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Part 2: Are Trump's Ties to Russia a Dangerous Security Issue or Critics' Fodder for New Red Scare?

Web ExclusiveMarch 06, 2017
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Part 2 of a debate on the ongoing mystery of Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election between attorney Scott Horton of Harper’s Magazine and veteran investigative journalist Robert Parry of Consortium News.

Watch Part 1: Debate: Are Trump’s Ties to Russia a Dangerous Security Issue or Critics’ Fodder for New Red Scare?

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, with Part 2 of our conversation with Bob Parry and Scott Horton. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the ongoing mystery of Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election took an unexpected turn early Saturday morning, when President Trump accused former President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. Meanwhile, The New York Times is reporting FBI Director James Comey has asked the Justice Department to publicly reject Trump’s assertion.

AMY GOODMAN: To make sense of what’s happening, we’re continuing our conversation with attorney Scott Horton, who’s a lecturer at Columbia Law School, a 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.'"

Clearly, this weekend, President Trump lost it at every level. You see the telephoto lens showing what’s going on in the Oval Office. He leaves to go to Florida without Bannon and Priebus, and then Bannon follows soon after. The anger there apparently was when he learned that Attorney General Sessions said he would recuse himself from any investigation into Trump-Russia connections during the campaign, since he was a part of the campaign. Your thoughts, Robert Parry, on what’s happening at this point and whether you do think there should be an independent investigation?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, there probably should be some sort of investigation to clear up all this mystery and all this—these allegations. But there still hasn’t been the kind of evidence that I would expect to see before something like that happens. When I was doing investigations into things like the Contra drug trafficking or what became Iran-Contra, the issues of the 1980 election and the '68 election, we had—we had a great deal of hard evidence that something had actually happened. There were these—there were contacts between, say, the Nixon administration—or the Nixon campaign and the South Vietnamese in ’68, similarly with Reagan's campaign and some of the Iranians in 1980. In the Contra drug case, we had dozens of sources at that point.

So, at this point, we just don’t have that kind of information. And so a lot of this has been based on claims by the U.S. intelligence community, which has not been willing to present any evidence to support their charges about the Russians’ effort to interfere in the election. We’ve had these two reports that have been put out. I’ve read both of them. They are laughably insufficient in terms of presenting any evidence. So you have this problem where we’re working from very much a questionable basis or pretext for this investigation.

And then so much has been built off of that, now to the point of President Trump losing control and sending out this tweet storm early in the morning to try to claim that, no, the real problem was Obama was wiretapping him. So we’ve had all this very dangerous disorder and confusion in Washington around something as sensitive as the relationship with Russia, a nuclear-armed country, which is looking at us in a very strange way at this point. They’ve also, by the way, been denying that they were trying to do some of these things. Now, maybe they’re lying, and, of course, that’s always possible, but we’ve seen very little hard evidence.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, what about the whole issue of Jeff Sessions recusing himself over his misstatements to a Senate committee? Do you see any problems there, or, again, is this more smoke than actual fire?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, clearly, he was not clear what he was saying. Now, I don’t know what exactly happened, but he—the idea that he was having a meeting with the Russian ambassador in his Senate office with two Senate aides there, and they were somehow colluding to see how Russia could help the Trump campaign win the election, is a little hard to buy at this point. You also have the situation with the issue that—when did these leaks occur? When was the information sent to WikiLeaks? Supposedly, the meeting between Sessions and the Russian ambassador occurred in September. So, WikiLeaks already had this information. Both batches were in their possession by then. So, it’s not clear what we’re getting at here. Sessions clearly wasn’t entirely precise in what he was saying, but I think he was talking about the issue of: Did he or others collude with the Russians on the campaign? In which case he may have been accurately denying that, but not mentioning that he actually met with the Russian ambassador.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Scott Horton, what do you think is the case that convinces you that Russia was involved?

SCOTT HORTON: I think the evidence of collusion actually is astonishingly strong already. And that’s without intelligence or transcripts or even specific detail about communications that have occurred. And that goes back to what happened at the Republican convention in Cleveland. So, we know that Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, was there. We know there were a series of meetings with him with a number of senior aides and advisers of Trump. And we know that hours after the last of those meetings occurred, there was a bit of legerdemain in the platform committee, with a change of a provision of the Republican platform that condemned Russia and supported a hard arming of Russia. All this was changed with no explanation and without the members of the platform committee themselves even understanding why, simply because Donald Trump wanted this to happen. And to suggest that that’s completely innocent, and the discussions with the Russian ambassador had nothing to do with it, I think, is pretty gullible.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But would that—

ROBERT PARRY: Oh, really? But, Scott, I mean, that—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But would that be—

AMY GOODMAN: Well—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Go ahead.

