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 Russian president’s face was a faint shade of green as he gazed up at a giant image of Larry King. It was December 10, and Vladimir Putin was the guest of honor at RT’s 10th anniversary dinner, at Moscow’s Metropol Hotel in the shadow of the Kremlin. Putin wasn’t green from food poisoning; the hue came from lighting that bathed the room in the lime of the network’s logo.
King was opening the ceremonies by video message from Los Angeles, where the 82-year-old now hosts a diminished version of his old CNN talk show for RT, joining a roster of hosts that includes other past-their-prime U.S. celebrities like Schultz and Jesse “the Body” Ventura, the former wrestling champ-turned Minnesota governor who also has a show on RT. In his trademark shirtsleeves and suspenders, King apologized for his absence and let Putin know he’d love to interview him. The Russian leader looked visibly pleased.
Sitting next to Putin was RT’s 36-year-old editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, a raven-haired former state television reporter who took over RT when she was 25. She is a feisty defender of her network, often lashing out against critics—and there are many—who say RT is little more than a weapon in a Russian information war against the West. Secretary of State John Kerry calls the network a “propaganda bullhorn” for Putin; it has been a subject at House and Senate foreign affairs hearings; and, in mid-March, two U.S. senators introduced the Countering Information Warfare Act, which is aimed in part at the network. Simonyan almost seems to enjoy battling RT’s legions of critics. When a BuzzFeed reporter asked her in 2014 about alleged Kremlin influence, Simonyan unleashed a mocking reply. “[W]e just read the latest Kremlin press releases on camera. It is much more efficient that way,” she wrote on RT’s website, adding sardonically that the network “unleash[es] the KGB on anyone who dares to leave.” And yet, Simonyan does in fact keep a yellow telephone with no dial pad on her desk, which Simonyan conceded to a Time reporter last year is a secure line to the Kremlin.
In his remarks at the dinner, Putin showed obvious pride in the network, saying its efforts reminded him of the way hardworking Russian sailors tear the shirts off their backs. He most decidedly wasn’t mentioning that hotline to the Kremlin on Simonyan’s desk or Kerry’s scathing dismissal of his “bullhorn.” Far from it. “Your greatest strength is presenting information freely and independently,” Putin told the crowd, who sipped wine in translucent chairs around white-clothed tables. “We do not control you. … and we do not meddle,” Putin said. He also boasted that RT has a reach of 700 million viewers, though he conceded they had no idea how many people actually watch; U.S. officials say the American viewership is much lower than RT’s estimate of 8 million per week on cable systems like Comcast, Time Warner and Dish Network. (They are also skeptical of RT’s claim to have a budget of only $250 million worldwide. In March, Republican Senator Rob Portman cited reports saying the cost of the network’s Washington bureau alone could be $400 million, though RT adamantly denies that, and the original source of the report is unclear.)
Putin did hint at RT’s role in the political war Russia finds itself waging with the West, referring to the “complicated” state of global politics and “distortions of events,” including in Ukraine and Syria, and saying that RT can describe “the true events” to a growing global audience yearning for unbiased facts.
But Putin’s comments are at odds with how the network operates in practice, according to interviews with people who closely watch or have worked at RT, and my own hours of monitoring the network and its website. One former RT staffer in Washington told me that she left her job, along with others who have also spoken to the media, after seeing the network’s Moscow-based editors instruct journalists to make their coverage hew to the Moscow-approved political line. Such concerns erupted into full view a couple years ago when Russia marched into neighboring Ukraine to annex the Crimean Peninsula, leading a 28-year-old RT presenter named Liz Wahl to quit on-air, declaring, “I cannot be a part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin.”
Today, it’s clear RT operates less as the free and independent news source Putin touted, and more as a vehicle that increasingly uses the available tools of the digital revolution—from viral videos (“Animated Genitals,” “Lawnmower Explodes”) to entertainingly snarky tweets—to promote Russia’s message. It’s positioning itself as a scrappy dissenter to the old Western media’s monopoly on information, a theme Simonyan emphasized to me in a statement for this story. Americans, she said, watch RT for “stories, views and analysis they won’t find in the mainstream media.” As for criticism of RT’s coverage of the United States and the 2016 campaign, she sounded a positively Trumpian theme, saying RT’s critics are “mostly members of the U.S. political establishment, who are uncomfortable with losing the longtime monopoly on information.”
