me who are editors or writers — but all of us. This is part of what distinguishes American democracy and it is untenable, immoral and anti-American.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the new Cold War is the subject of a new article in The New Yorker about what lay behind Russia's interference in the 2016 election and what lies ahead. The article is called "Active Measures," a reference to the type of intelligence operation in which the goal is to take active measures to influence events and undermine a rival power. My guests are two of the three authors of the article. David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker and was The Washington Post's Moscow correspondent for four years starting in 1988. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "Lenin's Tomb," about the last days of the Soviet Empire. Evan Osnos is a New Yorker staff writer who covers politics and foreign affairs. He formerly reported from China for the magazine. He won a National Book Award for his book "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth And Faith In The New China." David Remnick, Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Evan, let me ask you, what questions did you set out to answer in this article?
EVAN OSNOS: Well, for me, it started with a puzzle, which was that we had pretty clear evidence that there had been a Russian operation to hack the Democratic National Committee and the emails of people like John Podesta and other senior Democrats. But it was a strange set of facts, and it led to the obvious question, which was, why? Why would this happen now? Why was it - you know, truth is, look. Until recently, we weren't talking all that much about the U.S.-Russia relationship as something in the foreground of our foreign policy. It didn't feel to us as if we were in some sort of obviously hostile dynamic.
And yet all of a sudden, we have what is quite clearly a fairly dramatic interference into American democratic institutions and processes. And so I wanted to figure out, how did they get the capability and the ambition to do this. And I think answering that question would require some combination of both a sort of technical look into what actually happened - let's try to just sort of clarify as clearly and as lucidly as we can - and then also try to understand what was the strategic and the - almost the psychological rationale that brought Russia to the point of - of undertaking this operation.
GROSS: The impression I have from your article is that Russia wanted to create chaos during the American election. And they wanted to create a bad environment for President Hillary Clinton. They did not expect Donald Trump to become the president, and they were stunned when he won. And when he won, they didn't know what to do.
DAVID REMNICK: Well, I think that goes to your first question about what we found out. Well, a lot of this article is not just about the what, the what happened. It's the why. The why goes back a - fully a generation in politics and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union not as a liberation, not as the oncoming of freedom of the press and assembly and religion and all these things, and - and yippee, all the republics get to go their own way. That's not the way he experienced it at all.
This is a KGB agent who was in East Germany and experienced the end of the Soviet Union as the loss of empire, the way someone in the Ottoman Empire - a servant of the Ottoman Empire would have that kind of tragic sense of loss of empire. And who moved NATO - who helped to move NATO to the very borders of Russian territory? Bill Clinton. This was considered an incredible betrayal of trust between the old Soviet Union, Gorbachev and the American politics.
They feel - and I'm just talking about their motives and their psychology - they feel we shoved policy down their throat in terms of NATO, in terms of economic policy and all the rest. And the resentment is enormous. And if you flash forward 25 years, they saw Hillary Clinton as a - as a hawk, as a - an interventionist in foreign policy. And they thought that was bad for Russia. He thought that was bad for Russia, Putin. And so I think he, as all people in the Russian elite did, they assumed that - that Clinton would win. Who didn't? Very few. But they sought to undermine her, to destabilize her, to - you know, chip away at her reputation. They had no idea that the gift would come under the Christmas tree quite so elegantly wrapped.
GROSS: Well, do - do either of you know how the Russian - the Russian government, the Russian establishment, the Kremlin, is reacting to the fact that now they're dealing with President Donald Trump and a President Donald Trump who has lost his first national security adviser because of connections with Russia? You know, Michael Flynn was forced to resign officially because he lied to Mike Pence. But he lied to Mike Pence about his communications with Russia.
REMNICK: Well, Josh Yaffa reports from Moscow - and I've been watching Russian TV a lot, which you can do really easily on YouTube - that initially, that there was great celebration, enormous celebration, champagne corks popping, people going on the air and saying, you know, ding dong, the witch is dead, practically, and showing great enthusiasm for Trump because Trump, of course, has been incredibly complimentary of Putin, is - says much nicer things about Vladimir Putin than Barack Obama or anybody else. But now things are different. We've now had a month of chaos. We've had the Michael Flynn firing or resignation. Suddenly, the order goes to Russian television, which is completely under Putin's control, enough about Trump, enough compliments. Let's play it down. Let's take it easy. And you see the results every way...
