Russiagate: Kooky Characters, Cold War Liberals
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and The Real News’ Aaron Mate discuss the latest Russiagate news, the story behind the Magnitsky Act, the Clintons’ $500,000 conflict-of-interest question, and how the liberal fixation on Russia could have long-term consequences
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.
This week, the White House admitted President Trump had a second undisclosed conversation with Vladimir Putin at the G20 in Germany. That disclosure set off a media frenzy, as is the norm these days with anything to do with Russia. Speaking to The New York Times, Trump discussed his conversation with Putin.
DONALD TRUMP: Really, pleasantries more than anything else. Was not a long conversation, but it could be 15 minutes. Just talked about things. What actually was very interesting, we talked about adoption.
Speaker 3: You did?
DONALD TRUMP: Russian adoption, yeah. I always found that interesting because he ended that years ago. I actually talked about Russian adoption with him, which is interesting because that was a part of a conversation that Don had with his meeting that I think, as I said, most other people … When they call up and they say, “By the way, we have information on your opponent,” I think most politicians … I was just with a lot of people. They said, “Who wouldn’t have taken a meeting like that?”
AARON MATÉ: Trump’s mention of the son, Don Jr.’s meeting refers to another media obsession — his son Donald Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer. A music publicist named Rob Goldstone told Donald Jr. the lawyer had compromising information on Hillary Clinton to provide him on behalf of the Russian government.
Matt Taibbi is a journalist, Rolling Stone contributor, and author of several books including his latest, Insane Clown President. Matt, welcome.
MATT TAIBBI: How’s it going?
AARON MATÉ: All right, I want to start off by saying that I think it’s difficult to have a sober conversation about Russia these days given that there’s such an underlying assumption in media coverage that any dealings with Russians, any conversations with Russians are likely nefarious or at least questionable, but I think we should attempt to try to break down some of the stories here. Let’s start with what Trump was talking about in that clip there from the Times. He’s referring to Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian lawyer and also his conversation with Putin, likely about the Magnitsky Act. You write in your latest piece for Rolling Stone that there’s no way to understand what’s going on right now without first understanding the Magnitsky affair. Can you explain it for us?
MATT TAIBBI: Sure. First of all, just backing up, if you remember the Romney-Obama race of 2012, you might remember this moment in the debate when Romney said that Russia was the greatest threat that we face today, and Obama responded that, “The ’80s want their foreign policy back” or, “The ’80s called, they want their foreign policy back.” So at that time, it was the consensus, really in both parties, that Russia was not a great geopolitical threat. But interestingly, just a few months after that moment, after that debate, Obama signed into law this thing called the Magnitsky Act, which set in motion a series of events that, in my opinion, precipitated this deep collapse of Russian-American relations.
The Magnitsky Act, it’s complicated, but essentially it’s a response to an incident involving an American billionaire named Bill Browder who had a couple of companies raided by some Russian thugs, and one of Browder’s employees was imprisoned, this guy Sergei Magnitsky. He died in prison, and the United States retaliated by creating a regime of human rights sanctions that they called the Magnitsky Act. The Russians were very offended by this act because they believed that it singled out Russia as a human rights abuser when, of course, they exist all over the planet. They retaliated by banning adoptions of American children, and that sort of snowballed and led to the awful relations that we have now.
AARON MATÉ: Matt, you mentioned that 2012 debate between, I’m sorry, yeah, 2012 debate between Romney and Obama and the mood there at the time from the Democrats as being quite different than now. Glenn Greenwald recently tweeted out a tweet from the Democrat Party from back then, and he said, “I think this is my favorite tweet in the history of Twitter” because it said from the Democrats, “Romney, who calls Russia our ‘No. 1 geopolitical foe,’ doesn’t seem to realize it’s the 21st century. #RomneyNotReady.” As you know, a very different tone than we’re seeing now.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. Just to comment on that quickly, again, I lived in Russia for 11 years. I was there during the transfer of power from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. All these different iterations of attitudes toward the Putin regime are kind of mystifying. For those of us who lived there, and I was an early critic of the Putin regime, most of us have kind of had the same attitude towards Putin throughout. We’ve all sort of thought he was a dangerous autocrat who was a human rights abuser, but then again so was his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. But the attitude towards Putin from the political consensus in this country is what’s changed. He’s been the same basically nefarious character throughout, it’s just that back in 2012, the Democrats didn’t mind him so much, and now they do. It’s just interesting, that shift in attitudes.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. On the Magnitsky Act, you note in your piece that you had a similar experience to what Donald Jr. described as being the outcome of the meeting. He says he thought it was inconsequential because they were promising some damaging information on Clinton, but really all they wanted to talk about was these sanctions. You had a similar experience, right?
