Paul Manafort and former business partner Rick Gates, along with former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos, have been the first people indicted in the Trump-Russia probe. Independent journalist Marcy Wheeler, economist James Henry, and TRNN’s Aaron Mate discuss.
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. The first federal charges have been announced in the Special Counsel probe of the Trump campaign, and alleged Russian meddling. Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, and former business partner, Rick Gates, are accused of financial crimes. But the allegations appear to have no direct connection to the 2016 campaign. They’ve pleaded not guilty. The more interesting case might be that of Trump campaign Foreign Policy Advisor George Papadopoulos. He has reached a plea deal admitting to making false statements to investigators about his contacts to a foreign national set to have ties to Russia. At the White House today, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed Papadopoulos’ role in the campaign. SARAH H. S.: We’ve been saying from day one there’s been no evidence of Trump/Russia collusion and nothing in the indictment today changes that at all. SPEAKER: But the George Papadopoulos… SPEAKER: … it is specifically about the campaign. SARAH H. S.: It has nothing to do with the activities of the campaign. It has to do with his failure to tell the truth. That doesn’t have anything to do with the campaign or the campaign’s activities. SPEAKER: But it is the clearest evidence yet of ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. SARAH H. S.: Again, there are no activities or official capacity in which the Trump campaign was engaged in any of theses activities. Most of them took place well before the campaign ever even existed. AARON MATÉ: I’m joined now by two guests: Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist whose blog is EmptyWheel where she’s been writing on the indictments, as well as at The Intercept today. And James Henry is an economist and attorney with the Tax Justice Network. Welcome to you both. Marcy, I’ll start with you. I take it that like usual, we’re not going to agree on very much, but I think we might agree that of these two indictments today, the one against this foreign policy aide, George Papadopoulos, might be more significant, at least when it comes to this whole issue of alleged or perhaps Trump/Russia collusion. Your thoughts on what his case means? MARCY WHEELER: I think you need to understand the two together. What happened is on October 5th, Mueller flipped this guy, flipped George P and actually got him to start cooperating as far as we can tell… So, for over two months, George P has been talking to the government, to the FBI, and to Mueller’s people. It very importantly, there is a footnote in the complaint against George P that references Manafort. So, there’s this discussion about, “Hey, let’s set up a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin,” and unnamed people in that footnote say, “Let’s play this down. Let’s have low level people deal with it.” That’s Manafort, and the other guy who got indicted with him today. So, what we know is they’re pushing Manafort to flip. He refused to flip, so they charged him with the lower level charges, which is like garden variety money laundering but a fairly spectacular garden variety of money laundering. Then, at the same time, they unsealed this complaint about George P showing that George P has for the last few months been chatting up a storm with the FBI about what really he went on, and what really was going on between a willingness to work with Russia. That’s how to understand them, is the George P stuff is very fascinating, very inflammatory. Mueller’s hiding the most interesting bits of it, though. He has shown enough such that Manafort might be far more interesting in reading it but there are bits in there that he just nods to, which are going to be really interesting when we see it at some..]. AARON MATÉ: Well how do you know he’s hiding the interesting bits? Because he does say that George P says that an unnamed professor who the indictment says has connections to the Russian government told him that the Russian government has thousands of emails on Hillary Clinton, which certainly seems pretty explosive. What indicates to you that Mueller is hiding something? MARCY WHEELER: Because when George P first and second talked to the FBI. So, the claim against George P is that he had two interviews with the FBI. One in January, one in February, and lied in both of them about certain things, and then the day after the second one, started deleting his Facebook account. Actually deleted the entire Facebook account, to hide communications he was having with the Russians. So, they charged him with lying about what he told them about what had really gone in with the Russians, and basically what he told them in January was, “Yeah, I met this woman. She said she was the niece of Vladimir Putin, but that was all before I joined the campaign and oh, by the way, I didn’t tell anybody on the campaign about those emails because