The Cuomo-Lavelle “Debate” About Ukraine
I confess that I kind of resent the fact that this bizarre exchange—between the former New York governor’s son, lawyer and infotainment “journalist” Chris Cuomo, and historian and longtime East European resident Peter Lavelle now hosting a show on the Russian-state sponsored RT network—is being depicted as a “debate” in some quarters.
It was not a debate. Debaters, in my experience enjoy the intellectual stimulus of pitting arguments against arguments and maybe obtaining through that process a greater degree of enlightenment. You know, the Socratic method and all that. (Full disclosure: I was a high school debater of some competence and enjoy the real thing. This was something else.)
In this instance a clueless Cuomo just tried to bludgeon his opponent with insults and hysterical noises. It was truly a new low. A complete rejection of logical engagement, a merely theatrical exercise.
Having seen the segment on TV, and revisited it online, I sought out the complete transcript, and finally found it. So here, folks, read what happened and make your own judgment about who “won.”
My humble comments in brackets, in italics.
* * * *
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. We are live in front of the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, in Netherlands. This is where MH17 began its journey. Behind us you’ll see row and row of flowers and supports and notes of support to the victims of that flight, and to their families. These are all travelers on their way somewhere, some of them are locals who have come. Friends of those who are lost, all just reaching out in the spirit of unity that is going on in the Netherlands right now. However, hanging over all of this are the questions of why this happened, who did it, and what will happen next? There are a lot of different theories. A lot of countries pointing fingers, most notably Russia and the U.S. and the West. I want to bring in somebody now who has a different perspective than what you may have been hearing so far.
[Comment: Note how this makes CNN sound so gracious. Cuomo knows who’s been determining what his audience has “been hearing so far,” and wants them to retain their confidence that they’ve heard the “real story.” But hey, CNN wants to provide multiple views, even about something like this.]
His name is Peter Lavelle. He works with “Russia Today”. It’s part of the Russian-owned news operation there. And, Peter, can you hear me?
[Point of fact: RT is in fact an international broadcast news network that employs people like Larry King and the very interesting Abby Martin. It’s not just an operation “there” in Russia Lavelle hosts a program called “Cross Talk” which is often lively and includes a wide range of views, but Cuomo does not mention this. He rather treats him from the outset as a Russian stooge who must explain and justify Russian actions.]
PETER LAVELLE, RUSSIA TODAY: Yes, I can. Go ahead.
CUOMO: All right. Thank you for taking time to join us. I want to ask you — why hasn’t Russia, specifically Vladimir Putin, why hasn’t he come out and strictly and in a straight way condemned how the crime scene was handled, how the dignity of the dead was abused, how crime scene investigators weren’t let in? Why hasn’t Russia? Why hasn’t Vladimir Putin come forward and condemned how this crime scene has been handled?
LAVELLE: Well, I think the answer to that is very, very straightforward and simple. Ukraine is not in Russia. Vladimir Putin doesn’t control a crime scene in a foreign country. I think it’s quite ludicrous for you to ask that question.
[Here Lavelle challenges one of the basic, highly contestable assertions at the center of U.S. State Department talking points: the idea that Putin or the Russian government in general can exercise “control” in the eastern part of Ukraine. He might have added: “Why, when you’re demanding Putin back off, are you simultaneously asking him to get more involved, as though he could fix the situation?”]
He’s come out and demanded a complete investigation. As a matter of fact, on Monday of this week, Russia gave its assessment of the — of the reconnaissance and surveillance satellites and what was happening in the crime scene. We don’t have that coming out of Washington, so I think that’s what you should be asking is why is the State Department relying upon Twitter and YouTube and other social media for its case when Russia’s already given its — or at least part of the forensic evidence that’s necessary to solve this horrific crime?
[Was there anything untrue in this statement? I see nothing to challenge---if I were debating, logically, with evidence.]
CUOMO: Maybe you haven’t been following it, but the U.S. is actually coming out with a lot of its own intelligence that connects what happened to MH-17 to the acts of Russian militants and perhaps to the involvement of Russia in either training, equipping, or maybe even assisting –
[Notice how Cuomo imputes ignorance to the man he’s interviewing, and treating as an opponent. He suggests that Lavelle doesn’t know about all that “intelligence” that has so persuaded the ex-governor’s son who understands these matters so well. Lavelle asks blandly:]
LAVELLE: What — what forensic — what forensic evidence are you talking about?
[It would say that in a real debate this would be the next natural question. But Cuomo is at a loss as to how to reply.]
