Marcy Wheeler is a national security reporter and author. Her website is Empty Wheel.
transcriptAARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté. President Trump has added a new entry to his roster of insult nicknames. On Twitter today, Trump called Senator Dianne Feinstein quote, "Sneaky Dianne" over her decision to release the Senate testimony of Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson. Fusion GPS is the firm that paid for the infamous Steele dossier, which among many things accuses Trump and Russia of colluding to win the 2016 election. Well, at a news conference today, Trump continued to deny the collusion claims. And he also refused to say whether he would agree to an interview with the special counsel investigating them, Robert Mueller.DONALD TRUMP: Well, I will say this. There is collusion, but it's really with the Democrats and the Russians far more than it is with the Republicans and the Russians. So, the witch hunt continues. But it has been determined that there is no collusion, and by virtually everybody. So, we'll see what happens.SPEAKER: Would you be open to an interview?DONALD TRUMP: We'll see what happens. I mean, certainly, I'll see what happens. But when they have no collusion and nobody's found any collusion at any level, it seems unlikely that you'd even have an interview.AARON MATÉ: Joining me is Marcy Wheeler, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties at her blog, emptywheel. Marcy, welcome. Before we get to the dossier and the testimony that was released yesterday of Glenn Simpson, your thoughts of what we heard from President Trump today. His lawyers had indicated he would be open to an interview with Robert Mueller, but Trump today in his news conference appeared to close the door on that slightly.MARCY WHEELER: Right. Remember that, especially the House Intelligence Committee is rushing to finish their alleged investigation, it's not really an investigation, and give him a clean bill of health. And I sort of suspect that once that happens, he's going to say, "I've been deemed innocent and therefore, I don't have to cooperate with Mueller." We'll see whether that works. I don't think that'll work but they're going to try it.AARON MATÉ: So, did you take what he said today to mean that he might not be willing to agree to the interview with Mueller that his lawyers had said he probably would?MARCY WHEELER: Yeah. It sounds like he's trying to find a way out of it. And as I suggested, I think if HPSC, if the House Intelligence Committee comes out next week and says, "No collusion," Trump will say, "No collusion and therefore, I don't have to do an interview with Robert Mueller." I don't know if that's going to fly, but that seems to be what they've been working, so, remember Aaron, that Mueller first approached Trump's lawyers before Christmas about doing this interview and since then it's been non-stop Devin Nunes kind of propaganda to try and bend this stuff and Mueller and so on and so forth. So, those seem connected. If they're connected, it seems like Nunes is trying to run interference for Trump so as to give him a "clean bill of health," as an excuse to not have to interview with Mueller, because I don't see how he can get through a Mueller interview, I really don't. Even about, say, ducks on a pond, I don't think he could get through an interview where he was legally required to tell the truth but especially not about this Russia stuff.AARON MATÉ: Right. Well, I guess we'll see. Time will tell. But meanwhile, now we have this new testimony from Glenn Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS. Senator Dianne Feinstein going ahead and unilaterally releasing it on her own because Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican, refused to allow its release. Now, Marcy, you're in an interesting position because you think that there is something to this collusion story, but yet you've been skeptical for a long-MARCY WHEELER: Not collusion,you have a conspiracy, not the collusion story. But anyway, go ahead.AARON MATÉ: Okay, yes. This coordination story, whatever you want to call it. But you've been skeptical for a long time about Democrats adducing the Steele dossier to prove it. So, now that you've read Simpson's testimony yesterday. Again, the founder of the firm that was behind the Steele dossier, your thoughts on its contents?MARCY WHEELER: I don't think it changes my opinion of the dossier. I don't think Simpson's testimony helps Democrats in the way they think it does. I will write up some questions I have that I get from the Simpson transcript. The same questions are there, right? He actually did this interview in August, and at that point, he was kind of ridiculously claiming that his Republican and Democratic funders, so, remember first Peter Singer funded a Republican dossier on Trump. And that, by the way, Aaron, sounds far more interesting than the one that Steele released. It focuses much more on Trump's mob ties. And then as Trump became the general election candidate, Hillary's people picked it up through their law firm, Perkins Coie. Singer didn't use a law firm as a cut out in the way that the Democrats did. And nevertheless, Simpson refused to describe who his client was, citing privilege. There should be no privilege if you're working for a media outlet, The Washington Free Beacon. So, that's bizarre. And then even more bizarre is that Simpson was very willing to give details about his work for Prevezon, which is a big Russian oligarch that is suing Bill Browder, which is really privileged. So, that's where some of my questions begin