GROSS: Wait. So let me stop you. So Putin gave the order, let's play it down? Let's play down...
GROSS: ...Trump's win. Let's not be so celebratory anymore?
GROSS: So you can see the...
REMNICK: And you see it every night now.
GROSS: ...Coverage changing now?
REMNICK: I watch it. I watch the news every day. I mean, that's how big a nerd I am. And - (laughter) - and the change in the last couple of weeks has been dramatic.
GROSS: Yeah. Give us an example of what it was and what it is now, in terms of how...
GROSS: ...Trump is being portrayed on the news on - Is this RT that you're watching?
REMNICK: No, no, no, I'm watching Russian television. RT is in English. I'm watching - I'm watching the main...
GROSS: Oh, you're watching the real thing. (Laughter).
REMNICK: Oh, yeah.
REMNICK: And - and so for example, there's a guy named Dmitry Kiselyov who has a show on Sunday evenings. He's incredibly talented, incredibly sarcastic and biting and perfectly reflects, tonally, that angrier side of Vladimir Putin. And during the campaign, and certainly in the weeks after the victory and during the period of the inauguration, you know, he called Obama a eunuch. He - he was so dismissive, this - 1 inch away from completely and utterly racist, had all kinds of excuses for Trump's misogyny and, you know, basically saying he's - you know, he's just a red-blooded American male.
And now you watch him, and it's much more muted. The order has come down. And you don't see this same sense of promise that Russian-American relations will be hunky-dory because Trump is going to be so cooperative. They have their eye on the fact that there's - there's chaos around this subject in the United States. And they've decided to take a wait-and - much more of a wait-and-see attitude.
OSNOS: I was going to say, I spoke to an analyst at one point, out of government, somebody who pays attention to the Russian security services. And he drew an analogy. He said, look. If - if this is in fact what we think it was, which was an intelligence operation of a very specific kind known as active measures and basically designed to interfere with the political workings in a foreign country, well, this was a little bit like a bank heist that instead of blowing the door off the safe and getting inside, they sort of inadvertently blew up the safe entirely. And...
OSNOS: ...Meaning that there's an element to this that - as David mentioned, nobody expected, frankly, that Donald Trump was going to win. And the best assessment on the American side is that the Russians didn't expect that either. And so they are now confronting what's known in the business as blowback and the possibility that this operation may have generated more antibodies in American politics, things that will eventually cause them more problems than it may have solved.
REMNICK: And Evan's reporting in particular - isn't it true, Evan, that the expectation of a Clinton win also influenced how the Obama White House reacted to this hack or didn't react to this hack...
REMNICK: ...In terms of policy and what they did?
OSNOS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the things that became clear over the course of this reporting is - was in answer to a simple question, which was if the United States and if the White House knew that this was happening, really, by the summer of 2016, why was it that the response was fairly muted? You know, why did the - why wasn't it until October, for instance, that the president came out and said that - that the Russians have interfered; they hacked the DNC and so on? And there was a robust, a really intense debate going on within the White House and the national security community about how the best - what the best response would be.
In September, the Obama White House went to Mitch McConnell and said, look, we believe that the - that the Russians were involved and that they may be threatening the integrity of the vote. And they said, we want to issue a bipartisan statement that would encourage state voting authorities to keep an extra eye on the security and integrity of the vote, basically a bipartisan gesture. And Mitch McConnell - this is now public - he has said that he would regard that as a partisan gesture.
And that was one of the reasons, also, why the Obama White House was reluctant to go too far in being very public about this. But there are people in Hillary Clinton's camp who - one of whom was quoted in our article saying, you know, that we look back and wonder why this was not, in the words of this person, a five-alarm fire in the White House.
GROSS: So Evan, in your part of the investigation for this story, do you feel like you were able to find out anything new about the investigations into Russia's interference in our election or the connections between Trump's team and Russia? Was there any new information we hadn't heard you were able to get?
