Where’s the ‘Collusion’?
Amid news the Mueller probe could extend through 2018, Guardian reporter Luke Harding and TRNN’s Aaron Mate discuss Russiagate and Harding’s new book “Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win”
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. 2017 is almost over, but Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is not. In fact, the Washington Post reports that Mueller’s probe could last another year through much of 2018 at a minimum. The prospect is sure to annoy President Trump who has been hampered by the Russia story throughout his first year in office. Well according to a best-selling new book, Trump has ample reason to worry. The book is called ‘Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win.’ I’m joined up with the book’s author, Luke Harding, a veteran journalist for The Guardian and the paper’s former Moscow correspondent.
Luke, welcome. Let’s start with the book’s title. Do you think there actually was collusion?
LUKE HARDING: I think we’re already across the line in terms of collusion. I think actually you have to go back a long way to see when it began to Donald Trump’s first trip to Soviet Moscow in 1987 paid for by the Soviet Union where he was discussing hotel deals. I think we can say — and I’m sure this is something that Robert Mueller is looking at — that there’s kind of long-term relationship. That doesn’t mean that Donald Trump is an agent or a KGB colonel, merely that there’s been a kind of transactional deal going back a very long way indeed.
AARON MATÉ: That’s also an assertion of the infamous Steele dossier, that there’s a transactional relationship between Trump and the Kremlin and that Putin has been cultivating Trump for several years now. But explain why you think that is and why you think there’s evidence of a transactional relationship.
LUKE HARDING: Well I think you just kind of have to look at what happened. We had Donald Trump’s trip back in the kind of late Cold War period, and I talked to a number of sources for this book, some in Moscow, some in London, some in Washington, some defectors. I met with Chris Steele, the author of the dossier, as well. I think what you have to understand is the fact that the sort of Soviet state and its Russian successor is raking on kind of cultivating people, particularly Americans.
Bringing Trump over for this kind of trip was pretty unusual. It was what’s known in the intelligence trade as kind of classic cultivational curation. We know from leaked KGB memos the kind of person they were looking for during this period was someone who was vain, narcissistic, interested in money, perhaps unfaithful in their marriage. Basically Donald Trump kind of ticks every single box. When I was researching this, I tracked down the daughters of the Soviet ambassador at the time who went up to Trump Tower, flattered Trump, and said, “You’ve built the most wonderful building in America.” So it goes on.
I think it’s gone through phases. Moscow’s been interested in Trump, not interested in him, and then most recently according to the Steele dossier, became more interested in him from about 2012, 2013 onwards at a time when Donald Trump was the sort of foremost exponent of birtherism. Obama was in office. Of course we have the famous trip by Trump to Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe beauty pageant.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. But where then is the proof of a transactional relationship?
LUKE HARDING: Well I mean there are secret meetings as the book says that we now know about, some of which we have discovered about in the last few months. We have Donald Trump, Jr meeting with a Russian lawyer now famous, Natalia Veselnitskaya, having been promised information from the Russian government as part of its campaign to support Mr. Trump and to hurt Hillary Clinton. We have four indictments by Robert Mueller-
AARON MATÉ: Luke, Luke, let me stop you there. Luke, let me stop you there. If we already have a transactional relationship between Trump and Russia going back to the late ’80s as you say, then why would they have needed a music publicist to set up this meeting? I mean presumably that level of relationship would have entailed some high-level contacts that wouldn’t have needed an intermediary like this kooky music publicist, Rob Goldstone.
LUKE HARDING: Yeah. I think what you have to understand about Russian espionage is it’s not Vladimir Putin sitting in a cave flicking a red switch and things happening across the continental United States. It doesn’t work like that. It’s opportunistic. It’s very often pretty low-budget. The kind of hacking operation to hack the Democratic Party was done by two separate groups of kind of Kremlin hackers probably not earning kind of huge sums of money. So some of it is kind of improvisational.
