Rob Glaser is one of the leading left-of-center campaign donors in America. With a fortune gained as an early employee at Microsoft and then as founder of RealNetworks, Glaser has backed causes including the Democracy Alliance and the early political career of Barack Obama. In this current cycle, Glaser is funding a new kind of political effort: a website—PutinTrump.org—intended to highlight the connections between the Republican presidential nominee and Russia’s authoritarian president. PutinTrump.org will launch on September 21.
Glaser and I overlapped at Yale University in the early 1980s. I interviewed him by email about his latest political venture.
David Frum: Foreign governments, friendly and unfriendly, often try to influence U.S. politics and elections. Many European leaders made no secret of their dislike of George W. Bush. Israel lobbies Congress, as do the Arab allies. China offers sweet deals to retiring officials. What’s different about the Trump-Putin relationship?
Rob Glaser: Two fundamental differences, and perhaps a third. The first is that Russia is directly interfering in the U.S. election through a combination of espionage and then leaking the results of that espionage in order to discredit one of the two major presidential candidates. This never happened even during the Cold War. It’s a dangerous escalation that threatens the integrity of the U.S. electoral process.
The second is Trump explicitly encouraging Russia to commit further espionage against Clinton. This is also unprecedented. Indeed, it’s unfathomable to me that the public hasn’t universally recognized that this is disqualifying behavior by Trump that borders on treason.
The third possible way this year’s activities are unprecedented is related to Trump’s deep financial ties to Russia and to politically well-connected Russian oligarchs. There is some evidence emerging about these links and our team at PutinTrump.org is trying to ferret out more. What I’d say for now is with Trump, every time there’s been smoke, there’s also been fire.
Frum: Mitt Romney sounded the alarm about Putin four years ago. President Obama mocked him then: “The 1980s called, they want their foreign policy back. The Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” The New York Times editorialized that Romney’s comments about the strategic threat from Russia revealed either “shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics.” Hillary Clinton, still secretary of state, described Romney’s comments as “dated” and “looking backwards.”
You are a long-standing supporter of progressive political causes. What’s your answer to those Republicans who might suspect something opportunistic in this sudden alarm about Russia on the Democratic side?
Glaser: I don’t think it’s “sudden alarm,” certainly not on my part or on President Obama’s part. For instance here’s a story from over 2 1/2 year ago where President Obama very directly condemns Putin’s actions in Ukraine. And here’s another from a year ago at last year’s UN Summit when President Obama criticizes Putin for his actions in both Syria and Ukraine.
I do think it’s fair to say two things:
A) Based on the quotes you surfaced, in 2012 Romney did a better job of predicting Putin’s turn towards more aggressive behavior than President Obama did in 2012.
B) In the past three or four years, especially in Ukraine and Syria, Putin has been more aggressive and adversarial than he or any Russian leader before him has been in the 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. How to confront and constrain Putin’s bellicosity and expansionism—while hopefully preventing the rise of a full-on second Cold War—is one of the hardest and most important foreign policy challenges of our day. Praising Putin and saying that he’s a great leader—as Trump has consistently done and continues to do—is exactly the opposite of what we need our next president to do.
Frum: Can you be specific about how your new group perceives the Trump-Putin relationship? How far and deep does it go, in your opinion—and with what consequences?
Glaser: There’s frankly a lot we don’t know about the relationship between Putin and Trump, especially the financial ties between Trump’s business empire and Russia writ large—both the Russian government itself, and Russian oligarchs who are close to Putin. We’re hoping that PutinTrump.org will encourage more reporting and investigation into the troubling links we already do know about. For instance we have a feedback section where people can report scoops—anonymously if they want—and we’ll do our best with our small but talented staff to track them down as well as to pass along anything we learn to other respected journalists.
Trump isn’t a fringe candidate like Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage, he’s the nominee of one of the two major parties in the U.S., the most powerful country on earth. The damage that could, and I fear would, be done if Trump were elected president would be profound.