OSNOS: Well, one of the things that we discovered in the course of this reporting was that there is - been a sustained focus, both on the legislative side - both on the Hill, where they are mounting these multiple inquiries that will eventually yield some sort of hearings and probably closer scrutiny in the intelligence committee or in the Senate foreign relations committee, and then also on the executive side, so any investigative agencies. And they are all looking at, more or less, the same group of people - Paul Manafort, who was managing Donald Trump's campaign for several months in the summer of 2016, Carter Page, who was a foreign policy adviser with a longstanding relationship to Russia, and Roger Stone, who was an on-again-off-again adviser to Donald Trump.
But I want to say something very clearly, which is, it is - at this point, we do not know what level of contact there was, if any contact at all. And the - for obvious reasons, the intelligence community and the law enforcement community is being very careful about what is - what is getting out there, what is being talked about. But I spoke to Roger Stone. And I asked him whether he had heard from the FBI, whether he'd been approached at all by the government, by investigators. He said he has not. And he said he has no links with Russia. He says he has no idea where this originated.
So what we know at the moment, frankly, is that there is a lot of very confusing information that's being circulated on all sides. And just recently, for instance, you see a real divide among people who have reviewed the classified intelligence, who are coming to very different conclusions. Adam Schiff, who is the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, believes that we need a special prosecutor in order to really get to the bottom of this. But his counterpart, Devin Nunez, who is, after all, the chairman of the committee, says that from his understanding, there was no contact, as he put - no phone calls, as he put it.
But it's worth pointing out that they have yet to receive any documents from the investigative agencies. They have not called any hearings. They have not put anybody under oath. So at this point, I would say that the safest thing is to say we simply don't know, and that's why we need a full-fledged, robust investigation to get to the bottom of this.
GROSS: So I think we have to take a break here. So let me reintroduce you first. My guests are David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, and Evan Osnos, who's a staff writer covering politics and foreign affairs for the magazine. They, along with The New Yorker's Joshua Yaffa, collaborated on the new article "Active Measures: What Lay Behind Russia's Interference In The 2016 Election - And What Lies Ahead?" We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are two of the three writers behind the new article in The New Yorker, "Active Measures: What Lay Behind Russia's Interference In The 2016 Election - And What Lies Ahead?" My guests are David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker who has written extensively about Russia over the years and covered it for The Washington Post, and Evan Osnos, who used to be based in China and is now staff writer covering politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker.
David, you say in this new piece that Vladimir Putin's resentment of the West is rooted not in ideology but in his experience of the decline and fall of Russian power and pride. So can you explain what that sense of the loss of Russian power and pride is about?
REMNICK: Yeah. You know, I lived in Moscow from the beginning of 1988 until the very end of 1991. And what I witnessed was the dissolution of an empire, these 15 republics going each their own way, the end of communist ideology and the rise of things like a free press and artistic freedom and the rise of politics - actual politics of competition, of ideas and the kind of, you know, the filth and tumult that that all brings. And it was incredibly exciting. And I think most westerners experienced it. And many Russian intellectuals and people of the rising - the nascent middle class and educated people in particular and people in cities, they experienced it largely as a great passage forward in history.
And we forget that even then, even at that time, a lot of people were made deeply anxious about this. A Cold War, which had been fought for two generations, had been lost. This was experienced not as a triumph by so many, but also as an incredibly disorienting, humiliating passage of history in which the great empire had disintegrated.
And Vladimir Putin was not a liberal intellectual. He was somebody who volunteered for the KGB as a teenager, whose father was a badly, badly wounded veteran of the - what's called the Great Patriotic War, second world war in Russia. And he experienced that as a KGB officer who saw that Moscow had lost its grip not just on Warsaw and Budapest and Berlin, but also on Georgia and Azerbaijan and Armenia. And even within Russia there was talk of Russia itself breaking into smaller components. This is the drama he experienced.
And then in the '90s, he saw the Yeltsin government, under the name of Demokratiya - Demokratiya kind of fail on its promise in so many ways. And an economic depression came along that for many people was incredibly painful, like the '30s in the United States. So, again, a lot of people in Russia, exemplified by Putin, saw this as a crash followed by chaos, followed by poverty. And that's a very different view than most Americans see 1991 as.
