Megyn Kelly’s exclusive interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin may have been the inaugural sitdown of Kelly’s new show on NBC, but the format was old hat for the former Fox News star: Sit across from a strongman and be repeatedly lied to.
As an American special counsel attempts to cleave the Gordian knot of alleged links between Trump’s inner circle and top-tier members of Russian intelligence—and as Russia’s expansionist ambitions become increasingly overt—the stakes for Kelly’s interview were high. Fortunately for Putin, Kelly is apparently more adept at challenging the concept of a black Santa Claus than challenging a modern-day czar.
The Russian president boldly repeated demonstrable lies, decades-old conspiracy theories, and anti-journalist invective during the 11-minute interview—a strategy that might well have been cribbed from President Donald Trump’s media playbook. Kelly, who honed her interview skills as the smartest anchor at a cable network that airs Sean Hannity on a nightly basis, seldom pushed back against Putin’s assertions, including a bizarre suggestion that American intelligence services assassinated John F. Kennedy.
It was on the subject of Russian meddling in the U.S. electoral process, however, that Putin was at his most brazenly dishonest.
“I haven’t seen, even once, any direct proof of Russian interference in the presidential election in the United States,” Putin said at the interview’s outset.
Seventeen American intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian government interfered with the election, with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence determining in January that Putin himself ordered an influence campaign with the goal of undermining public faith in the democratic process, denigrating then-Democratic presidental nominee Hillary Clinton, and harming her electability and potential presidency.
The report also determined that Putin, for whom Trump has long expressed public admiration, had developed “a clear preference” for Trump, an allegation—in addition to numerous off-the-book meetings between Trump associates and Russian government officials—that has sparked months of speculation about just how close the two presidents really are.
Putin negated the idea that the Kremlin even has an opinion on who inhabits the White House.
“Presidents come and go, and even the parties in power change, but the main political direction does not change. That’s why, in the grand scheme of things, we don’t care who’s the head of the United States,” Putin said, dubiously. “We know more or less what is going to happen. And so in this regard, even if we wanted to, it wouldn’t make sense for us to interfere.”
Nearly every round of questioning followed a similar trajectory: a vague, confusingly framed question that suggested a lack of research in the subject; an unabashedly mendacious response; concluding with a voiceover of Kelly setting up her next poorly articulated question.
Dubbed in nasally English by a translator who sounded more like a cast member of The Big Bang Theory than the former director of the dreaded FSB, Putin declared that “there were no meetings” between Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and members of Trump’s campaign and administration.
“There were no meetings. I, you understand, there were no meetings. When I saw this, my jaw dropped,” Putin said. That claim runs counter to admissions by the White House itself that multiple members of the administration met with Kislyak, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and senior adviser-slash-presidential-son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The Russian president then backtracked, saying he had “no idea” whether meetings took place. The contradiction went unchallenged by Kelly.
“I’m being completely honest with you—I don’t know,” Putin said. “Do you think that from all over the world, or from the United States, the ambassador reports to me every day who he meets with or what they discuss there? That’s complete nonsense! Do you even understand what you’re asking or not?”
When asked whether he was “interested” in what Kislyak might have discussed with Kushner—who reportedly pitched a back channel that would have protected discussions between the transition team and the Russian government from being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies—Putin dismissively asserted that the conversation had been invented out of whole cloth by a “bored” American press.
“You created a sensation out of nothing. And out of this sensation, you turned it into a weapon of war against the current president,” Putin said. “You people are so creative over there. Good job. Your lives must be boring.”
But even the most bored journalist could not have crafted Putin’s most audacious supposition: that Russian interference in the presidential election was the result of an elaborate false flag operation conducted by a shadowy cadre of mysterious American intelligence agencies.
“Hackers can be anywhere. They can be in Russia, in Asia, even in America… They can even be hackers, by the way, in the United States who very skillfully and professionally shifted the blame, as we say, onto Russia,” Putin said. “By some calculations, it was convenient for them to release this information, so they released it, calling out Russia. Can you imagine something like that? I can.”
Here, Putin took the opportunity to demonstrate another shared bond with Trump: baselessly accusing his opponents of being connected to the murder of President Kennedy.
“Here’s a theory that Kennedy’s assassination was arranged by the United States intelligence services,” Putin said. “So, if this theory is correct and that can’t be ruled out, then what could be easier, in this day and age, than using all the technical means at the disposal of the intelligence services, and using those means to organize some attacks? And then pointing the finger at Russia?”
Perhaps overcome by the number of falsehoods in Putin’s response, Kelly did not correct the Russian president’s apparent subscription to the conspiracy theory that the CIA killed JFK. In a voiceover, Kelly noted that “for the record, U.S. intelligence has concluded Mr. Putin himself ordered the disruption of the election.”
The expression on Putin’s face indicated that even he was bored with the interview by the time of Kelly’s final question—which was, for many who have watched Russia’s slide into autocracy with a wary eye, its most disappointing.
“Many Americans hear the name Vladimir Putin and they think, ‘He runs a country full of corruption, a country in which journalists who are too critical could wind up murdered, a country in which dissidents could wind up in jail or worse.’”
To people who believe that, Kelly asked, “What is your message?”
Putin’s answer—that Americans have no right to “moralize” another nation, even one where critics end up in comas from unknown poisons and photoshopped images of Putin in drag are banned as “gay propaganda”—was as general as the question that prompted it.
“Putin's victims never get prime-time treatment by American TV,” said Maxim Eristavi, a writer and Atlantic Council fellow based in Eastern Europe. “Chechen gay men running for their lives from pogroms don't get featured slots, families of murdered Russian journalists never get them as well—you will never see stories of hundreds of thousands victims of Russian military aggression in neighboring states opening up Sunday prime-time shows in the U.S. But Putin regularly gets the privilege.”
If viewers were itching for a real fight between a prominent television personality and America’s toughest geopolitical foe, both came away from Kelly’s interview disappointed—none more so than journalists living under Putin’s thumb.
“Watching from Eastern Europe, this constant attempt to humanize Putin while downplaying atrocities of his regime seems bizarre,” Eristavi, who has written for The Daily Beast, said. “With this interview, voices of local independent journalists remained ignored.”