To some, Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein was a spoiler last November, pulling liberal voters away from Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. To others, she was a principled truth-teller who offered a necessary critique of a moribund two-party political system.
The debate over Stein’s role in Trump’s victory was revived when her name appeared over the summer in a document request by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating potential collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign. With that returned long-standing, but unfounded, suspicions that Stein was somehow associated with elements within the Kremlin. Those suspicions stem, in good part, from a photograph of Stein taken in Moscow in 2015, where she was attending a conference. The now-infamous image shows her sitting at a dinner table with Russian President Vladimir Putin and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who is at the center of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia.
I caught up with Stein, and we talked about Russian hacking, North Korea and the future of the Democratic Party.
Let’s start with a story I wrote—“Russian Plot to Elect Trump Included Jill Stein, According to Latest Gleeful Twitter Theory”—which you called fake news.
It wasn’t actually fake news. I slightly exaggerated in calling it fake news. Shall we say the sensationalist headline stopped just short of fake news?
Your name was mentioned in the document request from the Senate Judiciary Committee to the lawyers of Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. Why?
I think it’s there for the same reason that that photo keeps circulating without a single fact. There was no translator at the dinner. Putin came in very briefly. Maybe he was there for 10 or 15 minutes before he gave a speech in Russian. Nobody was introduced to anybody. My conversation was actually with the guy sitting next to me, a German diplomat.
My clear message at that conference was to challenge both U.S. and Russian militarism.
The facts do not support whatsoever the contention that I was there for some nefarious purpose or for some kind of backroom deal. I received zero sponsorship to be there. No payment. There was nothing compromising about my being in Moscow.
Did you talk to Michael Flynn at that dinner?
He introduced himself to me just before we sat down, and I began to give him my elevator speech about the “peace offensive” in the Middle East, which was my policy throughout the campaign. Our conversation very quickly ended at that. Maybe two sentences about the peace offensive, which he was not interested in.
Did you have any other contact with anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign that could have led the Senate Judiciary Committee to reasonably suspect collusion?
Zero. Politically, we couldn’t be further apart. Culturally, we couldn’t be further apart. It makes me laugh to even think of the suggestion.
But you did want to defeat Hillary Clinton, so in that sense—
Well, let me say, that is fake news. That is based on an article, this contention that I thought Hillary was worse than Trump. I never said that. [ Suggestions that Stein was a Trump supporter were indeed debunked as fake news.]
My summary statement was always that I would feel terrible if Donald Trump was elected, and I would feel terrible if Hillary Clinton was elected. I feel most terrible about a voting system that restricts voters to two untrusted, widely disliked choices.
I have never said that Hillary Clinton was better or worse than Donald Trump.
Do you believe that in some way you delegitimized Clinton in the eyes of young progressives and in that way paved the way for a Trump victory?
Greens do not vote for Democrats. You have to do the numbers. You can’t just move Green votes into the Democratic column.
Remember, most people who voted for Donald Trump were not voting for him. They were actually voting against the Clintons.
Finding ways to rationalize the suppression of opposition voices is not what democracy needs. Democracy needs more voices and more choices, especially at a time when the Democratic and Republican parties are being widely rejected by the American public.
Do you still think, six months into the Trump presidency, that a President Clinton would have been no different than a President Trump?
I never said they were “no different.” That’s another trap I have learned to avoid. What I said was, they are different, they’re just not different enough to save your job, to save your life and to save the planet and the climate. We shouldn’t be forced to choose between two candidates who don’t meet our needs.
You’ve mentioned fake news several times during our conversation. Do you believe that Russia promulgated fake news during the presidential campaign?
I have seen conflicting reports about that, and I have not been following it closely enough to give you a definitive opinion.
Do you support the recent passage of tougher sanctions against Russia?
I think the sanctions are not going to accomplish what we need, which is to protect our election system. We need to protect it against not only hostile foreign powers; we need to protect it also against domestic partisans, against lone gangsters and against the private election software companies who also have skin in this game. We need blanket protection. That is why I initiated a recount [after the presidential election].
The intelligence community has determined unanimously that, to some degree, Russia influenced this past presidential election. Are you agreeing with President Trump that we should be doubtful of that assessment?
There’s not a lot I agree with President Trump on. What I’m saying is that the story is not over. Unfortunately, we have seen our security agencies make some errors in the past, like weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Let’s say Russia did it. Simply punishing Russia doesn’t keep make voting systems secure.
Doesn’t it dissuade them from doing it in 2018 and 2020?
Well, it might dissuade them, but there are all kinds of other people waiting in line. We need an international treaty to end this intensive cyberwarfare.
Some might call you an apologist for Russia for saying what you just said.
I think we are in an era of McCarthyism. If you think the Russians are the only ones committing cybersecurity intrusions, I say “good luck” to you. Time to start reading the cybersecurity literature out there.
The Democratic establishment has blamed you for its losses. Why?
If I’m perceived as a threat, I take that as a compliment. The Democrats are not doing a lot of introspection about why they have lost support. Things aren’t changing inside the Democratic Party. And a lot of people are losing patience. Part of their defense, I think, is to try to discredit the faces of opposition.
Some have accused you of excusing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. What do you make of that?
I think some people fall victim to this foreigner-bashing, the regime-change playbook. Let me ask you: How did that work out for us in Libya? And how did that work out for us in Iraq? Regime change is not a great idea, but part of regime change is absolutely dehumanizing and demonizing the person you’re about to go after.
Now, that’s not to defend the human rights record of North Korea, which is off the charts. Nonetheless, we gotta be able to deal with people as people. That’s what [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson and [former Director of National Intelligence] James Clapper are saying now.
Didn’t President Barack Obama try “strategic patience”?
Unfortunately, strategic patience did not include negotiation. Negotiation has not been tried since the mid-’90s. And, actually, it worked very well. We basically froze the North Koreans’ nuclear program for eight years, until George W. Bush came along and declared the “axis of evil.” And not only did he declare the axis of evil, he initiated a first-strike nuclear attack policy against North Korea. This is why North Korea is backed into a corner, feeling they need a nuclear weapon if they’re going to survive.
That’s what the war exercises have been about. We have been conducting war exercises for well over 10 years. These war exercises essentially rehearse dropping nuclear bombs on North Korea. You can imagine that they might be feeling defensive.
Would you be willing to serve as an envoy to North Korea to try to broker some sort of deal with Pyongyang?
Would I? Yes, I mean, I don’t think I’m the person with the credentials to do it. I understand there is a movement afoot to send Rex Tillerson there for that purpose. I think that’d be great. I’d be more than happy to accompany him, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen.