Russian President Vladimir Putin had not been interviewed by an American journalist in almost three years, but this week he granted an interview to former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. That means, of course, that Putin still hasn’t been interviewed by an American journalist in three years. He was interviewed by a former Fox News entertainer. The questions we should be asking are, why did Putin give an interview to Carlson — and why did he choose to do so now?
To be clear, my issue isn’t that an American interviewed Putin. That’s what real journalists should do. But, to repeat, Carlson isn’t a real journalist. Fox News, which fired him in April, made that clear when it successfully defended Carlson against a slander accusation filed against him in 2019. In writing her opinion, U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil restated Fox’s defense: “The “‘general tenor’ of the show should then inform a viewer that he [Carlson] is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.’ “
Carlson wasn’t even stating actual facts when he wrongly claimed that Western journalists haven’t pursued a Putin interview. Why, then, did Putin choose Carlson after denying other interview requests from Americans? The answer, in part, lies in Putin’s keen awareness that Carlson isn’t a journalist. Real journalists ask hard questions of powerful people. They push back when misleading or false information is proffered. Putin wanted none of that. That’s essentially what Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. Other Western news outlets have tried to interview Putin. The Kremlin chose Carlson because “he has a position that differs from the rest.”
Putin is a former KGB officer. That means he’s a master at manipulating and exploiting events for desired outcomes. What Putin wanted was a sturdy soapbox from which to ramble unimpeded for over two hours. Putin knew Carlson would provide just the right permissive platform because Putin did his homework. The Russian strongman knows Carlson has repeatedly and publicly praised him and has expressed nothing but disdain for Ukraine’s Volodymyr?Zelenskyy. Putin made the right choice.
That said, as a former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, I know that any insights we can glean from listening to an isolated world leader speak for over two hours can be valuable. I’m certain intelligence analysts around the globe are dissecting every word and gesture from Putin in this interview. At CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., there will be discussions about every aspect of the interview:?from why Putin kept his left hand clenched tightly onto his chair or on his knee for long periods of time, to whether the Russian leader might really intend to release an imprisoned Wall Street Journal reporter.? At the State Department and at the White House, Putin’s seeming openness to negotiate an end to his war against Ukraine will be assessed for days.
For about the first half hour of the so-called interview, Putin lectured Carlson on Russian history from the year 862 to now. This was Putin’s way of blaming everyone from Lenin to the Bolsheviks to Poland for creating Ukraine, which he called an “artificial state.” Not once did Carlson note that Putin has killed over 30,000 Ukrainian civilians or that he’s ordered hundreds of missiles to strike civilian targets in the so-called artificial state.
When Putin claimed that Russia’s strength has been its embrace of the Orthodox church and that Russia has always been “very loyal” to people who profess other religions, Carlson just sat there. He didn’t say a word about the total inaction of Russian authorities against a recent surge of violent antisemitism across Russia.
That’s why Putin chose Carlson. He is a “useful idiot,” a phrase often used to describe people vulnerable to easy manipulation and exploitation.
That’s the answer to the “Why Carlson?” question. “Why now?” is more intriguing. There are at least two related answers. Putin certainly knows the U.S. Senate has been strongly debating any further financial aid to Ukraine. On Thursday, a proposed package moved forward but will require modifications, and even if it succeeds in the Senate, its future in the House is tenuous. Putin likely wanted to make his case to U.S. lawmakers who are on the fence about America’s protracted role in Ukraine.
Relatedly, in the interview, Putin gave indications that he’s ready to think about a negotiated resolution to the war. Russia has taken a beating in Ukraine. If an American objective in Ukraine is to erode Russia’s military and Russians’ perception of Putin,?it might be working. It’s possible that Putin was signaling that he’s willing to talk. We can’t really assess how sincere Putin was on this topic because Carlson mostly let him drone on about how Zelenskyy and, strangely, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were to blame for the lack of negotiations.
Reportedly, former President Donald Trump has mulled making Carlson his running mate. Carlson’s recent world travels to visit far-right leaders in Hungary and Spain make it seem like if he were to have a role in a Trump Cabinet, he’d want to be secretary of state. It would be easy to write off Carlson’s cozying up to Putin as just a self-aggrandizing field trip. But this interview wasn’t just about Carlson trying recover after being booted by Fox. This was also about him boosting Trump by supporting Trump’s buddy Putin,?two far-right authoritarians Carlson has long praised.
Instead of lifting the noble causes of journalism, democracy or America, Carlson allowed himself to be used by a stone-cold killer. When he gets home, if he’s not already home, Carlson will have to scrub away the stink of a despot who played him for a fool. He should also toss all his electronic devices, because after staying in Moscow, dining at restaurants and attending the Bolshoi Ballet, Carlson can rest assured that his devices are compromised, just like his integrity.