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Why it’s weirdly fitting that a Donald Trump interview aired on RT

A few years ago, the cable channel RT launched a new advertising campaign in the United States, offering a "second opinion" for Americans concerned about, say, the lead-up to the war in Iraq. For a marketing effort, this was unusually accurate: RT was offering a second opinion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's opinion. This is an oversimplification of RT's role in the media universe, but it's not inaccurate.

The network was founded a decade ago by a spokesman for Putin, Aleksei Gromov, and a former Russian information minister. The two "say they've grown tired of watching foreign journalists present a distorted and one-sided portrayal of Russia to the outside world," Radio Free Europe reported at the time. When Time magazine profiled the network last year, its reporter discovered that the link between RT and the Kremlin was a literal one.

[Editor in chief Margarita] Simonyan, now 34, bristles at suggestions that her media empire is not editorially independent. Is it possible, for instance, that someone from the Kremlin might call her up and demand that she not broadcast a particular story? “How can you imagine such a thing?” she asks, looking genuinely hurt.
And yet on her desk sits an old yellow telephone, a government landline, the sort with no dial pad, the sort usually seen in the offices of senior Russian officials. It is her secure connection, she admits, directly to the Kremlin. What’s it for, then, if not to talk shop? “The phone exists,” she says, “to discuss secret things.”

Shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea, a move that solidified Putin's popularity in the country, one of the network's anchors resigned in the middle of a broadcast.

"I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin," Liz Wahl said. "I’m proud of being an American and believe in disseminating the truth and that’s why after this newscast I’m resigning."

After Wahl resigned, pressure mounted for former CNN star Larry King to terminate his relationship with the network, something that he declined to do. "I don't work for RT," he said, which was true. His show is syndicated by a company called Ora TV, which then provides it to RT. King pledged that he'd rethink the relationship if RT ever censored what he produced. Since his program still airs on RT, it seems that hasn't happened.

Meaning that when an interview with Donald Trump aired on the network Thursday night, we got it unfiltered. Since Trump, among other things, called American media "unbelievably dishonest," RT probably wasn't worried about giving the conversation airtime.

King has been an institution in the celebrity-interviewing world for decades and Trump has been his subject multiple times. It's fair to take at face value his campaign's insistence that it didn't know the interview would end up on a network controlled to some degree by the Kremlin. (The campaign says it was told it would be doing a podcast, and given its past media-vetting failures, that's believable.) But the blowback from the appearance doing so was swift, as we reported — particularly for a candidate who's already facing questions about his relationship with the Russian government and its president.

In fact, the King interview epitomizes those lingering questions. Where and how Trump's interests and the interests of Russia overlap is unclear. There are a number of hints that Trump has sought to do business with Russia and he's had business relationships with prominent people in the country. At the same time, Russia is quietly trying to influence the results of the election, according to government officials, an effort that includes hacking into the Democratic National Committee and leaking what it found to the press. (To King, Trump said that a Russian role in the hack was "probably unlikely," contradicting evidence that removes nearly all doubt about the culprit.)

That the Republican nominee refuses to criticize Putin only makes the whole situation weirder. The New York Times has collected a list of things Trump has insulted on Twitter, including President Obama, Hillary Clinton, the American media (and individual reporters) and Republicans. Neither Russia nor Putin appear on the list.

So now we have Trump on a network created to advance Russian interests disparaging his country's media — and disparaging Clinton, the woman who is currently leading in the race to be the next president. Even unintentionally, his campaign's apparent failure to understand how the interview would be used ends up bolstering Putin to some small degree. Compared to his declaration that Putin has "been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader" during this week's Commander-in-Chief Forum on NBC, the RT interview is fairly minor. It's just that Trump's campaign keeps seeming to end up being helpful to the country that the last Republican nominee for president called "our No. 1 geopolitical foe" — and that Russia, in turn, looks to keep trying to be helpful to him.

RT, meanwhile, is eating the whole thing up, suggesting that the American media had "freak[ed] out" about Trump's appearance.

In this case, that's not really a divergent opinion.