How big a deal is it that we now know Elon Musk did not cut off Starlink internet access to the Ukrainian military but, rather, refused to activate it so that Ukraine could stage an attack on ships in the Black Sea off Russian-held Crimea? I don’t know that it amounts to all that much; by Saturday, when I wrote about it, we already knew that either was a possibility. Regardless, Musk was freelancing his own foreign policy in contradiction of U.S. interests.
On the other hand, it’s a very big deal for Walter Isaacson, who wrote in his new biography of Musk that Musk did indeed order that existing access be cut off. Isaacson has been backpedaling every since. Isaacson was very clear in the book, writing that Musk “secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast.” Isaacson now says that he misunderstood what Musk told him.
CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy published a tough piece on Isaacson in his daily newsletter, noting that Simon & Schuster, Isaacson’s publisher, will correct future editions of the book. The Washington Post, which ran the relevant excerpt, has updated and corrected it as well. Darcy writes:
The correction has cast a pall over the biography from Isaacson, a highly respected author who has written acclaimed biographies on historic visionaries, including Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane University and former head of CNN, has for years enjoyed such a sterling reputation in the media industry that newsrooms have often taken his reporting to be fact.
In fairness to Isaacson, Musk is a slippery character who often changes his story. Isaacson reported, for instance, that Musk told him he made his decision after speaking to the Russian ambassador, but added that Musk has apparently hinted to others that he spoke with Vladimir Putin himself. Still, this is pretty damaging. Musk and his allies will use it to discredit all of Isaacson’s book, which will end up having far less impact than it otherwise would have.
Elon Musk may have finally flown too close to the sun. The Washington Post on Thursday published an excerpt from Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Musk (free link) that includes important new details about the erratic billionaire’s decision to cut off (or refuse to activate) internet access in 2022 to prevent Ukrainian military forces from staging an operation in Crimea, a part of Ukraine on the Black Sea that Russia seized in 2014. Ukrainian forces have internet access through Starlink, a Musk-owned company satellite company.
We’ve known about this before; indeed, Ronan Farrow wrote about it in his recent New Yorker profile. What we didn’t know was that Musk made his decision after speaking with the Russian ambassador — or possibly even Vladimir Putin himself. Musk told Isaacson that he feared the offensive Ukraine was planning could lead to nuclear war, and that Starlink would be held responsible.
As Josh Marshall points out at Talking Points Memo, Musk was using his privately held company, richly funded with U.S. government contracts, to play geopolitics at odds with official U.S. policy. At the very least, there needs to be a congressional investigation, and you’d like to think that Democrats and the majority of Republicans who support Ukraine could get together and make that happen. They should consider nationalizing Starlink and putting it under direct federal control. As Farrow’s reporting revealed, it has become untenable for one billionaire to control so much crucial infrastructure — not just Starlink but also SpaceX, currently NASA’s only means for launching satellites, and even the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter, though that’s a more complicated issue.
People more knowledgeable than I will hash through those issues. At the moment, I’d like to consider a different issue — the fact that Isaacson sat on his scoop for a year. As he describes it, Musk texted him while Isaacson was at a high school football game in September 2022. Isaacson went behind the bleachers to respond. Isaacson writes:
“This could be a giant disaster,” he texted. I went behind the bleachers to ask him what the problem was. He was in full Muskian crisis-hero-drama mode, this time understandably. A dangerous issue had arisen, and he believed there was “a non-trivial possibility,” as he put it, that it could lead to a nuclear war — with Starlink partly responsible. The Ukrainian military was attempting a sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet based at Sevastopol in Crimea by sending six small drone submarines packed with explosives, and it was using Starlink to guide them to the target.
Although he had readily supported Ukraine, he believed it was reckless for Ukraine to launch an attack on Crimea, which Russia had annexed in 2014. He had just spoken to the Russian ambassador to the United States. (In later conversations with a few other people, he seemed to imply that he had spoken directly to President Vladimir Putin, but to me he said his communications had gone through the ambassador.) The ambassador had explicitly told him that a Ukrainian attack on Crimea would lead to a nuclear response. Musk explained to me in great detail, as I stood behind the bleachers, the Russian laws and doctrines that decreed such a response.
