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Debate: Are Trump’s Ties to Russia a Dangerous Security Issue or Critics’ Fodder for New Red Scare?

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The ongoing mystery of Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election took an unexpected turn early Saturday morning when President Trump took to Twitter, writing: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump offered no evidence, but within 24 hours he called on lawmakers to probe Obama’s actions. The New York Times is reporting FBI Director James Comey has asked the Justice Department to publicly reject Trump’s assertion that Obama ordered the tapping of Trump’s phones. The Times described Comey’s request as a “remarkable rebuke of a sitting president.” For more, we host a debate between attorney Scott Horton, lecturer at Columbia Law School and a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, and Robert Parry, veteran investigative journalist and editor of the website Consortiumnews.com.

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StoryJul 20, 2017“Trump and the Russian Money Trail”: Trump’s Ties to Oligarchs Go Back Decades
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The ongoing mystery of Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election took an unexpected turn early Saturday morning when President Trump took to Twitter, writing, quote, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” unquote.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump went on to tweet, “How low has President Obama gone to tapp”—spelled T-A-P-P—”to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” unquote. President Trump offered no evidence, but within 24 hours he called on lawmakers to probe Obama’s actions. On Sunday morning, Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the remarks to host Martha Raddatz on ABC’s This Week.

MARTHA RADDATZ: The president of the United States is accusing the former president of wiretapping him.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think that this is, again, something that, if this happened, Martha, this would—

MARTHA RADDATZ: If, if, if, if.


MARTHA RADDATZ: Why is the president saying it did happen?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, I think he is going off of information that he’s seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential. And if it is, this is the greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that I think we’ve ever seen and a huge attack on democracy itself. And the American people have a right to know if this took place.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It appears the “information” Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders is referring to is a Breitbart article based on a claim by the far-right-wing radio host Mark Levin. On Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd interviewed President Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper.

JAMES CLAPPER: I can’t speak officially anymore, but I will say that for the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign. I can’t speak for other Title III-authorized entities in the government, or a state or local entity.

CHUCK TODD: Yeah, I was just going to say, if the FBI, for instance, had a FISA court order of some sort for a surveillance, would that be information you would know, or not know?


CHUCK TODD: You would be told this.

JAMES CLAPPER: I would know that.

CHUCK TODD: If there was a FISA court order—


CHUCK TODD: —on something like this.

JAMES CLAPPER: Something like this, absolutely.

CHUCK TODD: And at this point, you can’t confirm or deny whether that exists?

JAMES CLAPPER: I can deny it.

CHUCK TODD: There is no FISA court order?

JAMES CLAPPER: Not to my knowledge.

CHUCK TODD: Of anything at Trump Tower?


AMY GOODMAN: During the same interview, James Clapper said he’s seen no evidence of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. Meanwhile, The New York Times is reporting FBI Director James Comey has asked the Justice Department to publicly reject Trump’s assertion that Obama ordered the tapping of Trump’s phones. The Times described Comey’s request as a, quote, “remarkable rebuke of a sitting president,” unquote. This all comes just days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation into last year’s presidential campaign, following reports he met twice with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. while serving as a campaign surrogate for Donald Trump.

To make sense of what’s happening, we’re joined by two guests, who will not agree on most anything on this issue: attorney Scott Horton, lecturer at Columbia Law School, contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, and Robert Parry, veteran investigative journalist and editor of the website Consortiumnews.com. His latest article, “The Politics Behind 'Russia-gate.'”

Scott, let’s begin with you around this FISA order. Why does President Trump have to say he’s heard reports? Can’t he pick up the phone and find out?

SCOTT HORTON: Absolutely. As commander-in-chief, he would have the right to demand and receive a briefing about anything that’s gone on, and he would also have the power to declassify and release any information that’s been obtained, including FISA court orders, warrants or other documents. And he’s obviously chosen not to do that, and instead rely on a Breitbart report of a Mark Levin rant.

AMY GOODMAN: And he could declassify.

