Trump, Putin, and ‘Russian Roulette’

Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News and co-author of “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump,” joins TRNN’s Aaron Maté to discuss the evidentiary basis for claims of a Kremlin interference campaign in the U.S. and potential Trump campaign cooperation

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

The first formal summit has been announced between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two will meet in Helsinki, Finland on July 16 for one-on-one talks. The announcement comes as Trump’s suspected ties to Putin and Russia continue to engulf his presidency. And on that front, there’s a lot going on. Well, joining me to discuss the latest in the Trump-Russia probe is Michael Isikoff. He is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, and co-author of the New York Times bestselling book “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump.” Michael Isikoff, welcome to The Real News.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: It’s good to be with you.

AARON MATE: So let me start by asking you about your assessment of where we are in terms of what we know about the central question behind this entire kerfuffle, and certainly will be revived now in the wake of Trump announcing the summit with Putin next month, which is the extent of the ties between Russia and Trump. And on that front maybe you could also lay out for us what you go through in your book about what we know about Trump’s ties to Russia. You start much earlier than the 2016 campaign. So just your assessment of what we know right now about this relationship.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, first of all, I do think that the timing of this summit is pretty interesting, because you know, my sense is, nobody knows for sure, but that Robert Mueller is coming on, coming to a critical juncture in his investigation, with a lot of anticipation or expectation he’s going to do something this summer, if for no other reason than, you know, there’s a consensus he won’t do anything after Labor Day so he doesn’t get accused of trying to interfere in the midterm elections in the way that Comey’s last-minute intervention in the Hillary Clinton matter affected that election. And he was, quite rightly, roundly criticized for it.

So I think given that Mueller has been at this for some time, given the pace of his activity, the continued subpoenas, the continued grand jury work, the vast scope of his investigation, I’m expecting that we’ll be seeing something relatively soon. And the first sort of iteration that we’re likely to see is some report on the obstruction of justice issue. Whether or not Mueller goes the route of subpoenaing the president if he doesn’t agreed to testify or submit himself for an interview is an interesting question, and I’m not sure that Mueller will go that route. He may just go with what he’s got, submit a report to Rod Rosenstein, and then the question will be what does Rosenstein do with the report. He has the discretion to release it, to share it publicly, or, or not. It’s hard to imagine, given the intensity of the public demand for a, for all information on this, that he be able to resist a public release.

Now, that said, look, as we lay out in “Russian Roulette,” this does go back to well prior to the 2016 election. I mean, Trump for years had been trying to do business in Russia, as he’d been trying to do business in many parts of the globe. But he did seem to have a particular focus on Russia. We started the account with the, our book with the account of the 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant, where he forged his business deal with Aras Agalarov, the billionaire oligarch who is, was close to Putin, had just gotten a medal from Putin a couple of weeks earlier. He was known as Putin’s builder. And while there for the Miss Universe pageant, Trump signs a letter of intent to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. This went much further than anybody realized at the time, or even during the 2016 campaign. Donald Trump Jr. was put in charge of the project. Ivanka Trump flew over to Moscow in February 2014 to scout potential sites for Trump Tower in Moscow with Emin Agalarov, the pop singer son of Aras Agalarov.

But what’s, you know, one of the things that’s interesting about this is it was all going fine until what happened just a few weeks later. That’s when Putin annexes Crimea, that’s when he intervenes in Ukraine. That’s when the U.S. and EU imposed sanctions on Russia. One of the sanctioned entities by the EU was Sberbank, the Russian majority state-owned bank that was going to finance the Trump Tower deal.

And what’s interesting is that the deal collapses after the imposition of sanctions. So sort of as a starting point, if you’re trying to understand where Donald Trump was coming from on the issue of U.S.-Russia relations and sanctions, it’s useful to note that sanctions are pretty much screwed up his, this long-cherished project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. And I think that’s certainly something to keep in mind when one looks at Trump’s responses very early on to questions about sanctions. He was, you know, was one of the first questions, as we lay out in the book, he gets asked a few weeks into his campaign by Maria Butina, the suspected, well, the aide de camp of Aleksandr Torshin, the Russian central banker who’s been long suspected of organized crime ties, who’s been investigated by the Spanish police for his ties to Russian-organized crime. And Butina nails him down very early on, saying if he’s president, we wouldn’t need sanctions.

AARON MATE: But then when it comes to the central issue of coordination, and this longstanding relationship between the two, which is a central claim of the Steele dossier, which you also write about-. I mean, the Steele dossier contends that there is this relationship between Trump and Russia that goes back many years. And in fact, it also says that the Russian government has floated real estate deals to trump over many years, but Trump himself has turned them down. How does, how, then, does all that square with Trump trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow twice, and that not happening? But not because Trump said no, but because the sanctions, as you say, and then later on because he couldn’t get financing from the Russian government?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, look, I think we put the Steele dossier under a microscope and give it some scrutiny in the book. And you know, I think if you’ve, if you’ve read the chapter on that, we do raise questions about some of the claims in the Steele dossier. Certainly some of the sourcing is, is exceedingly murky and hard to, you know, it’s hard to figure out what to make of it. And I think some of the, the allegations in the Steele dossier, you know, we simply have no evidence to support them. But that doesn’t take away from A, the larger point of the Steele dossier, that there was a Russian effort to cultivate Trump. There clearly was that. And-.

AARON MATE: But Michael, how do we know that? How do we, I mean-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: How do we know that there was a Russian effort to-.

AARON MATE: A Russian effort to cultivate Trump. And on the question of sources of Steele, I did learn a lot from your book. You report that Steele’s sources were, on the one hand, secondhand in one case. And then in another case it came from the lover of a Kremlin insider, and the words used as ‘pillow talk,’ is also the basis for another of Steele’s sources, which I find very illuminating. But yes, but how do we know that there was a deliberate Russian government effort to cultivate Trump? Becaue this is the central question, or one of them.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, I think that there’s a body of evidence on this matter. Let’s go back to the aforementioned Aleksandr Torshin, who is somebody who’s clearly a Kremlin insider with close ties to Putin, who is making multiple efforts to make contact with the Trump campaign, to set up meetings with the Trump campaign, to set up a summit between Trump and Putin during the election. Who was in Louisville for the NRA convention and met Donald Trump Jr. There’s a rather extensive email trail on this, and we quote from some of the e-mails on that in the in the book. Let’s go back to the Agalarovs, again. Remember-.

AARON MATE: But Michael-. Michael, you also note in the book that Torshin’s efforts ultimately weren’t successful. I mean, I think he met, I think you note he managed to meet with Don Jr. on the sidelines of-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right. Right. But you asked me was there was there a Russian effort to cultivate Trump. And I think the evidence, unfortunately-.

AARON MATE: A Russian, a Russian government effort.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: A Russian government effort to cultivate Trump. And I think the Torshin entreaties and email trail is evidence in and of itself of that. But let’s go back to the Agalarovs, who clearly had their own ties to the Kremlin. You know, they established this business relationship with Trump in 2013 that continued. We talk about how Trump and Emin Agalarov stayed in touch. Emin Agalarov visits Trump in Trump Tower in January of 2015. And then let’s cut to 2016, and the email trail that begins with Rob Goldstone’s emails to Donald Trump Jr., which were triggered by the Agalarovs offering documents, according to the according to the Goldstone email, official Kremlin documents that had been given by the chief prosecutor in Moscow to Aras Agalarov, passing them off to, and then setting up the meeting, setting up the meeting in Trump Tower. That’s further evidence of a Russian attempt to establish relations with Trump, to cultivate Trump. And Trump-. And the Trump campaign.

AARON MATE: Those people do hold Russian passports. But the question then is does that lead to some sort of high-level Kremlin conspiracy. And do you dismiss the explanation that the participants in the meeting have given, which is that basically Rob Goldstone got limited information Emin Agalarov, this Azerbaijani pop star, and all he was told was basically is that his father wanted him to get a meeting for some Russian colleagues of his. So Goldstone, he said in his-. He’s a publicist, he’s a former tabloid journalist. He says, he’s told Congress in his testimony, that he used publicist puff to try to get the meeting for his client. And when he did-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah. The publicist puff, as you put it, it appears to be the offer of incriminating information about Hillary Clinton. But let’s, let’s put that aside for the moment. That’s clearly what the Trump folks were interested in. That’s what Donald Trump Jr. responded to. If it’s what you say, I love it. But look at the testimony of what took place during the meeting itself. It was about the Magnitsky Act. It was about lifting the sanctions imposed on the Magnitsky Act, which was at the top of the Russian government’s agenda at that moment. That’s what the Russians cared about. That’s why they were going to the Trump folks. And that’s why they were cultivating the Trump campaign in hopes that a relationship between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign would lead to the lifting of the hated Magnitsky Act.

