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Mueller Probe Heats Up: 13 Russians Indicted, Ex-Trump Aide to Plead Guilty, Focus on Kushner Grows

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There have been a number of significant developments in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump administration. CNN is reporting Mueller is now investigating Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his attempts to secure financing for his family’s business while working on the president’s transition team. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times is reporting former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates has agreed to plead guilty and testify against Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager. Under the deal, Gates will plead guilty to money laundering and illegal foreign lobbying. These developments come just days after the Justice Department indicted 13 Russians and three companies in connection with efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election by orchestrating an online propaganda effort to undermine the U.S. election system. We speak to Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. She runs the website EmptyWheel.net.

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StorySep 25, 2018Marcy Wheeler: Rosenstein’s Ouster Would Not Necessarily Signal End of Mueller Investigation
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: There have been a number of significant developments in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump administration. CNN is reporting Mueller is now investigating Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his attempts to secure financing for his family’s business while working on the president’s transition team. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times is reporting former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates has agreed to plead guilty and to testify against Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager. Under the deal, Gates will plead guilty to money laundering and illegal foreign lobbying.

AMY GOODMAN: These developments come just days after the Justice Department indicted 13 Russians and three companies in connection with efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election by orchestrating an online propaganda effort to undermine the U.S. election system. The indictment claims the Russians spread negative information online about Hillary Clinton, and support Donald Trump, as well as Bernie Sanders. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictments Friday.

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ROD ROSENSTEIN: The indictment charges 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States’ political system, including the 2016 presidential election. The defendants allegedly conducted what they called “information warfare” against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Trump responded to the indictments on Twitter by lashing out at Democrats, the Mueller investigation, the Obama administration and the FBI. In one tweet, he wrote, quote, “Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign–there is no collusion.”

AMY GOODMAN: Trump also criticized National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster, who said the indictments offer incontrovertible evidence that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election.

H.R. McMASTER: And as you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain, whereas in the past it was difficult to attribute, for a couple of reasons. First, technically, it was difficult, but then also you didn’t want divulge your intelligence capabilities. But now that this is in the arena of a law enforcement investigation, it’s going to be very apparent to everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about these developments, we go to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to talk to Marcy Wheeler, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties, runs the website EmptyWheel.net.

Marcy, welcome back to Democracy Now! Why don’t you lay out what came down on Friday and then the response of Trump? I mean, this is in the midst of the horror that took place in Florida, the 17 people killed in the massacre at the high school. The weekend, President Trump spends, in a massive tweetstorm around this, hardly mentioning the massacre.

MARCY WHEELER: Right. So, the indictment was for online trolling done by an organization called the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. And it involves both Facebook ads, Facebook posts, Twitter accounts, Instagram—a range of social media activity that purported to be American, but in fact was Russians trying to gin up bad blood here in the United States and ultimately supporting Donald Trump. As Rosenstein said in the quote you had, it’s 13 Russians and a number of Russian businesses.

But what is interesting about the case, that the charges are conspiracy to defraud the United States—and I’ll come back to that—but then wire fraud and identity theft. So, there are real crimes here, the crimes that these trolls used to pretend to be American but weren’t really American. But what Mueller actually laid out in the indictment is that the problem with this is that in the United States it’s illegal to engage in certain kinds of activity without making it clear who’s behind the activity. And in this case, this is the activity tied to electing one or another presidential candidate. And that’s how he got to the conspiracy to defraud the United States charge, which is interesting because it’s the same primary charge that Paul Manafort and Rick Gates got charged with.