Seated next to Simonyan at the dinner and just two seats away from Putin himself was perhaps the most intriguing example of how the Russians have gone about recruiting disaffected members of that establishment: a rugged-looking man in a tuxedo who less than 18 months earlier had been head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s powerful in-house equivalent of the CIA. Michael Flynn, now a private citizen after a reportedly disgruntled retirement, was not there to gather intelligence. His attendance at the RT gala, before which he also gave a talk on world affairs, appeared to inaugurate a relationship with the network—presumably a paid one, though neither Flynn nor RT answered queries on the subject. Flynn now makes semi-regular appearances on RT as an analyst, in which he often argues that the U.S. and Russia should be working more closely together on issues like fighting ISIL and ending Syria’s civil war. “Russia has its own national security strategy, and we have to respect that,” he said in one recent appearance. “And we have to try to figure out: How do we combine the United States’ national security strategy along with Russia’s national security strategy, despite all the challenges that we face?”
At a moment of semi-hostility between the U.S. and Russia, the presence of such an important figure at Putin’s table startled current and former members of the Obama administration. “It was extremely odd that he showed up in a tuxedo to the Russian government propaganda arm’s party,” one former Pentagon official told me.
“It’s not usually to America’s benefit when our intelligence officers—current or former—seek refuge in Moscow,” said one senior Obama administration official.
Flynn didn’t respond to emails about the dinner or his relationship with RT; an RT publicist ignored questions about Flynn. Perhaps it’s just a meeting of like-minded thinkers. Flynn, after all, has also criticized the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya, just as Putin and his global news network have.
But a few other things are known about Flynn. In February, Flynn called on Hillary Clinton to end her White House bid over her use of a private email server as secretary of state. And Flynn has also served as an informal adviser on national security issues to one Donald J. Trump.
On March 21, Trump was holding a news conference in Washington when he fielded an unusual question.
“You’ve hinted that you are open to better relations with Russia as president,” began a reporter who did not audibly identify himself. “Is that a difficult position to maintain with the media in kind of anti-Russian overdrive?”
“If we can get along with Russia, that’s very good,” Trump said. He noted that Putin, who has called Trump “an outstanding and talented personality,” “says very nice things about me.”
The short but puzzling exchange made more sense a few hours later, when RT aired a segment focused entirely on Trump’s answer. “Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump is calling for a dramatic change in U.S. policy towards Russia,” explained an RT host. Beneath him onscreen, a chyron declared that “Donald Trump Supports Improved Relations Between U.S. and Russia.” Next came RT correspondent Caleb Maupin, who had asked the question of Trump, and who explained that Trump “is widely decried and denounced in U.S. media and by many mainstream figures in U.S. politics. … Yet the more he’s denounced, the more popular he becomes.”
Not least in Moscow. In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney had deemed Russia America’s greatest geopolitical rival, and in recent months, Romney called Putin “a thug [who] kills journalists and opponents.” Trump sees things rather differently. In recent months, he has called Putin a “strong leader,” and said he would “probably get along with” the Russian president. Putin responded in kind, adding that Trump “wants to move to … a deeper level of relations with Russia. How can we not welcome that?”
Trump was at his clearest in his April foreign policy address. “I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia, from a position of strength only, is absolutely possible,” he said. Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, told me afterward that Trump had “made some intriguing points.”
In December, when Trump called Putin’s compliments a “great honor,” the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough asked the candidate if he had concerns about praise from “a person that kills journalists and political opponents and invades countries.” Trump was unfazed. “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader. You know, unlike what we have in this country,” he said. And when ABC’s George Stephanopoulos pressed him on the point a few days later, Trump stood firm. “It’s never been proven that he’s killed anybody. So, you know, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,” Trump said. RT appeared to delight in the exchange. “Putin Killed Reporters? Prove It!—Trump to ABC Show Host,” declared a headline on the network’s website.