So that’s, in any way, the reality of what the testimony in the meeting was about supports the idea that the Russian government was reaching out to the Trump campaign.

AARON MATE: Well, it supports the idea that some Russians who wanted to repeal the Magnitsky Act-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: It’s not some random Russians. Where did they get the, the, where did the agenda come from? The Magnitsky Act, where was that coming from? You know, it was-. The email trail is quite clear that this begins with some conversation between the chief government prosecutor and Aras Agalarov, the Kremlin-friendly, Putin-friendly oligarch, who everybody, who the Kremlin knows, has this relationship with Donald Trump. So they were using their ties to Donald Trump, using Agalarov’s ties to [inaudible] a business relationship to further the Russian government’s political agenda with the United States, which was to get the Magnitsky Act lifted.

AARON MATE: I got-. But I guess my point is just because an act was undertaken that comports with the agenda of the Russian government doesn’t mean it came from the Russian government. The lawyer, the key lawyer in that meeting, Natalia Veselnitskaya, had been working on this issue for years on behalf of her client.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: In our book, among other things, it shows that she was more than that, that she had an ongoing relationship with the FSB, and had represented the FSB’s interests in multiple cases.

AARON MATE: Right. OK. But if you believe the testimony about what they discussed, then what do you say, then, to the testimony that basically Kushner and John Jr. and Manafort heard all this, they couldn’t understand what she was talking about, because she was talking about this Magnitsky Act, and this ban on the adoption of Russian children that the Russian government [proposed response]. And that Don Jr. and his, and his crew didn’t understand what was going on, and so they ended the meeting very abruptly. And by the way, the information that was even floated to begin with had nothing to do with the information that were all, that is at the heart of this whole scandal, because Goldstone in his email offered information, I’m paraphrasing, but information on Hillary Clinton and her dealings with the Russian government that he said was incriminating. Nothing to do with stolen emails that would come out a few weeks later.

So I mean, if you believe the account of the meeting, of the topic of the meeting, then do you believe the account of the result, which is that actually, Veselnitskaya had no dirt to offer at all?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: And that appears to be the case, yeah. I mean, all we know is what the testimony is about what took place in the meeting, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Russians, and I think there’s grounds to believe, strong grounds to believe, that this was a Russian government-inspired effort, were reaching out to the Trump campaign, and the Trump campaign, hoping that somehow they were going to get dirt on Hillary Clinton that could be useful for Donald Trump’s campaign, eagerly accepted the meeting. It is what it is.

But I don’t think-. I mean, you’re kind of being, you know, sort of an effective defense lawyer here in that you, trying to take each piece and then put it under a microscope, and then sort of suggest, well, couldn’t this explanation take away from some of the larger thesis. There is a larger point here, if we can focus on the forest from the trees. There was, in fact-.

AARON MATE: Sure. I think I’m trying to analyze the evidence, but go on. Yeah. Sorry.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: There was, in fact, a massive Russian effort to interfere and influence our election. There was a hack of the DNC-.

AARON MATE: Michael, Michael, you say that-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: There was the hack [inaudible] the emails. There was a, there was this social media campaign by the internet research agency. All of these things actually took place. And that was something that was vast and unprecedented.

AARON MATE: Michael, have you seen any proof from, from, from anyone, from the U.S. government, from any of your sources, that makes you believe that this was definitely a Russian government massive influence operation? You wrote the definitive book on the hoax that was the Iraq war, and I took from that that we should look at our intelligence community claims with skepticism. But in this case you seem to be taking the opposite conclusion. We still don’t even have evidence that the Russian government committed the hack, but yet it’s been sort of taken on faith.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Do you really have questions in your mind that the Russian government was behind the hack of the DNC? You realize, of course, that we’ve now had two administrations, one Democratic, one Republican, in which every single official who has seen the evidence, who has looked at this, has come to the exact same conclusion. Not only that, but now the House and Senate intelligence committees, and the House Republicans. The House Republicans, who have the most interest of anybody in trying to discredit the Mueller investigation, in trying to undercut the premises behind the Muellar investigation. The House Republicans, in their report, said, having reviewed the intelligence, they reached the same conclusion. The Russians hacked the DNC. The Russians gave the emails to WikiLeaks. The Russians hacked the Podesta emails. The Russians gave them to WikiLeaks.