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. I tried to interview one of the people who was involved with this company Prevezon. The lawyer in this case who was in that meeting with Donald Jr., this woman Natalia Veselnitskaya, she’s the lawyer for a company called Prevezon, which is this Cypriot-based company run by this guy Denis Katsyv. Katsyv was the defendant in a federal money laundering case again involving that whole Browder affair that we talked about before.
I tried to interview those people because I was interested in the fact that Prevezon had also hired Fusion GPS, which is the same company that commissioned the Steele report. I just thought that was a very odd coincidence, and I wanted to find out what was going on there and sort of thought maybe I could get a little bit of information about the origins of the Steele report. But when I met with these folks, they kind of led me to believe that they were going to give me some information on that, and then when I met with them, they just went straight into their pitch about the Magnitsky Act, which was a very ugly kind of pitch, by the way. Essentially, what they’re saying is if we repeal the Magnitsky Act, they’ll repeal their adoption ban, which is a fancy way of saying that they’re holding kids hostage to this political crisis.
Again, I had the same kind of experience that Donald Trump, Jr. did. He thought he was getting one thing, and essentially, he got this kind of ridiculous pitch about Magnitsky.
AARON MATÉ: Just to clarify for people, the Steele memo that Matt mentioned, that was this infamous dossier commissioned initially by Trump’s Republican opponents but then also paid for by some Democrats in an attempt to find damaging information on Donald Trump, incidentally using information that came from Russia, which Trump himself has been accused of doing towards Hillary Clinton.
MATT TAIBBI: Right, yeah, exactly. To play devil’s advocate, what I think people would say the distinction is, is that here you had a Russian person who may or may not have been a cutout for higher ranking officials in the Russian government, we don’t have any evidence for that, who was offering compromising information. Then whether or not they delivered is an open question. It’s not clear. But I think what the Democrats would say is that the Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele, that they were, I guess, digging for information as opposed to passively receiving it.
I’m not really sure what the distinction is because the argument currently is that Trump violated campaign finance laws by accepting something of value from a foreign government, but in the case of the Steele report, we know that they actually paid for information that came from Russia. So we know it has concrete value in that case. It is an odd thing. I understand why people are outraged by one and not by the other, but from a technical standpoint, it is kind of the same thing.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. Can we talk a bit more about some of the characters that were at this Donald Trump, Jr. meeting? Because there’s some comedy in it. When the disclosure first came out that Donald Jr. had this meeting, it was this big revelation, and my thinking was, okay, all right, at least for the first time we have something. We have a piece of material. I don’t know if I can call it evidence, but it’s something. There’s an email that a Trump campaign member received, Donald Jr., saying that there is a Russian government effort to elect his father. But then we have to look at who the email comes from. It’s a music publicist named Rob Goldstone. It’s just hard to believe that someone like this guy and some of the others who were there could be involved in high-level Kremlin intrigue.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. Goldstone, who is basically the promoter for this third-rate, I believe Georgian pop star who became acquainted with Trump during the Miss Universe Pageant, it definitely seems a little bit odd to imagine that that would be the Kremlin’s route to trying to solicit or recruit Donald Trump, Jr. I think if they were going to really do it in earnest, it would go through people who are a little bit more discreet. But then again, you never know. The whole thing is exceedingly strange. I don’t think the normal stagecraft in international espionage involves sending a letter that says, “If you would like to receive the bounty of our state-sponsored effort to help your father win an election, please respond in writing.” That’s not the way I think it would normally work.
This character Goldstone is a real goofball, and these Prevezon characters are also real goofballs. From what I understand, they’re real kind of third-rate provincial goons. That doesn’t mean necessarily automatically that they’re not somehow in league with the Kremlin, but in my mind, from my experience living over there, they just don’t seem like exactly the type. It’s possible, but it’s unlikely to me.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah. The reaction, which is striking to me, seeing it just as the smoking gun. I saw one progressive outlet use that term calling Goldstone’s email “the smoking gun.” Rachel Maddow on her show, she said that night after the meeting came out, she said about the Trump campaign, “They’re confessing to colluding with Russians during the campaign.” So it’s been taken as this definitive proof. But Matt, let me ask you about this new revelation this week about the Trump-Putin conversation at the G20. A few weeks after the G20 happened, the White House comes out and admits that Trump and Putin spoke at this dinner. There’s some dispute about how long the conversation was. One report says it was close to an hour. Trump says it was 15 minutes. What do you make of it?
MATT TAIBBI: I don’t know what to make of it. Because there’s no official record of conversation, who knows what was said at it? I find it highly unlikely that anything too nefarious went on in full view of some of all these world leaders. I think the more significant thing about that story, number one, I think it demonstrates, and you saw there was some film released of Trump trying to get Putin’s attention during the dinner. We also know that he went out of his way to sort brace up Putin after this event, and it’s not clear that this was welcome to Putin. It more shows that Trump has this bizarre, possibly unrequited affection for Putin. This isn’t the first time that this has happened. George W. Bush also had a similar fascination with Putin and thought-
AARON MATÉ: He looked into his soul.
