Glenn Greenwald vs. James Risen: Two Leading Journalists Are in a 'Ferocious' Debate on Russia
In the annals of leftist discourse, last week’s debate between Glenn Greenwald and James Risen over the Trump-Russia investigation was akin to a heavyweight boxing match. While both men work for the leftish Intercept and have Pulitzer Prizes on their walls, their styles are radically different.
Greenwald, it seems, was born in a courtroom and (per Groucho Marx) was vaccinated with a phonograph needle. In argument, he is a relentless attacker and counterpuncher, drawing on an inexhaustible well of hard fact and high dudgeon.
Risen, a former New York Times reporter targeted by the Bush and Obama administrations, seems to have grown up in a newspaper office with the journo-mantra, “Just the facts, ma’am” inscribed in his DNA. He is cautious, even plodding, in his rhetorical pugilism, exuding a reporter’s high ambition to avoid even the smallest of errors.
Greenwald and Risen’s civil conversation, skillfully introduced by Jeremy Scahill, clarifies the two distinct ways that the American left has responded to the avalanche of news reporting on Trump’s dealings with Russia, as well as the recent indictments handed down by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
As Scahill notes, this is a “ferocious debate,” not only in the offices of the Intercept and Twitter, but on the American left in general. While Risen and Greenwald agree on some key issues, their views are, in some respects, fundamentally at odds. History will prove one of them is more right than the other, which is why their debate matters.
In general, Greenwald is skeptical of the narrative of Trump collusion and complicity, while Risen discerns an emerging fact pattern that may point to presidential treason.
Who’s right? Who makes the stronger case? If I were confined to Twitter hell—that overheated sandbox where all arguments are reduced to 280 characters—I would offer my personal opinion, but I think I'll pass. Readers should make up their own minds.
Here are some of their key exchanges.
The Question of Treason
Risen opens by asking a reporter’s question: “What is the level of evidence on whether Russia intervened on behalf of Trump?”
“The evidence is growing stronger,” he says, while allowing that “it is not completely conclusive.” Risen is persuaded that “the Russian intelligence community and other elements of Russian government made a decision to get involved in the 2016 election.”
The question is not whether Russia’s action “made a difference,” Risen says. The question is whether Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russians. While definitive proof is lacking, Risen argues that incriminating evidence is accumulating.
Greenwald weighs in with “deep-seated objection” to Risen asking the question in a recent Intercept piece, "Is Donald Trump a Traitor?"
“That’s not just wrong, but dangerously wrong,” Greenwald said.
Citing a recent piece by law professor Steve Vladeck, he argued that the legal and constitutional definition of “treason” is narrow, consisting only of giving aid and comfort to a nation with which the United States has issued a formal declaration of war.
Under this definition, “you could not get anywhere near treason” for Trump, he concluded.
Risen replied with an objection of his own. “What you do you is criticize…writers or politicians talking about Trump and Russia, fairly and often validly,” he said. “But you don’t deal with the substance of the underlying issue.”
“Over time your position seems to have changed dramatically,” Risen continued. “Last year, you thought all of this was a hoax. More recently, you seem to—in throwaway lines—to accept that the Russians intervened; at the same time, you criticize people for making too big a deal of it. I’m confused as a reader.”
Greenwald insisted he had never used the word “hoax.”
“I never said was anything like that,” he said. He believes people “shouldn’t believe the claims of the U.S. government, absent convincing evidence…that we can see for ourselves.”
He said the recent Mueller indictments suggest that the Russians did “something” during the 2016 election. But he cited the reporting of the New York Times and other news organization in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as reason for skepticism.
Risen responded that Greenwald was “absolutely right” about the Times’ failure in 2003, but added, “I believe that you can go too far the other way and not be open enough to facts as they emerge.”
The Trump-Russian reporting of sources inside and outside the U.S. government, and in the foreign press, as well as a top-secret NSA document leaked to the Intercept, constitute “compelling” evidence, Risen argued.
“All point to a fairly strong conclusion that the Russian government intervened in the election,” he said, adding, “I don’t believe that there is the same level of evidence for collusion.”
Scahill, seeking to find common ground between his colleagues, suggested that both men accept Russia spent money on social media campaigns targeting Hillary Clinton, and that Russia was behind the DNC hack, but, “there is no evidence that links Trump to any involvement.”
“Isn’t it necessary to show that they actually participated in a criminal conspiracy?” Scahill asked Risen.
“Yes, I agree,” Risen replied. “That’s the big hole in the whole story.”
Scahill then put the question of presidential lying to Greenwald. “Glenn, how do you then reckon with the fact that key people around Trump have repeatedly lied, including about very significant episodes…that, and the president is regularly lying on Twitter in a demonstrable way?”
“It could be just for political reasons,” Greenwald replied. “They wanted to minimize their dealings with the Russians because they think it's politically harmful if they’re seen as dealing too much with the Russians….That’s just as plausible to me as that they are lying continuously in order to cover up underlying crimes.”
In a final exchange, the two men identified their most fundamental difference.
“I agree with skepticism of the intelligence community,” Risen said. “My point is that ... I think a lot of readers who criticize you—I don't think they are criticizing you because you don’t believe the case or because you are skeptical. I think it's because they’re coming away from what you’ve written ... thinking that you are in denial about everything."
“I think it is a virtue of your national security reporting, you tend to stay away from politics,” Greenwald replied. “I think that you are severely underestimating the political strain that runs through how people perceive this story.”
“That’s one of the key differences between us,” Risen agreed. “I’m trying to find out, what are the facts in this case? Is this a good story to follow? How do we investigate this? What are the next steps?…I think you’re looking at it as a political threat to your political agenda, which is a very valid way to look at it. It’s just different from mine.”