Democratic insider Simon Rosenberg: Trump is "being coached by Putin" to seize power

Longtime strategist defends the "most successful center-left party" in the world — and says it can finish Trump

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 18, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The Democratic National Convention is taking place this week — but not exactly in Milwaukee, as originally scheduled. For the first time ever, both of this year's major-party conventions will be almost entirely "virtual," held online because of the pandemic.

With this event, the 2020 presidential race is now entering its final stretch, with less than three months to go until Election Day. Joe Biden will now be formalized as the 2020 Democratic nominee, with Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his running mate. She is the first black woman to be part of a presidential ticket, and the third woman to be a vice-presidential nominee for a major party. 

Opinion polls show that Biden and Harris enjoy great support among Democratic voters, and hold a significant lead over Donald Trump and Mike Pence at this stage. But these basic facts do not fully channel the malignant reality of America in the Age of Trump, where we have seen a season of death from the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump regime's criminally negligent response, and now face a presidential election that will be a referendum on the future of the country's multiracial democracy, respect for human and civil rights, and the rule of law.

As scholars like Mike Davis and Chris Hedges have reflected in recent interviews with Salon, the 2020 election is also a referendum on the future of the planet and the existence of the human race, faced with the global climate disaster and the Republican Party's support for such ecocide. In sum, the American people's decision on Election Day 2020 is a world-historical event.

These issues exist in a political environment of escalating right-wing political violence and the possibility of partisan mass violence on Election Day and beyond, all of which is fueled by increasing social inequality, conspiracy theory, an enormous economic crisis, a neofascist and white supremacist counterrevolution in America; and a concerted effort by authoritarians to subvert or destroy empirical reality and replace it with an alternate reality molded in their image.

I recently spoke about all this with Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrats Network and the New Policy Institute, a liberal think tank based in Washington. He has served as a senior adviser to the Democratic Party at the highest levels and has worked in two presidential campaigns, including a senior role in Bill Clinton's 1992 "war room." In 2018, Rosenberg was a senior adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and helped to craft the strategy which resulted in the Democrats gaining 41 seats and the House majority. 

In this conversation, Rosenberg shares his thoughts on what issues should be prioritized during the first 100 days of a Joe Biden presidency and explains his theory that Donald Trump isn't even trying to win the 2020 presidential election, but rather hopes to steal it and then begin a full-on crackdown against any Americans who dare to oppose him.

Rosenberg also suggests that Trump is being mentored by Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians — and then acting on that tutelage as he unleashes his federal secret police and conspires in plain sight to keep the American people from voting by various means, including overt sabotage of the U.S. Postal Service. 

Rosenberg also rejects the views of many progressives, making clear that he's not part of the "Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders wing" and arguing that the American people do not want radical change but rather a steady, consistent, compromise-oriented leader such as Joe Biden

You can also listen to my conversation with Simon Rosenberg on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

As usual, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you feeling about America in the Age of Trump and his escalating assault on democracy?

I'm scared. Prior to the 2016 election I wrote articles warning that Donald Trump could be far more destructive than most people understood, particularly focused on questions he was raising about the propriety of the global liberal order and globalization. It was likely that if he were to become president, that he would end Pax Americana. I was an adviser to the DCCC and the DNC during the 2016 cycle, so I was brought in by [interim party chair] Donna Brazile to help deal with some of the cleanup and mitigation after the carnage that happened at the DNC after the Russian WikiLeaks hacking.

I knew the Russian interference campaign was real, because of my background working with the Obama administration on TPP and the European TTIP at the time the United States encountered the problems with [Edward] Snowden. He became a problem because he was pushing the Western alliance apart around questions of privacy and digital issues. Snowden was living in Russia during all this, and there is the question of whether he was a Russian spy.

What we were witnessing at the time was the early stage of this ongoing operation to separate the United States from its allies and to weaken the West. In 2016, the American intelligence community warned this was happening, with their report stating that as part of its ongoing historic efforts to weaken the American-led global order, Russia launched a campaign to help Donald Trump get elected. And then the report went on to call it an insurgency against the West, and that it had to be seen that way. Trump and his campaign were mimicking Russian arguments that America was not a truly virtuous power.