ROBERT PARRY: Excuse me, but that’s not accurate. The point is that Trump had made clear that he was opposed to the idea of arming the Ukrainian military to fight the Russians, quite—much earlier. This was not some surprise—

SCOTT HORTON: And if—

ROBERT PARRY: —thing that just came up.

SCOTT HORTON: No, it was a surprise thing that just came up, because if you looked at what was in the platform, the platform contained those condemnations, and it was changed. And it was changed right after those consultations. But, of course, you did have—

ROBERT PARRY: But, no—

SCOTT HORTON: You did have the Trump campaign—

ROBERT PARRY: But Trump had opposed that for quite a while.

SCOTT HORTON: You did have Donald Trump, in fact, in the course of the campaign, making three specific concessions to the Russians, which were pulling back on sanctions, moving away from support of the government in Kiev and recognizing Russian annexation of Crimea. Now, these are exactly the three things that we know from the correspondence that occurred between the Russians and the Front National in France, that the Russian government demanded of the Front National in connection with its funding of Front National activities. Ditto with the Five Star coalition in Italy. So, the big question is: Was there a bargain for exchange? And was was the tit for tat that occurred?

ROBERT PARRY: Yes, but there’s no evidence that there was. I mean, again, this is—this is speculation. You can sort of point to certain things where people were—met with people. The Russian ambassador met with lots of people. He met with Senator Feinstein. He met with—this was not an unusual thing for the Russian ambassador to be presenting the case on behalf of his government with American political leaders. That’s kind of what ambassadors do. And—

SCOTT HORTON: Well, you had—go ahead.

ROBERT PARRY: And there’s no evidence that there was a quid pro quo.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I just—

ROBERT PARRY: I mean, again, I mean, this is—we’re at a very advanced stage here, and unlike other investigations that I’ve been involved with where there was really hard evidence, we had witnesses inside telling us things about how things had occurred, here we don’t. We just have people saying, "Well, there was a meeting, and we kind of speculate that maybe something happened."

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Parry, you just had J.D. Gordon, who was the Trump campaign national security policy representative at the RNC, going on television and saying, yeah, he had this information inserted for his boss. He was talking about Donald Trump.

ROBERT PARRY: OK, all right. So, but Trump was—it was not a—it was not surprising that Trump was not interested in escalating the crisis with Russia over Ukraine. He was—he said that publicly repeatedly, and, frankly, to his political detriment. He wasn’t really making a lot of—he wasn’t—it wasn’t a really super popular thing to be taking that position, at least really not in the Washington world. How it played out around the country is perhaps a bit different. But this was not some kind of reversal of Trump’s positions relating to Ukraine and Russia.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Scott, I wanted to ask you about that, because you’re saying that there’s clear evidence of collusion. But what there is clear evidence, it appears to me, is that the Russian ambassador was lobbying strongly with the Republicans to make sure that they got into their platform the kinds of issues that he was concerned about. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there was collusion to somehow or other affect the U.S. elections, right? I mean, all that shows is that he was lobbying fiercely and that he had some success and that Trump already, as Bob says, was supportive of a lot of the positions of the Russian ambassador.

SCOTT HORTON: Yes. The question is: Was there a quid pro quo?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right.

SCOTT HORTON: Because we have—you know, from the DNI report, we have evidence that they’ve collected, which, it’s true, they haven’t shown us all of their sourcing for everything, and I wish they would show more. I think it would be appropriate for them to do so. Nevertheless, they’ve made these conclusions. Sixteen, 17 different U.S. intelligence have come to the same conclusion: an extraordinary set of active measures being taken by the Russians to influence the elections to support one particular candidate. And the question is: Were there concessions being made by that candidate in exchange for that support? And I think when we look at the positions that are taken by Trump, actions like this change of the platform, there is definitely sufficient evidence on the surface to warrant a deeper investigation of what went on. And that should be going on.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bob Parry, wouldn’t you agree that the issue of Trump’s financial—his tax forms and his financial records would help to possibly clear up any cloud that would exist over whether he was, in some way or other, either receiving financial backing from banks that might have been close to the leaders of Russia or direct support, in one way or another, from Russia?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, of course. I always support the idea that politicians should be as transparent as possible in terms of their finances and anything else. But that’s a bit of a different question. So, we don’t know what one might find, but that doesn’t mean you make allegations and make assumptions without evidence. And that’s what I’ve been seeing happening here. And it’s been very dangerous. And now we’re seeing Trump kind of doing the same thing. He’s out making his own allegations, based apparently on nothing very strong at least, maybe his suspicions. He might—he said a lot of ifs here.

