It’s your typical dinner banquet photo, except for who’s seated at the table.
In the center is Vladimir Putin, the Russian president; at his right elbow, retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, at the time hardly a household name. A few seats over, among high-ranking Russian officials and other VIPs, is Jill Stein, the Harvard doctor and 2016 (and quadrennial) Green Party presidential candidate.
Seated one or two tables away at that now-infamous dinner? Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.
The event was a December 2015 fete in Moscow for news outlet Russia Today’s 10th anniversary. Had the 2016 U.S. presidential election not turned out as it did, the photo, and the event with it, likely would be forgotten by now.
Instead, it elicits anger and alarm over Russian meddling in that race to help Donald Trump win, along with speculation and intrigue over the role played by Trump surrogates like Flynn and, potentially, by unwitting third-party players like Stein.
“It was a very loose, fun event,” Anderson recalled Wednesday. “They had military guys come out and sing. They were fantastic.”
Of course, the evening’s entertainment is not what’s on most people’s minds these days, the former mayor included. Anderson, who was the Justice Party’s presidential candidate in 2012, was picking up a latte Wednesday morning when an MSBNC headline on TV stopped him short: “Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Jill Stein for collusion.”
“Oh my God — that is so unbelievably irresponsible,” he thought. Not about Stein, but about the Senate committee.
What the panel is putting her through is “shameful,” he said — for Democrats and Republicans alike.
“Somebody could have picked up the phone and asked her, ‘Did you have your way paid?’” he scoffed. “’Did you get anything of value out of this? Did they give you any instructions? Did they try to enlist you?’”
Stein issued a statement Tuesday, saying she is cooperating with the Senate committee by providing documents and emails. She also warned about intimidation and silencing “principled opposition to the political establishment.”
“We strongly support legitimate inquiry into any illegal activity in our elections,” she said. “At the same time, we caution against the politicization, sensationalism and collapse of journalistic standards that has plagued media coverage of the investigation.”
Anderson supports that pushback.
“I don’t think people ought to cower in the face of this,” he said. “I think they ought to stand up.”
He added at one point, half-joking: “I’m just really glad I wasn’t running in 2016.”
The dinner in Moscow
As banquets go, the Moscow event was fairly intimate — 150 or so guests, Anderson recalled. So why was he invited? For one, he’s appeared on the Russian news outlet, also known as RT, a number of times. For another, he likes the network.
“I’ve always thought they provided really important perspective that we oftentimes don’t get through our mainstream media — although at times you can tell they’re totally kowtowing to the Russian government line,” he said. “Not unlike a lot of our mainstream media.”
He attended the busy two-day Moscow event that included tours, public discussions and the dinner. Anderson dined between “a world-famous soccer star” he’d never heard of and an old friend, American University history professor Peter Kuznick, who co-wrote the 2012 documentary “The Untold History of the United States” with director Oliver Stone.
Talk and speeches at the event were being translated in real time, and Anderson said he tried to pay attention. He snapped pictures of Putin at the table next to his. In those photos, the seat occupied by Flynn in other pictures of the event is empty. But Anderson saw Flynn there, although at the time he didn’t know who Flynn was.
Democracy at home and abroad
To say that Anderson, from an American perspective, takes a contrarian view toward RT and U.S.-Russia relations in general is an understatement. The news organization was required to register as a foreign agent in the U.S. That move, to Anderson, has “an incredibly chilling effect” on all news reporting.
The “creeping McCarthyism” he sees in the U.S. is not pushed by one major party’s camp or the other’s, he said; both are responsible. “Well-founded accusations” about the Trump campaign colluding with the Russian government are being used by the president’s opponents to demonize Russia “because they want to connect the demon with Trump.”
“I don’t really cotton to any nation interfering with any other nation’s elections, but I think it’s stupendously hypocritical when the media in this country and most of the people seem to be so exercised and focused on Russian interference in our election, but they never seem to care about our country institutionally interfering in elections in other countries,” he said.
He rattled off U.S. actions in Iran in the 1950s and, in later decades, in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile and other nations. Despite his concerns about the Russian meddling in 2016, the episode is not grounds for tougher treatment and sanctions but instead “underlines the necessity to build friendlier, closer relations” with Russia and its leader.
“They did some advertising for Jill Stein on Facebook, and if that was to draw votes away from Hillary Clinton, which seems likely, I think that’s a pretty clear sign of their interference in our election,” Anderson said. “Russia’s a powerful nation, and instead of treating them simply as the enemy and building more barriers, I think we need to do everything we can on a people-to-people basis and also diplomatically between our governments to find more common cause and try to work together in a more friendly fashion.”
People, he said, “can sit down and play a game of who has interfered more in other elections around the world, and I think the U.S. would come out way ahead of anybody else. They don’t just buy Facebook pages.”
That doesn’t mean the U.S. shouldn’t challenge Russian agents “when they come into our country and interfere,” he adds. “But we also ought to stop saying we’re going around the world to protect democracy when we do more to undermine it than any other country.”