So you’re beginning to see where Mueller is going with the larger investigation. And as McMaster said, you’re seeing now real evidence tied to claims that Russia was behind this activity. And I think you’ll see more Republicans like him, and even Republicans who were involved. I mean, the indictment doesn’t charge any Americans, but it lays out activities that a lot of good-faith Trump volunteers and campaign workers were engaged in. And their actions are perhaps now tainted or got touched or got spun by Russians, which, you know, isn’t fair to them, much less Hillary Clinton, who was—you know, who was ultimately targeted by it. So, I think you’re going to see a change in how, especially Republicans, but even skeptics, more generally, how they approach this issue. But we also now, I think, see where Mueller is going with the rest of the investigation better.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Marcy, what do you make about the statement by Rod Rosenstein that no Americans willingly participated, according to this indictment, and that there’s no evidence that the alleged interference actually altered the election outcome?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, for one, I’m sure he said that to keep Trump happy and keep himself in his job. But I think it’s actually really important he said that. As I said, you can look at the indictment—and I do this in a post I did on Saturday—and there are at least 20 Americans who were just engaging in politics. They were putting together campaign events. They were engaging in online speech. That’s like, you know, the most sacred part of being an American citizen. And yet, they were unknowingly interacting with Russians, who were trying to and, at times, actually funding or encouraging certain activities.

So, I do think it’s important—he didn’t say no Americans were involved. There are ways in which the indictment suggests certain events may show up later in the investigation. For example, the indictment focuses on two events, a pro-Hillary—an anti-Hillary and pro-Trump event, that took place in the summer of 2016, and it focuses on a great deal of Florida activity. The Florida activity is of particular interest because the Guccifer 2.0, who’s the persona that is believed to have been used by the Russians to leak stolen documents, that figure released a ton of documents on—from the Democrats on Florida campaigns. So, Florida Republicans are actually the ones who most concretely can be shown to have benefited from the stolen documents from the Democrats. So, it may be that we’re going to see the Florida activity tied back in to the actual hack and leak later on. But what Rosenstein was importantly saying is that all of these Americans—most of them named in the indictment were Trump supporters—they didn’t do anything wrong. They were just engaging in politics, and Russians came in and used them, basically, to kind of turn their politics into something that it wasn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the key here—and Rosenstein said it, Trump said it throughout the weekend—is that this didn’t prove any kind of collusion. But Rosenstein said this. This is separate from it. It has to do with Russians interfering with the elections—something the U.S. government knows well about over the decades—right?—in being involved with interfering with other countries’ elections. But can you talk about what happened in Florida, for example, the protests? And also, describe this internet troll farm in St. Petersburg and how it operates.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, I mean, Amy, you make a good point, that the indictment calls this information “warfare.” It says that the troll farm considered themselves to be engaged in information warfare. But sure, we do that, absolutely. And so, one of the questions is, you know: Where are the lines going to be drawn? What are the norms? But, basically, these are people in St. Petersburg who were fluent English speakers, who were paid to engage in certain themes, use fake Twitter accounts, basically, to engage in certain themes and kind of just press the limits of certain partisan divides that already exist here, and not just partisan divides. They were also playing on religion and race, guns. So, they were basically paid to rile up Americans even further than our politics already do. Although I’ll also say that all sides engaged in similar kind of behavior in 2016. I mean, campaigns do this, as well. Campaigns even had bots. The difference here, according to the indictment, is that these bots were hiding the fact that it was a Russian effort, whereas, you know, Hillary or Trump bots were claiming correctly to be Hillary or Trump bots.

One of the most interesting things about the indictment is it describes how much, how well these trolls were able to get actual people here in the United States to go out and, say, pay an actress to pretend to be Hillary Clinton, and pay somebody to build a cage, so that they could, you know, drag around a fake Hillary Clinton in a fake cage to play on the theme of Hillary going to prison. So, that’s the sort of alarming thing, is that from St. Petersburg, they were able to get actual campaign events put together by pretending to be Americans. And I think, again, none of this—none of the American side of this was charged. And the people described in the indictment probably—you know, they were just engaging in good-faith politics. Whether or not I agree with their politics, they were just doing what we’re supposed to do in the United States, which is engage in politics. But we do know, as I said, that the Guccifer 2.0 figure leaked a bunch of Democratic targeting data on the Florida races, and so that state is one to watch, and those events are ones to watch, I think.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Marcy, could you talk about this now L.A. Times report that Rick Gates, the former aide to Trump’s presidential campaign, is expected to plead guilty and testify against Paul Manafort? What’s the significance of this, potentially?

