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AMERICAN MISDIRECTION: MILITARISM AND CAPITALISM REIGN AS SPOTLIGHT STAYS ON RUSSIA CONSPIRACY
It’s in this spirit that I invited my guest today to join us. Aaron Maté was a longtime producer at Democracy Now! He’s been writing on Russiagate for The Nation magazine and, until recently, he was regularly covering this story for the Real News Network. He is now an independent journalist. And for the past two years, Maté has reported critically on every new aspect of this investigation. He’s engaged in regular debates with people who claim he’s wrong or some that say “you’re stupid,” or that he’s somehow a Trump defender. Aaron has also been a critic of some of The Intercept’s reporting on this issue. I’ve had my own disagreements with him, but I believe that Aaron is operating in good faith and that he’s diligently followed this story. So with that, Aaron Maté, I welcome you to Intercepted.
Aaron Maté: Thanks for having me.
JS: I first just want to talk to you about your assessment of Trump as a president. How do you view this administration in terms of its foreign policy, its domestic policy, what Trump represents in American politics?
AM: I’ve always said that I think it’s one of the most dangerous administration’s in history starting with its assault on, its denial of climate change, its pulling out of the Paris Accords to its pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal and its constant anti-Iran hawkishness. It’s being filled with neocons like John Bolton. And here at home, it’s class war on the poor, especially through the further decimation of Obamacare and the tax heist — the, if not, the largest upward transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in U.S. history. So, I think Trump has been a huge danger.
JS: Let’s start from the beginning. How did the whole Trump “Russia Scandal,” how did it start in your view?
AM: I mean some say that it really was the Steele dossier. The sort of official version from the FBI is that they were tipped off to Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos being told by a potential Russian intermediary that the Russians had stolen emails about Hillary Clinton and that led to the official opening of the FBI’s investigation Crossfire Hurricane. I suspect it might have started earlier than that. There’s reports that Comey and Brennan were alarmed by some of the people that Trump had on his campaign team and they were alarmed by Trump saying nice things about Vladimir Putin and talking about better relations with Vladimir Putin. I suspect these factors played a role in raising internal national security state suspicion before they even opened the investigation based on the Papadopoulos pretext, but of course, I can’t prove that.
JS: First just explain how Fusion GPS ends up working with Christopher Steele and who at the beginning was the client?
AM: Fusion GPS’s initial client was actually people in Republican circles, but after Trump —
JS: Who were doing like oppo research on Trump?
AM: Yeah who wanted to take down Trump and when that didn’t work out and Trump won the nomination, Simpson basically got picked up by a law firm that was working for the DNC and funded by the Clinton campaign, Perkins Coie. And Christopher Steele, this former British spy who had spent many years in Russia was brought on and started looking into Trump’s alleged ties to Russia and started writing a series of reports — the first of them in June of 2016 — alleging a high-level Trump-Russia conspiracy going back many years and with many elements. On the one hand, there was like this high-level conspiracy. On the other hand, also, they said that the Russians had blackmail which they used over Trump, but then it also said that the Russians were offering Trump real estate deals that he hadn’t yet taken advantage of. So it was like this is very like complex tale of just a very entrenched Trump-Russia relationship.
JS: Let’s run through some of these figures. What was George Papadopoulos — what did he plead guilty to?
AM: Papadopoulos is a campaign volunteer who pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a man named Joseph Mifsud — who he met in the spring of 2016. And when Mifsud according to Papadopoulos told him that Russians have compromising material on Hillary Clinton, Papadopoulos then shared this over drinks with an Australian diplomat. That diplomat’s information made its way to the FBI and that’s what supposedly sparked the opening of the initial FBI Trump-Russia investigation.
JS: But the allegation or the suspicion that’s been repeatedly floated is that Joseph Mifsud was acting informally as a liaison between the Trump campaign and Russia.
AM: The language that Mueller uses in his indictment of Papadopoulos is that Papadopoulos understood Mifsud to have connections to the Russian government, right? So the idea here is that Mifsud was a possible Russian government intermediary. And yeah, he was trying to reach out to the Trump campaign on behalf of Russia. But one glaring, I think, reason to doubt that is because after Papadopoulos was arrested in January 2017, a few weeks later Mifsud came to the U.S. at the invitation of the state department as a speaker at a conference and he was interviewed by the FBI who then let him go and he hasn’t been charged since. There’s no Interpol warrant for his arrest, as I know. So I somehow doubt that he was a Russian agent.