I wasn’t sure whether they were true or not.” We now know what the truth is. We know that they believe his claim that he didn’t tell the campaign about the emails is not true. So in other words, as you’ve said, it is fairly explosive that we now know he learned that the Russians were sitting on thousands of Hillary emails on April 26th, which is actually three days before the DNC found out they had been conned by the Russians. So, he learned really early that there were emails sitting out there, and he learned importantly before the June 9th meeting that Paul Manafort attended, looking for dirt on Hillary Clinton. Same work. Both meetings, both allegations were about her. What we don’t know is what George P has for the last two months been explaining about what he told the campaign about those emails. AARON MATÉ: Okay, here’s where I push back a little bit, because I think it’s an explosive claim that he says that some professor who has ties to Russia told him that the Russians have thousands of Hillary Clinton emails, but I don’t think it’s conclusive. I mean, again, it’s like hearsay about hearsay. He says a professor told him that the Russians had these emails, and who is he again? He’s a low level campaign staffer who when he tried to actually set up a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russia, the Trump campaign said, “No, we don’t want to meet these people.” MARCY WHEELER: That’s not true. As late as July, Manafort was going to be in that meeting with George P. August 15th, that meeting was still going to be set up with George P and somebody else. Then what happened was Manafort’s correction became clear, and Manafort became toxic. So, the complaint makes it clear that the meeting never happened, but the complaint never says that they refused the meeting, and lots of details in the affidavit signed for his arrest in July make it quite clear that they were very happy to continue discussions about the meeting. But the other reason why it’s not just his claim that the emails existed, and boy is George P dumb, because he was talking to what are effectively Russian handlers on Skype, right? So, Skype and Facebook. They’re both PRISM providers, they’re both…like, as soon as the government finds a foreigner that they want to target, which I’m sure they did, then they’re going to get all of the foreigners discussions, which would have gone between the foreigner and George P, so this professor in London, and also the fake niece in Russia, and also there was another third person involved with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs. So, three different foreigners they could target. All of those communications the FBI had when George P was lying to them about what he said. So, it’s not just George P’s claim that he heard about the emails. It’s that the FBI has SIGNT showing that he was lying about the emails. AARON MATÉ: But the Washington Post reported a few months ago, in terms of this meeting, setting up a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russia, the Washington Post reported back in August that this was shot down pretty quickly, that several Trump aides raised concerns and it didn’t get very far. What’s missing here? MARCY WHEELER: Aaron, you know as well as I do that often these leaks, particularly for these secretive investigations, are meant to preemptively undercut charges. That is a brilliant example of it, because they also quote from that footnote that I told you about, where Manafort was saying, “Okay, well we’ll have a low level person deal with it” but the Washington Post story, and presumably that’s what they got fed, the Washington Post story cuts it off early. So, it doesn’t explain that a low level person was going to continue to deal with it, and again, between the complaint and the affidavit, it’s very clear that they were continuing to set up those meetings and were quite interested in setting up those meetings. So, that Washington Post story is in retrospect, this utterly wonderful example of how, because Manafort or whoever else was dealing stuff to the Washington Post, how they can control the narrative if they have information that seems to feed this story, but only gets their side out ahead of time. The FBI hasn’t been showing what it’s sitting on, and it still isn’t. As I said, there are still these really ripe silences in all of these documents that we can point to where Manafort knows what went on, Jeff Sessions knows what went on, Carter Page knows what went on. But we don’t. Those silences are precisely to build pressure on people such that they’ll flip and we can build a bigger case against all these people. We still know just a very little bit about this, but what we know is that Washington Post was a limited hangout, and now we know a little more of the story and the story makes it clear that the campaign was interested in setting up a meeting with the Russians. AARON MATÉ: Okay. We’ll come back to this tangent. James Henry, you specialize in the kinds of crimes that Paul Manafort and his former business partner were charged with today. Your thoughts on the indictments? JAMES HENRY: I was entertained