So I mean, there is no-. The difference between this matter, the Russian attack on our election, and the clearly flimsy claims behind the Bush administration’s case about weapons of mass destruction is it was very clear, even during the run up to the Iraq war, and became very clear afterwards, that there were multiple dissents from within the U.S. intelligence community. That there were whistleblowers who were trying to say this, this intelligence doesn’t add up. The information doesn’t add up to what the political claims that were being made by the Bush administration. In this case-. In this case, hold on, let me finish. In this case there’s not a single whistleblower who has seen the intelligence, who has come forward to say anything other than what the intelligence community and the U.S. government officials, and officials in two administrations, Republican and Democrat, and the House Oversight and Senate oversight committees that have examined the intelligence. They’ve all reached the identical conclusion.

Now, you know, maybe you want to cling to the idea that there’s somebody out there who actually has access to the intelligence, that actually has access to information that somehow undercuts that. And I’d be happy to listen to them. But we’ve been at this more than two years now, and no such person has come forward.

AARON MATE: OK, Michael, two points. One is that we’ve heard all these conclusions. We have. And you’re right, they come from a sweeping body of people. But-. Of government officials, I should say. But all in all-. [Crosstalk] But hold on a second, Michael. Hold on a second. All of that has been presented with no evidence. The intelligence assessment that came out in January 2017, there was no evidence to the public. So they tell us that they, they’re confident that this came from Russia. But they didn’t show us any evidence. So again, I don’t believe we should just believe official claims, no matter how unanimous it is.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: I don’t, I don’t believe what you-. [Crosstalk]

AARON MATE: And my second point, and my second point, and I’ll let you respond, Michael. My point is that it’s true that we have not seen any dissenting intelligence officials come out and say that the assessments were wrong. But we also know that this was a different process. You detail in your book how the Obama administration kept this whole, during its deliberations about what to do when it first, when the attack, when the hack first happened and when the emails first started coming out, you report how the Obama administration kept this to a very small group of people.

And we also know that the intelligence analysts who put out that report that everybody cites as the basis for blaming Russia, the one that came out in January 2017, that report, in the words of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence at the time, the analysts for that report were, quote, handpicked. So he selected some analysts from, from certain agencies, who put out a report that accused Russia with no evidence. So if you could respond to those two points. It’s a-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: And you think there was some sort of conspiracy to concoct a phony claim against Russia? That somehow everybody bought into, those intelligence analysts, they all bought into it. The, everybody who reviewed the intelligence. The House Republicans that reviewed the intelligence, they bought into it, too? The Senate, bipartisan Republican and Democratic staff members, and members, they bought into this all phony, concocted conspiracy? I think at some point, you know, the suggestion you’re making really does stretch credulity.

And by the way, there is multiple evidence that’s out there, many that has been, much of which is cited by security researchers. But there was also human sources. We talk about a human source back in 2014 who is warning about what the Russians were up to on this, and we detail that for the first time in the book. There were intercepts that made it clear the Russians were congratulating themselves on the job well done in, in leaking the Podesta emails and the DNC emails.

AARON MATE: There were reports on that-. There reports on the [crosstalk].

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: There is a body of evidence. Yeah. Well, I got it. We reported on those intercepts. That report comes from us. OK? And, and others. But I’m telling you, we spoke to multiple sources.

AARON MATE: Did you see the intercepts yourself?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: No, of course I didn’t see the intercepts myself.

AARON MATE: So someone told you about the intercepts. Well, you know-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Somebody, multiple sources who are not political people, who were not trying to promote an agenda, who are not trying to start a phony war the way the Bush administration was doing in Iraq. People who were trusted, who were known, who were experts in this area, and you know-. And so, like I say, there is a body of evidence here. And just go back to why did the House Republicans buy into this? Why did they accept 100 percent that the Russians-. This is almost not worth talking about any further anymore. I’d love to see more evidence. Just so, you know, people like you can go to sleep at night [crosstalk].

