Marcy Wheeler of EmptyWheel.net and TRNN’s Aaron Mate discuss the significance and scope of Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which is apparently focusing on Trump’s financial dealings
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in his probe of the Trump campaign and Russia. Joining me to discuss is Marcy Wheeler, a journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. Her website is emptywheel.net. Marcy, welcome. MARCY WHEELER: Good to be here, Aaron. AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us. This announcement got a fair amount of attention, but it might not be as significant as some people think it is. Your take? MARCY WHEELER: It’s probably not. There already was a grand jury that was being used in Virginia that had subpoenaed records relating to Mike Flynn and probably Paul Manafort. This new one is in Washington, DC, so it’s closer to Robert Mueller’s office, and he used it reportedly to get information on the June 9th, 2016 meeting between Paul Manafort, Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and a bunch of Russian pretending to want to increase adoptions. So the significant part of that is Robert Mueller, who is obviously investigating Trump’s ties to corrupt Russian businessmen has now found something to stick his teeth in that may kind of bring those much more close to the election tampering. But I think we knew that this was a serious investigation. Mueller not long ago hired his 16th lawyer, many of them big all stars in the prosecutorial world, so it was quite clear Mueller had a pretty good sense of where he was going and how he was going to get there. Three of these people are appellant specialists, so he’s even thought through how to make sure he wins whatever kind of convictions or documents or what have you that he gets by appealing them. I think one thing some people have interpreted this to mean is that even is Mueller got fired tomorrow, this entire staff would already be working with the grand jury and, therefore, could proceed even if Mueller himself, cut the head off, even if he himself were gone, all these other superstar lawyers would still be working it. I think that’s right. This is where we thought it would go, and it is moving forward, and it is what we expected, I think. AARON MATE: Okay. In terms of what direction Mueller is going in terms of the scope, what about these 16 hires can we glean to judge about what Mueller is focusing on? MARCY WHEELER: He’s got people who’ve prosecuted the mob, and we know that some of the people who have bought into Trump real estate are mob-tied Russians. They’ve got people with different kinds of experience working in international issues. One, for example, is a woman who has been really involved in Eastern District in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn federal prosecutor’s office, in bringing people from overseas to the United States for trial. And there are some really interesting precedents and legal arguments there. I said there are appellant people, people who have done some really good work arguing before the Supreme Court, people who have public corruption, national security, so spying and cyber background, people who have fraud and money laundering background. In other words, you can kind of see where Mueller is going, which is not just, did the Russians hack Hillary Clinton’s email and how did that affect the election? The larger question is, why is Donald Trump so loathe to go after Russians given over a decade of ties to these mobbed up Russian businessmen who basically launder their money through his condos and other businesses. I think it was interesting, you’ll recall there was a long New York Times interview from, I forget whether it was last week or the week before, where Trump was fast. “If Mueller goes to your business interests outside of Russia,” that was the question, “do you think he’s out of his lane,” and Trump answered it not as asked but as he wanted asked. He said, “You know, you shouldn’t go after my Miss Universe contest in 2013. You shouldn’t go after my condos. I don’t do business in Russia, but maybe there were these condos.” It was almost an admission from Trump that that is what he is worried about, that is where he is worried that this Russian exposure is. As I said, several of his properties are well known for being money laundering ventures for mobbed-up Russians, and it will be very easy, I think, to show as journalists already have, that certain parts of the Trump’s businesses really rely on basically offering money laundering venues for people who have really dodgy ties in Russia. Not to mention the Miss Universe contest set up by the guy who set up that same June 9th meeting. He had his son have his music promoter set it up, but nevertheless, we’re talking about four years of relationships [inaudible 00:05:39] the Miss Universe contest is the one where the famous Peegate tape is supposed to have been filmed. It all circles up really easily, I think. AARON MATE: But [inaudible 00:05:53] I hate to defend [inaudible 00:05:55] here, but I have to say, if I [inaudible 00:05:58] I’d be saying, “Well, look, I thought we were talking about the election. Why all of a sudden are we talking about Mr. Trump’s ties to Russian financiers? What does that have to do with anything?” MARCY WHEELER: I mentioned the June 9th meeting. Again, that’s the one thing we know that this grand jury has done, and the June 9th meeting is important because it is Trump’s closest tie to Russian business. It’s the guy who helped him bring Miss Universe to Russia. He had his son get his music promoter to get this woman who has worked for years to release Russia from sanctions and said, “Hey, can you set up this meeting?” The guy who set up that meeting, Rob Goldstone, basically said, “Hey, Don Jr., I could go to your dad through his assistant, but this is really sensitive, so I thought I’d go to you first.” So it’s clear that he intended to keep Trump in the loop. This is the meeting where Trump wrote the statement, so the White House had a statement … Why the White House