GROSS: And you say that he substituted nationalism for the communism that no longer existed in the country. And he didn't need...
REMNICK: Well, something came in...
REMNICK: Something came in between.
REMNICK: That there was an attempt to have a kind of westernized democratic capitalism that, in many ways - this was exemplified by the Yeltsin government, especially early in the '90s - that failed. At least in the eyes of so many people, it failed. Now, I would argue that a lot of the economic reforms of the '90s, which certainly did fail in the '90s, came to fruition in the 21st century because it takes a lot of time. But there was also a lot of failure.
And Putin was blessed, you know, when he came to power in 2000 and eventually in 2003, 2004 not only by an increasing stability in society but also oil prices shot through the roof. And that benefited the Russian economy, especially the cities, especially people in the main industry, which is oil and gas. But it's proved illusory because the Russian economy, once oil and gas prices have declined, showed its weakness. And so eventually, Putin not only became more and more disenchanted with the West, he also decided that he needed an operating ideology.
And I don't know how sincere he is in this. But it's certainly - there's a greater sense of conservatism, that's what that anti-gay legislation was about, to put it in opposition to the libertine, you know, decadent West, and growing nationalism, patriotic pride. You go turn on Russian television any night, there's an enormous sense over and over of Russian-ness, of Russian pride, of patriotism in a way that there was not in the '90s.
GROSS: And you brought the church into this too, didn't he?
REMNICK: Absolutely did, the Russian Orthodox Church, which, of course, was persecuted throughout the communist period and was riddled with KGB spies to make sure that it was kept absolutely tame and under control, is now seen as a symbol of Russian statehood. Above all, Putin is what's called a (foreign language spoken), a man of the state. Russian statehood - he embodies Russian-ness.
So when Americans giggle at him doing the butterfly in the middle of a roaring river or strip to the waist on a horse or, you know, kind of like a James Bond villain, you know, in some sort of weird craft in the ocean, Russians see that as a kind of machismo version of Russian statehood. Here is our man. He speaks bluntly to the West. He doesn't take any guff from the West. He's not swallowing stuff the way Yeltsin did. He is standing up for us, for Russian-ness. And everything that we're doing to them is something that they've been doing to us for generations. So the title of our piece is called "Active Measures." This is not a one-way street. The United States has been fooling around in - it doesn't take propaganda to say this is true.
Yes, it's true that Russians have been involved in all sorts of Cold War missions, but so have we. We have given ample evidence to Russia and else and the world to show that in the past, the United States got involved in elections, got involved in regime change. And, you know, Iraq and Libya are only the most recent evidence of it. So as Ben Rhodes, a Obama administration official said to us, you know, we give him enough rope to hang us, in a certain sense.
He's not countenancing, in a moral sense, what Putin has been doing. But the picture is complex.
GROSS: My guests are David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker and Evan Osnos, who covers politics and foreign affairs for the magazine. Their new article about Trump, Putin and the new Cold War is in the current issue. After a break, we'll talk about the rise of Russia as a cyberthreat, Putin's relationship with the press and President Trump's description of the press as the enemy of the American people. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new Israeli novel that's part suspense tale, part social novel about the refugee crisis.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker and Evan Osnos, who covers politics and foreign affairs for the magazine. Along with Joshua Yaffa, they wrote an article in the current edition about what lay behind Russia's interference in the 2016 election and what lies ahead. The article is called "Active Measures." The article includes a lot of background about how Russia has changed under Vladimir Putin.
You describe Vladimir Putin as seeing the pro-democracy movements during the Arab Spring, movements that, in some measure, the Obama administration supported as being threats to Putin himself. What's the connection?
REMNICK: Absolutely. What Vladimir Putin fears most of all is internal chaos. So when he looks at Tahrir Square...
GROSS: Like people defying him...
REMNICK: Absolutely. So when he looks at...
GROSS: ...Rebelling against him.
REMNICK: When he looks at Tahrir Square in Cairo, when he looks at Maidan uprisings in Kiev, closer to home, and when he looked at the demonstrations in Moscow on the Bolotnaya Square, what's called Swampy Square in 2011, he sees those as rehearsal for the - for a regime change in Moscow. And he thinks that not only is the United States a part of this and behind this, that Hillary Clinton gave, quote, unquote, "the signal" to demonstrators in Moscow in 2011. That's why - that's part of why he despised Hillary Clinton so very much.
OSNOS: Terry, I think that's also where you begin to see the precursors to the interference in the election that we later came to recognize because, really, right around the time that Vladimir Putin returns to the presidency in 2012 after being sort of ostensibly off-stage as prime minister, you begin to see, in American cybercircles, a growing recognition that Russia represents a larger threat than they had recognized before. You know, the focus used to be on China and on Iranian hackers.
And all of a sudden, in 2013, 2014 and beyond, Russian hackers succeeded in breaking into the State Department. They succeeded in breaking into the nonclassified network at the White House. This is where, for instance, the president's schedule is kept and things like that. And they actually managed to get into the unclassified network of the Joint Chief of Staff. And during that period, according to people who were working in the White House on cybersecurity policy, there was this growing sense that Russia's capability combined with the sort of psychological and strategic ambition that David just described, they were coming together. And there was this confluence of - that represented a much larger, you know, challenge to the United States than had been previously recognized.
GROSS: So now that Donald Trump is President, what opportunities does that possibly present for Vladimir Putin? He doesn't like Hillary Clinton. He sees Hillary Clinton as an opposition figure to his regime. So does the Trump presidency present opportunities? I know - it presents possible chaos for him, which we talked about earlier.
REMNICK: Well, you have to ask - what does Vladimir Putin want? And what Vladimir Putin wants is an end to economic sanctions, which had been put upon him by the Obama administration for the takeover of Crimea, etc. He wants the United States to get out of his - what he considers his realm of of national interest, his sphere of influence, meaning, first and foremost, Ukraine, Baltic states, etc. He wants no more expansion of NATO to say the least, and he would like to see greater dissent and dissention within Western institutions.
He is delighted to see the rise of not only Donald Trump in the United States, which I think he sees as causing us chaos and for us to look more and more inward and to be more and more divided. He also is delighted to see the rise of nationalist politicians in France, in Germany, in Holland because what happens as a result is that there's more, therefore, fractiousness and chaos within those countries. And institutions like NATO, the European Union are called more into question. That's his motive.
GROSS: I want to talk with you about the press. Some of the article is about how Vladimir Putin really kind of changed the press after he took over. He kind of shut down a lot of it because he was being mocked, and he didn't like being mocked by a puppet version of himself.
REMNICK: No, he didn't.
GROSS: (Laughter) So...
REMNICK: He did not.
GROSS: Yeah. So how much worse did it get under Putin, the media - the kind of government control of the media?
REMNICK: It was 180 degrees. It was 180 degrees. What you had in the Soviet times was this incredibly stodgy, gray, completely Kremlin-controlled press in print and on the airwaves. There wasn't an internet yet, obviously. Yeltsin comes along, and Yeltsin was incredibly flawed in many, many ways - economically, war in Chechnya and all the rest. But when it came to the media, he really was for a much more open press, to the degree where Yeltsin was criticized all the time.
Now, you can jump in and say - well, his friendly oligarch owned NTV. And, OK - that is fair. It was far from perfect, but it was freer than any press in the history - in a millennium - under the czars, under the general secretaries. This was an unprecedented degree of latitude in culture and in the press.
Putin comes along, and he's just not having any of it. This is not his psychology. It is not his training. And right now, if you turn on television, which is still the way 80-plus percent of the Russian public gets its news, it is a more sophisticated version, in my view, of the old Soviet television press.
Now, if you're sophisticated and you really want it and you really want to pursue it, you can go on Facebook and get all kinds of information. You can turn on Ekho Moskvy, the Echo of Moscow radio station, which is listened to mainly by aging liberals. And you can get a more open discussion about politics. But when it comes to television, it is neo-Soviet. There's no question about it, and there are certain people that are just never going to be invited on television, and you are not going to hear Vladimir Putin criticized. That's that's the be-all and end-all.