Throughout the evening and into the night, he personally took charge of the situation. Allowing the use of Starlink for the attack, he concluded, could be a disaster for the world. So he secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast. As a result, when the Ukrainian drone subs got near the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, they lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly.
Did Isaacson have an obligation to report what he knew in real time rather than saving it for his book? It’s an issue that has come up over and over in media circles, especially whenever Bob Woodward of the Post publishes a new book, or when Maggie Haberman of The New York Times published her Trump book last year.
As I wrote at the time, I didn’t have a problem with Haberman, who emerged from her book leave on several occasions to report scoops she’d come across. And I don’t really have a problem with Isaacson, either. Unlike Woodward or Haberman, he’s a freelancer and doesn’t have an obvious outlet. Of course, he’s also one of the most prominent journalists in the country and would have had no problem working with a reputable news organization to get the story out. But that would have been the end of his relationship with Musk — bad for Isaacson’s book, obviously, but also bad for whatever other storylines he was able to develop in the months ahead.
In addition, Isaacson’s Starlink scoop was incremental. The news that Musk may have been taking dictation from a high-level Russian official is devastating, but, as I said, we’ve known that Musk cut off Starlink access to harm Ukraine’s war effort for quite some time. Farrow’s story wasn’t the first occasion that had come out, either. Nevertheless, the implications of Isaacson’s account are enormous. Here’s Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, writing on Twitter:
Sometimes a mistake is much more than just a mistake. By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmuskallowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities. As a result, civilians, children are being killed. This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego. However, the question still remains: why do some people so desperately want to defend war criminals and their desire to commit murder? And do they now realize that they are committing evil and encouraging evil?
Late though Isaacson’s account may be, he, like Farrow, has done a real service by revealing that Musk’s behavior is quite a bit worse — and more damaging — than most of even his harshest critics understood. That’s really saying something given that Musk and his followers this past week launched attacks that fed into antisemitic tropes against the Anti-Defamation League. It is time for this dangerous spoiled brat to face some real consequences.
Vivek Ramaswamy. Photo (cc) 2022 by Gage Skidmore.
Entertainment was hard to come by at Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate. But to the extent that there was anything to savor, it came in the form of the attacks on Vivek Ramaswamy at the hands of Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie. What they needed to accomplish was to bury what was left of Ron DeSantis. Instead, they were so enraged by Ramaswamy that they focused their fire on him.
Ramaswamy was glib, smug, rude and arrogant. He also mouthed far-right talking points in a way that would do Donald Trump proud, coming out foursquare for everything bad, from coal to Russia. Although all eight candidates tried to duck a question about climate change (Haley was a wishy-washy exception), only Ramaswamy declared it to be a “hoax.” He alone would cut off U.S. aid to Ukraine, though DeSantis was heading in that direction.
Did Ramaswamy help or hurt himself? Who knows? I thought New York Times columnist David French put it well: “Everything I dislike about him, MAGA loves, and he looked more like Trump’s heir than DeSantis did.” Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo called Ramaswamy a “cocky little shit,” which wasn’t quite accurate: he’s actually pretty tall.
In case Ramaswamy is new to you, you might want to check out this profile in The New Yorker, written by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Ramaswamy, who made his fortune in biotech, has moved to the extreme right in recent years, something that hasn’t exactly endeared him to those who were once close to him. Kolhatkar writes:
I asked Ramaswamy if his burgeoning reputation as a conservative firebrand had taken a personal toll. He chose his words carefully. A family member no longer spoke to him, and he’d been ghosted by a close friend. Although he’d forged new relationships with conservatives, none of the connections had turned into friendships. “I feel like the public advocacy, or whatever you call what I’ve been doing in the last couple of years, has eroded more friendships than new friendships made up for it,” he said.
Being shunned because of your principles is one thing. Being shunned because of ambition is something else.