CUOMO: — in this horrible operation of bringing down this plane.
[Cuomo seems to have misunderstood Lavelle’s question. Lavelle was not asking whether the downing of the plane was horrible or not. But Cuomo wanted to reiterate that HE---having been there lately!---found it really horrible. The subtext is that Lavelle was by contrast indifferent. Points off for that sick, pompous posturing and disrespect for the person you invited to a polite discussion.]
LAVELLE: What forensic evidence are you referring to? Twitter?
CUOMO: They are releasing intelligence information about the trajectory — no, not Twitter. I do not think, Peter, this is something to be flip about.
[As though asking for evidence, or questioning the credibility of somewhat questionable tweets is flip?]
298 people lost their lives; let’s not play politics here, OK?
[Note: Cuomo of all people is blithely charging Lavelle with “playing politics,” in the course of an exchange which has yet involved little discussion of empirical reality---upon which political judgments ought ideally to be based, in my opinion.]
LAVELLE: No, I think the U.S. State Department has been very flippant about this.
[Lavelle starting to show some indignation towards Cuomo’s provocative tone.]
CUOMO: There’s plenty of intelligence coming out.
LAVELLE: Very flippant about it. Where’s the evidence? That’s what we need to solve this crime.
CUOMO: Listen, I think that –
LAVELLE: It’s not coming out of Washington.
CUOMO: Peter. Peter.
[Cuomo, already almost foaming at the mouth, puts on a show of trying to soothe an agitated Peter. But Peter continues doggedly, ignoring the discourtesy.]
LAVELLE: Even intelligence officials are saying they don’t know who did this. They don’t know where it came from. The United States spends $100 billion a year on global intelligence and they can’t find out? This is extraordinary. There are NATO ships in the Black Sea watching Ukraine like a hawk.
LAVELLE: Where’s their data? Please, show us the data, then we can move forward.
CUOMO: Peter, Peter.
[This “Peter, Peter” business is sounding really condescending.]
LAVELLE: And maybe this can help resolve the crisis in Ukraine.
CUOMO: Peter, take a breath, OK.
[As though any of the foregoing indicated the onset of a seizure, stroke or heart attack. As though Lavelle making good sense so far is in need of a deep breath. How fucking insulting, Cuomo! Who the hell you think you are?]
Because there, isn’t a debate. It’s easy to bandy about points and confuse facts. There’s no need for that, because I’m not here to debate with who did this, OK?
[Cuomo, who demanded from the outset that his guest ‘fess up that Putin and Russia are responsible for the shooting down of the plane, here accuses Lavelle of “confusing facts” with his troubling questions and plainly confesses that he doesn’t want any challenge to his own conception of who did it.]
LAVELLE: I really wish you would stick to the facts.
CUOMO: You brought that up. You want to play those talking points. I asked you a simple question. Peter, I’m — everything I’m saying to you –
LAVELLE: You are the one who’s playing with talking points.
CUOMO: There is U.S. — Peter, why are you afraid to hear what I’m saying?
[Seems to be totally losing it. Paraphrase: “Peter, why are you afraid not to stick by the script that the State Department and CNN are feeding me?”]
I’m not here to fight with you, OK? I just left the crime scene.
LAVELLE: I’m not afraid! I would like you –
CUOMO: The last thing I want to see is more violence of any kind, verbal or otherwise.
[Thus revealing himself as a kind, morally superior person.]
LAVELLE: I would like you to ask the U.S. government to release all of its data from satellites and compare it to the Russian’s.
CUOMO: They are doing exactly that.
[Actually, this is not true. Robert Parry’s investigative journalism suggests otherwise at least.]
LAVELLE: See where there they matches, where they don’t match. No, they’re not!
CUOMO: Peter –
[Once again, the plaintive appeal to just agree---GODDAMMIT---with what I think!]
LAVELLE: You’re living in a parallel universe.
CUOMO: Peter, Peter, calm down.
[Again, the imputation of an emotional condition to the---somewhat and understandably angered and insulted----Lavelle, whereas Cuomo himself has gone out of control.]
Take a breath. We’ve already had something bad happen. There’s no need to compound it.
[As though Lavelle were making the downing of the plane worse by refusing to acknowledge on CNN that Russia did it?]
You are speaking –
LAVELLE: Ask me an intelligent question. Ask me an intelligent question.
CUOMO: Peter, well, I think I’ve asked you several. Your answers, I don’t know about the intelligence of, but the questions are pretty spot on.
