Partisan Clash over Trump-Russia Probe Gets Messier

The partisan clash over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of the Trump campaign and Russia was on full display at a Congressional appearance by Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein. Marcy Wheeler and Aaron Mate discuss.

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Story Transcript

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. There is a very partisan fight going on over the Special Counsel investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia. Democrats say Trump and his allies want to quash the investigation and Republicans say the probe is compromised by anti-Trump bias. The fight was on full display today when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the official who appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller, appeared before the House Judiciary Committee. Congress member Jerrold Nadler was among many Democrats to ask Rosenstein about Mueller’s integrity.

JERROLD NADLER: … the Senate Judiciary Committee, you said that you would only fire Special Counsel Mueller for good cause and that you had not seen any yet. Several months have passed since then. Have you seen good cause to fire Special Counsel Mueller?

ROD ROSENSTEIN: No.

JERROLD NADLER: Thank you. If you were ordered today to fire Mr. Mueller, what would you do?

ROD ROSENSTEIN: I’ve explained previously, I would follow the regulation. If there were good cause, I would act. If there were no good cause, I would not.

JERROLD NADLER: And you’ve seen no good cause so far?

ROD ROSENSTEIN: Correct.

JERROLD NADLER: Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: Republicans, meanwhile, pushed Rosenstein to appoint a new special counsel to investigate alleged anti-Trump bias by Mueller’s team. They seized on newly-released text messages from senior FBI officials until recently involved in the investigation of Trump’s campaign, and these messages showed the officials called Trump “an idiot,” “a douche,” and said “the prospect of his victory is terrifying.” One message referred to the need for a “insurance policy” against Trump. This is Republican Congressman Jim Jordan:

JIM JORDAN: And now we have intent in this text message saying, there’s another text message, my colleague referenced it earlier, where Mr. Strzok says, “I can protect our country at many levels.” Says it with all the humility he can muster. “I can protect our country at many levels.” This guy thought he was super-agent James Bond at the FBI. This is obvious. I’m afraid we can’t take that risk, there’s no way we can let the American people make Donald Trump the next president. I’ve got to protect our country. This is unbelievable and I’m here to tell you, Mr. Rosenstein, I think the public trust in this whole thing is gone.

AARON MATÉ: Joining me is Marcy Wheeler, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties at her blog, Empty Wheel. Marcy, welcome. Your key takeaways from today’s hearing by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein?

MARCY WHEELER: Heat and fury. The clip that you played with Nadler is the key one, which is that Rosenstein doesn’t see any reason to fire Mueller and so long as that happens, the investigation into Trump is going to continue and everything else is kind of a side view.

AARON MATÉ:: Okay, but in terms of the issues being raised here, do you think that Trump and his people are actually maneuvering to fire Mueller? I realize it’s been raised on Fox News a lot but in terms of actual evidence of whether Trump wants to dismiss Mueller, I haven’t seen much of that.

MARCY WHEELER: I think he does want to get rid of the investigation. I think that he kind of crazily believes that this thing is going to end just before or just after Christmas but I just think he is in a difficult place because there’s not an easy way to fire Mueller without firing Rosenstein first.

AARON MATÉ: Right, and Rosenstein is the person who, on his behalf, fired James Comey. So, seemingly he trusts Rosenstein. What about on the Republican side? They were pushing today for a new special counsel to oversee the existing special counsel, but I have to say, I found some of their case convincing here. We have text messages of members of Mueller’s investigating team maligning Trump. One other Republican lawmaker pointed out that nine out of the 16 members of Mueller’s prosecuting team have donated to Democrats. I think that they can make a case here for the fact that there are members of this team, not Mueller, perhaps, but other members, who do have a bias against Trump.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, there are three laws at play here. One is the Special Counsel Law and to appoint another special counsel, and it’s not clear whether they, I think they actually want to appoint a special counsel to investigate Hillary and her emails because they’ll never be done with that. But to do that, they first have to have some kind of crime. To open the special counsel investigation into Trump, there was obstruction, there was some evidence of cooperation with the Russians. There’s no hint of a crime that you could use to justify opening another special counsel. So, that’s one law.

Another law is it would have been illegal for Mueller in picking these prosecutors that he hired to be part of his team, it would have been illegal for him to say, “What’s your political partisanship?” So, a lot of what the Republicans are pointing to to claim that the current investigation is partisan is stuff that, frankly, Mueller had no legal way of getting to. And then the third is, as I said, Rosenstein can’t fire Mueller unless he sees some kind of misconduct, and he was quite clear today he hasn’t seen that yet.

So, those three laws actually govern what can happen here, and I think you can make an argument that Peter Strzok maybe shouldn’t have been investigating Hillary or Trump or having an extramarital affair using DOJ cell phones. Those all may be reasonable things but that is being investigated by the DOJ Inspector General, who is a very good, aggressive investigator. Once his report comes out, I assume there will be some kind of repercussions for Strzok. That… to deal with that, which is what you were talking about, the kind of, they’re partisan texts, but they’re also things that even Rex Tillerson has said. The Secretary of State has said that Trump is an idiot. I’ve said Trump is an idiot. Much of the country believes that Trump is an idiot, so it’s not bias, it’s reality.