The most important thing is that you have people with access, which in this case is Donald Trump and his entourage. The oligarch involved is someone called Aras Agalarov who hosted Trump in 2013. You’re right. The music publicist is a bit of a curious guy, called Goldstone, but nonetheless it works. He actually managed to bring the Moscow lawyer to Trump Tower and set up this meeting which, by the way, the Trump team said nothing about until it finally leaked out early this summer, a year almost after it happened.
AARON MATÉ: Right. But their explanation is that the meeting had nothing to do with the emails that were later released by Wikileaks, that they were about that the lawyer was promising compromising information about Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia, and in return she wanted some assistance lifting sanctions which had nothing to do with the whole Wikileaks aspect.
LUKE HARDING: Well I think Donald Trump, Jr didn’t know that when he took the meeting. It’s about intentionality. Meanwhile, we have George Papadopoulos, foreign policy aide to Donald Trump, who in the spring of last year is running around my town where I am, London, meeting a mysterious professor who features in Mueller’s indictment with contacts to Moscow who tells Papadopoulos-
AARON MATÉ: Well hold on a second, Luke. Hold on a second, Luke. Hold on a second. He tells Papadopoulos that he has contacts to Moscow. We actually have no clue what those contacts are. His name is Joseph Mifsud, right? He’s a professor in the UK right now, and Papadopoulos claims that Mifsud told him that he has high-level Russian government contacts. So far, there’s been no even proof of that.
LUKE HARDING: Well it’s in the indictment. I mean either you kind of live in the empirical world or you don’t, but I mean-
AARON MATÉ: In the empirical world in the indictment, Mifsud claims that he has … Or Papadopoulos says that Mifsud claims he had Russian government ties, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
LUKE HARDING: Well no, but a lot of very good journalists both in the U.S. and elsewhere have obviously tried to get in touch with Mr. Mifsud to kind of try and talk to him. We haven’t had kind of much luck, but I think you have to kind of understand the context which is that what happened in the U.S. last year isn’t divorced from other kind of Russian influence operations particularly where I sit in Europe.
This is not a new move; it’s kind of an old move. There’s been quite a lot of Russian intelligence activity over the years including most spectacularly the murder in 2006 of a Russian dissident called Alexander Litvinenko with a radioactive cup of tea. I read a book about this case which came out in the U.S. earlier this year with a huge public inquiry. There’s a sort of volume of evidence — forensic, scientific, intelligence — to support this. I think that this is-
AARON MATÉ: Whoa. Wait. Sorry. I’m sorry. Support what?
LUKE HARDING: To support the fact that essentially the level of espionage from Russia at the moment is comparable to Cold War levels, and I think in some ways it’s going beyond. What happen [inaudible 00:08:14] influence operation [inaudible 00:08:17] how effective it was whether it pushed Donald Trump over the line but he was going to win anyway and so on. I think that Russia played role in last year’s election is a matter of fact. I mean it’s certainly what U.S. intelligence agencies believe. Practically everybody recognizes it apart from Donald Trump who equivocates on the subject.
AARON MATÉ: I have to tell you just because U.S. intelligence agencies say something … And by the way, it’s not even all the intelligence agencies; it’s a handpicked group assembled under the outgoing president, Barack Obama, by James Clapper. They say something, but speaking of empirical evidence, they presented no empirical evidence and they still haven’t. I don’t understand why we’re supposed to take that on faith.
LUKE HARDING: Well I mean you don’t take anything on faith. I mean obviously you seek to verify and to be evidential and to kind of follow leads wherever they go, but when writing my book, I talked a lot of people, one of whom was Steele, but I talked to other sources as well. I think people who are sort of skeptical about the whole kind of Russia thesis and it sounds to me like you are one of those people-
AARON MATÉ: I am. Yes, I am.
