"The Russia Connection" and Trump's Media War An Interview with Focus on Albany By Cynthia Pooler

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CYNTHIA: Good morning, welcome to Focus on Albany. I am Cynthia Pooler and my guest today is Michael Caputo. Michael, what did you think of President Trump’s press conference of last week?

MICHAEL: Well for someone who has worked in political media relations for 30 years, I thought it was remarkable. I've never seen anything like it in my life. I’ve worked in political media relations in more than a dozen countries as well; I've never seen it internationally either. This president is taking on the media like nobody has in the past that I'm familiar with in all of history. So we're sitting through what is going to be truly historical events.

CYNTHIA: Now the media does serve a purpose to inform people of what's going on at all levels of government. What seem to be, from your perspective, the problems that President Trump is having on the national level with the press?

MICHAEL: The media serves more than just a purpose in the United States: it's a fundamental brick in the foundation of our nation. If we did not have that brick I believe the foundation would fall. I also know that Donald Trump believes this very same thing. The President has spoken to me in the past about the value of the media, but lets face it, I don't think the founders could have predicted the modern media is so often biased. We have reporters who do great work, and follow the ethics of journalism to the spirit and the letter of those ethics. But we also have many, especially now, who are in opposition to President Trump, and are complicit with those who oppose the White House and the President of the United States. That is what the President was talking about when he took on the media at the press conference. I know there are those out there trying to paint his comments as the pre-cursor to dictatorship, but I think most of America understands that the media is not a monolithic group of people who have the highest ethics and morals in mind. There are some real bad apples in that bushel, and it's those bad apples that the president was talking about when he says “fake news.”

CYNTHIA: Do you think that the advent of the 24-hour news cycle has exasperated that problem?

MICHAEL: Of course, I think that so much content flooding the zone that there is not only a deep and abiding competition for these for-profit media organizations to make a buck and to rise above the din - there is also a lot of incorrect journalism, a lot of incorrect reporting is out there. Reporters are rushing out only rumors because they want to be the first with that story. And that has caused a lot of fake news, a lot of incorrect reporting over the past several years. I believe the 24-hour news cycle and the insatiable thirst that the TV cable news outlets has to break news has complicated things.

But just like it disintermediated the media itself, the Internet has really truly served to collapse the media company model. The Internet has also given the President and others like him an avenue to speak to the people without the media filter. So the 24-hour news cycle has certainly caused a lot of this problem, but the same thing that makes the 24-hour news cycle possible, technology, has also given us a solution. Now we can go around the media filter, directly to the American people.

CYNTHIA: In your perspective, what is "fake news"?

MICHAEL: The term "fake news" emerged directly after the election. The term was created by the spin masters in the Democratic party, adopted by the complicit media, and has been fed out there in the months since to try to label any news that does not agree with their perspective, with their dogma, as "fake news.” I believe "fake news" is a public relations term that was developed by the Democratic Party to try to disrupt President Trump. And I believe there is incorrect news out there, I believe that there is biased news out there, I believe that neither of those things are truly news. So in fact sure, biased and incorrect news is "fake news." But other than that, it's not a real issue, it's a spin point that's been fed to the American people by the Democrats and their complicit media partners. 

Unfortunately for the Democrats and their pals in the press, Donald Trump has successfully co-opted their "fake news" moniker - now he and his allies are using it against them, and they rue the day they ever invented it. This is a testament to the power of the President and his allies: Beware, because if the Left is not careful, he can snatch away their rhetorical weapons and turn them back on their creators.

CYNTHIA: Now I find it so unfortunate, it was really prevalent during the Obama years: People are either on one side or on the other, there's no middle ground, and it seems this is continuing. What will it take for everybody to find that middle ground? And I think it's really important.

MICHAEL: Well I call the middle ground "The Monocle Effect," and I'll tell you what I mean: When I first started serving in government, in Washington, and when I served in the United States Congress as a staffer, Democrats and Republicans alike would argue just as loudly as they do today. On the House floor, on the Senate floor, in the halls of government, some times it would even come to fist fights. Our government has always been that way, it's always been spirited. But at the end of the day, if you went to this very famous bar and restaurant on Capitol Hill on the Senate side called The Monocle, you would find Democratic Senators drinking with Republican Senators, and Democratic staffers having dinner with Republican staffers. They were able to walk away from the divisive nature of politics because they understood that, when the day was over, they could break bread and have drinks with the people they opposed, because they were all on the same team, team America let's say.

In my mind, this rancor by the way that we feel in the public developed when those people, those Democrats and Republicans, no longer met at The Monocle. You never see them together in Washington dining and drinking establishments anymore. In fact, I'm surprised The Monocle is even still in existence because it was really the home of bi-partisanship, of compromise, of friendship, and we don't have that anymore. I believe that the public rancor we see on the streets and in the town hall meetings across America, in every town, village, and city of America today, began when the politicians themselves stopped being friends. And I believe the same lack of leadership that led to this severe level of disagreement among the American people began at The Monocle, when they stopped drinking and dining together. I believe that those people, the same people who lit the fuse, those Democrats and Republicans in Washington who no longer get along, I believe it's up to them to start getting along again, to meet together again, to, after 5 o'clock, understand that they're still on the same team. And until those politicians, those elected representatives and their staffers, regularly meet again to break bread and have drinks and understand the commonality they enjoy as Americans, we can't expect it on the streets either.

CYNTHIA: But if you put on FOX News, and you go in another room and you put on MSNBC, it's like watching two different worlds. FOX has its agenda, and MSNBC has its agenda. Do you think the cable news stations and radio stations are only fueling the partisan fires?

MICHAEL: Well I think, as a talk radio host I contribute a lot of those problems, to the lack of a clear dividing line between opinion and news, between commentary and reporting. We remember back in the days when Walter Cronkite and others on the news would clearly label their opinions as commentary. The newspapers today still, the last and final pages in the A section are where opinions exist. Sure, you see opinion leak into some of the newspaper reporting, but still the physical newspaper is divided up in the way that Walter Cronkite used to divide up his braodcast.

The problem we have now, is those newspapers are now online, and it's sometimes hard to see physically, like we do with the last few pages of the A section, to discern commentary from real news. And I think we see the same thing on live cable TV news in that every single story, let's say for example you watch Rachel Maddow or you watch even Sean Hannity, they'll cover news for a moment and then bring in a panel of opinion makers to discuss the news. Regular Americans who read their paper online now and watch their TV news in that format have seen the lines blurred between opinion and news.

I don't think that there is any way to roll that back; I think Americans want their news that way now. But until we have greater media literacy out there among the American people to identify what is fact and what is opinion, and until the media makes a greater, larger effort to distinguish between opinion and news, this is going to continue.

CYNTHIA: Can you share your thoughts on Kellyanne Conway?

MICHAEL: Sure, I'm a fan of Kellyanne Conway. I've known Kellyanne Conway since she was an intern in Congressman Jack Kemp's office in the 1980s and I was a very junior staffer. Kellyanne went on to do great things in politics, founding one of the most successful woman-owned polling organizations in American history. And in fact, she spent a lot of time trying to help the Republican Party - which was decidedly white older males - understand the value of the femal demographic to the success and the future of the Republican Party. I’ve woven myself in and out of Kellyanne's life over the years, we kind of collided at receptions and seen each other at different events, said hello and went along our way. I've never seen someone so deserving of the success that she has. I think that she is a remarkable addition to the White House, I hope that she stays there for a long, long time because I believe her advice and counsel to the President is effective and important. That advice comes from 30 years of a career that saw her ascend from answering phones at Congressman Jack Kemp's office to one of the leading lights of the Republican Party.

CYNTHIA: A few weeks ago she was on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd, and Chuck asked her a specific question. Off hand I do not remember the questions, but KellyAnne refused to answer and danced all around the question and Chuck Todd was getting upset, the people at home were sure scratching their heads. She can really avoid answering questions. Now ultimately do you think that's good for the president?