So, again, what we’ve seen is a kind of a meltdown of serious behavior on the part of—in Washington, on the part of the mainstream media, on the part of the Congress, on the part of the executive, and on both administrations, really. I think—I think President Obama went pretty far in trying to push this argument. And whether he did it from out of conviction or out of political animosity toward Trump might also be an interesting question to pursue. He obviously did not—he obviously has very strong feelings against President Trump. So, when he went out and started spreading this information around, in ways that we’ve never seen before, he made an effort so—as The New York Times reported, so that this record would be there for lots of people to have access to. This is not how it’s usually done. And certainly, in the situation with National Security Adviser Flynn, the idea that his—his identity was put into this intercept with the Russian ambassador is quite extraordinary. American citizens are supposed to be protected in those cases, as Scott fully knows. So you have—you have a lot of transgressions here in pursuit of an issue that—where there’s been very little core, fundamental, foundational evidence presented.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about—

ROBERT PARRY: And that’s why I think—and when Scott says that the DNI and the CIA should have put out more information at the end of the Obama administration, yes, but they put out almost nothing. I read those two reports. And you should go through them. They are laughable in terms of any kind of evidence. And there’s no reason why that should not have been presented at the beginning of this, not at this stage. And we don’t even know what the situation is even now.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I don’t think those reports are laughable. In fact, I think they’re persuasive. But I wish they would put out more evidence. So I think we have a long way to go on this. But I would also say, on the financial side, the financial side and the flow of money is really the much bigger story than the hacking and the issues surrounding the hacking. And on that, there’s been actually—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And some of the reports are that the FISA order was in relationship to two Russian banks, right?

SCOTT HORTON: Precisely. It’s Vneshtorgbank and Alf Bank are mentioned in the FISA court order. And this was issued by a Republican judge, so there had to have been a showing of probable cause to get that order. That’s a significant fact.

ROBERT PARRY: Well, Scott—Scott, as you know—as you know, Scott—

SCOTT HORTON: And that means that there is significant evidence it wasn’t being—

ROBERT PARRY: As you know, the FISA court almost never—almost never rejects a request. What are the percentages?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, here, of course, as you know, they rejected three requests. So it’s not the case that that they never—

ROBERT PARRY: Well—

SCOTT HORTON: But there was—

ROBERT PARRY: Almost never.

SCOTT HORTON: But there was a finding, and I think that’s in a highly political case, with a Republican judge giving it. So there’s quite something there. But we don’t know what it is. I think that’s true. But it does focus on financial dealings and the flow of cash. That’s a huge point that was underdeveloped. But again, I would say, on this issue, the flow of money, not just acknowledged by the Trump campaign when they were trying to tout their own horn in 2006, 2007, later 2012, but also documented in great degree by The Financial Times, which did the story of—three major stories looking at the financing of major projects and found these projects were funded almost entirely by money coming from Russian oligarchs and mobsters, who were buying large blocks of condominium units and not using them, not residing in them, just so it was a way of paying massive sums of money to Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Parry mentioned that even if the oligarchs were supporting Donald Trump and giving him tens of millions of dollars, as we know, with projects like Trump SoHo, the building downtown and here in New York City, that doesn’t necessarily connect him to the Russian government. You have different thoughts on this.