LUKE HARDING: Yeah. Right. Don’t kind of quite appreciate the nature of Vladimir Putin’s state. I mean I lived there for four years. I was there for between 2007 and 2011. I was eventually kind of kicked out for writing stories about kleptocracy, about Putin’s fortune, about human rights, about journalists. I’m not sure if you know, but some of my friends in Moscow who are journalists have been murdered. This is not a nice or benign regime. It’s-
AARON MATÉ: [crosstalk 00:10:04] I’m certainly not arguing that Vladimir Putin is a nice person or that he has great policies, but to me though, that doesn’t automatically mean that he waged a massive influence campaign that got Donald Trump elected. Part of the reason why I’m skeptical of that is that, again, there still is actual … There’s zero evidence so far. There’s a lot of supposition and innuendo.
LUKE HARDING: Well I’m a journalist. I’m a storyteller. I’m not head of the CIA or the NSA, but what I can tell you is that there have been similar operations in France most recently when President Macron was elected.
AARON MATÉ: Well actually, Luke, that’s not true. That’s actually … That’s straight up not true. The French … After that election, the French cyber intelligence agency came out and said it could have been virtually anybody.
LUKE HARDING: Yeah, if you’d let me finish, there have been attacks on the German parliament.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. [crosstalk 00:13:13] but wait, Luke. Do you concede that the France hack that you just claimed didn’t happen?
LUKE HARDING: That it didn’t happen? Sorry?
AARON MATÉ: Do you concede that the France, that the Russian hacking of the French election that you just claimed actually is not true?
LUKE HARDING: Well I mean that it’s not true? I meant the French report was inconclusive, but you have to look at this kind of contextually. We’ve seen other attacks on European states as well from Russia, that they have very kind of advanced cyber capabilities.
AARON MATÉ: Where else?
LUKE HARDING: Sorry?
AARON MATÉ: Well else?
LUKE HARDING: Well Estonia. Have you heard of Estonia? It’s a state in the Baltics which was crippled by a massive cyberattack in 2008 which certainly all kind of Western European and former Eastern European states think was carried out by Moscow. I mean I was in Moscow at the time where relations between the two countries were extremely bad. This is a kind of ongoing thing. Now you might say, quite legitimately, “Well the U.S. does the same thing. The UK does the same thing,” and I think to a certain extent that is certainly right. I think what was different last year was the attempt to kind of dump this stuff up out into kind of U.S. public space and to try and influence public opinion there. That’s unusual. Of course that’s a matter of congressional inquiry and something Mueller is looking at too.
AARON MATÉ: Right. But again, my problem here is that the examples that are frequently presented to substantiate claims of this massive Russian hacking operation around the world prove out to be false. So France as I mentioned. You also mentioned Germany. There was a lot of worry about Russian hacking of the German elections, but it turned out — and there’s plenty of articles since then that have acknowledged this — that there was no Russian hacking of Germany.
LUKE HARDING: I’m afraid there was hacking of the Bundestag, the German parliament, in 2015. I spent four years as a correspondent in Berlin. I do understand your skepticism, but I think maybe you might just go to Moscow for a couple of weeks, talk to human rights people. There’s a fantastic organization there called Memorial. Meet Alexei Navalny who’s the main kind of opposition candidate there who’s an anti-corruption campaigner whose brother has been jailed for his activities and who’s been disqualified by the Kremlin from standing in the election. Just talk to people, ask them about Kremlin hacking, ask them about whether they think … I mean talk to Russians on this.
AARON MATÉ: The Russians … The Russians I’ve spoken to … And again, I obviously can’t speak to everybody. The ones I’ve spoken to think all this is ridiculous. Again, no one’s … I’m not arguing that the Russian government is not a repressive right-wing state. It is, but that doesn’t mean that it’s managed to elect a president. Let me ask you-
LUKE HARDING: What was — Sorry. What do you think Russian spy agencies do? You think they sit around having cups of tea or-
AARON MATÉ: I think they do … Luke, come on. I think Russian spy agencies do what all spy agencies do: they carry out the government’s interests abroad. Again, I don’t see how you get from that to they pulled off a massive conspiracy to elect a president based on the fact that back when Donald Trump was hosting The Apprentice they had the foresight to see a future U.S. president who they were going to get elected.