JS: As I say, we’ll see. Paul Manafort, perhaps next to Michael Flynn the biggest enchilada in terms of power within the Trump campaign that’s been indicted.
What was Manafort indicted for?
AM: Manafort was indicted for crimes that both judges in his case acknowledged have nothing to do with Mueller’s mandate. They have to do with his work in Ukraine dating back to 2005 and they’re mostly basically what Mueller calls garden variety and esoteric financial crimes and lobbying crimes because Manafort was lobbying for the Ukrainian government and he was not reporting his taxes properly and he was fudging applications for bank loans, which is, you know, plenty of evidence he carried out criminal activity. But none of it showing anything to do with the Trump-Russia conspiracy.
JS: Let’s talk about General Michael Flynn and what happened with him. You know, of course, what I’ve been saying about Michael Flynn for a long time is like everyone is missing the narrative here. Michael Flynn was the intelligence chief for JSOC, was running assassination operations, was a disastrous character at the defense intelligence agency when he was the head there, but he signs on really early to Trump’s campaign.
Michael Flynn: We do not need a reckless president who believes she is above the law.
JS: Clearly Michael Flynn for all of his work in intelligence is not that intelligent when it comes to this stuff because he’s on an open phone line with Sergey Kislyak, the then Russian ambassador to the United States. What do we know about what they discussed in those calls?
AM: The first topic that they discussed if the reporting is correct, was Flynn trying to lobby Kislyak to undermine the outgoing administration at the United Nations because Obama was going to let pass at the security council a measure criticizing Israeli settlement activity.
JS: Obama’s position was that the U.S. would abstain in that vote and what Flynn was doing, reportedly, was trying to get Russia to join in an effort to defeat that resolution.
AM: Yeah, because Obama was going to abstain or Trump needed someone to veto it because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had personally asked the campaign and I believe Sheldon Adelson had as well. So this is very important to them. This is actually their first order of business with the Russians.
JS: There is collusion going on and it does involve Russia, but it’s the Trump campaign colluding with Israel in an effort to kill a measure that would have condemned Israel that Obama wanted to abstain on and they were trying to get Russia to come around to the Israeli position.
AM: Exactly right.
JS: What was Flynn indicted for?
AM: Well, so Flynn then shortly after also spoke to Kislyak about retaliating to new punitive measures taken by Obama in response to Obama accusing Russia of being behind the hacking of DNC emails. So Flynn according to the accounts called Kislyak and asked him not to retaliate or not to escalate the situation after Obama kicked out diplomats and imposed new sanctions. And I believe Flynn suggested that after we come into office things are going to change.
JS: Hold on a second here. That doesn’t strike you as super shady that Flynn is having this discussion saying “Don’t worry. We’re going to undermine what the current president the United States is doing and we’re going to —” Why offer to help Moscow in that way?
AM: The Israel thing seems shady to me.
JS: No, Aaron, we’re a hundred percent on the same team, but —
AM: I’ll be honest the Russia part doesn’t.
JS: Why? No, this is why I wanted to talk to you.
AM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JS: To me, it seems really —
AM: Well, first of all —
JS: — Shady.
AM: Putting aside the shady question for a second. First of all, it’s not unprecedented. I mean, we know that Kissinger and Nixon helped destroy a peace deal in Vietnam. We know that Reagan was doing some shady stuff up with the Iran, you know, so this stuff has happened.
JS: Yeah, it doesn’t make it right.
AM: It doesn’t make it right.
JS: We’ve made all those points but I’m asking you directly about this. Why on earth do you say that’s not shady?
AM: Because if you’re the Trump campaign and you see an effort already by the Democratic — from your point of view, the Democratic establishment is already blaming Russia for the fact that they lost. They’re painting Trump’s victory not on Trump winning votes, but on Russia doing it. And so, I think the Trump campaign took this move by Obama as a dig against them. Trump had campaigned [on] better relations with Russia.
DJT: Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing frankly if we actually got along with Russia?
Wouldn’t it be great if we actually got along with Russia?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia? Wouldn’t that be good?