MICHAEL: Well more importantly I think that Kellyanne can really answer questions as well. I mean as a political communicator I can tell you there are some questions you don't want to have asked of you, and there are some questions that you try to devise ways to not answer. That's just the way it is. It's not Republican, it's not Democrat, it's politics. That's corporations as well, there are questions that corporate officers don't want to answer. That's just reality. Not every question has an answer. As someone who has an agenda, not every question deserves your answer. So what Kellyanne is doing by deflecting as an interviewee, is something that everyone does. She's adept at it, but it's also normal, I think it's a part of life and a part of communication. It's important to understand that she has a job to do, she has a boss, she has an organization that she represents. It's her responsibility to do the best she can on the President’s behalf, and sometimes that means not answering a question.

CYNTHIA: There's been a lot of talk on the media about a so-called "Russian connection." Can you kind of clear the air on that?

MICHAEL: Well, this Russian connection story is fully contrived. And I have a lot to say about it because I'm supposedly a part of it. Hillary Clinton put out a press release during the campaign, in the height of the battle, saying that Donald Trump had several aides that tie him to the Kremlin, and I was number four. And now they're saying that three people in Trump's camp are being investigated by federal law enforcement for those contacts. I'm not sure if I am being investigated but they're going to find the same thing on me that they find on those three: absolutely nothing. This was developed out of polling by the Hillary Clinton campaign; they discovered that an allegation of a connection with Russia worked with the voters. Unfortunately for Hillary it didn't work as well as she thought it would and she got beaten badly. Now what we're facing as Trump supporters is a continuation of that allegation because she spent millions, I would say upwards of 50 to 60 million dollars, trying to convince America that that was true. It's not true.

I spent more time in Russia than all the people in Trump Tower. I lived in Moscow and, for a time, worked for the Kremlin throughout the 90's. Not once has Donald Trump ask me anything substantial about Russia. The one time we talked about Russia, he asked me what it was like to live there, in casual conversation over a meal. And as the person most closely aligned with Russia in Trump Tower, you would expect that I perhaps would have some role in it. I have no role because it's fiction.

The other people there that are on that list that are allegedly being investigated: General Flynn, it was his job to stay in touch with the Russians, he did nothing improper. Paul Manafort, he tells me and I believe him because I've known him for 30 years, that he had no contact with Russians, and he doesn't represent any businesses or individuals in Russia and hasn't in a long time. I believe Paul when he says that. Roger Stone has absolutely zero connections in Russia, he's never been to Russia, he's never had a client in Russia, he's never represented a client in America from Russia, he doesn't think he's really ever spoken to many Russians. I can tell you for the 8 years that I lived in Russia, Roger Stone never emailed and called me once. He did go to my wedding in the middle of that eight year run, when I married a Russian girl in Washington. Stone has zero connections to Russia and yet he's on that list.

Here's my opinion: It's complete fiction that there is a Trump-Putin connection. Still, Hillary Clinton found a successful polling scenario with the allegations of a Russian connection, put the idea out there and put millions of dollars behind it. In addition to that, the Department of Justice was run by a very close associate of Bill Clinton, Attorney General Loretta Lynch - we know how close they are because Bill Clinton secretly met with her on an airplane on the tarmac of the Phoenix airport just before Hillary was mysteriously relieved of her federal investigation. I've spoken to U.S. Attorneys and others who have told me that it's very likely that the Obama Department of Justice favored these allegations from Hillary Clinton's camp, and initiated the investigations into Trump people to try to determine or try to at least maybe even create the appearance of impropriety among the Trump associates. Once that investigation is started, by perhaps one of the most partisan Departments of Justice in modern times, when Donald Trump comes in and puts his Attorney General in charge, it's very hard to stop the inquiries. You could stop them in a minute, Attorney General Sessions could pull the plug, but that would have terrible ramifications from a public relations standpoint. So you need to let them run their course to their likely conclusion.

We are suffering a hangover from millions of dollars spent to defeat Donald Trump with the fake spin about a Russian connection and the alleged investigation into Paul Manafort  and Roger Stone and others is just the tail still wagging behind that dead dog.