by this indictment. I think we have some pretty interesting expenditures by Paul Manafort, if the evidence holds up in court. Something like 75 million dollars that were tracked through 13 Cyprus accounts, a bunch of other offshore companies, and they ended up not being reported according to the indictment, for tax purposes. So, Manafort is spending millions on landscaping at 174, well, his house in Water Mill, which is quite stunning. It’s an eight million dollar property by the way, subject to confiscation under this asset program, asset recovery program that Mueller’s going to invoke. I thought that this indicated a link to the very good reporting the New York Times did back in July on where all this money in Cyprus came from. It came from mainly from an oligarch named Deripaska who was one of the biggest owners in the aluminum industry in Russia and is reputedly close to Vladimir Putin. Although, what that means remains to be determined. But he was certainly passing Manafort a lot of money to these companies that ended up according to the indictment, and then relaying it to fund Paul’s lifestyle. The other implicated fellow here is Rick Gates. So, here we have two Republican presidential campaign managers in a row, except for whoever advised Romney. Rick Gates was John McCain’s campaign manager back in 2008, and then Manafort appears here. So, both of these people are pretty active practitioners of the offshore haven and onshore haven financial secrecy behavior. It’s not surprising the Republicans have been opposed to any kind of crackdown on that kind of secrecy. I think it’s misleading to characterize this as completely irrelevant or well before the 2016 campaign by Trump. First of all, a lot of the infractions charged here occurred in late 2016, 2017. Secondly, the tax fraud involved here is a continuing offense, and all of these non- disclosures that are charged in the indictment on the part of Gates and Manafort are continuing offenses. But secondly, it should be disturbing to Republicans I would think that they can’t seem to find a campaign manager who doesn’t actively exploit the offshore haven industry. So, there’s a lot of explaining here to be done at the very least on the part of Manafort’s lawyers. What I would say about the overall story here is that this is, as Churchill said, this is not the end or even the beginning of the end, but it is an indication that we are going to have to, all of us who are specialists in this investigation have to discount a little bit about our natural interest in all these details because I’m concerned at the end of the day, the American people have to get onboard and figure out that all of this stuff in these indictments constitutes something that they want the president removed for. An impeachable offense requires a new Congress, probably, and a whole lot more democratic senators, and that’s not going to happen for a while. So, Mueller’s strategy is just beginning and this is going to roll out over a long period of time, so it’s kind of premature to characterize this as the fatal blow that will be struck against Trump, but I think it’s a good start. AARON MATÉ: If I’m wrong to characterize the Manafort and Gates indictment as not directly connected to the 2016 campaign, what is the direct connection then? Because their alleged crimes here pertain to Ukraine, not Russia. JAMES HENRY: Well, we don’t know exactly what the significance of all this will be. It’s clearly designed to put a lot of pressure on Manafort to spill what he really knows about the 2016 campaign. So, the direct relevance of the Ukrainian specific money laundering that went on here is not the point. The point is that this is part of a grand strategy that turns some people to become witnesses against the President. I think Mueller is demonstrating some efficiency in terms of getting him compared with other Special Counsels who’ve taken years to get to this indictment stage. I mean, he’s moving at lightning speed and so technically speaking, the Ukrainian elections. Yanukovych, well, I mean, it brought down Tony Podesta today. Had to resign from his firm, because he was one of the unnamed lobbyists. AARON MATÉ: Let’s explain that. JAMES HENRY: But no, it’s not really- AARON MATÉ: Let’s explain that, James. Tony Podesta ran a very powerful lobbying group. He’s the brother, of course, of John Podesta, the Chair of Clinton’s campaign. Because of the Mueller probe, he is now stepping down from his firm. What does that indicate to you? Do you think that … It was reported last week I believe that Podesta is also in Mueller’s sights. JAMES HENRY: We don’t know about whether that’s true, but Tony Podesta’s been a very powerful, and I have to say, somewhat non-discriminating lobbyist, when it comes to representing these kinds of clients. I mean, I was involved in investigating Credit Suisse’s plea bargain with the Justice Department in 2014. Tony Podesta was lobbying heavily all over the Justice Department to get them a sweetheart deal, which they ultimately got. This is at the same time his brother was a Special Counsel to the President. So, in this case, he was