[So he insults Lavelle’s intelligence further, apparently confident that to insult a U.S. citizen employed by RT is eminently acceptable to his viewers. And he praises his own questions, as though they were laser-sharp and but slyly avoided by this guy he wanted to bully.]
Let me ask you again, because I’m not a representative of the U.S.
[Why did he say that? Did Lavelle accuse him of being a “representative of the U.S.?” Cuomo is claiming disingenuously that he is less connected to the U.S. State Deoartment than Lavelle is to the Russian Foreign Ministry.]
You seem to be acting like a representative of Russia. And what I asked you is why hasn’t Russia come forward –
[To challenge the U.S. narrative is to “represent” Russia.]
LAVELLE: Great. Character assassination.
[Good point. Lavelle handled it with some grace, actually.]
CUOMO: — and condemned the indignity and disgrace of this crime scene?
LAVELLE: So you went to character assassination in what, five minutes. That’s what you did.
CUOMO: France has done it, the U.K. has done it.
[Cuomo ignoring the charge that he is using an ad hominem argument----dismissing someone’s logic by mentioning something personal (like RT employment)---changes the subject.]
The U.S. has done it.
[“It” in this case meaning revealing tons of evidence about the plane downing incident.]
None of them have sovereign control over Ukraine.
[As though Russia DID? Or claims such?]
Countless countries have come forward. The U.N. has come forward and condemned what was been done at this crime scene, but not Russia specifically. Not Vladimir Putin specifically.
LAVELLE: And Vladimir Putin has come out for a thorough investigation. You’re wrong, you’re just simply factually wrong.
CUOMO: He did not condemn what’s going on.
[This is just stupid. Putin has condemned the February putsch and the assault on separatist provinces in East Ukraine (which Cuomo doesn’t seem to recognize are occurring) but opposed the Donetsk declaration of independence and has urged a federal Ukraine with a strong degree of eastern autonomy. He condemned the downing of the Malaysian plane and called for an impartial investigation.]
LAVELLE: He has come out and said there should be an investigation.
CUOMO: Why hasn’t he condemned what was done?
[Lavelle getting more angry at this bald statement that Putin hasn’t “condemned” at what happened]
LAVELLE: By asking there being an investigation is condemning it.
CUOMO: The suggestion is –
LAVELLE: I wish you could be a serious person about this.
[No? What does that mean? “No, I’m not going to be ‘serious’ because I want to show on my show how totally anti-Russian I can be”!]
By saying that leaving bodies in the sun, by saying leaving bodies in the sun for days, by saying scaring away monitors who want to come in to look –
LAVELLE: Oh, that’s Vladimir Putin’s fault. That’s ludicrous. That’s ludicrous. I’m looking at known facts. Where is the investigation? The U.S. Government and its allies condemned Russia even before the bodies were taken off the ground. What kind of logic is that, what kind of sympathy is that? That’s ridiculous.
CUOMO: Peter, this is the logic. Peter, this is frightening what you’re saying, and again, I’m not here to argue with you.
[Actually, Cuomo started arguing from the moment he demanded that Lavelle drop his demand for evidence about responsibility, treating the desire for empirical facts as flippant.]
I just came from the actual crime scene.
[So I have a unique moral position.]
What I sound like is a reporter who feels deeply for the 298 lives who were lost, who are not part of this conflict and don’t need to be part of your discussion about whether Russia is being unfairly blamed. The reason Russia was brought in right away is because if you go to talk to the self-appointed prime minister of the area where this plane was shot down, he is surrounded by Russian military figures admittedly so, they will tell you that. And if you ask this man whether Russia is helping him, you know what he will say, nothing. He refuses to answer. Why would a man who is desperate for legitimacy and being seen in control of his area, a self-appointed prime minister, refuse to deny that Russia is helping him? Why, Peter? That sounds like a straight question.
LAVELLE: I don’t know why.
CUOMO: You need to remind yourself what the job is, my friend.
[I love the reiteration of “my friend.” As though there were a shred of sincerity in it, as opposed to a desire to show the audience how big-hearted he is, even to despicable apologists for Putin.]
I asked you why Russia hasn’t come out and condemned what is objectively wrong. Nobody will take another position. The way that crime scene is unsecured and the way soldiers have gone through and compromised the intelligence.
LAVELLE: It has made it public, it has shown the world.
CUOMO: They have?
[Cuomo is either affecting ignorance of official Russian statements, or is truly unaware.]
