"The constellation of Russian connections circling around Planet Trump is quite extraordinary," says Guardian reporter Luke Harding. His new book is Collusion.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new book "Collusion" is about what the author, my guest Luke Harding, says appears to be an emerging pattern of collusion between Russia, Donald Trump and his campaign. Harding also writes about how Russia appears to have started cultivating Trump back in 1987. The book is based on original reporting as well as on the Trump-Russia dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Harding met with Steele twice, once before and once after the dossier became public. Harding had a lot of good contacts to draw on for this book because he spent four years as the Moscow bureau chief for the British newspaper The Guardian. During that time, the Kremlin didn't like some of the stories Harding was investigating, and in 2011, he was expelled. In Moscow, he learned a lot about Russian espionage partly through his own experience of being spied on and harassed.
Harding is now a foreign correspondent for The Guardian. He's also the author of books about WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who fled to England, passed information to British intelligence about links between the Kremlin and the Russian mafia and then was assassinated with polonium-spiked tea.
Luke Harding, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So the dossier said that the Russian regime had been cultivating, supporting and assisting Donald Trump for at least five years with the goal of encouraging splits and divisions in the Western alliance. You write that the Russians had their eyes on Donald Trump as early as the 1970s when he married Ivana Trump, who is from Czechoslovakia. Why were they keeping an eye on him in the '70s? What were they looking for?
LUKE HARDING: Well, the KGB really forever has been interested in cultivating people, actually, who might be useful contacts for them, identifying targets for possible recruitments possibly to be agents. That's not saying that Donald Trump is an agent, but the point is that he would have been on their radar certainly by 1977 when he married Ivana, who came from Czechoslovakia, a kind of communist Eastern bloc country. And we know from Czechoslovak spy records de-classified last year that the spy agencies were in contact with Ivana's father, that they kept an eye on the Trumps in Manhattan throughout the 1980s. And we also know, from defectors and other sources, that whatever Prague learned, communist Prague, would have been funneled to the big guys in Moscow, to the KGB. So there would have been a file on Donald Trump.
But I think what's kind of interesting about this story, if you understand the kind of Russian espionage background, is Trump's first visit to Soviet Moscow in 1987. He went with Ivana. He writes about it in "The Art Of The Deal," his best-selling memoir. He talks about getting an invitation from the Soviet government to go over there. And he makes it seem kind of rather casual. But what I discovered from my research is that there was actually a concerted effort by the Soviet government via the ambassador at the time, who was newly arrived, a guy called Yuri Dubinin, to kind of charm Trump, to flatter him, to woo him almost. And Dubinin's daughter, sort of who was part of this process, said that the ambassador rushed up to the top of Trump Tower, basically kind of breezed into Trump's office and he melted. That's the verb she used. He melted.
GROSS: That Trump melted when he was flattered.
HARDING: Yeah. That Trump melted with this kind of flattery. And several months later, he gets an invitation to go on an all-expenses-paid trip behind the Iron Curtain to Soviet Moscow. Now, a couple of things which were important here. One of them is that his trip was arranged by Intourist, which is the Soviet travel agency. Now, I've talked to defectors and others who say - this is actually fairly well-known - that Intourist is basically the KGB. It was the organization which monitored foreigners going into the Soviet Union and kept an eye on them when they were there. So kind of he went with KGB travel. Now, according to "The Art Of The Deal," he met various Soviet officials there. Who they were, we don't know. But what we can say with certainty is that his hotel, just off Red Square, the National Hotel, would have been bugged, that there was already a kind of dossier on Trump. And this would have been supplemented with whatever was picked up from encounters with him, from intercept, from his hotel room.
You know, we can't say that Trump was recruited in 1987. But what we can say with absolute certainty is there was a very determined effort by the Soviets to bring him over, and that moreover, his personality was the kind of thing they were looking for. They were looking for narcissists. They were looking for people who were kind of - dare I say it - corruptible, interested in money, people who were not necessarily faithful in their marriages and also sort of opportunists who were not very strong analysts or principle people. And if you work your way down the list through these sort of - the KGB's personality questionnaire, Donald Trump ticks every single box.
GROSS: So during this period when Trump is talking with Dubinin, the Soviet ambassador to the U.S., Dubinin suggested joint venture to do a Trump Hotel in Moscow. So that hotel never happens, but why of all the developers in the U.S. would they ask Trump?
HARDING: There was no randomness about this. I mean, we know from Dubinin's daughters that they picked on Trump. And there's a kind of curious coda to this, which is, two months after his trip - actually, less than two months, he comes back from Moscow and, having previously shown very little interest in foreign policy, he takes out these full-page advertisements in The Washington Post and a couple of other U.S. newspapers basically criticizing Ronald Reagan and criticizing Reagan's foreign policy. Now, Trump is many things, but he is not an expert on international affairs, and this is curious. I mean, it may not be conspiratorial, but nonetheless there he is criticizing Reagan, who was very much an enemy of the Soviet Union. They regarded him as a hawk and a hardliner and a bitter adversary. And guess what? He also says that he's thinking about politics, not as a senator or as a mayor, but he actually goes to New Hampshire and he actively floats the idea of running for president. It doesn't happen then. But this is in his head. This is a strategic thought he has after his Moscow trip.
GROSS: So the Russian cultivation of Donald Trump, you say, resumes in 2008 when Trump is a birther. What is this resumption of cultivation? What did that look like?
HARDING: If you believe the dossier by Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer, which I do broadly with some caveats, then at this point someone inside the Kremlin decided that Trump could be of use. And what began was a sort of transactional relationship where Trump was feeding to Moscow, according to Steele, details of Russian oligarchs living in the U.S. who have property or assets or business ventures in the United States, and in return he was getting kind of politically useful stuff. Now, just to explain, the thing is about Putin is that he is deeply paranoid. He's conspiratorial. He doesn't really trust anybody - maybe his family, his dog, a few people. But basically he's intensely suspicious. And so any Russian who travels regularly to the United States or builds property there or invests in Silicon Valley, he wants to know what's going on and so do his spy services. So this, at least according to Steele, is what Trump's people may have been supplying.
Now, of course they deny all this, but it's interesting when sort of Donald Trump says, when he tweeted out famously, I've got no loans with Russia, no deals, nothing. Well, that's kind of formally true. Actually, Trump's multiple attempts to do business in Russia failed. I mean, they kind of blew away with the wind. But what one can say with certainty is that over a long period of time, there's been plenty of Russian money going from Moscow into Trump properties, some of them in Trump Tower. There were Mafia guys staying there in the 1980s, for example, who were subsequently convicted and went to federal jail. And also into sort of Trump-branded resorts later on in Florida and elsewhere. And there's a pattern.
GROSS: In 2013, Trump holds the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, where it's sponsored by the oligarch Agalarov. By this time you say the Kremlin was actively cultivating Trump. Is the Miss Universe pageant being held in Moscow part of the cultivation, do you think?