MATT TAIBBI: He looked into his soul, which was so ridiculous. These two groups of people couldn’t possibly be more different. Trump is a self-made criminal mastermind who kind of rose from nothing to get to the top of the world’s toughest gangster state, and both Trump and Bush are the pampered scions of inherited wealth who had every path cleared for them. They have nothing in common, but it’s interesting that both of these figures have such a fascination with Putin. I think that’s more what that story shows.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah. In my mind, the most likely connection between Trump and Russia, if there is one, has always been about finances, right?
MATT TAIBBI: Of course.
AARON MATÉ: Because that’s the part of his world that is the most murky and shady, which he’s been so secretive about. Putting aside the question of whether dealings with Russia are uniquely nefarious because, of course, there’s oligarchs not just in Russia, but there’s shady people all over the world, what do you make of the financial dimension of the Trump-Russia story?
MATT TAIBBI: Again, I have lots and lots of friends who either are still working in Russia or used to work in Russia. We all think that if there’s a connection, that’s the most likely place there would be one. It’s a natural marriage. Look, you have a whole country full of gangland characters who are looking for a place to store their hot capital and to stash it abroad, and the most likely place to do that, the best place to do that is in foreign real estate. So it’s a natural marriage, oligarchs and characters like Donald Trump. That would be totally believable to me. If that were the original thesis of Russiagate, I would never have had a problem with it. I would never have been skeptical about it.
The part that always seemed strange to me was this cloak-and-dagger narrative wherein the Russians hacked the DNC and somehow this is a quid pro quo for policy where they collude Donald Trump, who’s this famously indiscreet idiot, there would just be no upside in my mind to include Trump in that plot. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but that’s far less likely than the much more likely scenario of just money looking for a home to be laundered and finding a New York real estate magnate. That makes a lot of sense.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, Matt. So listen, correct me if you think I’m going too far here, but I want to put out there that, in my mind, the most tangible case of potential conflict of interest when it comes to candidates in the 2016 campaign and Russia is actually Hillary Clinton. Here’s why I say that. These Magnitsky sanctions that we’ve been talking about, Clinton opposed them when she was Secretary of State, and her opposition to the sanctions coincided with her husband, Bill Clinton, going to Moscow to deliver a speech to Renaissance Capital, which is a Russian investment firm, and getting paid $500,000.
We know later from WikiLeaks that one of their emails, Clinton’s 2016 campaign killed a story by Bloomberg that was trying to link Hillary Clinton’s stance to her husband’s appearance. I’m just going to quote from the email. This is from the hacked emails of the Clinton campaign released by WikiLeaks. It says, “With the help of the research team, we killed the Bloomberg story trying to link Hillary Clinton’s opposition to the Magnitsky Act bill to a $500,000 speech that Bill Clinton gave in Moscow.”
Just one more thing, the London Telegraph recently reported that more than £6 million from funds at the center of the fraud that Magnitsky supposedly covered and was investigating has allegedly been traced to a bank account held by Renaissance Capital.
MATT TAIBBI: Right.
AARON MATÉ: So is it possible there, and we know that Renaissance Capital was opposed to these sanctions. So Hillary Clinton comes out against the sanctions right at the time that Renaissance pays Bill Clinton $500,000. That, to me, and again, correct me if I’m wrong, is more tangible than anything we’ve seen about Trump so far.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. I wrote about this last week. This clearly, all that happened, Magnitsky himself, if I remember correctly, pointed a finger at Renaissance Capital. The story that you cite by the Telegraph, there have been indications that Ren Capital was part in the original Magnitsky fraud. So that whole sequence of events, it definitely smells bad. I think if it were Donald Trump who had accepted that money and who had subsequently come out against the Magnitsky Act, it would be leading the headlines in a lot of news stories right now.
Conversely, it’s interesting that Trump never opposed the Magnitsky Act. In fact, he did the opposite. He has come out and been in favor of expanding Magnitsky Act globally. On the other hand, I think one has to point out that Trump fired the US attorney in the Southern District of New York who was prosecuting the Prevezon case and that the replacement gave a very favorable settlement to the people in that case. In other words, to the people who met with Donald Trump, Jr.
But you’re right. Look, that whole sequence of events with Renaissance Capital and the Magnitsky Act, and let’s not forget that Barack Obama also originally opposed the Magnitsky Act before signing it ultimately, it’s odd. You could argue that this was part and parcel of the Obama administration’s original desire to have what they called the “reset” with Russia. Through the lens of that, the Magnitsky Act was definitely a huge problem because they couldn’t have any reset if they were going to pass this law. But, yeah, it looks bad. There’s no question.
