Stephen F. Cohen, Russia expert, Princeton emeritus professor, contributor to The Nation magazine and husband of its publisher, Katrina Van den Heuvel, has for years been a leading apologist for Vladimir Putin from the left. Cohen sympathizes with Putin’s pushback against what they both view as the aggressive intrusion of the European Union and NATO into the Russian sphere of influence. Apparently, in certain quarters of the left (Cohen is not alone) what is good for the goose (Ukraine and the Baltics for Russia) is not good for the gander (the Americas for the US). In the March 13 issue of the magazine, Cohen adds Donald Trump to his portfolio, defending him against the allegations that he and the Russian leader have been complicit in the hacking of the emails of the Democratic National Committee. Before passing on to the substance of the article, we should attend to its title. “Against Kremlin-Baiting: Anti-Trump facts, or merely allegations” is familiar language to anyone who lived through the Joe McCarthy period in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Cohen substitutes Kremlin for “red,” and insinuates that it is Trump’s critics (and not Trump himself) who play fast and loose with the facts. We should note that the opposition between facts and allegations is a false opposition. The allegations (prematurely qualified by “mere”) may turn out to be true or false, but they need first to be investigated. It is clear from what follows that Cohen has no interest in an investigation. He assumes that he knows where the truth lies, and it is with Trump and Putin. What is astonishing is to find this view not in the ravings of Breitbart and conservative radio talk shows, but rather in a vintage left journal. Or should we be astonished given Cohen’s and The Nation’s Russian connection and unreconstructed devotion to the Soviet Union? This, to be sure, is speculation on my part, not yet fact.
What of Cohen’s argument? Cohen attributes “the slurs” against Trump to an effort by “the Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party…to maintain its grip on the party by insisting that she didn’t lose the election, but it was stolen by President Vladimir Putin for Trump.” Cohen addresses and peremptorily dismisses “six allegations…that Trump has been compromised, or worse, by the Kremlin.” 1) His “lavish praise” for Putin as “a strong leader” and “very smart” and that “it would be good to cooperate with Russia.” Cohen says they are empirically true and that they pale by comparison with the judgments made by past American presidents of previous Russian leaders such as Stalin, Brezhnev and Yeltsin. He also endorses the view that cooperation with Russia is desirable. To be sure, praise of Putin and the desire for cooperation with Russia are not evidence of Trump’s complicity with Putin in stealing the election. One wonders, however, at Cohen’s benign characterization of Trump’s praise. Apparently, he does not hear what many other pundits and ordinary citizens hear in the praise—the felt affinity of one authoritarian leader for another. And as for the matter of the desirability of cooperating with Russia, is it merely an empirical fact or isn’t it at the very least a political and moral problem in deciding whether and how to cooperate with a country that threatens the sovereignty of smaller countries (Ukraine and the Baltics) and indiscriminately bombs the civilians of a country that has not attacked it (Syria)? 2) Cohen derides criticism of Trump’s business dealing with Russians as no different from those of major corporations, as if being president is no different from being a private corporation. In dismissing those dealings as inconsequential, he turns aside the call for Trump to reveal his tax returns with the claim that we already know enough from “the financial documents of ownership he has revealed.” Not so, in the considered judgment of most authorities on political ethics across the political spectrum. 3) Cohen absolves Paul Manafort, a former advisor to Trump and to Putin’s former puppet president of Ukraine, Yanukovych, of any complicity with Russian interests with the simple assertion that he, Yanukovych, had fallen out of Putin’s favor. 4) The “dossier” compiled by the former British Intelligence official “purposing to show” how the Kremlin could “blackmail” Trump is simply dismissed by Cohen as “the kind of trash for sale in Moscow and elsewhere.” How does he know whether the dossier contains fact or not? 5) Cohen is apparently convinced that the hacking of emails, exposed by Wiki-Leaks. was not the work of the Russians. Again, how does he know? A group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity is the source. The group deserves credit for exposing the Intelligence myth promoted by the C.I.A. that Saddam Hussein’s possessed weapons of mass production. The myth, of course, was driven by pressure put on the agency by Vice President Dick Cheney to produce a report that would support his drive to war. There is no evidence of the agencies being manipulated by the Obama administration to say what it wanted them to say in the matter of the hacking of DNC emails. It does not follow from the fiasco of our invasion of Iraq that the Intelligence agencies are being unscrupulous in investigating the hacking of DNC e-mails. It certainly does not serve the commander-in-chief’s interests. 6) In Cohen’s account, Michael Flynn, the fired National Security Advisor, emerges as a champion of détente and peace, acting in American national interest. If Flynn was an innocent in his dealings with Russia, why did he lie to his Vice-President about those dealings? Cohen doesn’t even raise the question.
In an article in the Washington Post, Katrina Van den Heuvel reasonably calls for an independent investigation, as do the Democrats and some Republicans. Apparently, there is something to investigate. She doesn’t wonder why the Trump administration doesn’t agree to one, especially if he is innocent, as he claims. In the article, she focuses on “the ominous precedent” set by the possible leaking of “officially classified” information in the case of the firing of Mike Flynn. (“Inside leaks,” an alternative explanation to the Russian hacking, has been the focus of congressional Republican questioning of the Intelligence agencies.) Van den Heuvel showed no such sensitivity to Snowden’s production of leaks. One person’s leaking is another person’s whistleblowing.
Cohen concludes his article with a slanderous charge of McCarthyism against Trump’s critics (echoing Trump himself), indecently appealing to their “decency” and “patriotism,” as if those qualities are the possession of the president. “Decency” should recall Joseph Welsh’s challenge to McCarthy: “Have you no decency?” The odd effect of Cohen’s charge of McCarthyism is that it recoils on himself, a case of projection. Given Trump’s track record as a compulsive teller of falsehoods, how can we trust anything he says? Lest we forget, here are salient of many examples: Obama was Kenyan born, he wiretapped Trump Tower, millions of illegal immigrants voted for Clinton, thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11, a small fraction of the virtually daily fare coming in the early days of the presidency. Here is a Trump fact: during his campaign, he invited the Russians to hack Clinton’s e-mails.
Trump emerges in Cohen’s article as a truth-teller against all the evidence to the contrary. What is alarming and distressing is the presence of a Trump ally in the pages of a prominent journal of the left, demagogically impugning the patriotism of the president’s critics. Speaking of McCarthyism…