LUKE HARDING: No, I mean that’s a kind of caricatural sort of précis of what’s happening.
AARON MATÉ: But it’s true. According to the Steele dossier, the cultivated Trump when he was hosting the Apprentice.
LUKE HARDING: Well I mean that they cultivated Trump, I’ve got no doubts about. By the way, talk to … I mean I’ve talked to a lot of people about Steele. I mean he was a kind of British intelligence guy for 22 years. He spent three years in Soviet Moscow between 1990 and 1993 where he saw the kind of collapse of this kind of empire first hand and the end of communism. He is … You may not like it, but he’s actually regarded in London and Washington as being pretty credible. Before the Trump dossier, he produced a series of other reports including on the war in Ukraine in 2014 using the same sources that he used for his sort of Trump memos which actually were true and were read by the State Department, even read by John Kerry when he was U.S. Secretary of State. There is a kind of context to all this.
AARON MATÉ: Luke, Luke, why should we care if people who we haven’t met, anonymous officials, say that this ex-British spy who was hired by Donald Trump’s political opponents, first Republicans then the Clinton campaign, say that he’s credible? What matters is the evidence, and whether there’s evidence of, for example, Steele’s claim that Donald Trump hired prostitutes and that Putin has a tape of that. I mean you I’m sure admit that these are pretty wild claims, and instead of just believing them based on the fact that some people say he’s credible, we should have evidence.
LUKE HARDING: Did you read my book by the way?
AARON MATÉ: Well listen, I did what I usually do when I do a book-
LUKE HARDING: So you didn’t even read [crosstalk 00:18:23]-
AARON MATÉ: I skimmed through it, and actually I have some parts that I want to quote for you. Go ahead. Listen, yes. I did not read the full book. No, I did not, but I skimmed through it as I do when I do book interviews because it’s hard to find time to read full books. Go ahead.
LUKE HARDING: I understand that. I mean … Sorry. The lights just out here. I think if you’d read my book which unfortunately you didn’t before you decided to do the interview, you would have seen that there’s a whole history of the FSB and its kind of KGB predecessor doing these kind of entrapment operations going back to the Cold War, enticing American diplomats, British diplomats, and so on with kind of honeypots. The KGB even had a kind of term for the kind of attractive young women they would send to kind of seduce and try and compromise officials. They called them “swallows,” which is a rather kind of pleasant and poetic title. Really anyone who knows Russia or has bothered to read books on the Cold War sort of realizes this is precisely what they do.
Now did they do it with Donald Trump? We don’t know. Steele thinks they did. Donald Trump will know the answer to that question for sure, and so will Vladimir Putin. I think one of the kind of themes through the last few months which I think probably you would agree on is that Donald Trump is incredibly nice about Mr. Putin when he’s very rude about a whole host of other leaders including, for example, Theresa May, the Prime Minister in my town, in England or the Germans or Angela Merkel. We see this repeatedly.
AARON MATÉ: I agree, Luke. He has affinity for right-wing leaders. He speaks highly of Putin. He speaks highly of … I’ve never heard him insult Netanyahu. I’ve never heard him speak critically of Netanyahu, but that doesn’t mean that I think that Netanyahu controls [Trump]. Even though, by the way, there’s more proof of collusion, right now at least, with Netanyahu than Putin because we know now from the indictment of Flynn that Netanyahu got Trump and his team to try to undermine Obama at the UN when Obama was going to let pass a UN vote critical of Israel.
LUKE HARDING: Yeah. I mean I understand that, but I think it goes beyond the sort of Trump-Putin relationship. It goes beyond a kind of affinity with kind of ultra-nationalist dictators. You can call it that, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think Putin genuinely does have [inaudible 00:20:47] of Donald Trump.
AARON MATÉ: And my point is that just because Trump hasn’t criticized Putin doesn’t mean that he is Putin’s puppet. By that logic, he also would be Netanyahu’s puppet too. Let me … In terms of the book … Go ahead. Please.