AARON MATÉ: All right. Finally, Matt, if we could end by talking about the liberal media and political culture we’re seeing right now around Russia and what that portends for Democrats’ future, which is a topic that you’ve written about. I want to play a clip from Rachel Maddow’s show the other night where she’s talking about what Putin may have gotten out of Trump.
RACHEL MADDOW: If Russia decided to interfere with our presidential election because they wanted something, because they wanted to change the world so it’s more like what they want, what are the things they want that they might try to get from the United States? What could they conceivably get from the United States if they could wave a magic wand? And have they been getting any of it? This was our first back of the envelope calculation, our first guess at what might be a Russia wish list.
Russia might like the United States to be isolated in the world and the West to be fractured. They certainly want to be released from US sanctions, which they hate. They would definitely like deciding power over what happens in Syria. They see that as their footprint in the Middle East. Russia has resented for years, for decades what they see as the meddling of the US State Department in their affairs. I’m sure they’d like to hit the State Department with a big freeze ray, surrender the US State Department inert.
AARON MATÉ: For our radio audience who can’t see the visual there, Maddow was saying this in front of a screen that says, “Russia Wish List (Update!).” And all the items she talked about are there — isolate the US, a fractured West, release from US sanctions, deciding power in Syria, and so on. Continuing on this theme, Matt, I want to quote for you a tweet recently from Donna Brazile, the former Chair of the DNC. After Russia recently asked for its diplomatic compounds back that were seized by the Obama administration in retaliation, it said, for alleged Russian hacking, Donna Brazile tweeted out, “The Communists are now dictating the terms of the debate.” So, Matt, if you could comment on all this and your thoughts on this focus by Democrats in the political and media class.
MATT TAIBBI: I’m actually writing a column about this right now. It’s bizarre. From the media standpoint, I think what people have to understand is that a lot of this is about money. The Russia story sells incredibly well and cable networks that traditionally have not made a lot of money are making a lot of money with this story. So I understand that the relentless emphasis on the Russia story makes a lot of sense from the networks’ point of view because it creates among viewers this impression that the fate of the nation may be decided any minute. This is like they’re selling it as a kind of Watergate sequel, so you have to tune in every night. Not just on election night, you have to keep tuning in. I almost understand it more coming from the media.
It’s the political class that I understand less because their sort of relentless emphasis on this Russia story is a huge bet that I don’t know whether it’s going to pay off. I think they’re doing this at the expense of making a cogent argument on policy grounds against Trump, and they’re also forcing the resistance to be synonymous with this Russia story. So in order for the resistance to have meaning, the conspiracy has to be true. It would make a lot more sense if there was a resistance that was based upon opposition to Trump’s healthcare policies or his environmental views, all of which are totally repugnant.
We’ve seen poll numbers consistently throughout the last six or seven months that Democratic voters just aren’t as excited about this policy-wise as the Party is. The Party is much more obsessed with this than their voters are. From a media standpoint of view, again, I understand it because people will tune in, but I don’t think that politically it’s necessarily a smart move to do what they’re doing because Democrats, if there’s one thing that has been clear about the election and what happened last year is that they have to reinvent themselves. They have to find a new way to talk to America. The Russia story is just delaying that process in my mind.
Sooner or later, they’re going to have to have something else to talk about, and it’s odd that they’re retreating so quickly to this sort of neo-Cold-War thing. The Donna Brazile quote is amazing. It just shows that they don’t even differentiate between the Soviet Union and modern Russia and that they’ve missed maybe 30 years of history in between, and they’re oversimplifying things. So it’s a very strange thing.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, Matt, so strange. I just want to say that it means joining forces, as James Carden and Glenn Greenwald pointed out in recent pieces, joining forces with neo-cons like David Frum.
MATT TAIBBI: Right. Look, the backstory to this whole Russiagate thing has been this growing consolidation of attitudes. The opposition to this kind of reset or rapprochement that both Barack Obama and, I think to some extent, Vladimir Putin wanted back in 2009, 10, and 11, there was always opposition to this, and it always existed both within the Democratic Party and in the Republican Party. I think that’s part of the backdrop for this Russiagate thing. In my mind, originally, the Magnitsky Act was the way that opposition to this kind of thaw in relations between the two countries, that was how it originally coalesced, but now Russiagate has replaced the Magnitsky Act, and that’s where neo-cons are joining up with hardliners in the Democrat Party.
People have to understand, there’s an enormous incentive on both sides for this hardening of relations because it means more spending on the military, more spending on espionage, more spending on security. The countries never were really comfortable with each other as friends, and they got used to being enemies with each other. Institutionally, there’s momentum in that direction, and that’s a factor in this whole story.
AARON MATÉ: Matt Taibbi, journalist, Rolling Stone contributor, and author of several books including Insane Clown President. Matt, thanks so much.
MATT TAIBBI: Thanks so much, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.