CreditILLUSTRATION BY CRISTIANA COUCEIRO /PHOTOGRAPHS: FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: VADIM GHIRDA / AP; LASKI DIFFUSION / GETTY; LEV FEDOSEYV / TASS / GETTY; BULENT DORUK / ANADOLU AGENCY / GETTY; DREW ANGERER / GETTY; SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV / TASS / GETTY; FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFT / GETTY; ALEKSEY FILIPPOV / AFP / GETTY
Earlier this month, The New Yorker published “Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War,” an examination of what lay behind Russia’s interference in the 2016 election—and what lies ahead. On Facebook and Twitter, we asked readers to submit questions they had after reading the article. Below are some of our responses. (Questions were edited for clarity.)
What does it take to link Trump to this? —Gria Andolina
The Russia-related questions that would be problematic for President Trump would be potential collusion (did he or anyone in his circle participate in or know about or help in any way a Russian effort to “hack” the election?). The second would be financial complications: In other words, did, or does, the President have any business relations that raise legal questions? Finally, does Russian intelligence have information on the President that might potentially influence his work? There are far-from-definitive answers to any of these questions, which is why law enforcement and congressional bodies need to hold fair, rigorous, and unbiased investigations. It would be unwise, unfair, and damaging for any of us to go beyond the evidence. The only way to move from speculation and partial evidence is a genuine investigation (and, yes, more journalism). —D.R.
Representative Darrell Issa said we need a special prosecutor for the Russian election interference. Could that happen? —Neil Gussman
Yes, it might—though Issa is unlikely to be a strong voice leading the call. On February 24th, in an appearance on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Issa, who represents California’s Forty-ninth District and was an early Trump supporter, said, “You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office.” That made him the first congressional Republican to suggest that Trump’s election might need to be investigated by a special prosecutor. It was a remarkable thing for Issa to say; as the former chair of the House Oversight Committee, he is best known for pushing investigations into the latest Democratic vulnerability, including glitches in Healthcare.gov, the I.R.S., Benghazi. But recently Issa has been feeling imperilled. In November, after sixteen years in Congress, he won his reëlection contest by just sixteen hundred and eighty votes. But, after Issa came out in favor of a special prosecutor, he retreated from that view and adopted a vaguer goal, calling for “an independent review of Russia.”
With or without Issa, pressure is growing for a special counsel. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from election probes, so Democrats want Sessions’s acting Deputy Attorney General, Dana Boente, to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation. Justice Department rules call for that step in the event that a case “would present a conflict of interest for the department or other extraordinary circumstances.” If Boente does not agree that it meets that standard, Democrats have another option: seeking to revive an expired law that would give a three-judge panel the power to appoint an independent counsel. There is yet one more option: Boente has the power to hire an outside attorney to oversee a criminal investigation, just as the Justice Department, in 2003, named Patrick Fitzgerald special counsel to investigate who leaked the name of the C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame Wilson. (That led to the conviction of Lewis [Scooter] Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, for lying to a grand jury and obstruction of justice.) —E.O.
Do you think democracy will survive? I see very little keeping us from becoming like Putin’s Russia. Where should we put our energy to be most effective? How can we stop the apathy and get those in power to choose democracy over personal interest? How can I help? —Kayde Kat Martin
For the first time I can remember, daily conversation has become infused with questions about the basic strength of our democracy, a far-reaching anxiety about whether the political and digital technology of our time are strong and resilient enough to bear the pressures of the moment. It’s easy to dismiss this as little more than Democrats hyperventilating—liberal “snowflakes” who were undone by the results of the election searching for a way to challenge its legitimacy. But that doesn’t quite capture it. To my mind, there is nothing hyperbolic about asking whether we’re doing enough to invigorate and shore up democracy. For ten years, I lived in countries shaped by authoritarianism—Egypt, Iraq, China—and I don’t for a moment take for granted the work of defending against the temptations toward autocracy. In a piece about China last fall, I wrote, “What is the precise moment, in the life of a country, when tyranny takes hold? It rarely happens in an instant; it arrives like twilight, and, at first, the eyes adjust.” That natural tendency to adjust—to explain away the shifts in norms, the eroding public trust and traditions—is the reason it’s so important to speak loudly when institutions are threatened. When a White House, any White House, excludes news organizations from a press briefing, this is not a partisan issue or an inside-the-Beltway tempest. It is an occasion to recommit to the core of constitutional democracy by calling a member of Congress to complain, or, let’s face it, by supporting the journalism that you think is vital. As my colleague Kathryn Schulz wrote last week, “none of us requires a guaranteed outcome in order to act.” The act itself is the thing. —E.O.
Humor is important. In the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union, jokes were what kept people going in some small sense. But I don’t think the Trump Presidency is going to collapse under the barrage of John Oliver’s best jokes. All I can speak for is my realm—journalism—and say, again, that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that truth—facts, rigor, clarity, thinking—is an essential part of what a citizen can insist on. —D.R.