LAVELLE: Why doesn’t the United States step up and compare evidence, okay? Russia’s done the right thing to do to solve this crime and U.S. intelligence has no idea what it’s talking about, or it knows what happened and it doesn’t want the world to know what really happened. It’s in Washington’s court right now.
CUOMO: Here’s the difference between you and me, Peter. You are obsessed with clearing Russia from culpability, that’s okay.
[As though Cuomo was not obsessed with establishing Russian culpability, while even U.S. military intel is reportedly unclear or unwilling to assign blame?]
I am focused on talking about –
LAVELLE: That’s your opinion, not a fact.
CUOMO: How this plane and its victims were treated.
LAVELLE: I agree with you.
CUOMO: I think you need to look up what that word means.
[Not clear what Cuomo wants Lavelle to look up: “culpability” or “agree.”]
All you’re doing is denying Russia’s involvement.
LAVELLE: What happened? I didn’t say that, I don’t know. I don’t have the evidence.
CUOMO: I agree.: I’m not jumping to any. Have you heard me say that I know what happened?
[Yes, actually. Cuomo came off from the beginning affecting to know what happened, and demanding agreement; denied it, he opted for ridicule. But not very successfully.]
This is a joke. We’ve got to get out of this.
[Lavelle persists, hoping for a rational conclusion to the interview.]
LAVELLE: They didn’t even do that. They asked questions about why certain things were happening in that airspace. That’s a good question that should be compared. What do the other radars have to say? Let’s see if we can see the difference or similarities. Be fair.
CUOMO: Peter, of course we want to be fair.
CUOMO: Of course everybody wants the right answer because one thing is for sure. I think you’ll probably even agree with this, the people who were killed on MH-17 had no role in this conflict.
[“You’ll probably EVEN agree with this.” How insulting.]
They were complete innocents. There was no reason for them to be involved, whether it was a tragic mistake that the plane was shot out of the air or it was an intentional act of terrorism, it was wrong and we need to find out who did it. You know there’s a reasonable basis for suspicion about what Russia knew because there are undeniable connections between the Russian militants in this area and Russia itself in terms of assistance and guidance and the personnel on the ground. So, of course, there’s a reasonable basis for suspicion.
LAVELLE: You very much overestimate how much control the Russian side has over resistance in Ukraine. It’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to determine that. If you look at the evidence, okay, it’s difficult. You deny the agency of people in Eastern Ukraine, you deny them agency. You just think they are puppets of Russia.
[An extremely important point. There are divisions among the ethnic Russian forces in East Ukraine, and they are not well-organized. To depict them as the agents of Moscow is a stretch.]
CUOMO: I deny them? I sat with the self-appointed prime minister, I sat with him. I gave him the CNN audience. I asked him there is a suspicion that Russia is helping you and your fighters by training you and giving you weapons, maybe the one that was used to shoot down the plane. Is that true? And you know what he says? I’m not going to answer that. Ask Russia. I said but you’re the prime minister, you say you’re in charge. Are they helping you, or are you in charge? He says I won’t answer that.
LAVELLE: What is the evidence? Evidence is what we need and you’re trying to put the blame –
CUOMO: You’re going to ignore what I just said. You’re just going to ignore that? You choose to ignore that?
[Meaning: How dare you challenge my judgment, as a CNN reporter with no Russian or Ukrainian language experience, who can plop down in any conflict zone anywhere and through my brilliant ten minute interview discover all the deep connections----how dare you ignore my conclusions?]
LAVELLE: What do you want me to say? To agree or disagree with him? Why should I? Why should I agree or disagree with him?
CUOMO: I don’t know, why should you carry water for Russia when you’re supposed to be a journalist? Why do you say the U.S.
[“Carry water for Russia when you’re supposed to be a journalist?” Priceless words, Chris Cuomo, master journalist.]
LAVELLE: I have my own program and I have my own mandate to do what I want to do, so I don’t know carrying water. You carry water for the U.S. State Department.
CUOMO: And Peter Lavelle, your obvious appetite and desire for what to do is represent the best interests of Russia, no matter what the facts are and to shout down people who are asking legitimate questions and I think it’s a mistake in fairness to the victims.
[“Shout down”? It’s true that Lavelle has a bombastic style, but he encourages others to shout a bit on his show; it’s his style. But in this case he was the calm one, as the transcript shows.]
LAVELLE: I shout down nonsense and stupidity.
CUOMO: We’ll let the audience decide.
LAVELLE: And loaded questions. That’s what I do, that’s what I do all the time. That’s what I do for a living.
CUOMO: They are straight questions. Peter Lavelle, you have to live with what you do for a living. I appreciate you coming on NEW DAY so people can experience your answers and thought process for themselves. Have a good day.