HARDING: That's a really interesting question. As always in Russia, quite often it's about politics and it's about money. And the money is often even more important than the politics. But clearly Aras Agalarov was keen to promote himself. But I've met him. He's rather a charming guy. I interviewed him. But also he has a sort of pop star son called Emin. And by bringing the Miss Universe contest to Moscow, several happy things happened. First of all, Trump came over, which I think, if you believe the Christopher Steele dossier, which I broadly do, was good for the Kremlin that there was Trump in Moscow, plenty of opportunities to interact with him. Also good for Emin's pop career because he was singing before a global audience. He's a nice guy, but, I think, a somewhat kind of mediocre singer, but there was massive TV exposure. And most of all, of course, this trip was of interest to the FSB, the Russian spy agency.
Now, the dossier says that Trump was recorded in the suite at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, a suite that Obama had stayed in and he watched this kind of famous, exotic show, if you can quote it like that. Now, I don't know if that's correct. Trump denies it. But what I can say with absolute certainty is that the Trump suite would have been bugged. It wouldn't have been bugged for everybody, but obviously they were interested in him, and there will be a tape. I mean, it may just show Trump going to bed early reading a novel. I don't know. Or it may show something else. But that there will have been technical surveillance of Trump is absolutely guaranteed.
I mean, the other interesting thing is that Aras Agalarov, who hosted him, is - he's the sort of perfect companion. He's smart, he speaks English brilliantly, he's quite charming. He drove me around, one day, this estate that he built on the outskirts of Moscow for the super rich where houses cost $25 million. And we were trundling along in his kind of blue, English Jeep with the bodyguards respectfully rolling behind us in a Mercedes about 200 meters away. And he sort of told me his vision. He told me that he was inspired by America, by some of the developments he's seen there, but that ultimately he was a Russian patriot and he couldn't live in America even though his daughter was there studying and his wife was there quite a lot. He felt his home was in Russia. And I think that's all kind of quite revealing. So he has all these billions. He's a developer like Trump, but he also knows, as an oligarch, that if the state calls on him to do something then he has to do it, and he has to do it well.
GROSS: Well, there's people connected to Agalarov who figure into the campaign story, and here's an example. Agalarov's publicist, Rob Goldstone, who's British, enters into a key part of the campaign story involving the Trump campaign links to Russia. He sends a now-famous email to Don Junior explaining that there's an offer to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary, and Don Junior responds that he's on the road, he can't meet right away but, quote, "if what you say is true, I love it. Could we do a call first thing next week?" So connect the dots for us between Goldstone being Agalarov's publicist and Goldstone being the person who conveys this information about Russia having incriminating information about Hillary.
HARDING: Yeah. I mean, I think the whole Goldstone story is fascinating. It's also faintly embarrassing. Now, I speak as a sort of fellow Brit (laughter). This kind of joking British press, and he clowns around all the time, seems to be in the middle of this story. But what you have to understand, again, is that Putin is not going to do things in a kind of linear way. There are going to be kind of intermediaries, and Goldstone's the perfect intermediary. He and Emin know Trump. They've been to Trump Tower. There are lots of Instagram photos of them all together having dinner, relaxed, chatting and so on. And at some point, he gets a message from the Agalarovs that the prosecutor general of Russia - and this is how the email goes - has got some incriminating material on the Hillary which they would like to share as part of the Russian government's support for Donald Trump and his campaign. It's absolutely explicit.
And so Goldstone gets in touch with Trump Junior, sends these emails which we've now seen, and the meeting happens. Now, the fact is that actually, the lawyer who flies from Moscow to Trump Tower in the summer of 2016, now-famous Natalia Veselnitskaya, she doesn't bring the emails that perhaps the Trump campaign might have hoped for. She brings something else. But nonetheless, this is a story about intent. Trump Junior took the meeting. He could have rung the FBI and said, look, I'm being approached by these kind of dodgy Russians. What do you advise? But he took the meeting, and then he concealed it afterwards for almost a year. If that's not collusion, what is collusion?
GROSS: And another connection between the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, in which Trump partners with the Russian oligarch Agas Agalarov, Agalarov's lawyer is Natalia Veselnitskaya, who ends up meeting with Don Junior and Jared Kushner, and she was working to end U.S. sanctions against Russia. So you have the Rob Goldstone link to the Miss Universe pageant, you have the Veselnitskaya link to the oligarch who partnered with Trump on the Miss Universe pageant. So we don't know anything for sure, but it's just interesting to look at these connections.
HARDING: Yeah. And, Terry, what you also have to understand is that Putin has a kind of very clear goal here. He's got a clear political goal, which is to get the United States to lift sanctions which were imposed by the Obama administration on Russia in 2014, after the war in Ukraine and after Putin basically stole Crimea using kind of military force. And the thing is, sort of sanctions play into the Russian domestic political conversation because despite what state TV says there they have had an overwhelmingly negative effect on the economy. People have felt them, they're fantastically irritated. Putin's kind of oligarchic inner circle, many of whom are now sanctioned. They can't travel to the U.S., they can't travel to the European Union. They can no longer access their yachts in the Mediterranean or their wine cellars in Switzerland. They see this as an affront and an indignity. And so Putin really wants to get rid of sanctions. And really, he viewed Trump as the best vehicle for doing that because Trump kept on saying let's be friends with Russia. Meanwhile, we know that secretly his aides were emailing the Kremlin, asking for assistance with building a hotel in Trump Tower. And then of course, Trump wins, to Putin's surprise. But the problem is that the Russia story becomes such a kind of billowing scandal that Trump is no longer kind of politically able to deliver an end to sanctions.
And I think what's interesting about this that sort of speaks to a bigger truth, if you like, is that actually, I think - without exaggeration - I think on one level what happened in 2016 in America was what you might consider to be the greatest espionage operation ever by the Russian side. Which is not to say that the tens of millions of people who voted for Donald Trump didn't do so sincerely because of course they did, but that actually, Russia possibly successfully pushed Trump across the line. So that was a sort of tactical triumph for Putin. But in other respects, it was a strategic failure because actually sanctions are still in place. It's now impossible for Donald Trump to lift them. And I think what it shows is that the problem with the way the Kremlin thinks about the world is that it imagines other countries to be rather like Russia. It doesn't understand American institutional politics. It doesn't understand Congress. It doesn't understand there's a sort of free and vigorous media despite everything. And on this occasion, it kind of got everything, but the big prize has therefore eluded it.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Luke Harding. He's a reporter for The Guardian and author of the new book, "Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, And How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Luke Harding, reporter for The Guardian. He was the paper's Moscow bureau chief from 2007 to 2011. His new book is called "Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, And How Russia Helped Trump Win" (ph). It's based on the Russian dossier, his own research into the Panama and Paradise papers and other original reporting, including two meetings with Christopher Steele, who compiled the dossier.