AM: This was something that threatened to impede that and so what Flynn asked for I don’t think is that radical. He just said however you respond, don’t escalate the situation which is the kind of diplomacy and the kind of exchanges that go on constantly. I mean —
JS: I mean, this is a very risky thing to do. It must have been really important to them and that’s what I’m getting at here. Like what is the actual motive? Because I don’t buy the idea that Trump is a dove who just wants us to make peace with Russia. I mean, this guy’s entire career just reeks of corruption and backroom deals and shady shit and I’m just like, why would they take that risk to do that?
AM: I don’t think there’s anything illegal about saying to —
JS: I’m not asking about illegal. I’m saying what do you think politically is their motive? They want peace with Russia?
AM: If you’re about to come into office, the outgoing administration is taking what you perceive as a shot at you by sanctioning Russia and sort of pinning the blame on Russia for Trump’s election and they’re doing something that’s escalatory. You’re just saying to them whatever you do don’t escalate the situation. Don’t respond with more sanctions because you know, we’re about to come in anyway. And that part to me is just not, it’s not unprecedented. I mean, when Obama —
JS: I know it’s not unprecedented. I agree with you a hundred percent on that. Trump seems to be entirely motivated by the preservation of himself and promotion of himself. So, I’m trying to get from you, knowing that you follow international relations closely, what the possible motive would have been other than Trump just wanted it to be done for whatever reasons were floating through his head. I don’t buy that it’s about him wanting peace with Russia. I think that we don’t know why Trump would have directed that.
AM: How do we know about those calls? We know about those calls because they were wiretapped.
JS: No, not the wiretaps, Aaron. I’m talking —
AM: But those calls with Kislyak —
JS: What conversations happened between Trump and Flynn prior to those conversations? You’re not interested in knowing that?
AM: Oh, of course, I’m interested. I mean, sure but the thing is like I don’t — The act of telling a government whatever you do, don’t escalate the situation. I just don’t think that is that — I don’t think it’s that shady. I just think it’s like “we’re coming in anyway.”
JS: Well, if you segregate it from the rest of it: Yes, I agree with you. I’m not saying that I know that anything happened. I’m saying we don’t know what the point was of that because we don’t know what Trump told Flynn.
AM: It’s a fair line of inquiry. I’ve laid out my speculation, but I just want to stress that those calls were all wiretapped. That’s why we know about them.
JS: Absolutely, yeah.
AM: If you read the transcripts of the agents who interviewed Flynn, their 302s, I mean, it’s even murky what exactly he lied to them about. He basically didn’t recall certain details and I think the reason Flynn got indicted is because if you look at his original indictment, Mueller mentions but doesn’t charge him for Flynn’s lobbying for Turkey and that could have subjected him to far worse punishment than lying to the FBI. So, I just don’t think when it comes to Flynn and Russia, there’s anything that sketchy there. At least when it comes to the actual Russia part. The Israel part, as I mentioned, is the sketchy part.
JS: Let’s talk about the now famous, infamous Trump Tower meeting. Who were the participants of that meeting and what was the official purpose of it according to Trump world?
AM: The guy who set up the meeting is this music publicist Rob Goldstone who was close with the Agalarov family, which is a wealthy Russian tycoon and his pop star son. So, the meeting Donald Jr. was there and so was Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort from the Trump campaign. On the Russian/Goldstone side, you have Rob Goldstone, the attorney he worked for, Natalya Veselnitskaya, and some of her associates. And Veselnitskaya worked for a company called Prevezon Holdings, which was fighting U.S. sanctions on Russia through this law called the Magnitsky Act. And according to all participants, that’s what Veselnitskaya wanted to discuss.
She didn’t actually have any dirt on Hillary Clinton, but she tried to lobby them to be sympathetic to her case against the sanctions. Now, the Trump team made things harder for itself because it initially played down that sanctions part and said the meeting was mostly about Russian adoptions, right, which it then had to change. But you know, the speculation here is that like well, since Rob Goldstone wrote that this dirt on Hillary Clinton is a part of the Russian government support for Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. accepted it, that that then led to this or that kicked off or helped further this Trump-Russia conspiracy.
JS: But why — how do you explain then the kind of lies that were told around that by the Trump campaign?
AM: Their statements did change in terms of the purpose and the content of the meeting. It’s true. They hid the fact that Donald Trump Jr. had welcomed this offer —
JS: You won’t use — you don’t think they were lying about it?