with. And given the other things he hid, like some of the dates but not the other dates. None of my questions have been answered and new ones, I think, have been arised. I won't say none of them have been answered. He did provide some really valuable input about how the dossier was written, about whether Steele worked with other people on what we have seen from the dossier. So, that was useful, but I don't think it really helps the larger narrative about how the dossier relates to the larger FBI investigation.AARON MATÉ: Just to explain for anyone who's not familiar with the large cast of characters that Russiagate entails. So, Bill Browder is this very wealthy hedge fund owner who was kicked out of Russia. He spurred the Magnitsky Act, which were sanctions on Russia, which a Russian lawyer tried to lobby the Trump campaign, she says, to lift during the campaign, which was, they say, the subject of that infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. So, all different kinds of, and interestingly, Fusion GPS, which paid for the Steele dossier, also was employed by the Russian company Prevezon, who was going after Bill Browder. So, Fusion was playing many sides here it turns out. Well, let me share with you, Marcy, the questions I have from Simpson's testimony. He says that the FBI told Christopher Steele at a September 2016 meeting that the concerns he was raising, because he first met with them in early July 2016. According to Simpson, Steele says the FBI told him that the concerns he was raising about Trump-Russia collusion were tracking with a human source that the FBI had within the Trump organization. So, my question there is why would the FBI tell a private British citizen of a human source inside a campaign that they were still at that time actively investigating?MARCY WHEELER: I actually don't think they did. I think that, and Simpson kind of backed off the language of that later in his testimony. He said something like, in response to a question very like yours, he said, "Well, I didn't actually say that." I think probably what happened is that Steele, in speaking with the FBI, interpreted something they said. He reported it back to Simpson. I suspect that there's more, let me take a step back. There has been independent reporting, multiple people saying that that reference is actually a reference to the story that came out recently of George Papadopoulos getting drunk, telling the Australian ambassador to the UK about having heard about these emails. I suspect there's more to that story. The current story is that the ambassador didn't tell the United States right away, waited until the emails started coming out from WikiLeaks, and only then did the ambassador to the United States, the Australian ambassador to the United States go to the FBI and say, "Here's what that was about." So, we don't know all of that story, I'm convinced, yet. But I think that what happened was Steele interpreted something he heard from the FBI, and then went back in a game of telephone and told Simpson something else, and that's why we get the human source thing.AARON MATÉ: Right. To me, though, this adds credence to the suspicions that it was in fact, despite what Democrats say, it was in fact Steele who kicked off the FBI investigation. Because, as you say, the Australians told the US about what George Papadopoulos alleged said drunkenly about being told of hacked emails. And George Papadopoulos, by the way, for those who don't know, was a low-level Trump campaign aide. The Australians reportedly told this to the US government, as you say, in late July after the emails were released. But Steele met with the FBI back in early July. So, that's a long window in between. And to me, it makes it unlikely that it was in fact this claim from the Australians that kickstarted the investigation. Anyway, I don't know, Marcy, if you have thoughts on that.MARCY WHEELER: Well, no. I think that you're right, that the Simpson transcript actually doesn't help Democrats as much as they claim. Steele brought the first report, which has proven to be inaccurate, contrary to what every dossier defender says. He brought that first report with the pee tape allegation in it to the FBI in the first week of July 2016. According to the public story, the Australians did not inform the FBI about Papadopoulos' drunken ramblings until after, it would be July 22nd. That's when WikiLeaks started releasing the emails. According to Comey, that investigation was opened in late July. So, both may have been predicates for the investigation, as well as the actual hack, as well as there was a report that came into the CIA. There was a report that came in from another European government that I've heard about. So, all of those things may have contributed to the counterintelligence investigation. Plus, the Carter Page trip was early July. There were already rumblings about Manafort. All of those things, is my guess, went into opening the investigation after the emails started coming out in July, which would track with when Comey said that that was open. Incidentally, something that people often forget, Aaron, is that there are reports that the CIA opened a separate task force in June based off some of their own reporting, which was compartmented from the CIA investigation, the counterintelligence investigation. So, there's a lot that came in. I agree with you that the Simpson transcript doesn't help Democrats as much as they would like, but the case is in fact real, that there were a lot of things we know that were floating around in July before the late July, according to Jim