Stephen K. Bannon labeled the Russia investigation a “farce” and a “waste of time” during his interview with “60 Minutes” this weekend. But those strong words papered over what was otherwise a pretty nervous and nonsensical defense of President Trump on Russia.
If you watch the video above, you'll see Bannon repeatedly stumble over his answers to Charlie Rose's questions. Bannon echoed the Trump White House's long-running strategy of deflecting on Russia, responding to questions about whether there was interference by saying there was no collusion and that it didn't have an impact. Both times Bannon tried this, though, Rose called him out for not answering the question.
And by the end of the segment, Bannon offered perhaps his most illogical argument of the entire interview, suggesting that Trump didn't more directly criticize Russia because he doesn't want to pick a fight (!). This is a president, of course, who picks fights with pretty much everyone — up to and including members of his own party, his own staff, and powerful and adversarial countries like China.
Let's break it down piece by piece:
BANNON: There's nothing to the Russia investigation. It's a waste of time.
ROSE: What do you believe? You know what the national security institutions believe. What do you believe?
BANNON: What do you mean, what they believe? We don't really — I mean — that there may have been — I — I think — look, I was there —
ROSE: No, no, no, you were — you —
BANNON: It's a total and complete farce. Russian collusion is a farce.
ROSE: Okay, I didn't say “collusion.” Did the Russians try to influence the election?
This is a tired strategy from the White House, and it's dishonest. When asked about whether there was interference, you say there was no collusion. Well, that wasn't the question. That may be the next question, but they are far from the same thing. And the fact remains that Bannon and others in the White House, including Trump, have been reluctant to acknowledge even that Russia tried to interfere — despite that being the consensus of the intelligence community.
It's fine if you don't agree with that conclusion! But this effort to equate Russian interference with the collusion question seems a thinly veiled effort to muddy the waters.
BANNON: If you consider maybe something they did that at the DNC — who — who —
ROSE: Maybe something they did —
BANNON: — maybe someone that did —
ROSE: That's not what the CIA believes. That's not what the FBI believes.
BANNON: — maybe — maybe what they — have you seen — have you seen the intelligence reports?
BANNON: Okay, fine. So you don't know —
ROSE: Have you seen intelligence reports?
BANNON: I have seen the intelligence reports.
ROSE: And are you saying to me those intelligence reports do not suggest that the Russians tried to influence the election?
BANNON: I don't — I would never devolve classified information on this show. But let me tell you, I think it's far from conclusive that the Russians had any impact on this election.
ROSE: Well, that's not the question. Did they try to influence the American election? That's what the investigation is about.
BANNON: We'll have to wait till the investigation is finished.
First off, Bannon jumbles his words here, saying “devolve” where he meant “divulge.” And he doesn't look entirely comfortable in any of this.
But more important, he again deflects, equating Russian interference with actually having an impact and moving votes. This is also a golden oldie from the White House, and it's also deceptive. Just as it's possible Russia interfered but there was no collusion, it's possible it interfered and didn't change the result.
The intelligence community, in fact, has stated clearly that it can't say whether Russian interference changed the result or moved votes — because it's impossible to know.
And now to what was arguably Bannon's worst moment:
ROSE: Why does the president find it so hard to criticize Russia?
BANNON: Charlie, let — this is what stuns me. I don't think the president goes out of his way — what his point is, why pick another fight? We've got enough problems around the world.
ROSE: So don't criticize the Russians because we don't need another fight?
BANNON: He criticizes the Russians all the time. He knows the Russians are not good guys. We should be focused on how we bring the Cold War to an end, so we don't have to — and I think it was President Obama's program, $1 trillion to upgrade the nuclear arsenal. Is that what you wanna do? Is that where you wanna spend your money? Would you rather spend $1 trillion in Cleveland, in Baltimore, in the inner cities of this country where we need to spend it, in the heartland of this nation? And I think what he's trying to say, in a world of anarchy, do you need another enemy?
Our own Philip Bump tweeted a near-perfect response to this.
Bannon says that Trump doesn’t criticize Russia because “why pick another fight?”
— Philip Bump (@pbump) September 11, 2017
Trump has also picked fights with a number of countries — so many that I was able to craft this map of countries he had alienated after just the first two weeks of his presidency:
Most notably, Trump has repeatedly gone after China, including this month when he threatened to cut off trade with it over its relationship with North Korea. Then there were the times he berated the Australian prime minister, told Mexico it was going to pay for his border wall, told Germany it was exploiting the European Union, and on and on.
In the very same interview, in fact, Bannon praised Trump's counterpunching. “I think I'm a street fighter,” Bannon said. “And by the way, I think that's why Donald Trump and I get along so well. Donald Trump's a fighter. Great counterpuncher. Great counterpuncher. He's a fighter.” Russia seems to be one of very few exceptions to that rule.
After nearly eight months, if this is still the best defense of Russia that the White House has, that says plenty.