It may be short on the rich gossip of some of the political-bombshell books published in the past year, but the recently released Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump (Twelve), serves another purpose. In a wide-ranging narrative, veteran journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn start configuring the puzzle of Russian involvement in U.S. elections. Corn says he hopes Russian Roulette will help readers to get off the “hamster wheel” of the news cycle and build up a solid understanding of an ongoing story.
In advance of an appearance this Saturday as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, Corn and Isikoff spoke with Chicago about the book and other related subjects.
What do you hope people get out of your book?
Isikoff: I don’t think people fully grasp the depth of what the Russians were doing in 2016. We often use the words “meddling” or “interference” in the election. It was a full-scale assault on American democracy that was far more extensive and sophisticated than anybody realized at the time. It had been in the works for quite a few years, and this is something that is a real national security threat that’s going to be ongoing. It didn’t end with the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. We’re facing another election—congressional election—this year and a presidential election in 2020. This a serious national security issue.
During the campaign, Hillary Clinton suggested that Trump would be a puppet for Putin as president. Do you think that’s come true?
Corn: To me it’s bizarre that we’re even in a situation where we have to answer that question. We certainly describe in the book that by denying there was a Russian attack, calling it a hoax, Trump was in essence aiding and abetting the Russians in their information warfare campaign against the United States. Whether that makes him a puppet or not, I don’t know. But he certainly was providing cover for the campaign.
The book is critical of a lot of people for the muted response to Russian interference in the election. One of those is Barack Obama. Do you reckon he regrets his handling of it?
Isikoff: I think he does at this point. Whether he’s prepared to admit it or not, we’ll have to wait and see his memoirs. But certainly many of those closest around him have acknowledged they could have done more, they should have done more.
There were some tough dilemmas there in the summer of 2016: The fear that if they did speak out or push back it would have consequences both domestically and politically—that it would be perceived as the president or the White House putting its thumb on the scale of the election to try to influence the outcome of the election by essentially adopting what the Clinton campaign wanted them to do. Which was to speak out, denounce the Russian attack, and take measures to retaliate, and Obama, just given his nature, was extremely reluctant.
What do you make of James Comey’s book and his current media blitz of Trump?
Isikoff: While the memos that were released just the other day clearly support Comey’s basic story, I think some of the personal comments he’s made about Trump probably have undercut him in some ways or sort of suggested a bias that is probably not helpful. Certainly not helpful for Robert Mueller—[Comey’s] going to be a key witness in any sort of obstruction case or, down the road, impeachment proceeding.
What has surprised you about the response to the book?
Corn: We’ve gotten tremendous positive feedback, but nine out of 10 of the responses seems to be a version of something like, “Now I understand the big picture, now I get it.” Everybody has been bowled over with these overwhelming news cycles, and the story has sort of come out in bits and pieces in a non-linear, non-chronological way. And by putting it on paper in a narrative form, people have responded strongly to that.