LUKE HARDING: But I’m not saying that he’s Putin’s puppet, that’s your word, that’s not my word. But go on.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. Well listen. In terms of the book, I will … I do want to quote you one part that I did read that I found interesting which is where you are talking about the potential connections between Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, and the Russian government. You spoke to a Manafort associate. Hopefully I have his name … Hopefully I can pronounce his name properly. Konstantin Kilimnik. Kilimnik wrote you by email in response to your questions about his relationship with Manafort, and you recount that Kilimnik responded by telling you that the collusion issue was gibberish and then he signed his email off by saying “Off to collect my paycheck at KGB.” Then he has an emoji smiley face with two parentheses. Okay.
You write “The thing which gave me pause was Kilimnik’s use of smiley faces. True, Russians are big emoticon fans, but I’ve seen something similar before. In 2013, the Russian diplomat in charge of political influence operations in London was named Sergey Nalobin. Nalobin had close links with Russian intelligence. He was a son of a KGB general. His brother worked for the FSB. Nalobin looked like a career foreign intelligence officer.” You go on to write “On a Twitter feed, Nalobin described himself thus: a brutal agent of the Putin dictatorship, smiley face.” So are you inferring there that because two Russians used a smiley face that that’s proof that Manafort’s associate was a tool of the Russian government?
LUKE HARDING: No. I mean really what you’re doing is now rather a sort of silly exercise. You haven’t read the book, but you’re taking one small bit and jumping on that.
AARON MATÉ: Because you’re using emoticons as proof of a Russian tie so I’m asking you about it.
LUKE HARDING: If you let me-
AARON MATÉ: Okay. Please. Yeah.
LUKE HARDING: Your kind of question and maybe you could read the rest of the book when you finish the interview, but I mean Kilimnik is the guy that Paul Manafort last summer emailed about trying to set up a kind of private briefing — this is where Manafort is still Trump’s campaign manager — for a very famous oligarch called Oleg Deripaska. Now Deripaska more or less sort of sits at the right hand of Putin. He certainly has very close relations with him.
I think it’s perfectly kind of legitimate to ask what kind of role Kilimnik was playing. I emailed him. We’re in kind of correspondence. He’s still in contact, by the way, with Paul Manafort. He was emailing him a couple weeks ago. Manafort, I met. I mean there’s a chapter about what he was doing in Ukraine, about his work for Victor Yanukovych, about how Yanukovych became a kind of kleptocrat. He’s now been indicted with money laundering, with conspiracy against the U.S. by Robert Mueller. So I think it’s perfectly legitimate to look at him.
AARON MATÉ: Luke, I’m not saying it’s not legitimate. I’m taking issue with you writing “The thing which gave me pause was Kilimnik’s use of smiley faces,” as if the use of smiley faces is somehow evident of a nefarious Russian government tie. By the way, let me ask you about Manafort. What was Manafort doing in Ukraine? Because as I think you even acknowledge in the book, again, because I did read through it … You even acknowledge in the book that Manafort was not even trying to steer Yanukovych towards a pro-Kremlin policy. I mean that’s widely reported that he actually was trying to orient Yanukovych towards the West.
LUKE HARDING: Well I mean it’s more complicated than that. I mean certainly some of the things he did were kind of pro-Western, but at the same time what Manafort really did was to take someone who was essentially a kind of post-Soviet crook and gangster and refashioned him into the image of a kind of modern Western-style politician. It was quite successful. When I met Manafort in 2008, he told me that Yanukovych believed in the rule of law, that he’d changed, that he was not a creature of Moscow anymore, and so on.
This strategy worked quite effectively. In 2010, Yanukovych became president. Then when he did that, the first thing he did was to jail the main opposition leader, someone called Yulia Tymoshenko. Basically kind of suborn parliament, get rid of independent courts, and loot the state to the tune of billions of dollars. What I actually write in my book is that everything that Manafort told me during this 2008 period was essentially a lie. It was kind of untrue.
