by Jeremy Fassler
This is the second part of our exclusive interview with David Corn on his latest book “Russian Roulette”. Part one can be found here.
There’s a rumor that when Trump read the list of names on his foreign policy team to the Washington Post in March 2016, he was reading it for the first time and didn’t actually know about the hires prior to that moment. Is that true?
It doesn’t sound outlandish. We report in the book that he didn’t really have a foreign policy team because J.D. Gordon, who was trying to put one together, was being turned down by all the usual suspects who didn’t want anything to do with Trump, probably because of what he’d been saying about Putin and Russia. That meant they had to go with a bunch of people who had either spotty reputations or no reputations. Most of the names Trump read were unfamiliar to anyone who would’ve been paying attention, and since Trump doesn’t pay attention to foreign policy, I’d assume that he didn’t know who Carter Page and George Papadapolous were.
Why wasn’t the media on absolute red alert during the campaign, informing people every day that Russia was up to no good?
That’s one of the more important questions out of all this. There was a lot of early evidence that the Russians were up to something, and a bunch of cybersecurity experts saying “This all seems to be a Russian influence campaign.” Right away, the Clinton campaign tried to make that they were under attack by the Russians part of the political narrative. But the political media and political journalists were more concerned with the information being released. The DNC and Podesta emails were like a candy store for them. “Here are emails that show the Clinton campaign was mean to the Sanders campaign!” It’s the type of stuff they love to cover: easy, concrete, and right there in front of them. So when the Clinton campaign was trying to make the point that the real story was the Russians attacking the election, their response was, “Oh, that’s just your spin. You’re just trying to deflect from the fact that there’s a DNC email that says something nasty about Bernie Sanders.” Reporters covering the campaign were just more interested in the campaign and the horse race. And the fact that the White House was not hyping this or making a big deal out of it made it harder for conventional, political reporters to make a big deal out of it.
The Obama Administration comes off in your book as acting far too reluctant to get the word out that this was happening.
Presidents, in some ways, are only as smart as the intelligence that reaches them, and I don’t think they realized the depths of Putin’s paranoia and his desire to be this sort of revivalist authoritarian figure restoring the Russian Empire. They did acknowledge that they underestimated these elements of his strategy and psychology, but the intelligence community also missed the ball on these indicators that Putin was interested in waging information warfare against the West.
They did eventually release a statement, as you write, on October 7, 2016, but I think given everything that happened that day, the fact that they said anything at all will come as a revelation to most of your readers.
On October 7, a statement came out from the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security saying that it was clear the Russians were behind the hacking and the dumping of private information. That same day, the Access Hollywood tape came out and WikiLeaks’ began disseminating the Podesta emails, which gave political journalists ammunition for virtually a story a day. Obama didn’t talk about it because he didn’t want it to seem political, and that made it seem not as important. You look back now, and it was pretty stunning that the administration put out a statement saying they were under attack from Russia, and that same day, came another extension of that attack.
And all this time, Trump denied that there was any wrongdoing.
We confirm in the book that, when he first started receiving intelligence briefings in August 2016, he was told that the Russians were doing this, and then he went out and said it wasn’t happening. He was colluding indirectly with a cover-up when he did that.
Given that Robert Mueller has indicted many people in the inner circle, what would he need to find that Trump knew of and approved of the collusion, or that he himself was involved? What hypothetical smoking gun would we need to make that clear and possibly bring about an indictment?
I think it’s highly unlikely that Trump met with Russian agents and said, “Make sure you hack these documents, here’s the best way to disseminate them.” That’s the way the White House wants to define collusion, and I don’t think people should get hung up on that issue. Instead, imagine that you’re standing in front of a bank where there’s a robbery, but you’re told that there’s no robbery going on. If people walking by ask you what’s going on, and you tell them that there’s no robbery, you are aiding and abetting the bank robbers even if you haven’t conspired to do that with them. That’s what Trump did. Carter Page and George Papapdapoulos tried to make connections with the Russians while they waged information warfare on America, and that sent a signal that the Trump campaign was not against said warfare, or upset about it, or telling them to get out. And while he publicly denied that the Russians were doing that, that also sent a message to the Russians that he accepted their help. Whether that’s illegal is debatable, but that in and of itself should warrant a very harsh judgment.
One of the most talked-about issues regarding the campaign’s collusion is the Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016, that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort took with the Russian lawyer, Natalya Veselnitskaya. They were promised dirt on Hillary Clinton, but instead, the meeting turned out to be about the Magnitsky Act and Russian adoptions. Why did they tell Junior that they had information when there was nothing to offer?
You have to be careful about drawing conclusions from limited amounts of information. It may seem odd that this meeting was set up and that there was no real “dirt” so to speak, but it could well be that Veselnitskaya said that she had information she thought they could use, and things proceeded from there. There can sometimes be simple explanations for things that you just don’t know. What we do know is that the offer, when it was made, was accepted, and then five days after the meeting, when news of the DNC hack was revealed, the Trump campaign responded by saying, “Oh no, Russians aren’t doing this! The Democrats hacked themselves!” and they got a story out of it. Wait a second – they were told that the Russians wanted to help them! Of everyone in the universe, they would have reason to believe that the DNC hack was part of the same that same effort. The significance [of the meeting] is that they were getting communications from people they trusted, like Trump’s former business partner in the Miss Universe pageant [Aras Agalarov], and that they were willing to accept their help.
It’s like the example of the bank robbery – even if you’re not in on the robbery, if you tell people there’s nothing going on because the robbers told you to do so, you’re still complicit with the robbery.
Yes, it’s colluding indirectly with a cover-up.
There have been warnings that the Russians want to strike out at the US again by compromising our midterms this fall. Why haven’t we invested in significant cybersecurity reform to prevent this from happening again?
The federal government tends to work in the matter where, if something’s a priority at the very top, the agencies and bureaucracy follow suit. This has obviously not been a priority for Donald Trump because he refuses to acknowledge that there was a problem in 2016, so if there’s no problem, they don’t have to worry about fixing it. Moreover, the electoral system in the US is not a system: it’s a crazy quilt of local systems in about 3,000 or so counties, and each one has its own system of vote counting, some of which are run by retirees in organizations like The League of Women Voters who may not have the resources to invest in cyber defense. It’s tremendously difficult to secure the electoral system, and it’s going to take a lot of work and coordination from Washington to make this happen, but without leadership at the top, it’s not going to happen.
What can people like us do to remain vigilant?
I think local officials have to look hard at who’s running the election systems, maintaining the voter databases and all the other infrastructure, and make sure that they’re seeking out the best practices to ensure that the Russians or any other malefactors have less ability to mess with things before or on Election Day. You don’t just have to get this from a Congressperson or Senator, however. All these other elected officials on the local and state level have a role to play in seeing if their systems can be made more secure.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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