Do you think we will see a full-blown press boycott/pushback to support, in solidarity, those members of the press corps and major publications who are having their First Amendment rights taken away from them? —Fareen Ansari
I can only speak for The New Yorker. And what I would say is this: a President who regards some of the most ambitious and rigorous media outlets as “enemies of the American people” is speaking an ominous language—the language of the authoritarian. In Stalin-era Russia, to be branded an “enemy of the people” was a kind of death sentence. Is that the kind of fear and intimidation that the democratically elected President wishes to spread? No, he has not shut down the Times. The New Yorker will arrive at your home as scheduled. But it is always the pattern of autocrats that they begin with the language of fury and intimidation and then move on from there. The only way to stop it is to recognize this and to resist it. —D.R.
What do you think of reports that fifteen thousand people demonstrated against Putin in Moscow? Remarkable, especially in light of your article I just read. —Nancy Hayden Crowley
Those demonstrators came out in memory of Boris Nemtsov, who was killed in February, 2015. Nemtsov was once a promising democratic politician, in the Yeltsin era; he never found his way under Putin, lost his place in government, and eventually found himself on the margins of Russia’s opposition politics. He was shot dead on a bridge across from the Kremlin. A number of suspects are on trial who appear to have links to the inner circle of Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s handpicked ruler of Chechnya, but the court in Moscow has so far refused to examine those connections thoroughly. What’s clear, though, is that Putin’s Kremlin is actively disinterested in a complete and honest investigation of the crime, suggesting either a measure of powerlessness or retroactive responsibility, if not both. What’s interesting about the case of Nemtsov is that his death seems to have struck a note, however muted, with many people in the country. The anti-Putin protest movement has fallen silent, and there are few issues that could get several thousand people into the streets these days. A well-regarded Russian documentary about Nemtsov’s life, called “The Man Who Was Too Free,” premièred last month to sold-out audiences in Moscow, and is now in the middle of a successful tour of other Russian cities. All that suggests, at the very least, a curiosity or nostalgia for Nemtsov and the values he represented. That certainly makes the authorities nervous, seeing as they are uncomfortable with any movements they do not control. Last week, Moscow city authorities announced plans for a two-year reconstruction project of the bridge where Nemtsov was shot—what many of his supporters fear is a way to rid the bridge of a makeshift memorial to Nemtsov and remove what has become a place of reflection and pilgrimage in the city. —J.Y.
Do you think more should have been done to bail out the Russian economy or ease the transition into the post-Soviet era for other states? You write about Putin’s feeling put down and put upon by Western powers. Would aid have amplified this feeling or prevented current tensions? —Luke Myers
There actually was quite a lot of aid from both the U.S. and Western countries and financial institutions. It’s important to remember, historically, what results, politically and psychologically, from the dissolution of empire. The kind of disorientation, the sense of loss, that you saw in the Ottoman Empire after its fall could also be found in the Soviet republics, especially as economic conditions worsened. —D.R.
Where is Russian art? Where is a Russian Bob Dylan? -Luisa Inez Newton
Thank you, Luisa. You’d be surprised to know, perhaps, that there is rebellious art—literary art, for example. Book publishing is not censored in the same way as, say, state television. If you want to buy a copy of Solzhenitsyn or Brodsky or Sakharov, no one is going to stop you. And there are many modern artists who write, paint, compose, etc., in a political way. Putin has determined that he can countenance this kind of art. Where he brings the hammer down is in the realm of political information on television. —D.R.
Will Putin push us into a war? —Marilyn Nagy
I don’t see that Russia wants war. Putin wants his interests protected and fulfilled as he sees them. He wants Russia to be the singular influence in the former Soviet republics. He wants a foothold in the Middle East (in western Syria). He wants to destabilize NATO and the European Union. He wants the West to be absorbed in its political crises so that he is left alone to exercise Russia’s geopolitical sway as he sees fit. —D.R.
How empowered does Putin’s team feel by the election meddling? —@jlcroner
That’s among the most interesting questions for those who follow Russia. Clearly, the Kremlin found something attractive in Trump. (One doesn’t even have to get into the allegations of direct interference or meddling: the coverage Trump received on Russian state-run media is enough to say with certainty that the Kremlin saw something advantageous and welcome in his candidacy.) As I wrote last fall, “Putin famously called him yarkiy, a tricky word that means colorful, gaudy, or bright, in the way that the neon lights shine from the marquee of one of Trump’s casinos.” But, as our reporting in Moscow and Washington showed, Russian officials—just like the rest of the world’s pundit class—were preparing for a Clinton victory, which suggests the ultimate aim of the Kremlin may have been to weaken Clinton as a future President while undermining the U.S. democratic system as a whole. Trump as President likely came as a surprise. The early days after Trump’s win were filled with a sense of triumphalism and satisfaction in Moscow, at least on state television: applause in the halls of parliament, talk of a grand rapprochement with the United States, that sort of thing. (It’s quite possible that Putin never allowed himself such euphoria, seeing that he views the U.S. as a long-term strategic rival of Russia, ruled by forces much greater than one President.) We’ve since seen a real tempering of attitudes, at least in public. We reported, for example, on a “no more Trump” order given to Russian state-media outlets. The Kremlin seems aware that with Russia as such a front-and-center issue in Washington, there is no political way Trump could deliver on his promise of better relations, even if he wanted to. And Russian officials see Trump’s impulsive, herky-jerky unpredictably just like everyone else. But if Putin’s goal was creating “turbulence” for the U.S. political system, as one informed observer in Moscow told us, then on that score he seems to be doing pretty well. —J.Y.