CYNTHIA: Donald Trump is perceived as a no-nonsense person. And because of what you're saying about the Russian connection, how come there has not been more forceful statements on the part of the administration to clear up this mess?

MICHAEL: Quite frankly I think that the Trump organization has kind of messed up this whole Russian thing. They could've pushed back on it very strongly when it was first spun out there by the Hillary Clinton campaign. But they didn't, and it wasn't because they weren't concerned about Russia; the Trump campaign didn't push back on anything, and so this grew and festered. Unfortunately, we're at a point now where I believe an investigation has to be done and concluded so they can end this smear. And that’s what this is now: a smear of good people. We also have complicit anti-Trump reporters who are dutifully transcribing stories spun out of the Hillary and Obama camps, about these allegations of contact between Russia and Trump's main guys, and unfortunately because the Trump campaign and now Trump administration, hasn't tamped this down effectively, it probably needs to go to it's likely conclusion to clear the President.

You'll notice that Russia isn't the only issue out there; it's not the only fire that they didn't put out. And that's I believe a part of the Trump White House that can use some improvement. They've hired a new communications director who I think is very effective and I believe we'll see this kind of thing stamped out pretty promptly in the months ahead.

CYNTHIA: From what I have observed on TV, John McCain and the president are not exactly boozing buddies. Does this only hurt the president's administration?

MICHAEL: I think John McCain is a spent force, a hollow shell. He was a very effective United States Senator who was working in the best interests of the country for decades. He served us proudly in the United States Armed Services. But in fact today, if John McCain were in charge, we'd be at war as a nation. He's a war hawk. I think there's several nations that, if he were in charge, we'd have boots on the ground today. I think his disposition against Russia proves that he's even cruising for a fight with them, possibly even a proxy war. John McCain has lost a lot of his luster, a lot if shine has gone off of that dime. I maxed out to his presidential election in 2008 and right now I wouldn't cross the street to put him out if he were on fire. It's time to primary him back in Arizona, he barely survived the last election. I think this is the last term you'll see served by Senator McCain. And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, because at this point he's pursuing only his own agenda, not America’s agenda. America has proven by voting for Donald Trump - and rejecting McCainism - that we don't want to go to war to satisfy his lust for battle. It's time to put this old man out to pasture.

CYNTHIA: One last question and it's about New York. It's not a given in that Gov. Andrew Cuomo will be a shoe-in in 2018, but I have heard the national Republicans are gearing up to oppose Cuomo in the event that he might run for president in 2020. So, if he's not really that much of a shoe-in for re-election, why would they want to invest any kind of money?

MICHAEL: Well, the problem we have on the Republican side of this election is that we don't have a clear candidate. We don't have a candidate who is self-funded or who has the promise of raising the $30 million necessary to beat Andrew Cuomo. I think the national Republican party is seeing that, they see that whoever runs is going to need a cash influx in order to compete with Cuomo.

Even though Andrew Cuomo isn't incredibly popular anymore, he certainly is still a juggernaut. His campaign organization is superior. It's extremely well funded. People say it's pay for play money, but call it what you will - it's still 30 million dollars. In order to let's say, "mark him up," enough in the 2018 election - so that he either gets beaten or the results are so close that he doesn't appear to have a mandate in his own state - and make him less attractive in 2020, it's a good investment. I think it's the way the Republican Party needs to think, and there is nobody more deserving of it than Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

CYNTHIA: Michael, this has been wonderful. I enjoyed talking to you, I enjoy listening to your perspectives, and I'm sure there's going to be a lot more controversy as the Trump administration evolves. So what do you do with the Trump administration now, what's your role?

MICHAEL: I have an unofficial role, if any. I'm trying to help from the outside working with organizations defending the Trump agenda. Those groups are just now being assembled. There is a lot of work to defend the President, because there is a lot of work being done to attack him and the White House cannot be expected to do it all. There's plenty of room for guys like me on the outside of the Trump administration to help him Make America Great Again.

CYNTHIA: Thank you so much Michael.


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