MARCY WHEELER: Well, it’s another cooperating witness there. With the Internet Research Agency indictment on Friday, there actually was not another guilty plea that was announced, for a guy who had sold bank accounts that the trolls used to set up PayPal accounts. So, Gates, if he does flip, will be the fourth cooperating witness for Mueller. He is important because he was Paul Manafort, campaign manager’s deputy throughout the summer of 2016, which is when—Gates was not at the June 9th meeting, where Russians sort of promised to sell—to offer dirt on Hillary Clinton. But Gates was, for example, in the loop on discussions about setting up a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin. Manafort forwarded him an email and said, “We need to kind of hide—we need to not signal”—it’s unclear what that means. Gates probably knows what that means. But “we need to not signal on this.”

And so, you know, the public report in the L.A. Times is that Gates will be testifying predominately against Manafort, not against Trump. But I’m a little bit skeptical of that, one, because Gates was very much in the loop throughout the summer, and, two, because Gates stayed on. He was still working in the transition team all the way through the inauguration. So, I suspect Gates has more to tell the Mueller team than the L.A. Times piece makes out. And it just adds to the pressure. You get the feeling—and Trump has even said as much. Trump, a couple of weeks ago, said to Howard Fineman that he doesn’t think Manafort will flip on him, and so he thinks he’s OK. But with Gates flipping and cooperating with the Mueller team, it makes it far more likely that Manafort is going to be forced to do so. And that gets into things like that June 9th meeting.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcy Wheeler, I wanted to get your response to The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald, who wrote a piece, “A Consensus Emerges: Russia Committed an ’Act of War' on Par with Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Should the U.S. Response Be Similar?” He writes, “All of this underscores the serious dangers many have pointed to for more than a year about why all this unhinged rhetoric is so alarming. If you really believe that Russia—with some phishing links sent to John Podesta and some fake Facebook ads and Twitter bots—committed an 'act of war' of any kind, let alone one on par with Pearl Harbor and 9/11, then it’s inevitable that extreme retaliatory measures will be considered and likely triggered. How does one justify a mere imposition of sanctions in the face of an attack similar to Pearl Harbor or 9/11?” That’s the question of Glenn Greenwald, Marcy.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, so, with the trolling, let’s be really clear that while Russia did spend a lot of money to do this, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what either side, the Republicans or Hillary Clinton, spent to do the same kind of activity. So, it could have made the difference in Michigan—I’m in Michigan. It could have made the difference here, in Wisconsin. But it is not—it is a drop in the bucket compared to the kinds of activities that go on in a political campaign.

We don’t know what else Mueller is going to show. We don’t know what kinds of quid pro quo, if in fact that happened. I always raise the fact that the Shadow Brokers, these leaked NSA files that were closely associated with all this, if that’s shown to be part of this same operation, that’s a great deal of damage to the United States.

That said, the trolling—you and I already said this. This is stuff the United States engages in all the time. It’s considered fair game for intelligence agencies. Even stealing hacking tools, fair game for intelligence agencies. Hacking political candidates, the United States does that, as well.

So, I do think we need to ask about what the appropriate response to this is. But part of that is understanding precisely what happened. And part of it is understanding what the best response is to prevent it from happening. I mean, one of the reasons Putin did this is because of the sanction regime put in place, because of what he perceives as the same kind of activity in 2011 and 2012 in elections in Russia. So, is more of the same going to—

AMY GOODMAN: He felt that Hillary Clinton supported protests against him.

