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Tucker Carlson, the fired Fox News star, makes bid for relevance with Putin interview

Former Fox News star Tucker Carlson flew to Moscow to interview Russian President Vladimir Putin, becoming the first American to do so since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago.
From left: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images; AlexanderKazakov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Former Fox News star Tucker Carlson flew to Moscow to interview Russian President Vladimir Putin, becoming the first American to do so since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago.

The right-wing television provocateur Tucker Carlson interviewed Vladimir Putin in Moscow in an exchange fueling both the Russian president's anti-Ukrainian rhetoric and Carlson's drive for renewed relevance in his post-Fox career.

In a video taped after the interview, Carlson told viewers that he found Putin to be sincere, if not adept at making his case to an American audience. "He denied it, but it's obvious he's very wounded by the rejection of the West," Carlson said. "Like a lot of Russians he expected the end of the Cold War would be Russia's invitation into Europe."

It is the first interview Putin has granted to an American since the Russian invasion two years ago.

The pairing should not come as a surprise. Carlson has routinely been lionized by Kremlin propaganda outlets; his clips attacking the Biden administration's support for Ukraine have been routinely rebroadcast, for example. Russian media has fawned over Carlson this week, giving his comings and goings in Moscow a treatment akin to U.S. media's coverage of Taylor Swift.

Carlson filmed a video to promote the interview on the rooftop of the Ritz Carlton Hotel near the Red Square, a location that, according to Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats, spoke volumes of the regard the Kremlin held for Carlson.

"Its roof is controlled by one of the KGB's successors, the Federal Security Service," she postedon X, formerly known as Twitter. "No one of us, and no one other foreign journalist, except for Oliver Stone, had that luxury of reporting from the roof top."

Few have done more than Carlson to lift up the Russian leader as a figure of admiration in Republican circles, just as he has propelled the otherwise relatively obscure Viktor Orban, Hungary's autocratic leader, to star status.

In that promotional video, Carlson had said he wanted to interview Putin about the war in Ukraine to learn the truth – and because other American journalists were too biased against Russia to want to do so.

This was clearly false; Reporters at CNN and the BBC and executives at NPR and Fox were among those who said their networks would be eager to interview Putin without conditions. Even the Kremlin contradicted Carlson's claims, saying it had received and rejected requests from "exceptionally one-sided" U.S. outlets.

So was it a hard-hitting interview holding a wartime leader to account?

A retelling of history

Putin dominated the conversation – which exceeded two hours – with long, discursive asides relying on propagandistic talking points to argue that Russia's right to eastern Ukraine spans centuries. (Ukrainian leaders and many historians dispute his rendering of the history of the region.)

The Russian leader blamed the Ukrainians for the 2022 invasion. Carlson did not question Putin's framing. Nor did he use the word "invasion" to describe the deployment of Russian troops and missiles into Ukraine that kicked off the war.

"We were protecting our people, ourselves, our homeland and our future," Putin told Carlson, according to the interpreter of the exchange.

Putin appeared to have done opposition research worthy of the KGB agent he once was. He needled Carlson at separate moments about having been a history major and having applied (unsuccessfully) for a position at the Central Intelligence Agency.

At the tail end of the interview, Carlson pressed Putin to release Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter imprisoned by Russian authorities nearly a year ago on charges of espionage - charges the newspaper stoutly rejects. He suggested Putin should not hold Gershkovich as a pawn to trade for, say, the release of a Russian spy.

"The guy's obviously not a spy, he's a kid," Carlson said of Gershkovich. "And maybe he was breaking your law in some way, but he's not a super spy and everybody knows that. And he's being held hostage in exchange, which is true. With respect, it's true. And everyone knows it's true."

Carlson did not raise the fate of Alsu Kurmasheva, a dual U.S.-Russian citizen who is a reporter for the U.S.-funded network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She was detained and charged last year with failing to register as a foreign agent.

And Carlson notably did not press Putin on thearrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court for him and his child welfare commissioner on accusations of war crimes.

"I'm from La Jolla, California. I'm not flacking for Putin. Please," Carlson said in the post-interview video. He then said "professional liars in Washington" want to convince the public that Putin is a modern-day Adolf Hitler, and called State Department officials idiots for thinking Russia has expansionist ambitions into Poland or other countries.

"We are run by nutcases – the president and that poisonous moron, [Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria] Nuland," Carlson said.

Carlson has spent years attacking those who made the case that the Russian regime sought to sow discord in the 2016 elections through online disinformation, that former President Donald Trump's campaign took advantage in the chaos, and that some of Trump's key allies had links to the Russians. Trump's national security advisor, Michael Flynn, resignedafter it was revealed he had lied about specific policy discussions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. ahead of taking office.

Carlson also has spent much of his time trolling both his former network and Trump critics, while leaping to defend those who laid siege to the U.S. Capitol in January 2021 in an effort to prevent the certification of President Biden's 2020 win, despite the protests of some of his colleagues at Fox.

A new start on X after Fox News

Fox News fired Carlson – then the network's biggest star – last spring. His key role in amplifying baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 elections had been revealed in a defamation lawsuit against the network that led to a $787 million settlement; Fox paid another $12 million to settle claims by a former producer that Carlson had created a sexist and bigoted workplace. Evidence that became public demonstrated Carlson's wide-ranging contempt — for his viewers, Trump, his reporting colleagues and, particularly, the executives who ran his network.

After being kicked off Fox, Carlson moved his operation to Twitter, saying it was the last major bastion of free speech. He then launched the digital Tucker Carlson Network.

Carlson has used that platform to interview subjects including the extremist conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who filed for bankruptcy after families of schoolchildren murdered in a Connecticut massacre won a $1 billion settlement against him; Martin Shkreli, a former pharmaceutical executive convicted of securities fraud; U.S. Rep. Majorie Taylor-Greene, who is known for embracing conspiracy theories; and the right-wing social media troll who goes by the nom-de-Tweet Catturd.

For a former cable television star seeking to insinuate himself once more into the national conversation, Carlson was thwarted on Thursday by two current presidents and one former. News of President Biden, accused of memory lapses by a special prosecutor, overshadowed Carlson's video drop. The Russian president's tendentious historical claims overtook the interview. And, of course, there was Trump, whose ability to appear on Colorado's ballot dominated a historic Supreme Court argument earlier in the day.

It is hard to gauge how wide an audience Carlson now has. (Statistics on views on X are unreliable.) But it is a far cry from the broad stage he had at Fox News, where he was seen by upwards of three million people on many nights.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.