So I was worried, going all the way back to the summer of 2016, that Trump's relationship with Russia was illicit, and that if he won he would be dependent upon Russia for the victory, which means he was compromised. Putin would be able to exploit him. Putin is part of an ideological movement that is asserting itself in Europe and the United States. This movement's goal is to weaken and destroy the United States.

I believe that 20 years from now [Mick] Mulvaney and [Mark] Meadows and the other chiefs of staff and senior Trump officials are going to acknowledge that they believe that Putin was Trump's coach. He has checked every play in the authoritarian playbook — and done it very fast. Donald Trump is not very smart. He is likely being coached by Putin and other authoritarians. They are giving him ideas and pushing him in certain directions. We know that Trump has spoken to Putin seven times in the last few months, in a time when he has ratcheted up his attacks on democracy and started the beginnings of a domestic crackdown here in the United States.

Why did it take so long for the American news media and other elites, including senior Democrats, to finally state that Donald Trump is an authoritarian and a threat to democracy?

Why didn't the elites stop it? Why didn't the institutions hold? People in the United States study authoritarianism from an academic and distant perspective and thought it could not happen here because of the country's long history of being a stable democracy.

One of the biggest inhibitors for the Democrats was that a political decision was made in the 2018 elections to not talk about Trump. And I was an adviser to the DCCC in 2018. I was not an advocate of this strategy, although it worked. Democrats won power in the House and it was a successful strategy. But I have been an advocate that we needed to talk to the American people about what Trump was doing to our democracy and the breaking of democratic norms and laws and rules.

In 2017, I was so concerned about Trump's danger to this country's democracy that I met with over 30 members of Congress. There were one-on-one meetings with them and their staff to discuss how we as Democrats needed to draw lines with the Republicans and Trump now. There needed to be firm lines, limits created which said that if Donald Trump goes over this line, then we are going to cease all cooperation on other matters of government. The Democrats needed to make it clear that they were not going to allow any part of Trump's agenda which was a threat to the country's democracy.

In many of those meetings, members of Congress would say to me, "I don't think he's going to be that bad. He's a businessman, he's a pragmatist, he's a dealmaker, and we can work with him." I would sit in the meeting and say, "In what universe? Have you been paying attention to what Trump is saying about the Russian scandal and election interference? How he is covering up for Putin?"

There is a dark side to American exceptionalism, which is that too many Americans do not believe that authoritarianism can take hold in America. But then again, neither does any other country where authoritarianism takes over. The American people have been naive in that regard.

Joe Biden is leading in the polls. However, there is a long time between today and the vote on Election Day in November. Hillary Clinton led Trump by double digits at times in 2016, and Michael Dukakis had a huge lead over George H.W. Bush in 1988. I am deeply worried that too many Democrats are prematurely celebrating a Biden victory.

Every election is unique. The 2020 election has its own dynamic, and I do not believe that Donald Trump can win this election any longer — which is why we should be worried about all of the anti-democratic activities that he is engaging in.

I'm growing concerned that Trump is not even attempting to look like he's even trying to win the election anymore. He is now attacking his political opponents, using the government of the United States as a weapon. Trump's speeches over the Independence Day weekend must be taken seriously and literally.

In those speeches Trump said that he viewed the hunting down and killing of the "radical left" in the United States to be a job equal in importance to getting rid of the Soviet Union and defeating the fascists in Nazi Germany. Trump said that directly. He equated the so-called "radical left" with Nazis and the Soviet Union. That is a direct quotation from Trump. It is not an inference.

Trump's threats must be taken at face value in that he is going to start a domestic crackdown — and then Portland and his use of federal forces took place a week or so later. Trump and his administration and other allies have concluded that they cannot stay in power through voting and winning the election fairly, and therefore Trump needs to stay in power through other means. I worry that what Barr and Trump have done over the last eight to 10 months is to create an ideological framework for authoritarianism and permanent rule by a tribal minority over a more multi-ethnic, multiracial majority.