OK. So another story about Donald Trump's connection to Russia - in this case, a Russian oligarch - so this is the story of a Trump mansion that Trump bought in Florida for $41 million, and a few years later, sold it for about twice that amount to Dmitry Rybolovlev. You're going to have to say it. I can't get it right.
HARDING: Rybolovlev - Dmitry Rybolovlev.
GROSS: Rybolovlev, OK.
GROSS: And Rybolovlev never used the mansion and later sold it. Is the implication that this purchase by the Russian oligarch might've been for money laundering purposes?
HARDING: You're right. It was a kind of seaside mansion bought by Trump in 2004 and then sold by him for $95 million at the height of the financial crash and giving him a profit of about $50 million. And I've tried to interview Rybolovlev. He won't meet with me, but I've talked to his press guy and - who says that Rybolovlev basically donned a pair of swimming trunks and never set foot in the mansion but kind of paddled along the territory and saw it from afar, decided to buy it.
When he did buy it, he realized it had a mold problem. He never, ever lived there. He demolished it, and it seems a kind of pretty disastrous piece of real estate acquisition, but one that massively enriched Trump. Now, his press guy says, nothing to see here, this was a reasonable investment, you guys are all conspiracy theorists. But it's very strange.
GROSS: So Rybolovlev, the oligarch we are talking about, is connected to President Trump's Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. And they're connected through the Bank of Cyprus. So Bank of Cyprus is apparently a bank known for enabling money laundering. Is that accurate?
HARDING: Yeah, yeah, that's accurate.
GROSS: And so Wilbur Ross in 2014 became this bank's chief shareholder, and Rybolovlev owns - what? - 10 percent of that bank.
HARDING: Less now, but he did.
GROSS: OK. So what's - tell us about that connection between Rybolovlev and Wilbur Ross.
HARDING: So Cyprus is a kind of Mediterranean island that is a kind of major offshore node both in this story and in other Russia stories. Essentially, any self-respecting oligarch doesn't keep his money inside Russia but offshores it. And Cyprus is the most kind of logical destination. One of the people who did this was Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian oligarch who bought Trump's mansion. He got Cyprus citizenship along the way.
But where the story gets interesting is, one of his sort of investment partners in the Bank of Cyprus was Wilbur Ross, the future commerce secretary. And again, Rybolovlev says he doesn't know Ross, that there's nothing really special going on here apart from the fact that one of the other shareholders is a former KGB guy. And this is the thing with the kind of Trump-Russia story - that wherever you look, all of the people in Trump's government, especially in its early stages, have a kind of Russia connection.
I mean, it's - obviously, Trump did the picking, but it's almost as if Putin had the kind of last word because we've got Wilbur Ross, who as well as the Bank of Cyprus, we now know was doing business of our shipping company with Vladimir Putin's son-in-law. We have Michael Flynn, whose woes are well-known, but clearly, was taking money from Russia Today, the Kremlin propaganda channel, and other Russian interests and not declaring it. Then we have Rex Tillerson. I mean, he was a famous oil guy. I used to write about him in Moscow, and he got this Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin - sort of a sky blue ribbon pinned to his chest. And he pops up as U.S. secretary of state almost from nowhere.
And so we go down the list, whether it's from policy aids like Carter Page or George Papadopoulos, who's pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, or Trump associates like Felix Sater, longtime business pal, or Michael Cohen, the personal lawyer, who's married to a Ukrainian. I mean, the sort of constellation of Russian connections circling around planet Trump is just quite extraordinary. And I think this, more than anything else, is what Mueller is now looking at.
GROSS: So another thing about Rybolovlev, the Russian oligarch we're talking about - he's the one who sold the da Vinci a few days ago for about $450 million.
HARDING: He is. He's a kind of major art investor. He had da Vincis. He had Modiglianis. He had Rothkos. He kind of had everything - Picassos - but then he went through a very bitter divorce with his Russian wife, and a lot of the stuff got carved up. And, of course, the da Vinci got sold. But to whom it got sold, we don't know.
GROSS: My guest is Luke Harding, author of the new book "Collusion." We'll talk more after a break. And David Edelstein will review the new film "Call Me By Your Name." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Luke Harding, author of the new book "Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money And How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win." It's based on original reporting as well as on the Russia-Trump dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Harding is a foreign correspondent for the Guardian and its former Moscow bureau chief.
So let's talk a little bit about Paul Manafort, who before he became Donald Trump's campaign chair, worked for Viktor Yanukovych, who was the Russian-connected head of Ukraine who was not democratic, was forced out of the country. And it was after that Ukraine - that Russia sent troops into Ukraine. So Manafort had signed a $10 million annual contract with Oleg Deripaska. Who is Deripaska? And why is that contract significant?
HARDING: Well, Deripaska - I met him in Moscow. He's a terrifically rich, terrifically powerful oligarch, one of the sort of top five, 10 oligarchs in the country who, of course, is close to Vladimir Putin. You don't get to be a multibillionaire in charge of kind of the aluminum industry without being politically impeccably connected. And we didn't know this until relatively recently, but Manafort was brought in to basically advise the - Russia on how to kind of improve its image.
So he started kind of working in this world, and quickly, some news spread that he was actually a very talented operator and political technologist. And around about sort of 2004, '05, he starts working for Viktor Yanukovych, who - made Yanukovych. I mean, he's a former sort of Soviet hooligan who did time in jail for petty theft, who Manafort basically reinvested - reinvented as a kind of reformer and a statesman and a Democrat.
This, at least, is what Manafort told me in 2008 when I met him in Kiev, in Ukraine's capital. And he was responsible for this astonishing makeover. And the thing is, it sort of worked. It was like kind of what happened to sort of Trump. I mean, Yanukovych was the guy before Trump, if you like, because Manafort told me that, OK, so he came from the Soviet Union, OK, so some of his sort of - some things he did in the past were pretty unsavory; but actually, now this was a good guy looking to the West, looking to America and so on.
And Manafort actually was instrumental in getting Yanukovych elected president in 2010, an election I covered. And within months, he had locked up the opposition leader, a woman called Yulia Tymoshenko. He kind of basically suborned parliament, squashed the press, which was kind of more plural than Russia's, and had kind of pushed the country towards a sort of authoritarian direction. And in fact, everything that Manafort told me turned out to be lies he must surely have known. But he was supremely well-rewarded for these efforts.
We think he - from the indictment by Robert Mueller, he must have made at least $75 million from his work in Ukraine. And he spent a decade in that part of the world. He doesn't speak Russian. He had an interpreter. But he was mingling with people at the top of Russian and Ukrainian power. And from this job - there's a interval of a matter of weeks - he goes straight to the Trump campaign, offers his services, allegedly free, and is advising Donald Trump on how to be president.