And so when people go on and on, as does Trump, about how unbelievably popular Putin is and he has an 85 percent popularity rating, no small part of that is the information space of television. Now, there are other elements of it too. I have to readily admit his popularity is not just rooted in propaganda, but that's a big element of it.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. Let me reintroduce you both. My guests are David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, and Evan Osnos who's a staff writer for the magazine, covering politics and foreign affairs. They're two of the three writers, along with Joshua Yaffa, who've collaborated on the new article "Active Measures: What Lay Behind Russia's Interference In The 2016 Election And What Lies Ahead." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about a new article in The New Yorker magazine called "Active Measures: What Lay Behind Russia's Interference In The 2016 Election And What Lies Ahead?" My guests are two of the three writers of this article, David Remnick, who is the editor of The New Yorker magazine and Evan Osnos, who's a staff writer covering politics and foreign affairs.
Let's look at what's happening to the press under President Trump. Trump tweets a lot about the press. On February 17, he tweeted (reading) the fake news media, failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN, is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American people.
REMNICK: Yeah, what a phrase, the enemy of the people.
GROSS: Yeah, I know. That goes back to Stalin, right?
OSNOS: I recognize that from somewhere.
REMNICK: Well, it goes back to Robespierre. It is an ugly, ugly phrase. I don't know how self-aware Donald Trump is of that kind of phrase. I guarantee you Steve Bannon knows what enemy of the people means. Stalin used it to keep people terrified. If you were branded a vrag naroda, an enemy of the people, you could guarantee that very soon there would be a knock in the middle of the night at your door and your fate would be horrific.
To hear that kind of language directed at the American press is an emergency. It's an emergency. It's not a political tactic. And if it's a political tactic, it's a horrific one. And that needs to be resisted not just by people like me who are, you know, editors or writers but all of us. This is part of what distinguishes American democracy. And it's untenable, immoral and anti-American.
GROSS: So you just said that you're not sure whether Donald Trump knows the pedigree of that expression enemy of the people, but you're sure Steve Bannon does. So I'm wondering since this is...
REMNICK: That doesn't excuse Trump at all.
GROSS: No, no, but I'm wondering since you're implying here that Bannon probably knows that this is a word that was used by Stalin and that had very grave implications when it was used in the Stalinist era, what do you know about any either connections that Bannon has to Russia or about the influence of Russia on Bannon just as...
REMNICK: I know zero about that, nothing. And it's been important for journalists to say when they don't know things, too.
REMNICK: But I think it's important to point out that right now you and I are having and have been having a free discussion. I'm going to go back to my office, and I will publish website and the magazine this week without any government interference. In fact, without any interference of the owners of The New Yorker. That is as close to an ideal situation as possible, and it obtains to this day. And to have people thrown out of the White House press pool for a day or even for a while does not mean the end of the press.
But it is a very ominous circumstance when the president of the United States uses this kind of language because, quite frankly, and it's been pointed out more than once, it's the kind of language that autocrats use in the beginning. And where it will go, we don't know yet. But he is obviously - this is beyond dog whistles. He is signaling to the base that your enemy, your enemy is those people.
That's how autocrats behave. They create an other. Whether it's the press, whether it's ethnic or otherwise, it's the creation of an other. And I find it - I just, you know, it has to be stood up against.
GROSS: So, David, this is a question for you. It strikes me that The New Yorker has become more overtly political in terms of the covers. The covers have become more political. A lot of the investigations are political. You wrote something that I think may be unprecedented in The New Yorker, which is after Donald Trump was elected, you wrote an editorial saying the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution and a triumph for the forces at home and abroad of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny and racism.
REMNICK: I wish I were wrong on every point. I hope to be wrong on every point. I mean, my hope for my country is much greater than my desire to be right in the moment. That was written on election night. And I wish that every moment in the transition, in the first month of the presidency had proved me wrong.
GROSS: And, David, one more question for you, I think when you first arrived in Russia when you were covering Russia for The Washington Post, you were covering Russia when the USSR collapsed and then continued to cover the new Russia that emerged. Your article's in part about a new Cold War. During the old Cold War, it was really - the real, like, hardcore cold warriors tended to be Republicans.