So who won? I thought the big winner was President Biden. Trump, too, I imagine, since he continues to dominate the Republican field and did not take part in Wednesday’s free-for-all. Other than that, I’d say Pence was the winner, sort of; he managed to get credit for standing up to Trump on Jan. 6 without being booed too loudly, as Chris Christie was, and he came across as a normal candidate — that is, if your idea of normal is an extremist who wants a nationwide ban on abortion. Another Times columnist, Ross Douthat, said of Pence’s performance: “Moral clarity, debating chops, a message frozen in amber in 1985 and a visceral hatred for Vivek Ramaswamy: It won’t get him the nomination but it made for some of the better theater of the night.” James Pindell of The Boston Globe gave Pence an A-plus.
A lot of people thought Haley did well, too. She projected as independent and even somewhat moderate, criticizing Trump for running up the debt. You’d think might hurt her chances of being chosen as Trump’s running mate, but she’s proven over and over that she’ll be whatever she thinks she needs to be.
Musk’s control of satellite communications in Ukraine is a source of worry to both Ukrainian and U.S. officials. Photo (cc) 2016 by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.
Elon Musk gets the Ronan Farrow treatment in the current issue of The New Yorker. Although much of the ground covered in Farrow’s 5,500-word profile is familiar, the cumulative effect is devastating. Musk comes across as an out-of-control egomaniac with scant regard for safety at SpaceX and Tesla, his grandiosity fed by what may be his overindulgence in ketamine, described by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as “a dissociative anesthetic that has some hallucinogenic effects.” Emotionally abused by his father, Musk has now been disowned by his daughter, who’s come out as transgender even as Elon has indulged anti-trans hate-mongering on the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter.
Farrow also offers new details about the U.S. government’s utter dependence on Starlink, Musk’s satellite internet network, which powers the Ukrainian military’s communications in its war with Russia (as well as Musk’s sucking up to Russian President Vladimir Putin), and on his rocket company, which is the sole means NASA has at the moment for launching its own satellites. The overarching picture that emerges is not just a portrait of a multi-billionaire who has way too much power, but of a culture so enamored of unfettered capitalism that it has forfeited the means to rein him in.
“There is only one thing worse than a government monopoly. And that is a private monopoly that the government is dependent on,” former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told Farrow. “I do worry that we have put all of our eggs into one basket, and it’s the SpaceX basket.” The same could be said of Starlink’s role in Ukraine’s war for survival or, for that matter, Musk’s opening up Twitter to disinformation about everything from COVID to election denialism.
As I was listening to the audio version of Farrow’s story, I was also thinking back to a podcast I heard a few months ago in which tech journalist Kara Swisher interviewed Walter Isaacson, who is writing a biography of Musk. Isaacson is widely respected, and I admired his biography of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Yet he came across as weirdly obsequious in talking about Musk, even going so far as to take seriously Musk’s ambitions to turn Twitter into an “everything app” that would handle your financial transactions and who knows what else. Swisher, to her credit, wasn’t having any of it.
Maybe Isaacson was bluffing so that Musk wouldn’t cut off access or trash his book before it comes out (it’s scheduled for Sept. 12). I hope it turns out to be as tough-minded as his Jobs bio. In any event, Farrow has set a high bar.
As we wait to see how Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion against the Russian government turns out, it’s worth remembering that Walter Lippmann conceived of objectivity as a response to the Western press’ — and especially The New York Times’ — being guided by wishful thinking in its coverage of the Russian Revolution. And here we are again.
As Lippmann disparagingly observed more than 100 years ago, the thrust of Western coverage was that the Bolshevik forces and, later, the nascent Soviet state were bound to fall. In “Liberty and the News” (1920), Lippmann and his co-author, Charles Merz, wrote:
In the large, the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see…. From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all.
We don’t know what’s going to happen in the hours and days ahead. Prigozhin has come out against Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, and so of course we hope Prigozhin might somehow prevail, even though his venality is at least the equal of Putin’s. If nothing else, it seems logical that chaos in Russia is good news for Ukraine.