GROSS: Right. But you say allegedly free. Apparently, Manafort said, I will do this without pay, which is a very unusual offer.
HARDING: Well, I mean, if you're getting $75 million from Russian and Ukrainian interests, then perhaps you can afford to work for free (laughter).
GROSS: That - right. Right.
HARDING: I mean, so - but, I mean, it's a very kind of curious leap from one to the other.
GROSS: So let's get back to Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire oligarch who helped pay Manafort for services in Ukraine. Manafort sent a message during the campaign to Deripaska saying that he was willing to give Deripaska the inside track on Trump's election campaign and that he could set up briefings with Deripaska. The briefings never happened, but again, like, what's your understanding of that communication?
HARDING: Well, I mean, I think this is a kind of remarkable email because if you have a conversation with Oleg Deripaska, essentially, you're having a conversation with Vladimir Putin because Deripaska and Putin, they are - they're close. I mean, they are - I mean, you could say they're comrades, but they're part of the same network, the same octopus, if you like. It's just, Deripaska is one tentacle.
And so essentially, what Manafort was offering was - offering to brief the Kremlin on how the campaign was going - presumably, how they felt, what was going well, what was going badly. But bear in mind, this is in the context of an election where Russia has hacked tens of thousands of Democratic Party emails and we think - U.S. intelligence agencies believe - Republican emails, as well. But it was only leaking the Democratic Party emails that damaged Hillary Clinton. And additionally, the Trump team had known this, certainly, since April 2016.
And so this was a highly charged atmosphere where a foreign state is meddling in U.S. politics to help one candidate. Meanwhile, there's a kind of backdoor offer to an oligarch who is someone who can sit and have dinner or a cup of tea with Putin anytime he wishes. And it's curious. There's traffic in both directions. There's - it's more or less as the Steele dossier says, that there's hacked material helpful to Trump coming from Moscow, and in return, there's intelligence being supplied or at least offered by Trump's campaign manager directly into the heart of the Moscow regime.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned that after Viktor Yanukovych won the presidency in Ukraine, and his campaign was managed by Paul Manafort, Yanukovych imprisoned his opponent, Tymoshenko. And that seems to be almost like an echo of the Trump campaign - people saying, lock her up, lock her up, about Hillary.
HARDING: Yeah. I mean, there are some astonishing parallels between what happened in Ukraine under Viktor Yanukovych between 2010, let's say, and 2014, when the country kind of fell into war and what's been happening into sort of 2016 and - first of all, this - the lock her up - Yanukovych actually really did lock up Yulia Tymoshenko.
She spent several years in jail. She was persecuted, harassed. And I think Yanukovych's people would say, well, she did bad things. She stole money in the 1990s. Frankly, every Ukrainian politician from the '90s, almost, has stolen money. So it looked very much like a case of selective justice and kind of political repression. And, of course, we had this kind of motif throughout 2016.
I remember vividly watching Michael Flynn addressing the Republican convention in Cleveland, looking really sober and serious, saying, you know, lock her up, lock her up; if I had done the tenth of the things that Hillary had done - well, of course, now we know that Flynn was secretly on Moscow's payroll, hadn't declared that, hadn't declared much else. But first, the desire for vengeance to lock up your particular political opponents is very kind of former Soviet Union. And there are kind of other aspects, as well.
I mean, Yanukovych had a kind of family regime. His son became enormously rich after he became president, worth many hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, I'm not saying that Trump's family have enriched themselves, but certainly, breaking with all precedent, that they play, politically, highly influential roles. Jared Kushner is a senior adviser. Ivanka is a senior adviser and has her father's ear. And this is very much a kind of Eastern, almost Central Asian model of that kind that America has never seen before. It's quite astonishing.
And just the last similarity, I think, is sort of fake news. I mean, that's Donald Trump's favorite phrase, but it's - there's a kind of echo chamber here between Moscow and Washington, and Washington and Moscow. The Kremlin, well before Donald Trump got in in the act, dismissed any criticism of what it did or its human rights record as fake - as fake news, as fictitious. And Donald is doing the same thing.
GROSS: Well, I think this is a good time to take a short break. Let me reintroduce you. My guest is Luke Harding, a reporter for The Guardian and author of the new book "Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, And How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win." Back after a short break, this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us my guest is Luke Harding, a reporter for The Guardian. He was the paper's Moscow bureau chief from 2007 to 2011. His new book is called "Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, And How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win." It's based on the Russian dossier, his research into the Panama and Paradise Papers, and other original reporting, including Harding's two meetings with Christopher Steele, who compiled the dossier.
So Manafort has been indicted on money laundering charges. Can you give us a brief idea of what those money laundering charges are about?
HARDING: Well, the charge sheet against Manafort is pretty long. It also includes charges against his longtime associate, Rick Gates, whom I met in Kiev, Ukraine's capital, around about the same time, about 2008. And essentially, they were - the allegation goes that they were taking money from Ukrainians, from the Party of Regions, which was the political party of Viktor Yanukovych, the then-prime minister and president. And they were processing very large sums through a whole series of anonymous bank accounts - some in Cyprus, some in the British Virgin Islands, some in the Grenadines. They weren't paying taxes.
And moreover, they were running a very extensive under-the-table lobbying operation in America which was designed to get visas for people from the ruling - Ukraine government's kind of inner circle to promote their image in the U.S., and also to kind of deflect criticism of this Ukrainian regime from people who were upset about the fact that Yanukovych had jailed Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition leader.
So it was a kind of - it was a sort of clever arm's length campaign. Now, Manafort denies any wrongdoing, but I think the evidence overwhelmingly suggests, according to Mueller, that that's precisely what he did.
GROSS: Now, Manafort had or has - I'm not sure which - three properties in New York City, one of which was in Trump Tower. And is that significant?
HARDING: Well, I mean, not everyone gets to live in Trump Tower. It doesn't necessarily have to be significant. But again, if you look at the pattern of what Manafort did with real estate, he - it was rather curious. He bought these properties using cash, often via offshore vehicles. And then as soon as he'd acquired them he remortgaged them and took out very large loans against their values.
So the money coming offshore went into a brownstone in Brooklyn or an apartment in SoHo and then came out as a kind of bank loan. Now, again, we have to be clear Manafort denies any wrongdoing. But this looks like, on the surface, classic money laundering.
GROSS: In investigating Donald Trump's finances, you investigated the bank Deutsche Bank that loaned a lot of money to Donald Trump, and that led to some very interesting territory. Tell us about that bank.
HARDING: Well, Donald Trump's finances, what we know of them, are - it's a pretty kind of combustible story. And if you cast your mind back to the 1990s several Trump ventures - casinos in sum - went bankrupt. And the lenders, the American lenders, banks that used to give him money, refused. And then if you fast-forward to the late '90s, the early '00s, there's one institution prepared to give Donald Trump credit, and that's Deutsche Bank - German bank, German's biggest lender which was going through kind of massive expansion and trying to compete with the big boys on Wall Street.
