EPeak Daily

Vladimir Putin Outwitted Megyn Kelly by Weaponizing Incompetence

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Over the weekend, NBC released a nearly hour-long interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin that the reporter Megyn Kelly
conducted over two days, earlier in March. At the same time, the Kremlin
dropped its own version of the
conversation, an apparently unedited video that came in at nearly an
hour and a half. It seems that both NBC and the Kremlin thought they had
something to boast about. Kelly had scored a rare sit-down interview
with the Russian President (the last American to have had the honor was
Oliver Stone, whose sycophantic interview with Putin was released by
Showtime, last summer), while Putin had succeeded in fending off all of
Kelly’s questions. The technique employed by the Russian President
deserves note: he mounted a defense by incompetence (with additional
help in derailing the conversation provided by an incompetent

Kelly spent a significant portion of her allotted time trying to pin
Putin down on the topic of election meddling. “Why did you allow it?”
she asked early in their discussion of the interference. Putin responded
by saying that his interlocutor shouldn’t assume that he or anyone else
in the Russian government knew what happened.

“Even if we suppose—I don’t know if they did something or not—but I
simply know nothing about it,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the
position of the Russian state.”

Kelly looked taken aback. “You are up for reëlection right now,” she
said. “Should the Russian people be concerned that you don’t know what’s
going on in your own country?”

The ritual Russia will undertake on March 18th can hardly be called an
election—its outcome is preordained.
Still, Putin is, in his own way, campaigning nonetheless, and the
interview with Kelly is part of his campaign. Kelly’s question assumed
that seeing their leader as competent was important to Russians, but
Putin’s objective was different—he simply aimed to showcase his ability
to evade the questions posed by the sleek American reporter.

“Look, the world is large and diverse,” he said. “Some Russian citizens
have their own opinions about what’s going on in the United States . . . At
the level of the President and the government of the Russian federation,
there has never been and there is not now any meddling.” In other words,
Putin is too important to think about such silly things as American

Kelly protested again.

“I have no idea!” Putin said emphatically. “These are not my problems.”

A few minutes later, Kelly tried to get Putin to admit at least an
awareness of Russian information warfare. She mentioned that Andrey
Krutskikh, a Kremlin adviser, reportedly warned, in a 2016 speech, that
Russia had something that would enable it “to talk to the Americans like equals.”

“I sometimes think that you are kidding,” Putin said. “Some person said
something about our work in some sphere . . . I have no idea what he said!
Go ask him what he meant. Do you really think that I control everything that—”

“He is an adviser to the Kremlin!” Kelly exclaimed, apparently
exasperated. “On cyber!”

“So what? We have two thousand staff! Two thousand! Do you really think
that I keep track of every single one of them? Look, there is Peskov
sitting there, my press secretary. Sometimes he just runs off at the
mouth and I am watching television and thinking, What is he saying, who
told him to say that? So, you see, I have no idea what he said. Ask him.
You think I should comment on everything that cabinet or government
employees say? I have my own job to do.”

“I think when it comes to our two countries you know exactly what’s
going on,” Kelly said. But there was no way she could prove that Putin
knew anything at all about anything.

The Russian President was not merely pleading ignorance as one would
plead ignorance of, say, a conspiracy to commit a crime. Putin was performing ignorance, strategically. Someone who is incompetent cannot
be held accountable. Every time Putin said that he didn’t know
something, what he was really saying is that he refused to know. He
wielded his lack of interest, lack of expertise, and even (if he was to
be believed) lack of ability to supervise his own press secretary like

Putin’s performance of incompetence is markedly different from the
incompetence that is characteristic of the Trump Administration.
American governmental incompetents are just as difficult as Putin to
hold to account, but they are not militantly incompetent—at least not
yet. For example, in an interview with “60 Minutes” that also aired over
the weekend, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tried to appear to be
competent, and failed. Asked by her interviewer, Lesley Stahl, if she had visited underperforming schools in her home state of Michigan, DeVos
answered, “I have not intentionally visited schools that are
underperforming.” She didn’t say, “Why should I?” But she will probably
soon learn that an incompetence offense makes a great defense.

Where incompetence is prized, it is ever-present. Take the recent apparent poisoning of the Russian defector Sergei Skripal, in the U.K. This attempted
assassination was carried out in such a way as to fail to kill the
target, while still managing to expose as many as five hundred other
people to the poisonous agent. On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa
May laid the blame for the attempted murder on the Russians. Back in
Moscow, Putin once again employed the ignorance defense. Approached by a BBC correspondent about Skripal during a visit to the Krasnodar region, in southern
Russia, Putin said, “Look, we are here working on agriculture. As you
can see, this is aimed at improving living conditions—so why are you
talking to me about some sort of tragedy?” Why, indeed. The deflection
focussed on the reporter’s poor timing but left just enough room for
Putin, should he wish, to claim later that he’d never heard of the
poisoning. “Figure it out for yourselves first, and then we can discuss
it,” he added, by way of asserting his trademark lack of curiosity.

Kelly’s interview with Putin was additionally affected by incompetence
in a way that neither participant probably understood: one of the two
interpreters kept mistranslating. At one point, Kelly asked Putin about
Donald Trump, Jr.,’s statement, from 2008, that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate
cross-section of a lot of our assets.” The interpreter rendered this
much-reproduced phrase as, “We have a lot of investment in Russia.”

“That’s nonsense,” scoffed Putin. An absurd exchange followed, with Putin
acting annoyed and Kelly surprised at the outright denial of something that she didn’t ask about.

“You think the world revolves around you,” Putin said.

“It’s not about me,” Kelly said, “It’s about what Donald Trump, Jr.,

This gave Putin another chance to use the ignorance defense. “You think
that we all know what Donald Trump’s son said,” he said, once again
stressing that he was too important to concern himself with the
babblings of the Trumps or their countrymen.

Kelly brought up the anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, who has
been denied the right to run for President because he has been found
guilty of fraud on trumped-up charges. Kelly asked why Putin wouldn’t
just pardon Navalny in order to allow him to run, but the interpreter
rendered “pardon” as “partner,” asking Putin why he couldn’t “partner”
with Navalny. Putin proceeded to answer that question.

For the final version that aired on NBC, the network replaced the
Russian interpretation with its own, perhaps unwisely, lending the
interview an illusion of logic and creating sense where it was lacking.
Then again, Kelly herself seems to have missed the central feature of
her conversation with the Russian President. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, she acknowledged having been
out-manipulated by Putin, who, she said, “is the smartest man in every
room.” It’s true that Putin has run circles around every American
interviewer he has encountered, reducing Charlie Rose to a silent head-bopping
puppet, apparently getting Stone to ask questions pre-scripted by the
Kremlin, and plunging Kelly into a surreal, lost-in-translation
exchange. It may console the NBC anchor to think that Putin defeated her
by being smart. In reality, though, he deployed ignorance and
incompetence. He may unwittingly have provided American television
viewers with a foregrounding of their own future: it’s likely just a
matter of time before the Trump Administration, which possesses
incompetence in droves, learns to weaponize it.

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