was responding, I don’t know because Don Jr. is not part of the White House, but in any case, the White House had an approach. They were going to come clean on this, and Trump himself, the president, intervened and wrote the statement himself, which was a lie. He wrote it after having this kind of weird unscheduled meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G20. He admits that he spoke with Vladimir Putin about adoptions. That is what the statement said, so all of a sudden Trump speaks to Putin, and then the statement reflects exactly what Putin and Trump, by Trump’s own admission, talked about, and that statement is misleading. So when people talk about the firing of Jim Comey, remember so Jim Comey was fired because he wouldn’t back off of Mike Flynn who was involved in other Russian meetings, when they talk about what it would take to prove obstruction of the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russians during the campaign, they also point to all of the evidence that Trump is lying that will make it easier to obtain an obstruction conviction. That’s a kind of circuitous way of saying that those same long-standing ties to, again, the Agalarov family, the people who set up this meeting, are the ones that have most directly implicated Trump, his son, his campaign manager, his son-in-law, the guy who went on to meet with a FSB bank, basically, that tie all of these people to being willing to meet with agents of Russian influence. So it ties it up very neatly, and it’s something about which Trump himself has lied. The most obvious explanation for why Trump and all of his associates were willing to take this meeting is because he’s already got ties to these people and ties going back years, and not just ties going back years but [inaudible 00:09:11] going back years and financial commitments going back years. So it is not that easy for him to say to a guy he’s had business obligations to going back five, ten years, “No.” And he didn’t. AARON MATE: But my problem with that, though, is that I think the easy explanation is actually the one that the Trumps have made, which is that this lawyer was promising compromising information on Hillary Clinton. As Trump said, why not take the meeting in the same way that the DNC took meetings with Ukrainians who claimed to have compromising information about Trump? MARCY WHEELER: Well, did those Ukrainians have the same kind of business ties with Hillary Clinton? There’s no evidence of that. It’s not clear that Trump has the distance from some of these people to be able to say no. It’s also clear, one of the other amusing things that happened this week is Trump signed these harsh new Russian sanctions. Dmitry Medvedev kind of made fun of him for being a [inaudible 00:10:17]. He was sort of like, “Oh, Trump, you’re so weak you can’t say no to Congress.” He couldn’t say no to Congress because Congress had overwhelming support for this bill. But Trump releases two singing statements for these, one of which is a normal signing statement, which I think very appropriately said, “Congress has overstepped the bounds of the president here.” I think there was nothing unusual legally about that. But he released another one, which was sort of like, “This is wrong, you are beating me up,” and it was almost pathetic. “I’m the greatest person. I was hired because I have such great business ties.” There’s so much weirdness coming from this White House and so much inability to even begin to criticize Russia. Again, today, the DOJ rolled out this big new leak initiative at a time when DOJ seems less interested in the fact that Russians hacked our election. Where are the priorities of this administration? The priorities of this administration seem to be protecting Russia, lying about ties to Russia, and that is not a smoking gun, but that is a whole lot of smoke about what choices Trump is making and whether he’s putting the good of the country ahead of his own personal business ties. And we’ll see, but Robert Mueller seems to have the team in place to investigate whether Trump came in compromised, whether Trump came in with an absolute inability to put the interest of the American people first and instead cater to these Russians. AARON MATE: All right. Well, Marcy, listen, this is where we disagree because I don’t actually see what we want Trump to go after Russia for and why we criticize him for not being hard enough on Russia when we still have not seen proof, A, that actually is was Russia who did hack into the emails. We’ve heard claims but not proof. And we certainly haven’t heard proof about collusion. So I don’t understand why there’s this need to rush and condemn Russia and impose new sanctions on it, especially sanctions that are threatening ties not just with Russia but also European countries. MARCY WHEELER: I think you could make the case about the sanctions. I think that the Europeans, even though they’re initiating their own sanctions themselves having to do with Siemens, I think you can make the case on sanctions. I think the claim that we don’t have proof about the Russians gets shoddier and shoddier, and the thing we learned is that a Russian operative, I mean, sorry, a Republican operative tried to invent claims about Seth Rich so as to provide another way by which the emails got to WikiLeaks, which again, one that he consulted with the White House on. So here the White House is trying to invent other conspiracies to provide alternatives to the idea that Russia was behind this hack, which at least CIA and FBI and NSA all believe happened, and we’ve gotten additional information since that Intelligence Community report on that. But the other thing, Aaron, is you mentioned collusion. I laugh when people do that because it’s a shiny object. That’s not what the FBI is looking into. It’s not something that is chargeable. What the FBI is looking into is crimes like obstruction, crimes like money laundering, crimes like fraud, and none of those things is collusion, but those are all crimes, and those are all crimes that compromise people and compromise … May compromise, we’ll