Comey, opening of that CIA investigation.AARON MATÉ: Okay. Just to explain another character who emerged there in your words. Carter Page was another low-level Trump aide who went to Russia, apparently helped spark some scrutiny of the Trump campaign and Russia. By the way, the Steele dossier claims that Carter Page was offered a 19% stake in the Russian state-owned oil company, which is valued at something like 58 billion dollars. So, I don't know, he was offered something like an $11 billion stake if he could help get Trump to lift sanctions on Russia, which is, I think a curious claim, especially if you've seen Carter Page in interviews. But finally, Marcy, so, in terms of the case, if you don't buy the Steele dossier and all of its wild claims, what then is your theory of the case? Because now we're going on over a year since the intelligence report came out alleging a Russian influence operation attempt to elect Donald Trump, but still in terms of concrete evidence of collusion, despite all the leaked phone calls and contacts, there's still nothing concrete that points to the Trump campaign and Russia colluding together to win this election. So, what then, if you could sum up for us, is your theory of the case?MARCY WHEELER: Well, I refuse to use the word "collusion" no matter how many times you throw it at me. It's very clear that the Trump people heard about emails before the Democrats even heard about emails. It is also clear, I think, that the current story we have of that June 9th, 2016 meeting is a limited hangout. I raised questions over the weekend about whether two of the Russians left and two stayed around, or one Russian and one Brit-AARON MATÉ: Marcy, just to explain, this is the meeting in Trump Tower between the Russian lawyer, Veselnitskaya, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Manafort.MARCY WHEELER: And a guy named Ike Kaveladze, who works for a Russian oligarch who has long ties with Trump and has long tried to set up business with Trump. And that's what I think is actually important about that meeting, not, Vesel, I can't say it. Veselnitskaya. So as I said, that's a limited hangout. We do not know the full story of that meeting yet. There was a story over the weekend about Mueller bringing people back in to find out, I think, when people left the meeting and who they left it with and whether they all left together, which says the stories that we have aren't the full story. And then, I think that there are policy issues that you can point to and moments that you can point to that seem to be signaling to the Russians in this kind of dance back and forth towards policy concessions for help on the election. And then after-AARON MATÉ: Like what? Like what, Marcy? Marcy, like what?MARCY WHEELER: Like sanctions relief and leaving Assad in power in Syria, both of which we've got evidence of. And both of which-AARON MATÉ: Yes, except I have to say about Assad, I think it's quite likely Obama would've done the exact same thing because that was a losing battle. The US was not going to put in the resources necessary to overthrow Assad. So, I think no matter who was going to come into power, that would've happened anyway.MARCY WHEELER: Whatever. Let me just say that I am confident we will find information that supports a case that Trump and the Russians made certain policy concessions, and it was a back-and-forth iterative process all along the way that took place against the background of these emails being released and a number of other interventions by the Russians. That is my case of the media-AARON MATÉ: Who would've made the contacts? Who would've actually made the communication to discuss that between the two sides? Because as far as we know, that certainly has not come out yet.MARCY WHEELER: Well, no. I just spent 10 minutes explaining that the story we have of the Trump Tower meeting is not the complete story of the Trump Tower meeting. And I say that with great confidence. And there are a number of other parts of the story that we don't have the full story publicly yet, either. But I think that you've called both Page and Papadopoulos low-level people. They were nevertheless brokering, Papadopoulos brokered a meeting with Sisi and Trump. So, they were having a fairly large role in the campaign. And this is well before you get into what Manafort was doing, what Don, Don Jr. had this weird meeting in Paris in, I think, September funded by pro-Russian Syrians. So, there's a lot of things like that. I think Don Jr. was right in the thick of things. That's where it's going to go.AARON MATÉ: Well, here's what I could also tell you about George Papadopoulos at least, which is that we know that he lied to the campaign in telling them that he met with the Russian ambassador to London. That's in his indictment. We also know that when he went to Greece, he also lied to Greek officials about his level of seniority in the Trump campaign, as illustrated by the fact that after Trump came into office, George P. didn't even get a job there. So, he doesn't seem to be that high placed if he couldn't even land a job in the campaign that he worked for.MARCY WHEELER: Sure. The people who didn't land a job and the people who got fired are the ones who are providing a bunch of dirt right now to Mueller.AARON MATÉ: All right. Well, on that note, we'll leave it there. I look forward to our next encounter, Marcy Wheeler. Independent journalist, covers national security and civil liberties at her blog, emptywheel.net. Marcy, thank you.MARCY WHEELER: Good to talk to you, Aaron.AARON MATÉ: And that you for joining us on The Real News.