Now we now know from Mueller that Manafort made about $75 million allegedly from his activities in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and in Moscow. Of course his next client after Yanukovych who skipped after Russia with his billions was Donald Trump. One question that I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory answer for is how did Manafort end up running Donald Trump’s campaign. You have to look at the constellation of people around Donald Trump, and very many of them, not all of them but very many of them, had a kind of Russian connection whether it’s Wilbur Ross, the secretary of state, or Michael Flynn, or Carter Page, or George Papadopoulos who’s been done for lying to the FBI, or Wilbur Ross, the Commerce secretary. I mean you can be benign and say it’s a curious coincidence, but I think it’s more than that.
AARON MATÉ: Well I think Manafort is a longtime Republican operative, and I don’t think the answer necessarily is that, because he had ties to a Ukrainian president who he was trying to orient towards an anti-Russian policy essentially which, by the way, does not, I think, add weight to the argument that Manafort was in Putin’s pocket if he’s trying to get Yanukovych to steer towards the West, but I think we can move on from that point.
Let’s wrap, Luke. Can we agree then that there is no proof of collusion? There even is no proof of hacking. If I have it right from you, the main reason to question, to think that there is a tie between Trump and Russia is a.) the financial connections between people in his circle and Russians possibly, and also the fact that Russia has a history as we’ve heard you outline of cultivating foreigners.
LUKE HARDING: Yeah. I mean I don’t agree. I mean this is your view of there’s no collusion and there’s no proof of hacking. I mean this is what you assert.
AARON MATÉ: I said there’s no proof of it, yes.
LUKE HARDING: Firstly, I don’t accept that. I don’t think that’s the case. But what I was trying to say at the beginning was just to explain that actually what happened last year happens in a kind of wider context of Soviet and Russian espionage. We haven’t really talked very much about Vladimir Putin, about the kind of person he is. I mean he’s a former KGB agent who spent most of his career in an organization that regards the United States as an adversary, not just any old adversary, but what you say in Russian is called the glavnyy protivnik, the main adversary. He thinks about America in kind of zero-sum terms. He thinks that’s what good for Russia is bad for America and vice versa.
There’s no doubt that he disliked Obama, that he loathed Hillary Clinton, and that he was very, very keen for Donald Trump to win. I mean you just have to look at Russia … I mean, I speak Russian. Look at Russian state media in the run-up who were portraying Hillary as a kind of deranged mad woman warmonger and Trump as a kind of peaceful nice guy with whom Russia could do business. There were kind of clear preferences, but also there’s this history of espionage which is still, whether you like it or not, whether you accept it or not, very much ongoing and I think we’ll see again both in 2018 and in 2020.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. I guess I’ll just say I think we’re conflating the fact that Putin is not a nice person, that yes he does not like Hillary Clinton, he loathes the U.S. for many reasons including the expansion of NATO — I think we’re conflating that with evidence and a conclusion that that meant that he cultivated Trump and intervened in the election. I think those two things are different.
LUKE HARDING: That’s your view. It would be great if you could go to Moscow, go to Kiev, go to the post-Soviet world, talk to people from the Russian opposition, talk to human rights activists, talk to journalists whose colleagues have been murdered, and perhaps understand a little bit better the kind of state that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is. I think you’d be doing yourself a service and you’d be doing your listeners a service.
AARON MATÉ: I don’t think I’ve countered anything you’ve said about the state of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The issue under discussion today has been whether there was collusion, the topic of your book.
LUKE HARDING: Yeah, I know, but you’re clearly a collusion rejectionist. I’m not kind of sure what evidence short of Trump and Putin in the sauna together would convince you. Clearly nothing would convince you.
AARON MATÉ: But again … No. But again, well look. This gets back to the issue. The question is whether there is any evidence so far, and I don’t see it. It looks like Luke has logged off. Is that true? Well we’ve lost Luke Harding. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but regardless we’re going to wrap the interview here. The book is called Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win. I’m Aaron Mate. Thanks for joining us on The Real News.