So nothing wrong there apart from the bank lends Donald Trump about $300 million. He fails to repay a loan in 2008 because of the financial crash. He sues the bank, says he's not going to give them anything. And they file a kind of countersuit, basically, sarcastically quoting back some things that Trump has written in his ghosted autobiographies about stiffing banks, about it's their problem, it's not his problem and so on. They kind of settle their feud. And incredibly, Deutsche Bank continues lending to Trump. Now, I tried to kind of talk to the bank to ask them why they did that. They won't engage or - they won't engage with anyone. They won't tell us or say anything about their lending to Trump, who still owes them about $300 million.
But meanwhile, while money from Deutsche Bank New York is going into the Trump Organization, Deutsche Bank in Moscow is at the center of a massive Russian money laundering operation involving about $10 billion, a rogue American trader called Tim Wiswell who's doing a whole series of kind of basically fictitious trades so that the kind of VIPs in Moscow, Kremlin-connected individuals - we don't know who they are - can take rubles out of Russia and convert them into dollars in the United States. Now, Deutsche Bank has been fined for this. But we have a kind of shuffle of money.
We have money going from New York to Donald Trump. And we have money going from Moscow into Deutsche Bank in New York through this illegal scheme, which has seen Deutsche Bank fined by authorities both in the U.S. and the U.K hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, we cannot say that this Russian money went directly into Trump. I mean, that's - you know, we can't prove that. We don't know that. But what we can say is that the bank that lent to Trump was simultaneously laundering billions and billions and billions of dark Russian cash.
GROSS: How hard was it to find this out?
HARDING: It - Terry, it's been quite a year.
HARDING: It's been quite a lot of work, I mean, on a number of levels. First of all, this book has been secret. It wasn't announced. It wasn't on Amazon. No one knew about it until two weeks ago. We - I have a wonderful publisher called Sonny Mater (ph) who brought everything forward when the Mueller indictments came out. I stayed up all night and I rewrote the epilogue, and the book has been kind of crashed out in record time. And as far as I know, it's the first book on Trump and Russia. So that was one aspect of it. Another was the kind of sleuthing aspect. I mean, I've met a number of sources. Obviously, I met Christopher Steele before his dossier came out. But subsequently, I've kind of cultivated various intelligence contacts in Washington and in London and elsewhere in U.S., including actually in Philadelphia. And I've also had kind of various emails, intriguing messages, sometimes encrypted, from other people on this story who have supplied me information. And so I've built up a kind of network of sources.
But actually, if I'm honest with you, Terry, I mean, this book was quite easy to write because it is such a compelling story. It is like a thriller, but with bizarre elements, but just a kind of relentless plot. And I kind of wrote each chapter as sort of character by character so that there's a chapter on Steele, there's a chapter on Michael Flynn - who jokes to a Russian that he met that he was actually General Misha, which is Russian for Michael - and Paul Manafort, whom I met, and so on. And I - you know, the book, I think, came together in record time.
GROSS: You know, you're right. Initially, Trump was happy to have the Russia investigation deflect attention away from his business dealings in China and other emerging markets because you say, unlike in Russia, these were substantial and involved the payment of large bribes and kickbacks.
HARDING: Well, again, we can't prove this. But this is what the Steele dossier alleges. And it's based on Steele's own secret sources. And by the way, no one knows who they are, these secret sources. But I think one point, which is kind of very important on the sources, is that I've talked to friends of Steele's. And what they point out is that these sources were not new. They're not people that he kind of discovered yesterday. They are trusted contacts who essentially had proven themselves in other areas.
So for example, not many people kind of knew this - this is kind of a new aspect to my book - but Steele wrote more than a hundred reports after 2014 about the war in Ukraine - about what Russia was doing, about its sort of covert movement of tanks and troops, about its sort of strategic objectives. And these were well-received by U.S. intelligence. They were sent up the chain. They were circulated within the State Department. And they were, I was told, read by John Kerry and Victoria Nuland, who was the assistant secretary of state in charge for Europe at the time in the Obama administration.
In other words, the sources who were right on Ukraine were behind the Trump dossier. And the FBI knows that. The U.S. intelligence community knows that. And that's really why they take Steele pretty seriously. I mean, like any intelligence officer, his work is not perfect. He's not infallible. There may be some errors there. But broadly, I think people in British and American intelligence think the dossier is correct, which means that Donald Trump is compromised.
GROSS: Well, Luke Harding, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for your reporting.
HARDING: Thank you, Terry. It was great.
GROSS: Luke Harding is a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and author of the new book "Collusion." After we take a short break, David Edelstein will review the new film "Call Me By Your Name." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE HOLLAND QUINTET'S "NOT FOR NOTHIN'")
Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside The Trump White House (2018) has come late to the scene on Trump exposes. However, it was the fact that Trump, in his mental incapacity and narcissism, did not have the sense to be quite. Censoring-banning books is the best way to insure a "best-seller." However the benefit of Fire and Fury is that it acts as witness to all the information found in all the books written about the invidiousness of Donald J. Trump since 2016. Trump as a bully, a liar, racist, and a man of questionable mental stability who is in sole-charge of the "red phone" that can destroy half of the world. Now he is under investigation by our "national police force," the FBI, for collusion. However, President Trump would say, "I am a businessman. I make deals." And in his deal-making threatens to destroy what has become our post-WWII world order. Slick as shit, one wonders if he will escape this charge too.
COLLUSION the making of an agreement with another for the purposes of perpetrating a fraud, or engaging in illegal activity, or in legal activity while having an illegal end in mind. In divorce law, the term refers to an agreement by husband and wife to suppress facts or fabricate evidence material to the existence of lawful grounds for divorce.
COLLUSIVE ACTION an impermissible action maintained by non-adversary parties to determine a hypothetical point of law, or to produce a desired legal precedent. Such suits will not be entertained in federal courts because the Constitution requires an actual case or controversy. State courts also prohibit collusive actions.
Luke Harding in Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win (2017) proposes how the Trump Revolution occurred. It all begins at the British firm, Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. Obris's website says its website says it's a "leading corporate intelligence consultancy." It adds, vaguely: "We provide senior decision-makers with strategic insight, intelligence and investigative services. We then work with clients to implement strategies which protect their interest worldwide."
Decoded, Orbis is in the non-state spying business. It spies for commercial clients--delving into the secrets of individuals and institutions, governments and international organizations. London is the global capital of private intelligence. "A tough sector," in the words of one former British spy, who worked in it for a year before landing a job with a large corporation. There are more than a dozen such firms, staffed mostly by former intelligence officers specializing in foreign know-how.