SCOTT HORTON: Absolutely, and release.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Scott, what is your sense of—as this continuing Russia situation has developed over the last several weeks, of what is going on here?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think there’s growing pressure for a probe of Russian activities in the election within Congress. I think it’s gathering support from more leaders of the Republicans. I think it’s more difficult for the Republican leadership to push back against it. I think what we see right now is an attempt by President Trump to derail all that and change the agenda to another issue.

Now, I have to note, if you look at General Clapper’s statement, it was very carefully phrased. I mean, so he said “no FISA court order of this type of the Trump Tower.” And I think that there is something in the background that the media is so far not doing a good job of reporting and covering. And there is a FISA court order. But to be clear, it’s not—it’s not an order that directed tapping of Trump Tower or Donald Trump. Rather, it’s an order that was issued on October 15th, has not been reported in the U.S. media. It has been reported in Europe more extensively. And it’s in connection with a counterintelligence investigation that’s been going on since last summer that targets not Donald Trump, but five individuals who have or at one point did play some role in his campaign, and their dealings with people who are suspected to be Russian intelligence operatives.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about that.

SCOTT HORTON: Well, we don’t know much about it, because the entire process surrounding FISA court proceedings is secret. But when you see—

AMY GOODMAN: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

SCOTT HORTON: Act court. And, you know, to obtain that order, a judge had to review an application that justified it, and had to find that there was probable cause to issue the order. Now, all of the judges of the FISA court are Republicans. In fact, they’re all selected by Chief Justice Roberts, and they’re all people very much like him. So, for a FISA judge to have authorized this is quite something. I think we saw Lindsey Graham hinting at that in the past. And when we see reports previously about intercepts of communications and what they may or may not have said, that’s all coming out of this investigation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bob Parry, you’ve written there is no there there in this issue of all of the hullabaloo that we’ve seen in the press over Russia and Trump. Could you expound on that and give us your take?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, I’m not sure there’s no there there. What I’m saying is that, so far, the Obama administration and, as far as we know, what’s happened since then, with some of the holdovers from the Obama administration, they have not presented the real evidence to show that there was this effort by the Russians to leak this material or hack this material and provide it to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks has flatly denied that they received this information from the Russians. They’ve indicated there were apparently two American insiders who they believe would have been the sources of this information.

So, what you’ve got is a lot of ifs going on, not just the ifs that President Trump has put out through his tweets, but also now there’s also a lot of ifs about what happened initially. So we have a—we have a situation where Washington has kind of gone nuts, where there hasn’t been the kind of evidence presented, on anyone’s part, that convinces me or a lot of other people who have looked at this, including former people from the National Security Agency, people like William Binney. So you have—so you have problems here, where the evidence is not supporting, at least to this point, a lot of these allegations. We’ve had a lot of suspicions and a lot of smoke, but, so far, not much in the way of fire.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve also raised that Russia has been—is increasingly being made the bogeyman, not only by those on the right, but many on the left who are—who were either supporters of President Obama or were progressives who ended up supporting Hillary Clinton, that you feel that there’s an necessary heating up of a new Cold War.

ROBERT PARRY: Well, there’s no question. We’re now into a new Cold War. And we’re also seeing kind of a new McCarthyism. What you’ve seen is this very hostile approach that the United States has taken toward Russia, going back really to the Ukraine crisis. And it has been escalating. And the Russians have responded somewhat in kind. So you had a much more cooperative relationship between President Obama and President Putin that preceded the 2014 Ukraine crisis. They worked together on the Syrian crisis. It was Putin who got Assad to give up his chemical weapons. They worked together on Iran, getting Iran to constrain its nuclear program. But then, with the crisis in Ukraine, which was not simply a case of—it was a case that involved some American input to try to create that as a turning point in how this whole relationship developed. So we’ve had—we’ve had this narrative set up where the Russians are made into the bad guys, and that has now continued into the campaign, now into the new presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, your thoughts on the allegations of Russian hacking of the election and Russia’s involvement with Donald Trump and his associates, even if we’re talking about oligarchs helping to finance Donald Trump’s development projects because it was hard for him to get lines of credit since he had gone bankrupt so many times?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think just the hacking and release of information, all on its own, is actually relatively little, not so much a big deal. In fact, assuming the Russians do it—and I think the evidence—unlike my colleague, I think the evidence is very convincing that they did—it’s not a big deal. It’s what intelligence services do all over the world. What would make this a far bigger matter is if there were collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians throughout the process, if the hacking were requested, if it were being guided by them, and then, if, beyond that, it were to turn out that the Russians in fact financed Donald Trump to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, as indeed his son acknowledged in a press statement before the campaign got going. I mean, all—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

