The Kremlin’s Candidate

Source: Politico Magazine | May/June 2016 | Michael Crowley

In the 2016 election, Putin’s propaganda network is picking sides.

Back when he hosted a prime-time talk show on MSNBC, Ed Schultz divided the world into heroes and villains. The heroes usually included Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The villains were most Republicans, and especially Donald J. Trump. When Trump obsessed over Obama’s birth certificate and academic credentials in 2011, Schultz branded him “a racist.” When Trump flirted with running for president the next year, Schultz ridiculed him. “Who has shown any interest in Donald Trump being the next president of the United States other than Donald Trump?” he fumed. “Mr. Trump, stop embarrassing yourself!”

Another bad guy was Russian President Vladimir Putin. Schultz delighted in ripping conservatives for what he called their “love affair” with the Russian leader and his ability to make Obama look weak on the world stage. “They hate Obama so much they will even embrace the head of the KGB … ‘Putie’ is their new hero!” Schultz said in one 2013 segment. In another, he smugly reminded conservatives about Putin’s “nasty human rights record” and the way his “reckless behavior” was “crippling” Russia. More generally, Schultz often framed GOP opposition to Obama as “anti-American” or “unpatriotic.”

That was all before last July, when MSNBC abruptly canceled The Ed Show after a six-year run and dumped the 62-year-old prairie populist from the network. By the time Schultz resurfaced this January, he had been reincarnated in a very different journalistic form: as a prime-time host, reporter and political analyst for RT America, the U.S. branch of the global cable network formerly known as Russia Today, funded by the Russian government.

Gone is the praise for Obama and Clinton. Gone, too, are the mocking references to “Putie.” And gone are the judgments about others’ patriotism. Schultz’s 8 p.m. RT show, The News with Ed Schultz, now features Putin-friendly discussions about the failings of U.S. policy in the Middle East, America’s “bloated” defense budget and the futility of NATO strategy.

Even Trump is getting a new look from Schultz. Speaking at various points on RT in recent months, Schultz has said that Trump “has tapped into an anger among working people,” is “talking about things the people care about,” and even, as Schultz recently declared, that Trump “would easily be able to function” as president.

Those are strange words coming from an ex-MSNBC liberal better known for casting Trump as a racist lout. But RT is a strange place. It styles itself as an edgy CNN or BBC, delivering unvarnished news and commentary with a mostly hip, young cast. But just under the surface is a bought-and-paid-for propaganda vehicle trying to nudge viewers toward Russia’s side of the story at a time when Moscow has increasingly become an international pariah, estranged from the West over its military aggression in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, its elites sanctioned and its economy struggling with isolation, decaying infrastructure and collapsing energy prices.

In its early days, RT mostly offered a Kremlin-friendly diet of international coverage, feeding the Obama-bashing, America-in-decline narrative with C-list commentators who couldn’t get an airing elsewhere on cable TV. But that was before Donald Trump—whose unlikely mutual admiration for Russia’s strongman president has been one of the stranger subplots of this American political season.

The blustery billionaire has praised Putin as a strong leader, spoken of closer ties with Moscow and mused about whether NATO is obsolete. At the foreign policy speech Trump delivered in Washington on April 27, the Russian ambassador to the United States was sitting in the front row. As Trump has risen, RT has gotten much more interested in the U.S. presidential campaign. Tune in to Ed Schultz and his colleagues these days and you’ll find a presidential race featuring Hillary Clinton as a malevolent warmonger, Bernie Sanders as an insurgent hero—and Donald Trump as a foreign policy savant.

A network that up until now has found little to celebrate about America has finally settled on a candidate it can believe in. Vladimir Putin’s TV channel isn’t just covering the 2016 campaign: Increasingly, it’s choosing sides.


The more Trump has offended the U.S. establishment, the more RT has cheered him on. A March op-ed on declared the New Yorker to be “the natural outcome of a political system that has been arrogantly ignoring the will of the American electorate for many years.”

It’s not just personal: The substance of Trump’s views suggest a drastic shift in U.S. policy toward Russia that would enormously benefit Moscow’s strategic and economic position on the world stage. Trump calls American interventions in the Middle East stupid and vows to pursue an “America first” policy with reduced U.S. military commitments in Europe and Asia. Contra the official line of Obama and that of his own party, Trump said he’s fine with Putin bombing Syria if he’ll take care of the Islamic State for us.

Trump also has startled foreign policy experts—and delighted Moscow—with his skepticism about the nearly 70-year-old NATO alliance, which he has said costs the U.S. too much and may be “obsolete.” RT has reveled in such comments, as well as the fierce backlash against Trump in Washington. “Trump vs Neocons,” read a chyron in one recent RT segment. “Trump Sparks NATO Debate: ‘Obsolete’ or ‘Tripwire That Could Lead to World War III’”? asked an online headline.


In mid-March, Trump interrupted his bromance with Putin by releasing a video on Instagram attacking Hillary Clinton as unfit to stand up to the Russian leader. The video opened with a clip of Putin, clad in a white judo suit, slamming a partner to the mat. An image of an ISIL fighter was followed by a clip of Clinton, at a campaign event, playfully barking like a dog. (“When it comes to facing our toughest opponents, the Democrats have the perfect answer,” read the on-screen text.) A Kremlin spokesman lightly chastised Trump for the ad, lamenting that “the demonization of Russia and everything connected to Russia is, unfortunately, an obligatory part of an American election.” If it was possible to detect a trace of admiration for Putin’s strength in the ad, though, that might have to do with its source: Trump’s opening clip of Putin doing judo bore RT’s logo.


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