The man who runs Orbis is called Christopher Steele. Steele and his business partner, Christopher Burrows, are Obris’s directors. Both are British. Steel is fifty-two; burrows a little older, fifty-eight. Their names don’t appear on Obris’s public material. Nor is there mention of their former careers. A pair of bright younger graduates work alongside of them they form a small team.
Harding posits that in 2016 Orbis was given an explosive assignment--to uncover the Kremlin's innermost secrets with relation to one Donald J. Trump, to unnest them one by one, like so many Russian dolls or matryoshki, until the truth was finally revealed. Its conclusions would shake the American intelligence community and cause a political earthquake not seen since the dark days of President Richard Nixon and Watergate.
Steele's findings were sensational, and the resulting dossier would in effect accuse President-elect Trump of the gravest of crimes: collusion with a foreign power. That power was Russia. The alleged crime--vehemently denied, contested, and in certain key respects un-probable--was treason. The new U.S. president designate was, it was whispered, a traitor.
TREASON the crime of "adhering to the enemy and rendering him aid and comfort." Under the U.S. Constitution, treason may only consist of levying war against the United States or adhering to its enemies and giving them aid and comfort, and a person may only be convicted of treason upon the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act or on a confession in open court. While Congress may punish the person convicted of treason, it may not "work corruption of blood" or forfeiture except during the life of the person attained.
In England, corruption of blood as a punishment for treason resulted in the disinheritance of the convict's children and the forfeiture of the convicted's property to the crown. The U.S. Constitution prohibits this punishment in order to prevent the injustice of innocent children suffering for the offense of their ancestor. Congress has adopted the constitutional definition of treason by making it a crime punishable by death, by imprisonment of not less than five years, and by a prohibition against holding public office.
Harding believes that the year 2016 was an extraordinary historical moment. First, Brexit, Britain's shock decision to leave the European Union, [helped along by Bannon's Breitbart London racist propaganda]. Then, to the surprise and dismay of many Americans--not to mention others around the world--Donald J. Trump was unexpectedly elected that November as the United States' forty-fifth president.
The campaign that got Trump to the White house had been rancorous, divisive, and mean-spirited. Looming above the campaign was the single scarcely believable accusation: a foreign leader traditional seen as an enemy of the United States had secretly helped Trump in his against-the-odds presidential campaign--maybe even nudging him across the line to victory. Trump, went the claim, was the Kremlin's candidate. He was a puppet of Putin, whom top Republicans had previously regarded as a cold-eyed KGB villain--"a murderer and a thug," according to John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona. Someone who wished America ill.
At this point, the accusation of collusion with Moscow stuck for two reasons. First there was Trump's own curious behavior on the campaign trail. Faced with claims that Russia was hacking Democratic emails, and leaking them to damage his rival, Hilary Clinton, Trump publicly urged Moscow to keep going: "Russia, if you're listing, I hope you're able to find the thirty thousand emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let's see if that happens."
As a Clinton aide pointed out, this was a straightforward appeal to a foreign power to commit espionage against a political opponent. Was this Trump opportunism? Or something more coordinated, more sinister?
Few doubted the WikiLeaks June and October 2016 hurt the Democratic candidate. To an unscrupulous adversary like Trump, they were a present, a great gift: an opportunity to grab the media cycle by the neck and to shake home the [Steve Bannon ventriloquism] message of "Crooked Hillary." Also relevant was the fact that Moscow had stolen republican national Committee emails, too. Only it hadn't published them.
Second, how to explain Trump's consistent praise of Putin? After damning Clinton, Obama, the "failing New York Times, the U.S. media in general--his favorite enemy--and Meryl Streep. And others. It was a long list.
Russia's president, by contrast, was lauded as "very smart." Putin was practically
the only person on the planet to escape Trump's sweeping invective, delivered in semi-literate exclamatory style via Twitter, at a time when most sane people were in bed. Trump was willing to verbally assault anyone who queried his behavior--anyone but his friend Putin.
The budding Trump-Putin friendship couldn't merely be explained by personal chemistry; they hadn't--it appeared--met, even though they shared ideological similarities including Christian-inflected white nationalism. Trump didn't praise any other foreign leader in quite the same way. Or as often. His obeisance to Putin would continue even as he ascended to office.
These two issues--the promotion of Russia's hacked emails and the praise of Putin--raised a remarkable question. Had Putin somehow been blackmailing the candidate? If not, how to explain Trump's infatuation? If yes, blackmailing how, exactly? Was it Watergate all over again?
The penetration of the DNC's computer networks, the FBI concluded was simple and inexpensive. It was devastatingly effective. And perhaps proof that America's political systems were more vulnerable to shadowy electronic forces than anyone had thought.
Meanwhile, Trump hadn't exactly helped our efforts to establish the truth. Breaking with all precedent, he refused to disclose his tax returns. His global real estate empire was hidden behind a network of several hundred opaque companies. Visualized as a graphic, Trump's corporate holdings looked like a giant exploding puffball.
Was Trump a multi-billionaire, as he flamboyantly claimed? Or was he in fact broke and over-leveraged, owing large sums of money to banks abroad? What financial ties, if any, did he have to foreign governments? What might be said of his family, in particular the future president's powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner?
Journalists and spies have traditionally viewed each other with suspicion. In some respects, they are engaged in the same trade: cultivating sources, collecting and sifting information, separating fact from fiction. Both write for an audience. A newspaper's audience is anybody with an Internet connection. Spies write for a small official circle, cleared for secrets. Often, the products are the same. The spies have one advantage. They receive material obtained from state eavesdropping and secret sources.
A MEETING WITH STEELE
Harding writes that in December 2016, he and Nick Hopkins, a Guardian colleague, went to see Chris Steele in London to ask him about Trump and the Russian connection. Steele was someone who liked being in the shadows, away from publicity or fuss. In the world of corporate intelligence, the fewer people who knew what you were doing, the better. Invisible was good. Reporters (they knew things, but could be indiscreet and on occasion treacherous) were a necessary evil.
"Have you heard of me?" Steele asked.
"No," Harding replied.
I knew most people in town who were focused on Russia, but not Steele.
"Good," he said. "That how I like it."
Steele's reticence was a matter of professional custom. First he was a former spy. Second, he was bound by the rules of commercial confidentiality. He wasn't going to say anything about his clients. There was no hint he had been involved in what was the single most important investigation in decades. Besides, those who investigated, criticized, or betrayed Putin often met with disastrous ends. One was Alexander Litvinenko, who was murder by the FSB in London.
Not knowing the powder keg Steele was sitting on, we had come to talk to him about the Trump-Russia investigation we were quietly carrying out since the U.S. election. We had two leads. One was intriguing and at this point speculative: that Russia had covertly financed Trump's campaign. We knew much of the alleged details. There was no proof. We had no primary source. If proof did exist, it was well hidden.