AM: Sure, I mean, yeah, it looks like Donald Trump Jr. lied. I mean, although, if you again, if you carefully parse their statement, then you get into questions of OK, does omission amount to lying?
JS: Okay, but the point of that though, so, their story is, let’s say, evolving on that.
AM: But politicians lie and the fact is this came out in the midst of this like, you know, huge speculation about Trump being a Russian conspirator and these people are liars. I mean, there’s no question there that like Trump runs a mendacious camp when you look at who Rob Goldstone is, I mean and by his own account, he’s testified now to Congress. He’s written a book about it. He says “I had no idea what I was talking about” and he explained how he made up certain things. And he calls it publicist puff and his intent was to get a meeting for his client. And so he talked about the crown prosecutor which isn’t even a real title in Russia. And he now says that was based on the fact that in Britain you have the crown which is the government. So that’s what he’s referring to there and all that is plausible to me. Rob Goldstone even checked in on Facebook at Trump Tower that day. He wrote, “Preparing for a meeting.” So it’s much more plausible to me that this publicist free-styled something, came up with a story he thought would win the meeting, they got the meeting. It was a dud. He was embarrassed about it. He apologized to Don Jr. and then moved on. And then, of course, it’s become great fodder for the conspiracy theory. But it’s like, I think when you look at the actual details, I don’t see what’s there.
JS: There are 12 Russian GRU agents that were indicted on charges relating to probing U.S. electoral systems, but also to hacking of DNC communications. Do you think that that is all bullshit?
AM: No, no, no. Now, my position has always been I think it’s actually the first time that we’ve seen something that can be called evidence because here we have a detailed indictment that lays out a story in which Russian military intelligence officers steal the Democratic party emails. And it claims to have very in-depth details of this. It appears to be based on surveillance of actually seeing the Russians type in certain keywords and carry out the acts. And it names even specific agents and so for that to be wrong, I mean then Mueller would have to either be lying or relying on faulty information. So, I have no reason to say that I don’t believe it because I don’t have all the evidence. I do think that we should see the underlying evidence that it’s based on. I do think it’s possible that Mueller was given faulty information here. I mean, we saw during the Iraq War where European intelligence agencies were sort of outsourced to feedback bad intel to the U.S. like, you know, including meetings of Mohammed Atta and Iraqi agents in Prague.
So, that happens and I wouldn’t rule that out here. So, I think it’s possible that Mueller’s indictment of these Russian agents is correct, but I’m also not going to automatically believe it just because he asserts it. I still take — we should see underlying evidence.
JS: What almost never gets mentioned in this context is that this wasn’t just some stealth surgical probe into the DNC. The same fingerprints of whoever was behind what they’re alleging here were also all over a much wider swath of Americans of influence. They were targeting the families of military officers, influential business people of various political institutions not just the Democratic party. I find it intellectually dishonest that we say “These twelve GRU officers are going to be indicted because of this DNC thing,” when we all know including from people that passionately disagree with you, Aaron, that this was much wider. This was not some stealth operation against Hillary Clinton. This was classic spycraft going after influential people in an adversarial nation-state. That’s what it seems like to me.
AM: Yeah, yeah, I’ll also say I wouldn’t be surprised if the hack was carried out from Russia. That doesn’t mean to me that it necessarily came from the Russian government. I think it’s possible also they were non-state actors.
JS: I think it’s really despicable the way that Wikileaks has been handled here where it’s just stated as established fact that Julian Assange got these documents from the Russian government. That may be true and you know, it could be that Assange knowingly got these documents from a Russian agent. It could be that he unknowingly got them through an intermediary and that this source was Russia. It could be that there are multiple channels here, but it’s really, really unjust to just declare that as a fact. I have not seen any hard evidence that proves that Assange knowingly received those documents from the Russian government, and I’ve asked him directly about it as well.
JS [during Assange interview]: Are you confident as a publisher of a very influential organization, are you confident that you were not given these documents by a foreign government for their own purposes?
JA: I’m confident in what we have already stated that our source is not part of the government.
JS: What is their best case that Wikileaks receive these from the Russian government?
AM: I mean Assange himself denies receiving this from Russia, but he also, I believe, once when he was asked whether he would not accept documents from a state actor, I believe he wouldn’t rule it out. I mean, I think the Wikileaks aspect, it’s been used as part of the broader efforts to discredit it.
