David Corn: Why Russian interference is a bigger deal than Watergate

A Q&A with the co-author of ‘Russian Roulette’ on why he thinks Russians disrupted the 2016 U.S. presidential election—and what could happen next

“Whether or not the investigations would ever turn up hard evidence of direct collusion, Trump’s actions—his adamant and consistent denial of any Russian role—had provided Putin cover. In that sense, he had aided and abetted Moscow’s attack on American democracy, ” writers David Corn and Michael Isikoff conclude in their new book, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, which is already number one on The New York Times’  non-fiction best seller list.

“Trump’s own unsettling conduct guaranteed the Russia scandal was far from over—for Mueller, Congress, and the American people.”

In addition to recapping how the Russians disrupted the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russian Roulette collects spicy insider vignettes from both the Republican and Democrat HQs as the race closed. “We’ve been ratf–ked,” John Podesta is reported to have said in response to James Comey’s 25th-hour email intervention. “You have two choices: One, you lose by the biggest electoral landslide in American history… or you can drop out of the race,” Reince Priebus advised Trump in the wake of the leaked Access Hollywood tape. “Chin up, people, we have s–t to do,” Barack Obama hollered to his dejected staff in the Oval Office the morning after Election Day.

Corn, Mother Jones’ Washington bureau boss, has penned multiple Times chart-topping books, and he won the 2013 Polk Award for his game-changing 2012 scoop that, at a private Republican fundraiser, Mitt Romney dismissed 47 per cent of Americans as “victims” who don’t take “personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Over Skype from his office at Mother Jones, Corn spoke to Maclean’s about Republican voter suppression, what the Putin regime might do during the 2018 congressional elections, and his contention that the Russian intervention story is bigger than Watergate. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q:  What do you hope Russian Roulette’s impact is?

A: One of the book’s biggest values is taking this Russia story, as much as we know at this point, and putting it together as comprehensive and easily digested narrative that gives people a true sense of what this scandal and controversy is all about. We get our news these days in bits and pieces, helter-skelter; we’re all drinking from a firehose of information.  There are lots of good stories about different aspects of this scandal, but they come at us not in chronological order, and sometimes not fully baked. It’s very hard for people to keep everything together in their heads, and have an overarching view of what’s happened. The book helps people, and other reporters, aides and representatives on the Hill, recall what the full story is and have the plots presented to them in a comprehensible fashion—the profound consequences and implications of the scandal.

READ The ultimate escape from Trump’s political chaos? Books.

Q: Did the Trump campaign collude with the Russian regime?

A: Michael Isikoff and I make clear in Russian Roulette that the Trump campaign was proactively reaching out to Russian government contacts while the Putin regime was attacking the United States. We make clear that Donald Trump and his campaign denied the Russians were intervening in the election, even after Trump was told in an intelligence briefing that the Russians were indeed doing this. Those two facts are signals of Trump aiding and abetting what the Russians were doing. The way I explain this personally is: If you’re told that somebody’s robbing a bank and you’re standing on a street corner in front of the bank and tell a passerby, “There’s no bank robbery going on here,” you’re helping the bank robbers get away with it. Trump colluded in the cover-up, either explicitly or implicitly, by denying—as the Russians were denying—that anything was happening.

WATCH: Donald Trump’s ties to Russia


Q: I contend that Trump is a Marxist, as in Groucho Marx’s line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?” He flagrantly contradicts things millions of people saw him say on TV, like that press conference where he called upon Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.

A: It remains stunning to me that U.S. intelligence officials could brief Trump that this was happening, and that he could then come out and say “this is a hoax.” On Jun. 14, 2016, The Washington Post reports that Russian hackers have penetrated the Democratic Party servers and swiped a lot of material. The Trump campaign’s first response to this was “this is a hoax, the Democrats hacked themselves to draw away attention from who their candidate is.” Other than being absurd, what’s interesting about that is that five days earlier, on Jun. 9, three of Trump’s most senior advisors—Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner—met with a Russian emissary who they thought was going to give them dirt on Hillary Clinton. This had all come about by an email a Russian oligarch, Aras Agalarov—Donald Trump’s Russian Miss Universe partner—sent the campaign saying that the Kremlin secretly wanted to help Trump. Before the Democratic National Convention, Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort go on air and say, “It’s ridiculous to suggest the Russians are doing this.” They knew! They and Trump had no regard for the truth, and no sense that they had the obligation to speak out if a foreign power was actively meddling in the election.

READ MORE: Does Vladimir Putin represent the return of the czar?

Q: “For somebody who was inconsistent in almost everything, being so consistent in defending Putin raises my suspicions,” Garry Kasparov told me about Trump.

A: In the months leading up to his 2013 visit to Moscow for the Miss Universe contest, Trump seems to have an obsession with Putin. He seems to have an aspirational affinity with him, as if Trump desired to be an oligarch and a strongman himself. Trump was also working with Agalarov on building a Trump Tower in Moscow. When he was running for President in 2015, two years later, Trump again has a secret deal going on with Russians to build a tower, but he’s not sharing that with American voters. Trump’s saying things like, “How do you know he’s a killer? How do you know he’s involved in repression?” There’s this steadfast admiration Trump has exhibited towards this Russian tyrant. It seems very curious.

