Before the US Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI director James Comey accused Russia of interfering in the US presidential election. Almost simultaneously, Vladimir Putin was denying any such wrongdoing. Whom to believe?
Last week saw three hours of dramatic live testimony in the US Senate Intelligence Committee by former FBI Director James Comey, under oath, on the breakdown of his working relationship with US President Donald Trump and allegations of Russian government interference in US politics. The committee’s findings will affect US-Russia relations for years to come and are important for Australians, given the enormous nuclear arsenals belonging to both parties. It is in all our interests that worsening tensions be relaxed.
Around the same time as Comey testified, journalist Megyn Kelly, who represented the US TV network NBC, conducted a 20-minute personal interview with the President of Russia Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg, which is well worth watching in full.
Comparing Comey’s testimony with Putin’s interview provides two different versions of reality offered by two powerful men with sharp and clear minds, both on the face of it trustworthy and credible witnesses. Which of these two conflicting stories we choose to believe depends ultimately on our own personal confirmation biases—our prior ideas about the two men and their respective governments and political cultures. Were it simply a matter of Comey versus Trump, most, including myself, would side with Comey. But what of Comey versus Putin? This is a harder question: after conducting research for my recent book, Return to Moscow, I have come to a positive view of Putin.
Comey had much to say about alleged Russian interference in the recent US elections, and about Russian contacts with Trump campaign officials. His most important statements on ‘Russiagate’ came when he was asked by Democrat Senator Mark Warner for the full story on “what the Russians did, and … why they were so successful” in influencing the US presidential election. Comey replied:
“We are talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion, lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognise it. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America … They want to undermine our credibility in the face of the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them, and so they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible. … And they will be back, because we remain—as difficult as we can be with each other—we remain that shining city on the hill, and they don’t like it.”
Later, Democrat Senator Martin Heinrich asked Comey whether he agreed with Trump that Russia’s alleged involvement in the US election cycle was a hoax and fake news. What had Comey seen as FBI director that demonstrated how serious this action was, and why was there an FBI investigation in the first place? Comey replied firmly:
“There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever. The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. And it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that. It is a high-confidence judgment of the entire intelligence community, and the members of this committee have seen the intelligence. It’s not a close call. That happened. That’s about as un-fake as you can possibly get, and is very, very serious.”
With equal vigour, Putin said almost the exact opposite to Megyn Kelly during a 20-minute televised interview (of which NBC only broadcast to Americans a few truncated minutes). Putin batted away Kelly’s questions with ease.
Paraphrasing Putin on whether Russia had interfered in the US election: No, it is easy for those with resources to disguise data to make it look as if hacking is done by us, but it could have come from anywhere and Hillary Clinton had many opponents. We had no motive to interfere: US policy remains much the same whoever is elected president.
Again, paraphrasing Putin on whether he had a relationship with sacked US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn: No, we sat together once at a big dinner, just by chance.
On whether Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak’s contacts with Trump’s senior officials like Flynn or Jared Kushner were reported to Putin: No, routine contacts are not reported to me by my foreign minister and I heard nothing from him on this. It is an ambassador’s job to maintain routine contacts with all important government and opposition figures in his country of posting.
And lastly, paraphrasing the Russian president’s response to whether Russia had blackmailed Trump: No, I never met him when he visited Moscow in past years as a businessman. Hundreds of American businessmen come to Russia. We welcome them and help them implement business plans for mutual profit.
Comey seemed utterly and passionately convinced of the truth of what he said under oath: it appears he believes it rests on sound US intelligence judgements and he wants Republican senators to believe him too. He is—in good conscience—trying to lay the bipartisan groundwork for the impeachment of Trump or his removal for incompetence.
Relations with Russia will be damaged if Comey succeeds. It all depends now on the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings, which could take months or years to be handed down. Meanwhile, unresolved questions of who did what will cloud US-Russia relations and handicap Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts at detente with Russia. Though some progress might be made in specific issue areas, the architecture of mutual trust and respect is just not there now.
Putin says, and possibly thinks, that this is all nonsense: a made-up story growing out of America’s conspiratorial internal politics and the Democratic Party’s bitterness at Hillary Clinton’s election defeat (a defeat that Putin and most Russians welcomed). The fact that Putin gave Megyn Kelly so much time last week, and went out of his way to charm and try to persuade her, indicates the importance he attaches to US-Russia relations; he claims to wish to restore them if he can. The prospects don’t look good.
Whom to believe, Comey or Putin? You decide.
Tony Kevin is Emeritus Fellow at the Australian National University and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland (1991-94) and to Cambodia (1994-97). He is the author of the recently published, ‘Return to Moscow’.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.