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Now displaying: July, 2018

Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Jul 30, 2018

“It’s the economy, stupid.” Those words have become ingrained into our politics. But seldom have we seen such a disconnect between raw data, the kind that President Donald Trump bragged about on Friday, and the economy people are actually living in.

Journalist Alissa Quart, in her new book Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, went looking for the real America. In this WhoWhatWhy podcast she talks to Jeff Schechtman about what she found.

She discovered an America that is a far cry from one where anyone is jumping up and down over a 4.1 percent GDP increase in a single quarter. In fact, after ten years of steady growth, which began during the Obama presidency, the overhang of the Great Recession as well as some negative employment and economic trends that started before the recession are still with us.

Wages have been stagnant, housing costs continue to go up, health care costs continue to rise, education requires more and more debt, and self employment and the gig economy have not helped. All of this is before we are even really feeling the full impact of automation and AI.


Quart argues that we have to reassess what we value in society. Instead of being so happy at the lower cost of consumer goods — like our phones, computers, and TVs — we need to be far more concerned that the cost of basic necessities like healthcare, child care, senior care, education, and housing have skyrocketed.

Quart reminds us that this is not a problem limited to the uneducated. She talks to Schechtman about the plight of professors, school teachers, health professionals, and journalists.

According to statistics, kids today have only a 50/50 chance of doing better than their parents.

Equally striking is how few of these would-be members of the middle class are politically engaged. They’re exhausted from just getting from bind to bind.

Many are cobbling together patchwork solutions, like co-living arrangements and shared child care. But, Quart explains, for those struggling, a lot of time is often spent watching the 1 percent on television viewing a kind of “aspirational porn.”

Maybe that’s also how Trump got a toehold with so many of these same people.

Before you hear the next boastful presidential report on the economy, this is a must listen.

Alissa Quart is the author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America (Ecco Press, June 26, 2018).

Jul 25, 2018

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin singled out 12 Americans he’d like to see the US hand over to Russia for interrogation in exchange for allowing special counsel Robert Mueller to question the 12 Russian GRU agents he recently indicted. Of those, much attention focused on former US Ambassador Michael McFaul. (WhoWhatWhy also interviewed McFaul just a few days ago.)

 But Putin singled out, even more prominently, international businessman Bill Browder, a major force behind the passage in 2012 of a particularly powerful piece of legislation, the so-called Magnitsky Act. Browder is Jeff Schechtman’s guest in this WhoWhatWhy podcast.

 The Magnitsky Act, initiated and lobbied for by Browder, was named after his murdered lawyer, who uncovered Russian government corruption. It created visa and banking sanctions for Russian officials violating human rights. The Magnitsky Act has long been a major point of contention for Putin, and he’s actively worked to get the law overturned.

 The legislation which passed the US Senate 92 to 4 has since, according to Browder, gone viral. It’s been copied and passed into law by seven countries, including Canada, and eight more countries are on deck to put it into law.

 Browder explains to Schechtman that Putin’s hatred of the legislation has nothing to do with ideology. It’s about narrowing the range of countries in which Putin and his oligarchs are allowed to park their ill-gotten fortunes and therefore puts their money at risk.

 What surprised Browder most about Helsinki was not Putin’s talking about him, or even offering an exchange to get Browder back to Russia, since the Russian president has long been chasing Browder. Rather, he was shocked that Trump had labeled Putin’s proposal an “incredible offer.” Putin had suggested that McFaul, Browder, and a group of legislative staffers who had worked on the Magnitsky legislation be sent to Russia for “interrogation.”

 Browder reminds us that he is a British citizen and therefore not even subject to Trump’s wishes. Similar requests made to the British government of Theresa May, and David Cameron before her, were turned down immediately.

 Browder also sheds some new light on the role of Natasha Veselnitskaya — the convener of the famous Trump Tower meeting and her role as Putin’s point person within the US to work toward a repeal of the Magnitsky Act.

 Browder, who has long known Putin, talks about the Russian leader’s clear understanding of the “Deep State” and how America works, and how the former KGB agent benefits by being a “long-term player.”

 As Browder sees it, “If Putin can’t bring Russia to the level of the West, he's determined to bring the rest of the world down to the level of Russia.”

 Bill Browder is the author of Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice (Simon & Schuster, paperback version, October 20, 2015).

Jul 24, 2018

As Ecuador’s president, Lenin Moreno, visits London, reports indicate he is about to withdraw asylum for Julian Assange, exposing the WikiLeaks founder to eventual extradition to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act.

State Department veteran Peter van Buren joins Peter B. Collins for this Radio WhoWhatWhy interview. Acknowledging the imperfections of Assange, van Buren makes the case that Americans, and especially journalists, should support Assange’s right to publish.  