SCOTT HORTON: That is that if you look at Trump’s situation after the bankruptcies that occurred in 2004, when the banks withdrew their letters of credit, most people thought he was finished. From that point forward, there was an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars into Trump projects, Trump-branded projects all around the world, that refloated the Trump empire and made it viable. All that money seems to have come out of Russia, from Russian oligarchs and Russian organized crime groups. And that’s something that was really not very well developed during the campaign. And those facts, altogether, would explain what is otherwise an almost inexplicable relationship between Donald Trump and Putin, where he cannot criticize this man or say a negative thing about him.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bob Parry, you’re famed for your investigative reports, and you’ve said that, unfortunately, in journalism today there’s a lack of real investigative reporting. It’s basically—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —who can get the first leaks from which branch of which intelligence agency in the government. What do you think is lacking in terms of the kinds of investigations that journalists should be using? What about this whole issue of the long-term economic relationships that may have existed between Trump and Russian oligarchs?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, again, there are a lot of ifs here. And I don’t think there’s been any hard evidence presented on these things either. There was this reference from the son, who was apparently talking about some of these Russian oligarchs buying up Trump condos and other kind of properties. But that doesn’t mean it was coming from the Russian government. This idea that everything in Russia is controlled at the top is not really true. It’s a large country like ours is, and there are many different factors and factions that operate. So to pretend that we all know this is somewhat misleading.

And there’s a huge amount of this whole question of if. We’re at a very dangerous point here, where there’s a real possibility of a crisis between the United States and Russia. And instead of anything that’s been very serious or hard in terms of evidence, we’ve been—we’ve been dealing with suppositions. And as Scott says, even if the Russians did somehow get this information to WikiLeaks, the information itself was all accurate. It dealt with things that were relatively significant in terms of what we would know about how the Clinton campaign was operating. But it was not decisive in any way to the election. Hillary Clinton herself blamed James Comey for his reopening of her investigation into her email situation as the principal cause for her defeat. It wasn’t the Russians.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think any election in which the man who was second past the post wins and is installed and president, and a shift of 40,000 votes would have dramatically affected the outcome, any of a number of hundreds of things could have caused a change in the election. I think what we’ve seen here—and I agree with Bob Parry on this—is a really dramatic failure of inquiry by the press during the election, the failure to develop a number of really important issues relating to Trump and the Trump campaign. But there’s no reason not to fully explore and develop them right now. And I think, in the end, if everything goes in the direction I think it’s going to go, this will be the end of the Trump presidency.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve also said, haven’t you, that you basically—you would agree with Bob Parry on the general outlines of the criticism of the U.S. policy toward Russia, that there’s been much more aggressive posture by the United States in interfering in affairs close to the Russian borders?

SCOTT HORTON: Yes, I agree. So, I mean, I think the U.S. made grave mistakes in the way it expanded NATO into the region, the way it interacted with Georgia, for instance, before the war in 2008. But that’s another set of questions.

And I think the confrontation we’re looking at from Russia today is not the old Cold War kind of confrontation with nuclear weapons and armored divisions. It is a very aggressive policy of intervention and engagement in Western politics and Western elections. This is not just in the United States. It’s going on today in France, in Italy, in Germany, and following the same shadow, the same profile, in almost every single country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this conversation and then post it online at democracynow.org. Scott Horton teaches at Columbia Law School, writes for Harper’s Magazine. And Bob Parry writes for Consortium News. And we’ll link to his piece there.

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“Trump and the Russian Money Trail”: Trump’s Ties to Oligarchs Go Back Decades

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