AARON MATÉ: That’s the Democratic defense but the difference, though, is that neither you or I-

MARCY WHEELER: But wait, wait. Rex is not a Democrat. Rex is not a Democrat.

AARON MATÉ: Neither you or I or Rex Tillerson are the ones who are investigating Trump.

MARCY WHEELER: Nor is Strzok. Nor is Strzok anymore.

AARON MATÉ: But the Republicans point is that he was investigating Trump and he played a key role, Republicans say, in the language that Comey used to essentially not charge Hillary Clinton with a felony, because it was Strzok who apparently changed the language to water it down so as to not criminally implicate Hillary Clinton in the probe of her emails.

MARCY WHEELER: And that would be why you’d have a special counsel re-investigating Hillary again, but that’s completely separate from the Trump investigation, and you know, Michael Horowitz, again, he’s a very aggressive investigator. He has an open inquiry into these things. One of the things he’s going to find is there’s not a step that Strzok was involved with, either on Hillary or on Trump, that didn’t involve at least one other FBI agent and on Hillary, I think two other FBI agents, plus supervisors.

AARON MATÉ: Was it not also Strzok who met with Christopher Steele, author of the infamous Steele dossier that contained all sorts of salacious claims about Trump and that apparently helped spark the investigation to begin with?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, it’s unclear what Strzok had to do with the dossier. The other person that they’re looking at for the dossier is a guy named Bruce Orr, who was a pretty top figure in the Deputy Attorney General’s office, not under Rosenstein but under Sally Yates. He met with Glen Simpson after the election, met with Steele before the election, and his wife is on the Steele investigative team. Again, that is something, I’ve never defended the Steele dossier. If you want to …the Steele dossier, I’m perfectly willing to talk to you about that, but the Steele dossier is something that was clearly part of the FBI investigation but there is a great deal of other evidence that was involved in the investigation, such as both Carter Page and Paul Manafort’s known ties to Russians going back.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, wait. Before we get to that, Marcy. Before we get to that. We agree, you’ve been very vocal in your criticism of the Steele dossier, but let me say one more thing, and I think this helps give Republicans more ammo here. That wife of Bruce Orr, who you mentioned, she wasn’t just, she was hired by Fusion GPS, right? She worked for Fusion GPS. So the firm that produced the dossier was married to a guy, Bruce Orr, who was high up in the Justice Department and apparently heavily involved in the investigation of Trump and Russia.

MARCY WHEELER: One thing that’s still not clear and Rosenstein didn’t even seem to know it today. He was asked did the FBI, which is separate from DOJ, he was asked did the FBI pay for the Steele dossier, and he kind of said, “I think I know the answer to that,” but he wasn’t entirely sure. My guess is that the FBI paid for travel expenses to be able to meet with Steele. There are three conflicting reports on whether the FBI paid for the dossier or not.

AARON MATÉ: Right. It was reported that they agreed to pay him to continue his work even after the US election, right?

MARCY WHEELER: Like I said, there’s three contradictory reports. Washington Post, New York Times, CNN all had versions of that story, and they all reported separately. They all said something different.

AARON MATÉ: Okay. So, let’s get to what you touched on, which is the more convincing-

MARCY WHEELER: And by the way, Aaron, one of the things that I suspect happened is that they were going to pay for it and then realized when David Corn wrote a piece based on the dossier in October 2016, realized that they couldn’t touch it because it was too partisan. That’s my hunch about what actually happened. They may not have known that it was an opposition research dossier until that point.

AARON MATÉ: How could they not have known that?

MARCY WHEELER: Because it’s not even clear Steele knew who was paying his bills, but one of the things that Fusion did, and again, I’m not defending Fusion at all, one of the things that Fusion did and is still doing is it’s serving as sort of a cutout. So, it was hiding Perkins Coie, which was hiding the DNC paying for the dossier, and so, still to this day we don’t know the entire story about who paid for it and that’s kind of the role that Fusion played.

AARON MATÉ: All right. Just to be clear here, to clarify for anyone who might be confused and understandably because this is a very confusing issue, as is entirely on Russiagate. The Steele dossier, which contained all these allegations about Trump, which the FBI investigated, the Russia part of it, the key part of it that sparked all this, was paid for ultimately by the DNC and the Clinton campaign.

MARCY WHEELER: Absolutely. Absolutely, but it didn’t spark it per se. It was one of the things that the FBI used in their investigation and probably used sources from it or allegations from it that they corroborated in some form or another to get FISA extensions or orders against Manafort and Page. But at least according to public reporting, both of them had already been approved for FISA warrants before the dossier ever existed. So, they had that background.

AARON MATÉ: I think it’s safe to say that the dossier fueled some major component of the investigation and, as you acknowledged, the FBI was going to continue funding it even after the election until it was publicly revealed. You also mentioned Carter Page, who also, he was a low level Trump aide whose activities also helped spark this whole Russia probe to begin with, and in your view, I think you were saying that you think his role is much more incriminating, possibly, for the Trump campaign.