As a number of observers have lamented, the days when you could curate a reliable news feed on Twitter are over — although Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has put together a good list of analysts tweeting about the Ukraine crisis. I’m also following live coverage at the Times (which is behind a paywall) and at BBC News (which is free). And hoping for the best.
Vladimir Putin. Photo (cc) 2014 by Global Panorama.
Here’s a data point to keep an eye on. From The Wall Street Journal (free link):
The people in the online spaces where Airman First Class Jack Teixeira spent his time and allegedly leaked highly classified documents had many things in common. In obscure game forums and private online chat rooms, his friends posted slurs against minority communities, Ukrainians and pretty much everyone else.
Everyone, that is, except Russians.
Members of that small community, hosted on the social-media app Discord, admired President Vladimir Putin’s regime and its war on Ukraine.
Nick Daniloff, at right in gray suit, meets with President Ronald Reagan at the White House after his release from a Soviet prison in 1986. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
My friend and colleague Nick Daniloff has an important op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal about his time in a Soviet prison in 1986, comparing his ordeal to that of Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was recently arrested by Vladimir Putin’s thugs. At the time of his own arrest, Daniloff was a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Later he joined Northeastern University’s School of Journalism as a faculty member and director, which is how I got to know him. He writes (free link):
Reporting in Russia has always been risky. The authorities there have never been comfortable with the open flow of information, and they have recently imposed new restrictions on public protests. Several Western news organizations pulled their correspondents to protest recently passed laws that essentially ban independent reporting about the Ukraine invasion. Much of Russia’s independent media have been forced to shut down or to persevere outside the country.
We need to protect and honor the bravery of foreign correspondents, photographers and stringers all over the world, reporting in difficult and dangerous circumstances. And to my fellow Russian correspondent Evan Gershkovich: Courage.
There are reports on Twitter from credible sources like Julia Ioffethat an independent Russian media outlet is claiming that Vladimir Putin is being treated for thyroid cancer. That would explain a lot of things — the puffiness, the extreme germophobia, the paranoia and irrationality.
Perhaps more importantly, though obviously less entertainingly, is the report that Putin is being treated for thyroid cancer.
Sometime in early March, the extremist Republican congressman from North Carolina decided to go off on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Remember that Zelenskyy is a thug,” Cawthorn told supporters. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”
If Cawthorn had spoken, say, a month earlier, he might have earned the praise of former President Donald Trump and gotten invited to trash Zelenskyy some more on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program. But that was before Zelenskyy had emerged as a heroic figure, standing up to Russia’s invasion of his country with a combination of eloquence and courage. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said to those who thought he should flee.
So former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, the sort of establishment Republican who was frozen out during the Trump era, used his Wall Street Journal column to let his readers know that Republicans like Cawthorn and Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance (“I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another”) are outliers — and that the party is oh-so-very supportive of Zelenskyy. “Republican members of Congress, candidates and commentators echoing Mr. Trump’s isolationism and Kremlin apologetics are out of sync with GOP voters,” Rove wrote.
WRAL.com of North Carolina, which obtained video of Cawthorn taking the Kremlin line, pushed that message even harder, stressing in its lead that Cawthorn’s vile rhetoric was at odds with his party and calling it “a comment that runs counter to the overwhelming share of Republicans with a favorable view of the leader fending off a military invasion from Russia.”
Oh, please. Can we get real for a moment? Yes, Rove and WRAL cited poll numbers that show Republicans, like most Americans, are now pro-Zelenskyy and support Ukraine in fending off the massive Russian invasion. But that is an exceptionally recent phenomenon.
In January, for instance, a poll by The Economist and YouGov found that Republicans viewed Vladimir Putin more favorably than President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — hardly surprising after years of pro-Putin pronouncements by Trump.
No wonder former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who’d like to run for president, told Fox News that Putin is “a very talented statesman” with “lots of gifts” who “knows how to use power,” as Eric Boehlert, who tracks conservative bias on the part of the mainstream media, took note of.
Now, some of this reflects a split between the Republican Party’s right wing and its extreme right wing. Way out on the authoritarian fringes, figures such as Carlson and Steve Bannon have long admired Putin for his unabashed, anti-democratic espousal of white Christian dominance and attacks on LGBTQ folks. Politicians such as Cawthorn, Vance and Pompeo, rather than standing up for principle, are trying to thread the needle.