MARCY WHEELER: Precisely, and with the same kind of online activity and the same—I mean, we call it “democracy promotion,” but it uses some of the same kind of tactics as these troll farms used on us. And, you know, the more important question is: Is the issue keeping America safe and free from foreign intervention, or is it needing to retaliate against Putin? And, you know, that may not be a binary choice. But, you know, it seems like this was a pretty remarkable attempt to interfere with the United States. The question is: What is the best response the United States can make, going forward, to prevent it from happening in the future? Is ratcheting up the pressure the thing to do, or is making ourselves resilient, is fixing our own politics? Which is really what Russia did, is they exploited both divisions within our own country, but also how easy it is to get money into our own politics or to have outsiders interfere in our own politics. We’ll be better off fixing that, fixing our politics, rather than ratcheting up again against Russia. And, I mean, I hope that we have a real debate about this, going forward, but people should not dismiss Glenn’s concerns out of hand.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Marcy, could you give us a quick take on this latest report from CNN, that Mueller is now looking into Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and possible negotiations he had with foreign entities about business deals for his company during the transition period? Is this going somewhat far afield from Mueller’s mandate?

MARCY WHEELER: I don’t think so, and here’s why. I said that the main charge in the Internet Research Agency was conspiracy to defraud the United States by basically pretending to be something you’re not, by pretending to be engaged in good-faith politics when you weren’t. That’s actually the same charge that Paul Manafort and Rick Gates are facing. They are pretending, according to Mueller, to be engaged in lobbying for American interests, when in fact they were representing the interests of pro-Russian Ukrainian political party. So, exact parallel there. The idea is that Paul Manafort was engaging in politics and pretending to be interested in the United States’ best interest, but in fact doing the bidding of pro-Russian money.

What you, I think—the reason why Kushner’s business deals are important, we’ve talked—and in the intro, this wasn’t the only example of—there’s the Don Jr. We’ve talked about how poorly Trump’s people have separated his business interests from the interests of the country. The same is even more true for Jared Kushner, whose family business is basically bankrupt. And over and over again, he’s been shown to be in negotiations with entities, including Russians, but also Chinese and Middle Eastern. So, you know, he’ll go in and say, “OK, we’ll talk about this grand peace plan,” which is not about peace at all, “but, oh, by the way, can you bail out our 666 Park Avenue building, which is badly underwater?” And I think Mueller could make the same argument he’s made with the IRA indictment and the Manafort indictment, and say that Jared Kushner is pretending to be serving America’s foreign policy interests, but in fact he is just doing his own bidding. He’s just trying to bail out his own company. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s moving towards a very similar indictment on conspiracy to defraud the United States, having to do with his conflicts of interest.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, interesting that Kushner also hasn’t managed to get top security clearance, when he’s a senior adviser to President Trump, as Porter didn’t because he beat his wives, etc. And then you’ve got Donald Jr. now in India promoting Trump businesses, as, of course, Donald Trump is the president of the United States. And he’s standing with the prime minister of India as he does this, promoting the Trump brand, Marcy.

MARCY WHEELER: Exactly. I mean, if Trump and his son and his son-in-law are pretending to be doing the business of the United States but are instead just trying to enrich themselves, again, I don’t think it’s a—you know, we’ve talked about the Emoluments Clause and how you go after the Trump campaign—the Trump officials for their egregious conflicts of interest. And, frankly, it extends into his Cabinet. But what Mueller seems to be doing, with some very good appellate lawyers, by the way, is to be laying out this framework that if you are pretending to be doing something in the interest of the United States but are actually doing something else, serving somebody else’s bidding, whether it’s Russia, pro-Russian Ukrainian political party, or whether it’s your own family business, then they’re going to go after you for a conspiracy charge. And I wouldn’t be surprised if these conspiracy charges all kind of link up at the end, in this kind of grand moment of—I think that’s where he’s headed.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcy Wheeler, I want to thank you for being with us, independent journalist covering national security and civil liberties issues for EmptyWheel.net. We’ll link to your piece, “What Did Mueller Achieve with the Internet Research Agency Indictment?”

This is Democracy Now! When we return, we speak with economist Robert Reich, former labor secretary under President Clinton. He has a new book; it’s called The Common Good. Stay with us.

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