sensitive to the fact that his company, A, was the unnamed lobbyist that was a front for Paul Manafort’s lobbying efforts to represent the Ukrainian pro-Russian President in Washington. He had to step down because Fox News was, as he said, “Fox News has made it impossible for me to be a PR advocate, effectively.” AARON MATÉ: Poor guy. Marcy Wheeler, I want to talk more about Papadopoulos. I have a question. Okay, so if he was the intermediary for in between the Trump campaign and Russia, why is he not facing even worse charges than just lying to the FBI? I mean, if he was the guy who helped the alleged collusion, if that’s what he did, as many suspect he did now, why not charge him with conspiring with a foreign power? MARCY WHEELER: Because he’s the first guy to flip. I mean, honestly, that’s the way it works. If you are exposed, I would say he is alleged to be one of the maybe five go-betweens, right? AARON MATÉ: Yeah. MARCY WHEELER: Manafort is clearly another one. Flynn is clearly another one. Carter Page is another one. Jared Kushner another one. So, George P, first guy to flip, he’s going to get the best deal. What Mueller did with these charges against Manafort were one, take away all his money, because it all got forfeited. So, he lost 18 million or something today, forfeited because of badly gained goods, which means he can’t pay for lawyers, he has a 10 million dollar bail bond, he lost all his…and that puts him in a much more sensitive position where A, he’s not going to be able to resist being charged for those other charges. But B, he knows if the government already knows what George P is going to say. So, you want to get in, you want to flip as quickly as possible. George P flipped in July. This, today, as best understood, is Mueller’s polite way of explaining to Manafort that it’s in his best interests to flip as well. So, you will see, and if Manafort doesn’t flip, if this is not enough to convince him to flip against Trump, and a lot of that is going to be dictated by whether Trump pardons him. If Manafort doesn’t, then I would expect to see a second indictment in say a month and a half, that talks more about his ties with Deripaska, that talks more about how he was reporting back to Deripaska, talking about his debt to Deripaska, that talks about his willingness. This is again, the silence of George P’s complaint, his willingness to set up meetings with the Russians. To talk about his role in the meeting. Those are all there. Those are all what I think Mueller knows he can charge Manafort with tomorrow. He’s trying to get Manafort to flip and frankly, to flip before his reputation has been made impossible for on the witness stand. But that he can flip against people like … and Kushner and that’s what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to go against people that are garden variety money laundering is much less problematic to be convicted of than basically… AARON MATÉ: Well, my obvious response is that if the attempt is to get Manafort to flip, that assumes that Manafort has something to flip on. For that to have happened, that means that there are people above Papadopoulos who then took his overtures to Russia and then went further with that, and somehow through all of this, set up their own channel to Russia in an attempt to collude with them, right? So, for this theory to work, there has to be more people above him who had even higher level contacts and more extensive contacts than he did, or at least that we know about, with Russia? MARCY WHEELER: Right, and we know that Manafort did. The big question on Manafort is- AARON MATÉ: How do we know that? No, we don’t know that. MARCY WHEELER: No, we do, because we know that he was basically working for free for Trump as a favor for this Russian oligarch, Deripaska, whom he owed millions to, and he was reporting back.. AARON MATE: Wait. You think that the reason Manafort was working for Trump was because he owed a favor to a Russian oligarch? MARCY WHEELER: That’s a part.. AARON MATÉ: That’s why Manafort was working for Trump? MARCY WHEELER: That’s why he was working free for Trump. That’s why he was willing to work for free for Trump. He had debt that he needed to get out of, and one way to get out of it was selling out the campaign to this Russian oligarch. That’s all I’ll say, right? But the point is, I mean, where I was going with that is, Manafort through August 19th as the campaign, and as I said, on August we know that there was a plan to have George P with one other person who may well have been Manafort, go to London and have this meeting. But that became… and Manafort got ousted. George P did not. We don’t know what happened with George P after August 19th. We know he stayed on the campaign. We also don’t know what happened in the aftermath of that meeting. You know that at least Manafort probably had a sense going into that meeting that the dirt in question was not as these claims about their donations to other Democrats, but instead actual emails, but it’s… So, that’s where we’re going, and you have to remember that Manafort is sleazy as hell, but you need to get beyond…and to the