SCOTT HORTON: I definitely disagree. I mean, I would have said the same thing before 2000. But after the rise of Putin and his reining in of the oligarchs, that’s not the case. Oligarchs, in what they do, and particularly what they do abroad, are highly constrained by the Russian government. There are also very complex capital outflow restrictions in Russia today. It’s difficult to get your money out of the country and put it in projects like these. But I think what we found is that Russian oligarchs and others had no problem moving their money offshore when it went into projects that were controlled by Donald Trump. That had a green light from the government. And we have things like Dmitry Rybolovlev, the potash king of Russia, who purchases a strip of property next to Mar-a-Lago, paying twice its market value. I mean, that was just putting $100 million straight into Trump’s pocket. Why? I don’t—

AMY GOODMAN: Why was it doing that? It was his property?

SCOTT HORTON: It was Trump’s property. He purchased it from Trump. He paid twice the market value for it, $100 million—$95 million, to be exact, for it. And that had the blessing of the Kremlin, you can count on it.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Parry, are these warning signs to you?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, I mean, when a lot of this happened, Trump was not expected to become president of the United States. There was—the idea that this was all sort of some grand scheme to put Trump in the White House really goes against all logic. Nobody thought—and I could—you can—I can go back and quote every major journalist pretty much in Washington. No one thought Trump was going to win the Republican nomination, let alone the election.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, at that time, what if it wasn’t any grand scheme, it was just he was in debt to the Russian oligarchs, and now, given what has happened, that they have something on him?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, you know, I—again, I guess a lot of things are possible. There are a lot of things—maybe it is possible that Obama did wiretap the Trump Tower. But we have no reason to believe it happened. There needs to be something, like, called evidence. And right now that’s lacking. Now—

AMY GOODMAN: Who do you think would best investigate it, Bob Parry? What—

ROBERT PARRY: Well, Amy, I’ve lost faith a lot in government investigations over the years, and I’m sure maybe you feel the same. I’ve seen government investigations that are pretty good and a lot that are pretty terrible. And it’s often they’re very politicized, one way or another, to shut down something or to exaggerate something. So, I’m not sure who would be the best to investigate it, but I would tell you that whatever comes out, it would still be worth seriously examining from the point of view of journalists, who try to be objective and honest about these things. Whether or not some report comes out whitewashing it or exaggerating it, it still deserves a set of eyes where you look at things very carefully. So, but I really don’t think there is in Washington any wise man or any wise woman or some institution that you can count on. It doesn’t exist anymore in Washington. Maybe it did in some earlier time, but not anymore.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Scott Horton, who do you think should be investigating it?

SCOTT HORTON: I don’t think—yeah, you shouldn’t be relying on one single source to do it. I mean, our society works as robust dialogue and discussion in which many parties are engaged in the process of probing and looking at it. And that’s how we come closest to the truth. That’s the formula that’s been used throughout American history. So, I really think the counterintelligence-slash-DOJ investigation should continue. And there needs to be an independent counsel who’s running it, I mean, a credible leader of that investigation. I think Congress has got to be involved in the probe. And I think the press has got to work on it, and it has to work on it much more seriously than it has in the past, because throughout the election, we saw, you know, bright, glittery things on the surface were picked up and discussed ad nauseam, but there was relatively little serious investigative journalism.

Now, that all being said, I think we’re in territory which is particularly difficult to investigate, because we’re dealing with a cover operation of a foreign power, which may be down on its luck in many areas but is still really very professional and effective in this one. And getting past all of the protections they put in place, to understand what really happened, is an extremely difficult proposition. And collecting information, particularly over on the home turf in Russia and Ukraine and in that neighborhood, is extremely difficult to do.

AMY GOODMAN: The heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees have already said there’s no evidence there. Interestingly enough, James Clapper also said there’s no evidence there yesterday, when he was also saying there wasn’t a FISA court warrant—James Clapper, of course, just a few years ago lying to Ron Wyden, when he was before him, being questioned about whether Americans are being spied on.

SCOTT HORTON: Well, of course, the House and Senate intelligence committees haven’t called a single witness or examined a single document, so it’s easy to say there isn’t any evidence. If you don’t look at the evidence, there isn’t any evidence. With respect to General Clapper’s statement, my understanding is, you know, he knows what’s happened in certain respects with this counterintelligence investigation, but not everything. But one of the problems is that they pick up incidents of communication, but they don’t have information about the substance of the communication. That’s part of the problem with our entire system of intercepts. So he can’t say that these communications were collusion in connection with leaks or anything like that. They only know that there were communications.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us, Scott Horton, Columbia Law School and Harper’s, Robert Parry, Consortium News. And we’ll link to both of your work. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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