see what happens with Robert Mueller’s inquiry, but may compromise President Trump’s ability to independently guard the interests of this country rather than putting his own business interest … Look, Trump obviously has not separated his business interests from the White House. Contrary to all practice, contrary to every other president’s practice, he has not done the kinds of things he needed to do to set up a wall between his business and his presidency, and that becomes a concern if your clients are mobbed-up Russians who have ties to the Russian government, are the kinds of people who knock people off when they cross you in business. That’s the kind of thing that I think we have a good reason to want to ask about given Trump’s singular disinterest in the fact that something happened in the election last year, and the White House seems far more interested in setting up this conspiracy with Fox News contributors than they are in actually investigating it. AARON MATE: Okay. But concurrently, one, I could also claim that Trump’s opponents are equally interested if not more interested in setting up a conspiracy about him colluding with the Russians, which I thought, by the way, is part of the- MARCY WHEELER: No, no, no. You’re inventing that word again, that collusion word. Jim Comey- AARON MATE: I’m not inventing it. It’s the word- MARCY WHEELER: Jim Comey, before he got fired, was quite clear. What he was investigating when he got fired for the investigation and what Rob Mueller is now investigating as a cover up about is not collusion. So you, the Trump people, and I’ll agree, the Democrats are all using that word “collusion,” but it’s a shiny object. AARON MATE: I see, okay. MARCY WHEELER: So every time anybody uses that word “collusion” from whatever side, Democrat, the White House, you, it is a shiny object, a distraction from the fact that there are real crimes being investigated by the Special Counsel. We’ll see whether he charges them, but he is not going to charge collusion. I guarantee that. I promise you that. AARON MATE: Well, I- MARCY WHEELER: So your concern that there’s no evidence of collusion yet, it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to be charged. AARON MATE: Marcy, I think it’s fair for me to take umbrage with the issue of collusion because it’s all we’ve been hearing about for the past six months, and I thought, and correct me if I’m wrong- MARCY WHEELER: Well, you’re talking about it. You’re talking about it. [inaudible 00:16:30] the same problem. I’m talking about the crime. I’m talking about a cover up, I’m talking about obstruction, and I’m talking about that. AARON MATE: But now, listen, on the issue of crimes, though, correct me if I’m wrong, is Mueller not looking at whether or not Trump committed a crime in colluding with Russia to work on how to release the material that Russia allegedly hacked from the DNC? Is that not part of the scope? MARCY WHEELER: He’s not looking into collusion because that’s not a crime. It is, in fact, one of the things that we’ve learned in the last couple of days is there are wiretaps of Paul Manafort, his campaign advisor, that suggest the Russians at least were talking about working with Paul Manafort, who’s got a lot of experience in this kind of sleazy stuff, to coordinate with the campaign. “Coordinate” is a word that Jim Comey, before he was fired for doing this investigation, is a word that said the FBI was looking into. Now, do we have evidence- AARON MATE: Okay, I’ll take that … By the way, I’ll take that word. I’ll take that word, by the way. I’ll take it. MARCY WHEELER: Do we have evidence … One thing that Rob Mueller is investigating is, what did Paul Manafort do as a result? We know, for example, there’s evidence that Paul Manafort had a girlfriend that was kind of thrown at him who might have ties to who knows. That is the kind of thing that might make Paul Manafort do things that he might not otherwise do like take a meeting with a KGB-tied lawyer. Who knows? We don’t know yet, but that is the kind of thing that Rob Mueller is investigating. That’s not collusion. Those are potential crimes. We also know Paul Manafort has money laundering concerns. We know Paul Manafort didn’t disclose a lot of these relationships when he was obligated to do so. All of those are smoke of crimes tied to Paul Manafort even before you get to the Mike Flynn ones, even before you get to some of Trump’s other people, even before you get to Trump’s obstruction. But, yeah, those are the kinds of crimes that Robert Mueller is investigating that were before a grand jury already. And we’ll see what happens, but that June 9th, 2016 meeting is something that everybody involved hid, everyone. And now that Mueller has discovered it after delayed disclosure from people, it does raise questions about why everybody hid it and why the president intervened personally to lie about it. Good question. AARON MATE: I think the answer is actually, and I hate to say it, but I believe Donald Trump Jr. that, is that it was so inconsequential because they were just trying to get some lobbying around the issue of sanctions and the Magnitsky Act specifically. Marcy, I’ll give you 30 seconds to wrap it up. We’re way over time, so your final comments as we wrap. MARCY WHEELER: Again, I invite people to look at where Robert Mueller really appears to be going, which is far more substantive criminal issues than just a meeting or even just the obstruction, and it’s about money laundering and the kinds of follow-the-money questions that I think really get into influence meddling. AARON MATE: Well, Marcy, I hope I’m wrong in all of this. As always, I really appreciate your time. MARCY WHEELER: Great to be on here. AARON MATE: Marcy Wheeler, journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. Her website, emptywheel.net. Marcy, thank you. MARCY WHEELER: And don’t say “collusion,” remember. AARON MATE: I’ll go with “coordination.” I’ll go with “coordination,” “coordinator.” MARCY WHEELER: Okay. AARON MATE: Thank for joining us on The Real News. MARCY WHEELER: Okay. Take care.