Recent polling data shows that Trump's voters are much more enthusiastic than are Biden's supporters. How concerned are you about that gap?

Such observations are more important for political insiders than for the general public. Having said that, I would rather have more supporters who are less enthusiastic then fewer supporters who are more enthusiastic.

Donald Trump is losing the election badly and we had very high turnout in the Democratic Party in the 2018 election and primaries since. There is no reason to believe that the Democrats are going to have a turnout problem. Voter intent is very high.

Turnout is going to be high as well, assuming that people have the ability to vote. Joe Biden has a very substantial lead. Only a handful of candidates have been this far ahead. Barring some extraordinary set of events, Biden is in a very strong position. Their challenge is to continue to be on offense and being aggressive. Biden and the Democrats cannot let Donald Trump dominate the news every day. The Democrats are going to have to fight to make sure that what they're saying is heard and that they're not getting overwhelmed by the Trump media machine.

I believe that Joe Biden has run a very good campaign. In some ways this is not the hardest election to run in because it's going to be about COVID and the economy and health care and a handful of other things. This is not an election that's going to be about eight things. It's going to be about two things. The Biden campaign has to get those two things right. They can do it.

The American people are not with Donald Trump on any of the major issues right now. Therefore, the Biden campaign must stand up and speak as loud as possible. But they must not take anything for granted. I believe that the Democrats will win the presidency, that the Senate should flip, and that Democrats could extend the number of seats they hold in the House. This is going to be a very good election for the Democratic Party, based on all the underlying trend lines.

Joe Biden and the DNC helped to move the Democratic Party to the right. He and the Clintons were also central to the Democratic Party's embrace of neoliberalism. That is serious baggage among a large part of the American electorate and the Democratic Party's base. How would you advise Biden about managing that history and its legacy?

The Biden campaign is obviously listening, growing and maturing. I do not view Biden's past as baggage. The Democratic Party has been a very successful party over the last 30 years. Biden's been part of the most successful center-left party in the modern world. We've governed very well and left the country far better than we found it both times we've been in power. It's not been perfect — nobody is. But I'd put up our track record of governing over the last generation of American politics against any political party in the developed world. I do not believe that Joe Biden has a lot to run away from. I do believe that the national conversation has changed. Things are different. Every election is about new opportunities and new challenges. The Biden campaign is doing a very good job of adapting itself to the moment.

Joe Biden is who he is, and you cannot run away from the core reality. That is part of what hurt Hillary in 2016. There was a sense that she wasn't really being honest about her positions and how they had changed. Biden is running very much as Joe. He's in his 70s, he's not going to go through some kind of radical change. The important thing is that he's got to continue to present himself as running as the head of a competent and modern party where diverse voices will be heard. Biden made that very clear in the primaries. That is the opposite type of leadership from Trump.

I think they're doing a really good job. Biden is running as the top Democrat. I don't think he's running a deeply ideological campaign. The Democrats are pragmatists. They are focused on getting things done for everyday people and they're not a deeply ideological party. I think that that's important. I'm not in the Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders wing of the party. I do not believe that voters are looking for massive transformation. I think they're looking for stability and incremental growth and a government that's on their side fighting for them every day. The voters want government to work.

Biden is willing to work with anybody. He's willing to work with Elizabeth Warren. He's going to work with Republicans as well to pursue a winning agenda. Joe Biden is a dealmaker. And I think that, frankly, the country needs that right now. It's the opposite of Trump's governing style, which has been so dysfunctional and so hard to get anything meaningful done.

I'm optimistic that Biden is in touch with the moment and his political team has kept him grounded and connected to today's Democratic Party. And I think Republicans are publicly backing Joe Biden in a way that they never would Hillary because they know that even though they're not on the same team, if they're in a room with Joe, he will listen and give them a chance to make their case. Biden's sense of fair-mindedness and not being deeply ideological or partisan but rather being a leader who wants to do the right things for everyday people is what the American people want right now.