JS: It’s also the Trump people are much more aggressive toward Assange. The Obama people basically decided by the end, we’re not going to go after Julian Assange. What we’re told is that Wikileaks colluded with the Trump campaign to try to damage Hillary Clinton and were giving them advanced knowledge which they still have not proven that that was the case. And then at the same time, you have Mike Pompeo who was Trump’s original CIA director declaring them essentially a non-state hostile intelligence entity.
Mike Pompeo: It’s time to call out Wikileaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.
JS: And potentially indicting and seeking the extradition of Julian Assange.
AM: That’s right.
JS: But take that a step further. Let’s say they get Assange. Let’s say they put him in a U.S. courtroom. If Trump actually colluded with Assange and Wikileaks, you don’t think that’s going to come out.
AM: But what’s crazy here is seeing Democrats, as you say go, along with it and co-signing now these attacks on Wikileaks accusing it of being a wing of Russian intelligence. And it’s a part of this sort of like McCarthy-ite mania that Russiagate has unfortunately engendered.
JS: Now looking back over these last two-plus years, what is your thesis about this moment and this line of inquiry against Trump?
AM: I think we have Russiagate because we have a convergence of privileged interests. We have the failed Democratic elites who lost to a reality TV show host. Everybody thought that they would win, including me. And they didn’t know what to do and instead of meaningful self-reflection — and this is a point that Glenn Greenwald has made tirelessly — they decided on this conspiracy theory and the strategy of blaming Russia. And prioritizing that above all else, above actually becoming an actual real resistance — a real opposition party — that presents meaningful policy challenges to Trump and actually takes them on. This allows them not just to avoid blame for their own failures, but also helps them sustain their privileged position. Because if Democrats and also their media partisans were to really present an actual challenge to Trump, they’d be presenting alternatives that take on the power systems in this country that Trump and his camp represent.
That dovetails with elements of the national security state who, I think, loathe Trump’s calls for better ties with Russia, whatever motivated them — and again, I do think that Trump was motivated by just wanting to build this brand everywhere he could. But they loathed Trump’s call because the Cold War is profitable for them. The Cold War justifies huge weapons contracts, it justifies, you know, sweeping surveillance capabilities, it keeps the U.S. on this permanent war footing when you have this external enemy. And that’s why everything from like Russian social media posts to Russian emails have been turned into this new version of Pearl Harbor. We often hear comparisons of the email hacking and social media post to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor.
Rep. Jerry Nadler: Imagine if FDR had denied that the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor and didn’t react. That’s the equivalent.
Chris Hayes: Well, it’s a bit of a different thing. I mean —
JN: No, it’s not.
CH: They didn’t kill anyone.
AM: And that also converges with media interests that it’s been great for ratings to make turn this saga, this Trump presidency into a Tom Clancy thriller. And again, that’s a case where if you talk about Russia, it’s a great way for media, prominent media voices to pose as being, you know, cantankerous searches for the truth and opponents of this possibly compromised president while avoiding people who have real power in this country, including powerful corporate interests that control the media. And then for the broader public, I think part of the reason why it’s caught on is because well, A, it’s been fed down our throats. All we’ve heard about for two plus years is Russia, but also it offers a sort of comforting appeal. I mean, for many people Trump’s victory was traumatizing and shocking. And so, if we’re presented with this narrative that the reason is not because of our own society, our own government, but because of Russia, then all we have to do is put our faith in Robert Mueller and he’ll make all our problems go away.
So, it’s been comforting but I think it’s been extremely dangerous because again, it’s taken our eye off of resisting Trump’s actual policies, his actual damage to the country. It’s promoted this weird McCarthy-ite atmosphere where people who criticize the U.S. government or question U.S. foreign policy are deemed to be Russian dupes and useful idiots. It’s turned our resistance into basically a giant conspiracy theory forum where we’re constantly searching for developments that can substantiate this underlying belief that Trump and Russia are in cahoots. And I think with Mueller’s pending report, we’re in for a disappointment, but on the plus side that will be a good opportunity for us to move on and to become a real opposition and a real resistance.
JS: Aaron Maté, thanks very much for joining us here on Intercepted.
AM: Thanks for having me.
JS: Aaron Maté is an independent journalist. He was formerly at the Real News Network and Democracy Now! He currently writes for The Nation magazine. You can find him on Twitter at @aaronmate.