AARON MATE: Michael. Michael, I could apply that same logic to the Democrats and their support for the Iraq war. Why did the Democrats support the Iraq war back-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Not all the Democrats supported the Iraq war.

AARON MATE: The vast majority of them did, including many of the Democrats who are now accusing Russia of carrying out this interference campaign. So, so, so partisan, partisan motivation sometimes does not define everything. In this case you have a longstanding bipartisan consensus that, that, that sees Russia as a threat and as an enemy. That, that, that confrontation with Russia has benefits to certain influential domestic groups. The military-industrial complex, [think tanks].

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: So you think our sources from inside the intelligence community, our sources who are long-trusted people who served in the U.S. government in multiple administrations, had some sort of financial interest in promoting this and-.

AARON MATE: No, I’m not saying that. No. But I’m saying the same mentality-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: What are you saying, what-.

AARON MATE: The same mentality that may have led people to buy into phony intelligence before the Iraq war, and many other cases. I mean, the intelligence community has a long history of concocting intelligence to suit political imperatives. So that, that same dynamic may have been at play here. I’m certainly not saying that’s what happened for sure. And I think it’s quite possible that everything you assert is true. Maybe the Russian government did carry all this out. I think we can agree, though, that-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: By the way, you do know that the Russians have done this quite extensively around the globe. Go back to Estonia, go back to what they did in Ukraine, in frying servers and shutting down the electric grid in Ukraine. Go back and look at their interference in-. [Crosstalk]

AARON MATE: Actually, Michael, that’s been disputed. Even that’s been disputed. That-. Michael, that allegation comes from CrowdStrike.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, sure, the Russians-.

AARON MATE: No, that allegation comes from CrowdStrike, which is a, which has-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Which is what? Which is what, a bunch of dishonest people who are trying to serve somebody’s political agenda? What? John Henry’s chief of counter-. He was chief of cyber for the FBI. He’s got some secret objective?

AARON MATE: It’s a private firm aligned with the Democratic Party. It worked for it on this analysis of their servers, and they, they’re the ones-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: They contracted [inaudible] the Democratic Party. Yeah.

AARON MATE: Founded, founded, I believe, by a, by someone who was very openly hostile to Vladimir Putin, doesn’t like him. Probably his point of-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: There are a lot of people who are, who don’t like Vladimir Putin, for good reason.

AARON MATE: Sure, sure. But what I’m saying is I don’t necessarily-. But because they might have, but because they have political viewsm that makes me at least think that we shouldn’t believe all their claims on faith without seeing the-.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, look, if you find a whistleblower, somebody who actually knows something, and that suggests that anything you’re saying has some validity, please let me know, or publish it. I’ll be happy to read it. I’ll be happy to look into it. But all I can tell you is that, you know, we’ve been out this more than two years. We, you know, David and I wrote a, did a lot of research for this book. And you know, nobody credible who we talked to suggested anything like the kind of conspiracy you’re suggesting.

AARON MATE: All right. Well, we’re out of time, because I promised to have you out of here in half an hour. So I will stick to that.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: I hope you’ll just let people know that there is a lot of information in our block that, you know, this is not carrying water for any side. This is not, it’s not a political work of polemic. It’s, it’s reporting. We lay out sourcing, we put everybody under a microscope and scrutiny, like the Steele dossier, like the way the Clinton campaign handled things, like the way the Obama administration handled things, as well as the Trump campaign. So I just hope people will consult the book and then draw their own conclusions.

AARON MATE: Well, and many people have already, because it’s a bestselling book. And I certainly agree that there’s plenty of sourcing in the book, there’s a lot of reporting. I learnt a lot from it. I guess, actually, Mike, what I’m saying is I learned stuff that I think reinforces my skepticism of this entire affair. So I think this book is incredibly important to understanding this, this entire Trump-Russia scandal.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: OK. Well, thank you. I’ll take that.

AARON MATE: Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent of Yahoo News. The book is called “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump.” Michael Isikoff, thank you.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Thank you.

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