MARCY WHEELER: Page? No, I think he’s sort of chum. My guess is that the Russians used him as a public dangle but I think the real guts of any possible coordination are that June 9th meeting in Trump Tower and some follow-up things that we may still hear about, the Kislyak meetings just after the election. So, I think you can draw the outlines of where I think Mueller is going now from that Trump Tower meeting to, for example, Flynn trying to stave off imposing sanctions because they were going to get rid of the sanctions. That was supposed to be the quid pro quo and we see a direct line from the June 9th meeting to that. There are going to be some things that come out in between.

AARON MATÉ: Okay. I don’t see that direct line at all. What I see in the June 9th meeting is a kooky music publicist, Rob Goldstone, who wears funny hats, setting up a meeting on something totally unrelated which is this Russian lawyer, Veselnitskaya, her attempt to get the Magnitsky sanctions waived if Trump took office and promising compromising information, she said. That has nothing to do with DNC emails. It had to do with Clinton campaign foundation ties to Russia, which she didn’t provide, and according to Donald Trump Jr., nothing came of it. I don’t see how that connects to Flynn and his admission to lying to the FBI about two things: one, sanctions, his discussions on sanctions and two, also which no one pays attention to, Flynn trying to undermine on the Trump campaign’s behalf, Obama’s move at the UN to abstain on a vote condemning Israel for illegal settlement activity.

MARCY WHEELER: Oh, I point that out. The quid pro quo, what Jared Kushner was trying to do was much broader than just Russia, and I agree that that’s an important detail. Two things about the June 9th meeting. One is there’s a guy by the name of Scott Balber. He’s a lawyer who has worked for Trump in the past and is working for the Agalarovs, who set up that meeting. He has coordinated the story on that June 9th meeting on five occasions as far as I can count but the most recent disclosure on that meeting is that when the news of the hacked emails came out on the 14th, Rob Goldstone, that funny music promoter that you just talked about, said it was really eerie, given what he had seen in that meeting.

The response to that is people saying, “No, no, no. That has nothing to do with what was discussed in the meeting,” but we know there’s an email that Goldstone sent. He’s testifying this week before the intelligence committees and I assume before Mueller’s team, and he’s going to need to explain that email because when he saw stolen emails by Russia, his first response was, “That sounds a lot like what we just talked about in that meeting.”

AARON MATÉ: No, he said, his exact words were, you quoted, was that it was eerie, so we’re going to infer from that, that that means that at the meeting they discussed hacked emails? Because this kooky hat-wearing music publicist said that that was eerie? What if he was referring to the fact that Veselnitskaya had promised compromising information on Hillary and then compromising information on Hillary had turned up later on. But that doesn’t mean that they discussed hacked emails or leaked emails, by the way, at that meeting.

MARCY WHEELER: No, no. Now we all have to agree they’re hacked because the Russians are now trying to seed this story that this guy they arrested for criminal hacking is the one who did it, so the Russians, a hack now?

AARON MATÉ: No, that’s not true. Listen, I have a source in Russia who provided me a translation of that hacker, who has supposedly, this is a whole separate thing. Let’s explain this for the audience. There’s a hacker in Russia who’s been arrested. He apparently admitted in court to have carried out the hack of the DNC but also he made some grandiose claims, including that he was ordered to produce some sort of, I think he called it a “red button” that could destroy Western infrastructure but he did not carry out the order because of his conscience. He didn’t want to cause chaos. So, this supposed confessed hacker sounds very dubious to me.

MARCY WHEELER: Oh, I agree. He’s completely dubious. This again is disinformation but it is disinformation being released by somebody in custody right now. So, you do have to explain why the Russians are letting that story out.

AARON MATÉ: Well, I think the answer is because they’re thrilled to see the world’s biggest superpower and their rival obsess over trivial things like music publicists and low level aids, and blame Putin for running the entire country and fixing the election. So, why not if you’re them continue to fuel this frenzy?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, I’m just saying it’s a change in story. Putin has always said there was no hack, now there’s this story that there was a hack. You know, you can keep saying that Rob Goldstone is wacky, he is but he did set up a meeting where dirt was discussed, and after that meeting he said it’s eerie that right after that meeting got set up, these emails came out, with a hack was attributed to Russia.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, we’ll agree that he did use the word “eerie” and we’ll agree he did set up the meeting. I guess we’ll disagree on what to infer from that. And also, by the way, just because this hacker is confessing that in court, I don’t think that proves, that’s handed down by Putin that he should be taking credit for the DNC hack. He could just be a grandiose person taking credit for something that he didn’t do in the same way he probably didn’t have this magic button that could destroy Western infrastructure.

MARCY WHEELER: Right, but how does his Facebook all of a sudden get released while he was in custody?

AARON MATÉ: I don’t know, but again, that goes back to my earlier point that I think Russia’s fine to fuel this because it’s a joke to them and it serves their interests, it makes Putin look great.

MARCY WHEELER: Eh, fine. We’ll see.

AARON MATÉ: We will see and Marcy, we love talking to you and we look forward to having you back. Marcy Wheeler, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. Her blog is Emptywheel.net. Thank you.

MARCY WHEELER: Thanks so much.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.