Kushner meetings after the election. AARON MATÉ: James Henry, your thoughts on this point that there is more to look at when it comes to the meetings after the election? JAMES HENRY: Well, I think we’re at the beginning of the Ring Cycle here, in terms of in Wagnerian terms. This is very early days. I think Mueller is playing this game, basically, he has to have up his sleeve some idea that Paul Manafort has a lot to talk about. Even after his being fired. He, and Gates, his partner, maintain a relationship with the Trump administration, with the Trump campaign, right through the end of December of 2016. He was I think, they were probably communicating during that period. The real issue comes down to what did Manafort really do for the Russians, and what are all the people that they were colluding with, if that was what was going on, actually delivering? Simply sitting in a meeting and listening to gossip about Hillary, I don’t think, doesn’t rise to the level that’s going to cross the finish line when we get to impeachment proceedings. We have to have something on the part of Manafort or his other co-conspirators in terms of real deliverables that were offered to the Russians and accepted. I don’t think we’re there yet. AARON MATÉ: Marcy, if you could speculate, and by the way again, I see no evidence that any of this quid pro quo occurred. It was alleged in the Steele dossier, which we now know was funded by Democrats, but your thoughts on if they existed, if it happened, what those deliverables would have been? MARCY WHEELER: Well, the deliverables would have been what Mike Flynn is known to have talked about with Sergey Kislyak on December 29th, which is getting rid of sanctions. AARON MATÉ: Which didn’t happen. MARCY WHEELER: It didn’t happen because he was fired, right. AARON MATÉ: Right, but- JAMES HENRY: May I say this? AARON MATÉ: Please James, yes. JAMES HENRY: Yeah. I would say the fact, excuse me. The fact that it has been difficult for Putin and company to collect on their loans or collect on their advances here is kind of in part, a function of the fact that all this has come out. AARON MATÉ: Assuming they made a loan to begin with. Sorry, James. Go ahead. JAMES HENRY: But it’s not surprising to me that it was difficult for Trump to roll back on the NATO demands, to roll back on sanctions. As I’ve heard it from the FSB people, they’re saying, “Well, we overachieved here. We have buyer’s regret. We can get nothing through Washington that’s pro-Russian right now.” But that’s not surprising, and it’s not inconsistent with their having set out to do this, it’s just that screwed up. AARON MATÉ: Okay, well we have to wrap, so Marcy, I’ll give you the final comment. I just want to say that this claim from George P in his indictment is the most tangible thing I’ve seen so far, and it’s to me, a secondhand claim about a secondhand claim, which is it’s him saying that professor who we’re told has ties to Russia, had told him that the Russian government has Hillary’s emails, but it is something, it’s in a document, it’s there. Marcy Wheeler, your final comments, where you think things are going from here, very quickly? MARCY WHEELER: I think we are going to see whether Manafort flips or whether he gets pardoned. That’s the big drama and it may decide whether this moves forward at all. JAMES HENRY: Exactly. AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there, and look forward to checking back in with both of you, to continue covering this topic. Marcy Wheeler- JAMES HENRY: Great. AARON MATÉ: … Independent journalist whose blog is EmptyWheel, she’s also written a piece today on The Intercept about Jeff Sessions, which we didn’t get to talk about. Marcy, you know what? Very quickly, do you want to give us a brief summary of that? Why you think Jeff Sessions might be in trouble, because of the indictments today? MARCY WHEELER: Sure. They have George P’s documents largely for Manafort, but also for Sessions. He testified on the 18th, he was asked again about all his claims that he knew nothing about collusion and nothing about surrogates actually meeting with Russians. We know that in a meeting on March 31st at which both Trump and Sessions attended, George P sat down and said, “Well, I’m in negotiations about setting up a meeting with Putin because of x, y and z.” So, that says Sessions lied, again, under oath, to the senate and he keeps having to retreat on his claims to the senate, and I think this will cause some more grief with his… because he basically perjured again and again and again. AARON MATÉ: And I’ll just stress one more time that the meeting didn’t happen. James Henry, I’ll give you a final comment if you want one. JAMES HENRY: I love Marcy’s piece on Jeff Sessions but they ought to also look at his involvement in the Tennessee Valley nuke project that Flynn was trying to wheel to Turkey. So, there’s a number of Sessions related questions that we could really stand a lot more exploration of. AARON MATÉ: Look forward to talking more about it. Marcy Wheeler, James Henry, thank you very much. JAMES HENRY: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.