Because we’re in such uncharted waters it’s hard to predict exactly what would happen in a Putin-Trump world. Might Putin engage in a full-on invasion of Ukraine thinking he has Trump’s blessing or at least acquiescence? Might Putin feel emboldened by his ability to subvert U.S. democracy through cyberhacks that he will go all in on doing so throughout Central Europe until he has re-created the hegemony of the Soviet era?
And back in the U.S., what will Trump’s admiration for Putin mean for Trump’s willingness to subvert democracy to get his way and to pad his own pockets? We’re already seeing an unprecedented lack of transparency by Trump—for instance him not releasing his tax returns. I think there’s a real risk of a Trump presidency turning into a full-on kleptocracy.
Frum: So tell us more about the new project. What exactly are you planning to do? Do you have wider ambitions than collecting and stockpiling information?
Glaser: We have three big goals for PutinTrump.org.
The first is to be the world’s definitive place to find rigorous reporting, lucid analysis, and thoughtful opinions on the dangerous and unprecedented connections between the head of Russia and a major-party presidential nominee.
The second is to raise the awareness of this massive problem to make it one of the defining issues of the 2016 presidential campaign.
The third is that by raising the issue in a thoughtful and rigorous way, and by raising the profile of the issues surrounding the Trump-Putin nexus, we want to persuade as many people as possible—including many who might otherwise seriously consider voting for him—that Donald Trump’s deep ties with and affinity for Vladimir Putin disqualify Trump from being President of the United States.
How we achieve these three goals may evolve over time (although we recognize that time is short with the election less than 50 days away). For instance, we’re hoping that PutinTrump.org will encourage more reporting and investigation into the troubling links we already do know about as well as potentially raising new issues.
Frum: The conventional opinion holds that foreign policy make relatively little impact on American voters, except in times of outright war. What impact do you hope for from this effort?
Glaser: As you point out, under normal circumstances foreign policy rarely determines elections. But the Putin-Trump situation is so highly abnormal that I’m not sure that this rule of thumb applies. What’s the last time a major U.S. presidential candidate ever spoke lavishly about one of our adversaries and urged that adversary to commit burglary against his opponent? What’s the last time that adversary overtly interfered with our electoral system by stealing information and then using that information to overtly try to discredit one of our two major party nominees?
As far as I can tell, this kind of stuff has never happened before, not even close. So we’re not talking about the normal range of foreign policy disagreements—we’re talking about a leading foreign power (Russia) trying to disrupt our electoral process, and the potential beneficiary of that disruption (Trump) praising and egging on that adversary. This is a direct threat to the integrity of our electoral system and to our national sovereignty.
If we are able to help get people the facts and raise the profile of the Putin-Trump story, I think there’s a good chance we can change the course of this election.
Frum: How seriously do you take the possibility that Trump might actually win? What will happen to this project if he does? Do Trump’s periodic threats to wield libel laws against critics concern you?
Glaser: I take the possibility of Trump winning very seriously. I range between thinking it’s 50-50 and that the odds are slightly in Hillary’s favor. Even right after the conventions, when the polls showed Hillary up by several points, I thought it was at best 60-40 for her (if you want to confirm this, feel free check my public Facebook feed). This is so for two reasons:
First, we’re dealing with two historically unpopular major party nominees—according to RCP’s average, Hillary’s favorability rating is net -13 and Trump’s is net -18.8. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
Second, in the post-war period it’s quite rare for a party to get the White House for a third term in a row. In the six instances where it could have happened over the past 70 years, it’s only happened once (1988). So again, as an empirical matter there’s a strong headwind against any Democrat winning a third term in 2016.
PutinTrump.org is designed to run through Election Day. We’ve funded and staffed it to a great job between now and then. In the tragic event that our effort were to fail and Trump were to get elected anyway, we’d have to figure out where we’d go from there.
In terms of possible retribution, sure I’ve thought about it. But my parents raised me to fight for what I believe is right and just, rather than to avoid doing so out of fear of retribution. Moreover, now that I have kids of my own, the best way I can pass this value on to them is to lead by example.