Meanwhile, their less extreme counterparts, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have flipped from coddling Trump, Putin and Russia to claiming that Biden is to blame for the invasion and the high gas prices it has led to.
All of this has a historical context. As everyone knows, or ought to know, Putin has represented an existential threat to Ukraine since 2014, when he invaded the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and incorporated it into Russia. Putin appears to be gripped by the idea of a Greater Russia, of which in his mind Ukraine is a part. Ukraine was a Soviet republic, and Putin has always expressed nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. But the two countries’ ties go back centuries, and apparently no one cares about that more deeply than Putin.
Into this box of dry kindling came the spark of Trump in 2016. His numerous statements of support for Putin and pro-Russia actions couldn’t possibly all be listed here, but a few that pertain to Ukraine stand out. One of Trump’s campaign managers, Paul Manafort, had worked for a pro-Russian political faction in Ukraine and, upon being forced out, offered his services to Trump free of charge. You may also recall that a plank in that year’s Republican platform guaranteeing Ukraine’s security was mysteriously watered down — and a delegate to that year’s convention later said she was asked directly by Trump to support the change. (Manafort later went to prison for financial crimes he committed in Ukraine, only to be pardoned by Trump.)
That was followed by revelations in the fall of 2019 that Trump, in a phone call to Zelenskyy, demanded dirt on Biden in return for military assistance — assistance that Ukraine needed desperately to deter Russian aggression. Trump was impeached over that massive scandal. Yet not a single Republican House member (not even Liz Cheney) supported impeachment, and only one Republican senator — Mitt Romney — voted to remove Trump from office.
As detailed a month ago by The Washington Post, Trump has continued to praise Putin, hailing his war against Ukraine as “genius” and “savvy,” while Trumpers like U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona sneer, “We should just call ourselves Ukraine and then maybe we can get NATO to engage and protect our border.”
Mother Jones reported over the weekend that Russian media outlets have been ordered to quote Tucker Carlson as much as possible. Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed Republican congressional candidate in Washington state, endorsed Cawthorn’s eruption this past Saturday and went him one better, tweeting: “Zelenskyy was installed via a US backed color revaluation [sic], his goal is to move his country west so he virtue signals in woke ideology while using nazi battalions to crush his enemies. He was also smart enough to cut our elite in on the graft. @CawthornforNC nailed it.”
There was a time when, as the old saying went, politics stopped at the water’s edge. That wasn’t always good policy, as elected officials came under withering attack when they dared to criticize misbegotten actions such as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But there was a virtue to it as well. When we go to war or, in the case of Ukraine, engage in high-wire diplomacy aimed at ending a war, it’s that much harder when critics are sniping at our leaders. Can you imagine if Republicans had gone on television in 1962 to say that Nikita Khrushchev was right to place Soviet missiles in Cuba?
Claiming that Republicans are united in supporting Ukraine doesn’t make it so. Some are, some aren’t. It’s shocking that a few fringe figures like Cawthorn and Kent are openly criticizing Zeleneskyy even now — but it’s just as shocking that praise for Putin was a mainstream Republican position as recently as a month or so ago.
Unfortunately, the media’s tendency to flatten out and normalize aberrant behavior by the Republicans will prevent this from growing into an all-out crisis for the party. We’ll move on to the next thing, whether it be expressing faux outrage over Vice President Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s touting electric cars while gas prices are high (what better time?) or Biden’s latest miserable polling numbers.
Anything that enables our feckless media to cover politics as the same old both-sides game that it used to be.
This is what I’m worried about. Russia screwed up and lost the first week of the war. But they have endless capacity to ratchet things up and unleash wave after wave of hell on the people of Ukraine. From Talking Points Memo:
The Russian military is still holding a lot of their capacity in reserve. Even if things are going relatively poorly after a week they have lots of capacity to intensify their assault, lots of ability to make the onslaught much more brutal and effective.