[“Experience your thought process”? As though Lavelle’s though process is manifestly irrational, and Cuomo’s is exemplary?]
* * *
[To the audience afterwards]: Listen, what is the value to that discussion? There are very different theories about how this happened.
[Interesting recognition that there are, indeed, different theories. But hadn’t he just argued that he knew what had happened?]
There’s a different level to the warfare. There’s what’s going on in Ukraine and then there’s an information war that’s going on at the same time. The last thing I want to do is to stoke some type of useless conversation.
[Excuse me, Cuomo, you just hosted a useless conversation. Didn’t you plan it that way?]
The emotion sometimes gets the better of you, especially when you’ve been on the scene and you’ve seen that there are very objective realities that should be addressed and any sovereign would want to reject and condemn what’s been done with the crime scene of MH-17. That said, I apologize for getting involved in what became more about emotion and reason there for a moment, but at the end of the day, the answers matter because of the Calehrs, who you met before, and the countless other families who lost loved ones on this plane, and that’s why the questions have to persist and information has to be tested.
[Translation: I’m sorry that in my deep feelings for the victims of the Russian-backed secessionists in Ukraine, who using equipment provided by Putin killed all those people, I might have gotten too emotional and made a fool of myself.]
That’s why the U.S. is putting out intelligence and western authorities are trying to get involved with this.
[Wait. Lavelle just asked you to provide any evidence. You couldn’t up with anything. You paused a moment looking like a deer in my headlights and then started charging your interrogator with being “flip” and when he repeated his question you retreated into a mournful mantra of “Peter, Peter” as though you were compassionately praying for his soul for not playing your particular propaganda game.]
Russia says it calls for a full investigation. Russia has to know things.
[And so does the U.S., as Lavelle noted. And as Robert Parry has noted.]
Will it volunteer its own information?
[Didn’t you listen to Peter? Russia has made a presentation. The Pentagon has not, so many days after the event.]
Because here again is the undeniable truth. That crime scene has been mismanaged.
[The crime scene is by all accounts in a region where separatists claim control but there are also clashes with the Ukrainian Army (and also I believe separate Interior Ministry forces, basically neo-fascists). The separatists are not well-organized and local people in the broad site of the tragedy were no doubt confused and disgusted by the discovery of the wreckage. It does seem that separatists and Kiev forces were able to cooperate to place bodies in refrigerator cars and send them home. But the idea that anyone significantly tampered with evidence---to cover up what Cuomo assumes was Russian culpability---remains speculation.]
Those bodies were disrespected. Their dignity was hurt. It was unnecessary and it was counterproductive to the process of truth. We’re following the bodies home because they are who matter most in this situation. 298 people who, without question, were above any point of criticism. Can’t say that about the Ukraine government, certainly can’t say it about the militants, and you can’t say it about Russia either so that is a perspective that’s out there.
[Note how the “militants” are “certainly” even more subject to criticism than the Ukraine regime? Cuomo has never considered the possibility that the neo-fascist character of the U.S.-midwifed Kiev regime caused ethic Russians in the east to reject it and seek autonomy, independence, or union with Russia?]
Again, became a little bit too heated and I’m sorry for that because we want to be productive for you. We want you to hear what is out there and to be sure the questions are going to go on.
[This displays some concern that his explosion might reduce his professional credibility. But he changes the subject quickly.]
Now, a couple of things that are just factually true for you to understand from where we are. We don’t know how many bodies are coming back today. We believe the first plane may have 20, may have more. They are not sure about the body count. There may still be victims’ bodies at the crime scene or in the surrounding area. We don’t know because the investigation is so shoddy it’s actually almost nonexistent. The black boxes will have valuable information, not the absolute truth of who did this obviously, but that will also take some time to be processed. The Dutch authorities who are leading way have asked the UK authorities to take on that task. We’ll let you know more as it happens, and we will take you to the memorial here during this national day of mourning in Netherlands when the bodies arrive here some hours from now. Back to you in New York.
[And in conclusion, solidarity from a co-staffer uniting with Chris in his effort to highlight the “fact that there’s a real propaganda war that is part of this crisis.”]
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Chris, thanks so much. And I think it’s also worth saying there’s nothing to be sorry about, Chris, because highlighting the fact that there is a real propaganda war that is part of this crisis, part of this tragedy, it’s an important part of this story.
[Shilling for the State Department in the U.S. corporate media means never having to say you’re sorry.]
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org