The more Trump has offended the U.S. establishment, the more RT has cheered him on. A March op-ed on RT.com 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.
Hillary Clinton’s view of Russia is much closer to Romney’s than to Trump’s. The Democratic front-runner has called Putin a “bully,” compared his incursions into Ukraine to Hitler’s territorial grabs, and supported U.S. interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria—all vehemently opposed by Putin. (Clinton also has praised her husband’s 1999 air campaign against Serbia, which infuriated pro-Slavic Russia.) Clinton has said that if Trump gets his way with NATO, “It will be like Christmas in the Kremlin.”
RT is not impressed. “Hillary Clinton leaves a trail of blood and suffering around the world and a clear record of exploitation and greed in her own country,” declared a March op-ed on RT’s website by an Australian journalist named John Pilger. A similar screed ran under the title “Hillary Clinton’s Record Is a Monument to Mendacity.”
On the topic of Clinton, RT’s live TV programming is only slightly more subtle. One recent evening, a former Pentagon official and fringe conservative named Michael Maloof told a patiently listening Ed Schultz about Clinton’s “total inability to manage foreign policy.” On the March 23 edition of CrossTalk, which bills itself as RT’s flagship program, the show’s Moscow-based host, Peter Lavelle, claimed not to “see anything positive out of American foreign policy when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state … zero!” The three-man panel featured one Clinton defender, Washington Democratic lawyer Richard Goodstein. But when he spoke up, Lavelle cut him off, accusing Clinton of “duplicity and hypocrisy.”
Goodstein told me in an interview that the segment was typical of his experience on RT. “When I’m on Fox, the accusation is that Obama is a weakling and Hillary has the same weak foreign policy,” he said. “Then I get on RT, and it’s that they’re these monsters who bomb indiscriminately. It’s wild.”
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.
Simonyan, the RT editor-in-chief, insisted to me that RT was not taking sides in the American election. “We do not give preferential treatment to any candidate,” she said. But in hours of watching RT programming and combing through its online content, I could find only the rarest, token defense of Clinton. Critical stories about Trump, touching, for example, on the violence at his rallies, tended to be less about Trump himself than the recurring theme that America is stumbling toward social and political anarchy.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is routinely hailed as a courageous insurgent, conspired against by Clinton and her political establishment allies—a view in keeping with RT’s generally leftist line; the network depicts America as a heartless corporate oligarchy. Schultz has played a key role in the Sanders boosterism, even conducting softball interviews with the Vermont Democrat for RT on the eve of the Iowa caucuses and Wisconsin’s primary. “If you win Iowa and New Hampshire, is that a game-changer?” Schultz asked. (Sanders and Rand Paul are the only 2016 candidates I could identify as past RT guests. Clinton’s campaign told me it has not heard from RT.)
Schultz, meanwhile, seems to have turned on Hillary Clinton, whom he once called his favorite living New Yorker and whose candidacy he spoke of warmly as recently as July. Now he complains that the Democratic Party has “rigged” the primaries in her favor and that “there has been a tremendous slant of the coverage in favor of Hillary Clinton, but the people are rejecting it right now.”
Why the change of heart? Upon taking the job, Schultz insisted that the Kremlin wouldn’t have any sway over him. Such talk, he said, was “hogwash. Absolutely ridiculous. Nobody’s going to tell Ed Schultz what to say, or how to say it, or what stories to pick.”
Maybe so. I tried to ask Schultz those questions myself, but an interview I arranged with him through an RT publicist was abruptly canceled. Shultz hasn’t spoken much these days about his change of heart about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Nor has he discussed how a former lunch-pail populist feels covering stories like NATO’s strategy toward Eastern Europe and the global role of the (very much Putin-connected) patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, whom Schultz recently interviewed, then urged Congress to invite for a speech.
Two years ago, on a radio show he then hosted, Schultz fumed at a Republican congressman who had described Putin as acting from a position of strength against Obama. “Can I ask you a question?” Schultz thundered rhetorically. “Whose side are you on?” Good question.
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