Republicans need to be punished at the polls for their support of Trumpism and its assault on American democracy, civil rights, human rights and the country's standing in the world. Biden has suggested that he would try to make peace with "good" Republicans and perhaps even put them in his administration. Why not exile the Republican Party from any significant role in American government, society and public life after their cooperation with and loyalty to Trump?

I do not support some type of fusion government. But Democrats have to get better at loving the sinner and hating the sin. Meaning that we have to distinguish between Republicans who are good people and have contributed to the life of the nation versus an ideology that they currently advocate which has done enormous harm to the country. I think we as Democrats are agile enough do that.

I don't think it's "a pox on all your houses" for backing Trump. I think what we want is a modern, responsible center-right party in America. We don't have that. I don't think that Joe Biden's going to have the power to create that. I'm of the belief there's a reasonable chance that the Republican Party goes out of business and some new center-right party is going to be formed. I am unsure if it is possible to reform the Republican Party as it is right now.

On the question about how the crimes of the Trump era are going to be prosecuted, we must let the wheels of justice turn as they will. Claiming that we're going to look the other way because of misdeeds by anyone in the Trump administration would be a betrayal of justice, much like what Donald Trump is doing. I do not believe that Joe Biden and the Democrats can walk away from Trump's crimes and other misdeeds, but there are also limits on what can be done.

Many Democrats are going to want to focus on defeating COVID and fixing the economy and dealing with their broader agenda. So how much time are we going to collectively spend on investigating and prosecuting the Trump administration for wrongdoing?

Yes, what has happened in this country with Donald Trump and his time in office is so extreme that there's going to have to be a long and deep conversation about what happened so that reforms can be passed to prevent such an assault on democracy and the country's political and social institutions from ever happening again. The United States must strengthen its democracy and recommit to liberal values around the world. There is a lot that has to come from this. I think that part of it is going to be very complicated.

Donald Trump and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy appear to be sabotaging mail delivery by removing mailboxes and sorting machines, canceling overtime and engaging in other machinations with the goal of slowing down the mail such that mail-in ballots will not arrive in time. Trump has made clear that he is interfering with the U.S. mail in order to preventing the American people from voting against him. The crisis is escalating. Will there be free and fair voting on Election Day?

Trump's sabotaging of the USPS is just one piece of a much broader campaign that Trump is waging to hold onto power, not by winning a free and fair election but through cheating. It's like a crime spree against democracy, an orgy of anti-democracy behavior we've never seen before in America. Nothing could make the authoritarians of the world happier than to see the way Trump is shredding American democracy in real time. Even though we all knew it was coming, it's clear we weren't ready for this new assault. We are in a very dangerous moment and folks have to stand up and fight.

What are your thoughts about Sen. Kamala Harris being chosen as Joe Biden's running mate?

There are many reasons picking Sen. Harris was bold and smart, but perhaps the most important is that it is a very clear embrace by Biden of the emerging America, an America far more tolerant and comfortable with its increasing diversity. Biden is in a very real way in the process of making the handoff of American leadership from one generation to another, and working, as a responsible leader would, to ensure it is a successful transition. 

What should Biden do in his first 100 days in office?

I want him to be restrained and disciplined about staying focused on the things that matter most and not getting drawn in too many separate directions. There are problems right now that matter more than other problems. We have to defeat the pandemic. We have to rebuild the country's infrastructure and economy better and cleaner. We have to repair our democracy. We have to repair our standing in the world. We have to start to lay out and create a big conversation about how we need to make our society better.

I'm worried that the Democratic House passed hundreds of bills in the last two years, but there has to be demonstrable and clear progress on the things that matter most to voters. Committing to these secondary issues that may matter a lot to constituents or specific groups may have to take a back seat to Joe Biden and the Democrats getting the big stuff right.

We do not have the basic building blocks of a COVID strategy in the United States. We have to do that. And that's going to be hard and complicated. At the end of the day, what's Joe Biden going to be evaluated on? It will be whether he defeated the pandemic and how quickly the country was returned to normal.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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