And he warns that if Assange is prosecuted, some reporters may go to jail, and others will likely self-censor to avoid that risk; the result will be more government secrecy, and denial to the public of access to important government information.

Van Buren thumbnails the history of the Pentagon Papers, characterizing the Supreme Court rulings as protection for publishers, but not leakers. He notes that the New York Times, which defied Nixon in publishing Dan Ellsberg’s leaks, has made wide use of WikiLeaks documents but doesn’t advocate strongly for the rights of Assange and his organization.  

The discussion also touches on the current case of Times reporter Ali Watkins, whose emails and phone records were seized by FBI investigators earlier this year.  

Peter van Buren served 24 years at the State Department. His first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Metropolitan Books, August 21, 2012) , covered his one year tour in Iraq working on reconstruction projects. His most recent book is a novel about World War II Japan, Hooper’s War (Luminis Books, Inc., May 1, 2017). You can read his commentary about Assange here.  

Jul 20, 2018

Russia, Russia, Russia. Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has our gaze been so resolutely focused on the land of the Czars. And yet with all of that focus, it’s amazing how much we don’t understand about the country and its people.

Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, is suddenly front and center in the latest Trump/Putin controversy. At their recent summit, Putin is said to have made Trump an offer: The US could pose questions to Russian military intelligence figures named in Mueller indictments as alleged participants in email hacking — if Putin’s people can do the same with McFaul and Bill Browder, two well-known critics of the Russian president.

We may never know precisely what Trump and Putin discussed on the issue. On July 19, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said, “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it.” But this may change.

What we do know is that McFaul understands a great deal about Putin and Russia -- and he shares these insights with Jeff Schechtman in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.

In this interview, recorded just before he became the latest mini-star in the ongoing Russiagate saga, McFaul reminds us that, though hard to imagine these days, Russia is more than just Putin. There is a far greater diversity of thought than US media give the Russians credit for: While many may be forced to go along to get along, there are many who don’t support Putin or his approach to the world.

McFaul emphasizes the fragility of Russian society today. He explains how Putin consolidated his power while the economy was working well. But with its recent slippage, he has come to rely more on jingoistic Russian nationalism, as exemplified by his military forays into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. According to McFaul, even that's now wearing thin with the Russian people.

McFaul talks to Schechtman about Putin’s ideology what he really believes. About his conservative approach to governing, his genuine dislike for what he sees as the decadent liberal ideas of the West, and how he has given money to political organizations and NGOs around the world that support and embrace his ideology.  

McFaul says that Putin expects his struggle against the West to go on for years. At the same time, the former ambassador believes we can still engage the Russian leader on topics like arms control and even trade, as long as we always understand his motives and develop specific strategies to push back.

Finally, McFaul reminds us how much Putin’s personal philosophy has in common with the nationalist, nativist, anti-globalist desire for ethnic purity that has driven the American alt-right.

At a time when it seems that all our news about Russia is accompanied by noise and confusion, this is a calmer, more nuanced look at Putin and Russia today.

Michael McFaul is the author of From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 8, 2018).

Jul 13, 2018

You may remember that back in May of 2015, senior FIFA officials were arrested on corruption charges in Zurich. Those arrests rocked the foundations of the world's most popular sport. But little did we know at the time that the case was so wide-ranging and complex that its reverberation involved the FBI, the IRS, Donald Trump, Christopher Steele, Robert Mueller, James Comey, and Vladimir Putin.

As the final of the World Cup is played in Russia this weekend, the WhoWhatWhy podcast features a conversation with investigative journalist Ken Bensinger, who spells out the 40-year history of bribery, corruption, and money laundering that has been at the heart of world-wide professional soccer.

Ken Bensinger was part of the team at BuzzFeed that uncovered the Christopher Steele dossier. He’s also become the go-to authority on the complexity of the world’s biggest sports scandal.

This week, Bensinger tells Jeff Schechtman how corruption ran unchecked for decades, until a team of investigators from the one country that cared the least about soccer stepped in to try to stop it.

He takes us up close and personal with American FIFA executive Chuck Blazer, considered the most corrupt soccer official in history. He was a friend of Donald Trump and lived on the 49th floor of Trump tower. When the IRS discovered and confronted him about not having paid taxes for 17 years, Blazer turned state's evidence against other FIFA officials.

We learn about the FBI and IRS soccer task forces. The multinational crimes unit overseen by the FBI director, at the time Robert Mueller. When the arrests were made in May 2015, it was announced by then-FBI Director James Comey.

Bensinger also tells Schechtman about how Putin became interested in wanting the 2018 World Cup, and how he enlisted oligarchs in the process. And finally how Putin’s corrupt efforts were uncovered by the British, who’d had a competing bid, and hired none other than Christopher Steele to find out what the Russians were up to.