The other lead was more solid. We had documentary evidence that high-ranking Russian bureaucrats and well-connected insiders had laundered $20 billion. The scheme was ingenious--its trail involving British lawyers, Moldovan judges, a Latvian bank, and limited companies registered in London. The cash had gone everywhere, some of it through U.S. accounts with banks like JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Most of the beneficiaries remained a mystery.
Cash had been hidden offshore. The scheme had been partly used for political operations abroad. It illustrated the porousness of the U.S. banking system, it pores open to Russian money. And if you could launder money into New York, you could, presumably, spend it on covert hacking. On anything you wished for.
Steele listened more than he talked. He wouldn't confirm that our stories were correct, though he implied we were on the right track.
He offered parallel lines of inquiry.
"You need to look at the contacts for the hotel deals and land deals that Trump did. Checking their values against the money Trump secured via loans," Steel told in interlocutors.
This to them it seemed, was a reference to Trump's former home in Florida. Trump had bought the mansion in 2004 for $41 million. Four years later, he sold it to a Russian oligarch for $95 million. Even allowing for inflation, for the repainting Trump said he'd carried out on the property, for allure of the allure of the Trump brand, and for the whims of a very rich man seeking to invest in the United States, this seemed an extraordinary profit.
"The difference is what's important," Steele said.
Another theme of the election campaign was Trump's relations with women. This had come to the fore after the emergence of a 2005 recording. On it Trump bragged about the privileges of being "a star." One perk: when he met beautiful women he could simply "grab them by the pussy." Trump apologized for this. He insisted the women who alleged sexual harassment were liars--Jezebels motivated not by justice but by politics.
To Harding and Hopkins this was a surprise, Steele implied that Trump and sex was an interesting line of inquiry. He gave no details.
Harding admits that Steele wasn't going to tell us much. Nevertheless, it appeared he might confirm--or trash--information we'd acquired from elsewhere. For an investigative journalist, this was helpful.
After forty-five minutes it was time for Steele to go.
The situation had a distinctly Watergate echo. Our mission was now clear: follow the sex and the money.
Harding and Hopkins parted company with Steele determine to keep their investigation going. Then things got a whole lot bigger.
Two days later, Steele's work would land on President Barack Obama's desk, but its beginnings were decades in the making.
IOWA'S GIFT TO LAW AND DISORDER
Harding writes that Trump continued to brood on the FBI probe. That the matter continued to vex him was evident from his bitter public commentary mostly stating to the media and tweets that the Russia story was a "faux story"--a hoax--a phony story put out by the Democrats. Meanwhile, Comey was preparing to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was May 3 and an annual oversight hearing--and on that would inevitably be dominated by further questions about Russia.
The hearing moved along now-familiar lines--with Republicans keen to chase down who was leaking. Comey was relaxed and authoritative. He batted away some questions by saying he couldn't give an answer in an unclassified setting; he affirmed others with "sure." A memorable exchange came when Comey was asked, by Senator Dianne Feinstein and others, why he had publicized his Clinton investigation.
Comey was forthcoming--if not entirely convincing. On the Trump-Russia, Comey
promised, "We follow the evidence wherever it takes us." But what it led to the president? Comey said he had briefed the chair and ranking members of the committee as to which individuals were currently in the spotlight. "That's as far as we're going to go," he told Democrat Richard Blumenthal.
BLUMENTHAL: So, potentially, the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign's involvement with Russian interference in our election correct?
COMEY: I just worry--I don't want to answer that--that--that seems to be unfair speculation. We will follow the evidence. We'll try to find as much as we can and we'll follow the evidence wherever leads.
The Republican Chair, Chuck Grassley, tossed in a couple of hostile questions on Steele: Did the FBI interact with him or pay him? Comey said he couldn't answer "in this forum."
Steel watched the hearing on TV from his home in Surrey, England. He had been back at work for some weeks. By arrangement, the Press Association had photographed and videoed Steele, now minus the beard, on the front steps of Orbis. Steel had given a quote of Politburo-like blandness: "I'd like to say a warm thank-you to everyone who sent me kind messages and support over the last few weeks." He was now focusing on the "broader interests" of his company, he said.
Republicans want an investigation into the dossier author who alleges collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Adam Entous of The New Yorker.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This past week, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley wrote a letter to the Justice Department along with his colleague Lindsey Graham. In it, they recommended that the author of the notorious dossier alleging coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia be investigated for possible criminal charges. Christopher Steele, a former British spy, wrote the report. Their letter suggests that he lied to the FBI.
It's another attack from conservatives who are challenging the integrity of the FBI's Russia investigation. Steele's allegations prompted the investigation back in the summer of 2016. And joining me now to talk about it is Adam Entous. He covers national security for The New Yorker magazine. Good morning.
ADAM ENTOUS: Great to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Adam, what are Senators Grassley and Graham actually alleging here?
ENTOUS: What they've done is they've recommended that the FBI and the Justice Department investigate whether or not Steele - this is the former British spy - lied. They're making claims. But they're not really spelling them out because the information is allegedly classified - that he engaged with reporters and media organizations in ways that somehow suggest that he had lied to the FBI.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So they're actually going after him for talking to reporters.
ENTOUS: It appears that that's the case. Again, it's not clear what the FBI will do and the Justice Department will do with this referral. Steele did meet with reporters a few weeks before the election along with people from - officials from Fusion GPS, which was a company that was hired by - we later learned - by a lawyer representing Hillary Clinton's campaign.
And clearly, Grassley, the chairman of the committee, and Republicans on the panel are interested in trying to find out as much as they can about Steele and about the dossier and its origins, potentially, as a way to cast doubt on the nonpartisanship of the underlying information in the dossier, potentially, to discredit anything that Mueller finds out later.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It sounds like a potentially risky strategy, politically at least. And also, you know, Steele is seen as a whistleblower by many.
ENTOUS: Yeah. I mean, it's certainly part of a pattern that we've seen going back to the very beginning of this investigation. Initially, we saw some Republicans seizing on what they referred to as unmasking. This would be the process by which national security officials will - in intelligence - see the identities of U.S. persons as they're known. That was an early accusation that was being made to suggest that this investigation by the FBI was somehow driven by political considerations during the - at the end of the Obama administration. We've seen that issue sort of fade away.
But there's a new focus, or there has been, for several months - many months on Fusion GPS by the Republicans. This is the company that was hired. It's made up of former journalists from - mainly from the Wall Street Journal who have been - who were hired, initially, by a Republican and then later by Democrats to investigate Trump. And they operate much like - in some ways, like an investigative branch of a news organization.
They hired Steele to do some of this investigation. And Steele, being an expert on Russia, having done some of his most important work there as a spy for the British and very well-connected in Russia, was able to find these details. And he was - at least, you know, the way people close to him word it - he was so concerned about what he saw that he really wanted to make sure it got proper attention.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. And it was given to an aide of Senator John McCain. And then John McCain took it to the FBI and James Comey.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to understand something here, though. There has been some pushback. I mean, Grassley is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is a recommendation that he's made. It does not necessarily mean that he's actually - that this investigation will go forward.
