Jen Psaki, a former State Department spokesperson and White House Communications Director during the Obama administration, spoke with TheCollegeConservative in a wide-ranging interview. She discussed Russian propaganda during the Obama administration, their failure to combat it, and the challenges facing the Trump administration.
The State of Affairs
President Donald Trump has restored US credibility. He has shown that he’s willing to take decisive action, for example, in Syria—unlike his predecessor in past years.
However, it is no secret that his main instrument in charge of global diplomacy is weakening.
The US Department of State is operating with a skeleton staff and a severely limited budget. The department is also serving a president who has expressed gratitude from the purging of hundreds of its employees from Russia– a country with rapidly deteriorating relations with the United States.
These conditions within the state department may create future challenges for the president in executing global diplomacy, especially with the lack of key staffers in top jobs at the department.
Many of the unfilled roles usually serve as “the primary points of contact with governments and countries around the world,” said Psaki.
“The most common thing I hear from people at State when I talk to them is they don’t know what…they should be doing because there’s nobody in charge,” she said. There simply “have not been assistant secretaries of State in regional positions…nominated” and it’s “really a handicap for us.”
How Far The Problems Go
At first glance, this assessment may come off as a bit dark. After all, Psaki isn’t a natural fan of this administration. But that assessment rings true for many foreign affairs experts on both sides.
One handicap for the United States is the spread of misinformation on a global scale. Russia spews widely misleading stories into the United States via its propaganda news outlet called RT, formerly Russia Today.
One former RT news anchor, an American named Liz Walh, quit her job live on air after reaching a boiling point. She could no longer bear the idea of being a mouthpiece for the Russian government.
Further, RT’s success prompted Psaki’s one-time boss, former Secretary of State John Kerry, to irritably ask whether the US should have an equivalent overseas propaganda arm.
But Psaki thinks having one would not be a wise move. “We have Voice of America but it’s not the same” she said. “They report information. They’re not a propaganda arm.”
“There’s stuff that is done obviously covertly by the government. But it’s a debate because it’s having a free press and freedom of press and valuing that, and lifting that up as a value around the country, around the world, I should say, is part of who the Untied States is.”
It’s surprising to hear Psaki refuse to support a similar US effort to counter Russian propaganda outlets. These outlets have ruthlessly victimized her with viral memes. To the point that “Psaking” has become a Russian cultural phenomenon, with the word acting as parlance for “unclaimed facts” or refusing to answer questions through doublespeak. This is similar to KellyAnne Conway’s “alternative facts” theory.
But Psaki thinks it would be contradictory for the US to publicly spread propaganda abroad, while supporting freedom of the press. She asks whether “for doing what [Russia is] doing, are we doing that then?”
Fake News and 2016
It is a seductive criticism that the Obama administration had the chance to, but chose not to inform the public about Russia’s misinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election. Critics argue that they were trying to avoid the appearance of politicizing intelligence to undermine one candidate.
However, that’s “not exactly how it happened,” said Psaki. “There was a lot we didn’t know during the election.”
“You can’t just be putting raw intelligence out there into the public because that would set a dangerous precedent,” she said. The process of analyzing fresh intelligence and ensuring the certainty of information they bring to the public is done by the intelligence community; it is “not done by political appointees in the White House.”
Obama’s desire “to be certain about what they’re telling the public” could only be met by sacrificing critical time as Election Day loomed closer. She defends the choice by saying that President Obama “followed the book” and that he “didn’t politicize the intelligence.”
We simply “weren’t ready to make, you know, a confident assessment about Putin’s, not engagement, but Putin’s desire to elect Trump until after the election.”
Confidence to Act
It turns out that confidence has had a weird relationship Obama. He’s confident, yes, but he failed to show it when confronting Assad’s actions in Syria—even when he expressed verbal commitment that he would.
Trump, on the other hand, did not hesitate to rapidly escalate the campaign to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” after promising to do so. Nor did he hesitate to show his confidence when confronting Assad in Syria by ratcheting up US military action, and as he would also do in furthering the US commitment in Afghanistan.
Further, President Obama lacked the confidence to warn the public about how serious Russia’s actions and intentions were—despite the signs of active Russian propaganda in the US.
“I think there are a lot of lessons learned from how the Russia process went” Psaki said. “I think knowing what we know now, we would have taken the propaganda piece more seriously.”
Psaki admits that the Obama administration failed to communicate enough to the public about the deliberate spreading of misinformation. She said that “certainly that’s something we could have talked about more publicly.” Especially on the propaganda front, which she said that “people don’t know how [to] differentiate it from accurate information.”
This environment where people cannot differentiate truth from fiction is where Trump thrives. His need for a misinformed mass may even explain Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent refusal to fund a program that would combat Russian propaganda.
Fixing The Current Crisis
Furthermore, the informational chaos in America has had global implications—resulting in a jarring drop of US perception abroad. Will the current administration be able to repair the damaged US image?
“I hope as an American they are” said Psaki, “but that’s going require a lot of changes, and a lot of changes about how they conduct themselves domestically [and] internationally.” She does not think that the US image will be restored anytime soon, at least “not on this trajectory.”
She is optimistic, however. She reminded me that “the country has been through far worse than a Trump presidency so far.” Deviating from the apocalyptic rhetoric of many mainstream talking heads suffering mass hysteria because of a Trump presidency.
However, Psaki is ultimately pessimistic. Concluding that America’s “reputation is hurt overseas and it’s hurting our ability” to operate globally. Widespread misinformation combined with the deliberate disregard for the damage it creates will only make the task to restore US reputation harder. It creates problems not just for President Trump, but for future administrations as well.