“Sessions Scandal: ‘U.S Headed to Constitutional Crisis,’” reads a March 3 headline on the website of the Kremlin-funded English-language network RT.
“Immigrants See American Dream Fade in Wake of Surge in Hate Crimes,” Sputnik News, another English language outlet bankrolled by the Kremlin, reported the same day.
“America is in the grips of hatred,” the Russian television commentator Dmitry Kiselyov told viewers of the Rossiya 1 network on Sunday night. The popular host, appointed directly by Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggested the political discord could lead to violence in gun-friendly America — “a dangerous combination with free-flowing firearms,” he said.
It’s not that the Kremlin-controlled outlets which all but explicitly rooted for Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton last fall have changed their view of the New York mogul. It’s that Moscow’s main goal was always to undermine the U.S. political system, regardless of who is in the White House, experts said.
“The Russian government is savoring the severe damage to America’s international image as a result of the tumultuous first weeks of the Trump administration’s tenure,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Clinton White House National Security Council official for Russian affairs.
That’s particularly true given dimming hopes in Moscow that Trump can now deliver on his pledge to cooperate with Putin.
Russian media coverage has a limited impact on the U.S. political debate, even if stories by RT and Sputnik can circulate widely across Twitter and Facebook.
But shifts in how Russia reports on U.S. politics can offer important clues about Putin's latest views of America.
And at the moment, Putin seems to be reveling in the sense of crisis gripping U.S. politics.
“Are Trump’s policies dividing America more than ever?” asked an RT headline last month.
At the same time, Russian coverage of Trump himself took a more critical turn almost immediately after his inauguration. “Trump Draws Noticeably Smaller Inauguration Crowd Than Predecessor,” Sputnik headlined on Jan. 21.
Other stories in various Russian outlets have spotlighted Trump’s dismal poll numbers, criticized his immigration crackdown and even made fun of his handshake. Russian television has replayed biting "Saturday Night Live" sketches spoofing the new president.
Putin’s Russia might like to befriend and strike deals with Trump. But Moscow is also happy to see him founder if it weakens American resolve at home and abroad, said Weiss, now vice president for policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The original Russian state-controlled media fixation on Trump was that he was this destroying angel who would damage the established monopoly of two leading U.S. political parties and lead a crusade against ‘bankrupt’ American elites,” Weiss said.
U.S. intelligence officials have cited the clear preference of Russian media for Trump over Clinton last year as part of a larger Kremlin effort to influence the election.
The uproar over Trump’s alleged ties to Moscow has put Russian news outlets in an awkward spot. On one hand, they are celebrating the confusion surrounding charges that Trump and his associates might have had illicit ties to Moscow.
“Over 35% of U.S. Citizens Worried About Trump Team’s Alleged Contacts With Russia,” Sputnik reported last week, citing a CNN poll showing that 37 percent of Americans are “very concerned” about contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.
At the same time, Moscow’s media reject such talk as McCarthyism, and they point a finger at former President Barack Obama as a sinister figure using Russia as a means of undermining Trump.
“If Joe McCarthy were alive today, he would easily recognize the witch-hunt hysteria consuming Washington,” said Peter Lavelle, host of "CrossTalk," which calls itself RT's flagship show. “Blaming Russia is targeting Donald Trump. The outcome of this is dangerously unclear,” Lavelle added.
The show’s discussion treated as credible Trump’s unfounded accusation that Obama ordered a wiretap on him.
Obama’s influence has been a recurring theme. A recent segment on the Sunday news show "Voskresnoe Vremya" (“Times on Sunday”) was “punctuated with ominous music, [and] Obama was portrayed as a villain who might have said goodbye but, in fact, has never left Washington D.C. for his native Chicago,” according to a description in the Moscow Times.
The souring coverage of Trump also underscores diminished hopes in Moscow that Trump will upgrade Russian-American relations after years of rising tensions.
In recent days, both RT and Sputnik have offered commentaries throwing cold water on the prospects of a Trump-Putin deal.
“Trump's entourage not only wants but is making every effort to ensure that the previous administration's anti-Russian policy is continued,” Dmitry Novikov, a member of the Russian Duma’s Committee on International Affairs, says in a March 4 Sputnik article. He added that a unified Democratic and Republican establishment “represent[s] the interests of large corporations which are seeking to increase their shares in the global market” at Russia’s expense.
These days, even when Russian commentators praise Trump, the compliment seems backhanded.
A "CrossTalk" discussion of Trump’s address to Congress last week used terms reminiscent of Americans mocking Soviet authoritarianism.
“If you recall how they were applauding Trump, I think 95 times they stood up,” said Edward Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow. “Even during the Brezhnev time I don't recall that the delegates to the party congress stood up and gave standing ovations 95 times.”
Author: Michael Crowley