There is a lot more to this complex global story — including heads of state, like the president of Argentina who felt soccer was more important than his government; an illegal sports book that was busted at Trump Tower; and the role of Russian organized crime. Listening to this week’s podcast is a great prelude to the World Cup final.

Ken Bensinger is the author of Red Card: How the US Blew the Whistle on the World's Biggest Sports Scandal (Simon & Schuster, June 12, 2018).

Jul 6, 2018

It sounds like it should be the beginning of a joke: A virus walks onto a plane… Only it’s not a joke. It’s how a global pandemic can start. One that could be far more immediate and deadly than our twin fears of climate change or nuclear proliferation.

The recent outbreak of Ebola in the Congo is a grim reminder not only of the 2014 West African outbreak, but of the much wider dangers of the global spread of infectious diseases diseases that know no walls, no travel bans, and respond only to medical and political competence.

The Hill’s national correspondent Reid Wilson, in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, talks to Jeff Schechtman about the very real dangers we face and how the incompetent handling of such a crisis could lead to loss of life on an unimaginable scale.

Wilson, the author of Epidemic: Ebola and the Global Scramble to Prevent the Next Killer Outbreak, takes us through the slowness of the global mobilization in 2014 and what we have since learned. It was a time when as Wilson says in parts of West Africa, it was easier to count survivors than count the dead.

Wilson explains how the World Health Organization (WHO) has learned how to better navigate global politics and local customs. As an example, 70 percent of those that had contact with dead bodies in 2014 contracted the disease; WHO learned that, in dealing with the dead, anthropology was as important as biology. In navigating behavior around the dead, respect had its own rules and customs in the developing world.

Wilson singles out Doctors Without Borders as the most heroic of the organizations that have been called upon in these global outbreaks.

We learn about the role of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the previous outbreak. It was an event that precipitated a major transformation of the CDC one that resulted in the CDC sending about 1,400 people to Liberia during this recent outbreak. This was a drastic improvement over past efforts where only a few CDC field operatives were mobilized. Additionally, in 2014 the CDC only had four US facilities prepared to triage highly infectious diseases, such as Ebola. Today there are over 50, at least one in every state.

Even with all the progress and lessons of the the past four years, Wilson reminds us that a strategy for dealing with a rapidly spreading and deadly disease is only as good as the weakest link in the global public health system. That no matter how much the US may want to withdraw from the world, the public health systems in countries like Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone matter to us all.

Wilson reports that what keeps public health professionals up at night is the fear of a disease with the lethality of Ebola, the prevalence and transmissibility of something like Zika and one that develops enhancements for human-to-human transmission capability.

Some bird flu cases in China have already hinted at the possibility of these properties. These are diseases that could easily exceed the Ebola mortality rate of over 40 percent.

All of this is against the backdrop in the US of the Trump administration trying to claw back $250 million out of the Ebola supplemental funding bill, which was passed in 2014 and has been critical to the CDC efforts. Clearly we ignore global partnerships at our peril, especially as they involve the arena of public health. All the while the Chinese seem to be taking on greater and greater responsibility as part of their efforts to sit atop the world stage.

Jul 3, 2018

What happens when prosecutors break the law? Almost nothing.

Nina Morrison is a senior attorney with the Innocence Project in New York, and in this podcast she explains how homicide prosecutors like Glenn Kurtzrock face few consequences when caught concealing exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys. Kurtzrock who was fired by the district attorney in Suffolk County, NY, after his misconduct was exposed has never been charged with a crime, and has not faced any disciplinary action from the New York Bar Association.

Morrison explains the legal precedent of the Brady v. Maryland decision, which requires the prosecution to share all evidence in a timely manner, and how there is almost zero accountability. Morrison can claim the only known conviction of a wayward prosecutor, in a Texas case where her client spent 25 years in prison on a wrongful conviction because prosecutor Ken Anderson withheld critical evidence of the innocence of Michael Morton.

Anderson had become a judge, and was bounced from the bench and disbarred, but only served six days of an eight-day sentence in county jail.

Morrison notes that about half of 2,200 exonerations are attributed to “official misconduct,” and that many of the 28 exonerations she has won were the result of prosecutorial violations of the law.

We also discuss a powerful commentary by Frederic Block, a federal judge in Brooklyn, who is outraged not only by misconduct, but by a Supreme Court ruling in Taylor v. Kavanaugh that explicitly grants immunity to prosecutors even for “the falsification of evidence and the coercion of witnesses.”

Recently, both houses of the New York State Legislature have passed bills creating a new commission to investigate misconduct by prosecutors; it awaits Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) signature.

Read Nina Morrison’s New York Times op-ed here.

Read Judge Frederic Block’s commentary here.

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