And now what we're seeing is, with Donald Trump elected as a Republican, that many Republicans seem to be less interested in investigating the Russian hack of the election and Trump campaign connections to Russia. Do you feel like the language has changed? You know, like, the...
REMNICK: No, I think it's more individual than that. I don't want to be a cold warrior. I think, you know, that it is necessary to find good relations with the Chinese, with the Russians but to have a clear eye about certain issues...
REMNICK: ...And to have that be part of foreign policy. Some of the worry of people who are concerned about our behavior vis-a-vis Russia now is who's going to talk up about human rights? When Alexei Navalny, the one person who seemed to be ready to run against Putin in a presidential race in 2018, was eliminated from consideration by a court, which is very much under Putin's control, and his political possibilities were erased - and by the way, Navalny's brother is in a prison right now - when that happened, did the White House say a single word about this? Not a word, not a word.
Nobody desires a cold war. The memories of the first Cold War are too painful. It involved proxy wars all over the place. But at the same time, it's necessary to be clear-eyed. And again, John McCain is a Republican, Lindsey Graham is a Republican, Senator Burr is a Republican. I don't think this is a matter with, you know, people - somehow people on left of center are now the cold warriors. That's too simplistic. And what Evan and I and Josh and I are trying to do in this article is not to create a situation or a label that isn't there but to describe the situation that is.
OSNOS: Terry, can I mention something which may or may not be useful to you, but it just goes back to something you were saying earlier about sort of how this looks at the moment with the press and Washington? One element here that I notice is the relationship right now between the Trump administration and the press has taken a kind of toxic turn. And I think it's hard sometimes to figure out what to make of it.
But if you lived in an authoritarian country, if you worked in an authoritarian country, as David did for a while, as I did for a while, you - there are pieces of this moment that rhyme with that experience. Meaning when I was living in China, the government blocked The New York Times from being able to get visas to come into the country because it objected to their coverage. The New York Times had written quite powerful investigative pieces about corruption at the highest levels of the government, about people in government accumulating money in ways that were improper.
And the government's response was to say, you're not welcome here. So now I moved to Washington, D.C., and when we hear about - I'm not drawing a simple equivalence. I'm not drawing a simple comparison. But it's unmistakable when we look at the kind of language that's being used about the press now not to see it in the tradition of a certain authoritarian toolbox. These are the ways that governments can prevent the press from trying to do its work or seek to prevent.
And I think that's why it has to be called by its proper name. And writing about it and saying this is out of the ordinary, this is not something that is part of the usual cycle and rhythm of American politics, this is something that is much less familiar to us here than it is overseas, I think that's vital.
REMNICK: It was very interesting to see George W. Bush, who was criticized quite a lot in the pages of The New Yorker for eight years and more, go on "The Today Show" the other day and in no uncertain terms - and this is a guy who was hammered by The New York Times, by The Washington Post, by The New Yorker and God knows who else - speak up for a free press, speak up for the role the press plays in the functioning of a flawed, yet healthy American democracy or any kind of democracy.
And to hear Steve Bannon and more to the point Donald Trump create a scenario and a rhetoric and a scheme in which the press is the other and the enemy of the people is something that should raise the hairs on the back of our neck and should be of enormous concern. And not just for us who do this for a living but for all of us as citizens. I am perfectly aware of the low rating of the press. And what does that mean, the press?
It's a gigantic animal. It ranges from Breitbart and Newsmax to The New York Times and CNN and all the rest. And the press is far from perfect. We make mistakes, mistakes of fact, of bias and all the rest or banality, maybe even more to the case sometimes. But the functioning of a free press is essential to us. And to hear the press in the United States use that kind of rhetoric should disturb us all.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. David Remnick, Evan Osnos, thank you so much.
REMNICK: Thank you.
OSNOS: My pleasure.
GROSS: David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker. Evan Osnos covers politics and foreign affairs for the magazine. Their article about Trump, Putin and the new cold war is in the current issue. After a break, Maureen Corrigan will review an Israeli suspense novel that's also a social novel about the refugee crisis. This is FRESH AIR.
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