ENTOUS: Right, yeah. Certainly, the top Democrat on the committee has pushed back and suggested that this is an effort to just distract from the core of the investigations that are underway by three committees on the Hill, including the judiciary committee. You also have the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is probably doing the most bipartisan investigation of the three, and the House Intelligence Committee, which is led by, you know, Devin Nunes, who is pushing, also, for the committee to investigate the dossier and other things that are not core to trying to figure out whether there was any coordination between Trump and Russia.
So, you know, the accusation here of the Democrats is this is another effort to try to deflect attention from the substance that's contained in the dossier. Now, many of the things in the dossier are not as - have not been confirmed.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Adam Entous of The New Yorker magazine. Thank you.
The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee has released a transcript of the panel's interview with Glenn Simpson. He's the founder of the political research shop Fusion GPS, which commissioned the infamous, unverified dossier ostensibly documenting connections between the Trump camp and Russia. In the interview, Simpson stands by the document. https://www.npr.org/2018/01/09/576858194/transcript-released-of-fus...
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California released the transcripts without the Judiciary Committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, almost certainly escalating partisan tensions on the committeeCredit Pete Marovich for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, defied her Republican colleagues on Tuesday to unilaterally make public a much-discussed transcript of the committee’s interview with one of the founders of the firm that produced a salacious and unsubstantiated dossier outlining a Russian effort to aid the Trump campaign.
The interview, with Glenn R. Simpson of Fusion GPS, provided few revelatory details about the firm’s findings on the Russian election effort or on President Trump and his campaign. But both the circumstances of its release and the vivid picture it paints of Mr. Simpson’s operation and his chief Russia investigator, Christopher Steele, provided fresh ammunition to both sides of a growing fight over the dossier.
In his testimony, Mr. Simpson sought to portray himself as an astute researcher well versed in the Russian government and that country’s organized crime. And he said Mr. Steele, the former British spy he hired to investigate the campaign’s ties to Russia, had “a Sterling reputation as a person who doesn’t exaggerate, doesn’t make things up, doesn’t sell baloney.”
Mr. Steele believed that his investigation had unearthed “a security issue about whether a presidential candidate was being blackmailed,” Mr. Simpson told the committee.
Mr. Simpson and Peter Fritsch, the firm’s co-founders, had called for the Judiciary Committee to release the transcript in an Op-Ed essay in The New York Times, arguing that it would show that Republicans were unfairly smearing their work. The request inspired a tart back-and-forth with Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s Republican chairman, but appeared to be going nowhere until Tuesday, when Ms. Feinstein took the side of Fusion.
“The American people deserve the opportunity to see what he said and judge for themselves,” she said. “The innuendo and misinformation circulating about the transcript are part of a deeply troubling effort to undermine the investigation into potential collusion and obstruction of justice. The only way to set the record straight is to make the transcript public.”
For Ms. Feinstein and Mr. Grassley, two senior senators who worked closely last summer to initiate a joint Russia investigation, the breach was striking. But it reflects the growing divide between the two parties.
Republicans have repeatedly and vocally raised concerns that the dossier — a set of reports paid for by Democrats — could have been mishandled by the F.B.I. as it was opening its own investigation into the Russian effort and the Trump campaign. Democrats say scrutiny of the dossier’s provenance is a distraction from the central question: Did the Trump campaign knowingly seek aid from Russia?
Democrats were still seething on Tuesday at the decision by Mr. Grassley and another Republican on the panel, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, to issue a criminal referral last week for Mr. Steele. The senators said they had reason to believe Mr. Steele had lied to federal authorities about his contacts with the media and urged the Justice Department to investigate.
A spokesman for Mr. Grassley said Ms. Feinstein’s decision was “totally confounding.”
“Her action undermines the integrity of the committee’s oversight work and jeopardizes its ability to secure candid voluntary testimony,” the spokesman, Taylor Foy, said.
Mr. Simpson said he hired Mr. Steele in the late spring of 2016, and the former spy grew alarmed soon after getting to work. With Mr. Simpson’s blessing, he reached out to an old contact at the F.B.I. in early July.
“To me, it was like, you know, you’re driving to work and you see something happen, and you call 911,” Mr. Simpson said.
Current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the investigation say that the federal inquiry did not start with Mr. Steele’s dossier, early parts of which did not reach counterintelligence investigators at the F.B.I. until August, after the bureau’s inquiry had already begun. But the officials have said that the dossier added material and buttressed what American law enforcement and spy agencies were gleaning from other sources.
According to Mr. Simpson, it was not until late September, nearly two months after the F.B.I. investigation had begun, that the F.B.I. reached out to Mr. Steele. He then met with agents in Rome to brief them on his work.
At that meeting, Mr. Steele learned that his information was considered credible by the F.B.I. “because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing and one of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump organization,” Mr. Simpson testified.
Mr. Simpson did not disclose the identity of the human source in his August testimony. But people familiar with the matter said that Mr. Steele, after being questioned by the F.B.I., came to believe that the bureau’s human source was George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign foreign adviser.
Citing law enforcement officials, the Times article said that “none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.”
Since then, investigators and journalists have developed extensive evidence linking Mr. Trump’s associates to Russian government and intelligence operatives, but as yet there is still no public evidence of a direct link between President Trump himself and the Kremlin.
At the time, many in the F.B.I. did not believe Russia was aiming to explicitly help Mr. Trump. That consensus did not emerge fully until January 2017 when American intelligence agencies released a report saying that the Kremlin’s intentions were twofold: to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process” and to “help President-elect Trump’s election chances.”
Mr. Simpson, in his testimony, called the Times article “a real Halloween special.”
“There was a concern that the F.B.I. was being manipulated for political ends by the Trump people and that we didn’t really understand what was going on,” Mr. Simpson said. “So he stopped dealing with them.”
The concerns prompted Mr. Steele to share his work with a former British diplomat, who passed the information to Senator John McCain after the election.
Mr. McCain is believed to have then met with James B. Comey, then the F.B.I. director, to discuss the dossier. In January, weeks before the inauguration, the dossier became public after news broke that Mr. Comey had briefed President Barack Obama and Mr. Trump on Mr. Steele’s work.
The release of the transcript broke what had more or less been a prevailing rule of secrecy around Congress’s various investigations into Russia’s efforts and the Trump campaign. Though pieces of information from witness interviews in the House and the Senate have leaked to the news media, only two complete transcripts — from House Intelligence Committee interviews with Carter Page and Erik Prince — had been publicly released among hundreds.
In a brief interview, Ms. Feinstein left open the possibility of releasing other transcripts from the committee’s investigation.