READ: Garry Kasparov on Russia, chess, and the great gambit of AI

Q: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” Donald Trump, Jr. said in Moscow during 2008, as you quote in the book. 

A: Trump and both his sons publicly spoke about getting money from Russia. We know that some of Trump’s properties were marketed to Russians in the 2000s. Condos with his name on them in Florida, and the Trump Soho. Part of the issue is that many of these luxury properties and units are bought through shell companies, often foreign-based, and you can’t even tell who paid for them.

Where does Trump’s money come from? Obviously some form of Russian money. How much and who? It’s hard to evaluate because these records are not transparent.

Various images of Washington, D.C. (Photograph by Adrian Lee)

Q: This is “the biggest election-related scandal since Watergate,” you said at Mother Jones last year; you wrote, “According to the consensus assessment of US intelligence agencies, Russian intelligence, under the orders of Vladimir Putin, mounted an extensive operation to influence the 2016 campaign to benefit Donald Trump.” After researching and writing Russian Roulette, is this still your belief?

A: I think it’s a major scandal, this is a major attack. Russia engaged in information warfare against the United States, as the U.S. intelligence community says, with the aim of electing Donald Trump. By that standard, the Russians succeeded. They intervened in the election, and they influenced the election. That’s much bigger than what happened in Watergate. Nixon and the people around him ordered the break-in of the Democratic National Committee to get dirt on George McGovern, which probably didn’t have much impact on the election overall, though there are other elements to Watergate, and a lot more corruption in the Nixon circle.

This is people making contact with a foreign adversary that was attacking the United States, and again during the transition. This is quite a serious matter. Even before we have findings from the Senate Intelligence Committee, or information from Robert Mueller, what we already know on the public record is tremendously scandalous.

READ MORE: Trump failed a simple test on his Russian ties

Q: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history,” ex- CIA director John Brennan tweeted at Trump last month. What do you think he knows?

A: John Brennan was CIA director when the U.S. intelligence community opened a counter-intelligence investigation into connections between Trump associates and Russians, and also when they were investigating the Russians cyber-attack on the 2016 campaign. Brennan is a fellow who knows a lot. CIA directors and ex- directors aren’t usually hot-headed in public. They tend to be circumspect and say less rather than more. The fact that he’s speaking out to such a degree suggests a troubling sign he knows far more beyond what the public record is.

Q: Possible kompromat tape and other evidence aside, what’s the most embarrassing thing for Republicans out of Russian Roulette?

A: I’m not sure they’re capable of feeling embarrassment related to Donald Trump at this point. They’ve allowed Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP, and turning it into his cult of personality. In the summer and fall of 2016, Obama was trying to form a response to the Russians’ attack on America, he reached out to Republican leaders, especially House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to say, “Can we all join together and put out a bipartisan response? This would probably be the most effective way we could counter this attack on our country.” Neither one of them would join forces with Obama.

Q: Should Obama have taken a harder line?

A: My favourite chapter in the book is chapter 14. In that chapter we take the reader into the White House situation room as Obama’s top advisors discuss what is the best way to respond, without causing the chaos that the Russians wanted.

READ: Why Donald Trump can be charged with obstruction

Q: Are the Republicans fulfilling their duty to protect the Constitution?

A: No—at least, most of them are not.  They show very little interest in what Russia did, and how to stop it happening again. They do not seem that curious about the core issues of the Trump-Russia scandal. They’re shirking their national security responsibilities.

Q: What do you think of John Bolton being named as Trump’s new national security advisor?

A: This is the scariest development of Trump’s presidency.

Q: Your book refers to the strong case that senior Clinton Foundation aide Doug Band was a dodgy hustler. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait was critical of Clinton when he spoke to me in 2016: “It’s absolutely true that people who believed Hillary Clinton would be a decent or even strong nominee need to think why that got that wrong. Laying the entire blame at the feet of Russia and the FBI is not sufficient. The biggest reason things went wrong were her own choices and her own weaknesses.” What do you think?

A: The election was so close you could probably point to a dozen different decisive factors. If Clinton had come up with a better campaign message, maybe she could have won those 77,000 votes that determined the election. If she had spent more time in Wisconsin, campaigned differently, all these things that you could point to.  She created her own problems in terms of not addressing concerns and being upfront about that email server early enough. Not releasing transcripts of speeches she gave to financial institutions. None of these issues are tremendously big deals, but in a race this tight, everything does count. Had the Russian intervention not occurred, the result could have been quite different.  For the last month of the campaign, due to the Russian clandestine effort to subvert the election, every day was dominated by headlines about Hillary Clinton’s emails. They were John Podesta’s emails, stolen by the Russians. As we reported in the book, focus groups with swing voters from swing states show that they were confused. They thought that all this talk about the Podesta emails that were being released by WikiLeaks related to Clinton’s own email server problem. There’s a lot Hillary Clinton did wrong, but the Russian intervention was one of several decisive forces.

Q: How emboldened will the Putin regime be to covertly interfere in congressional elections later this year?

A: One of the overlooked aspects of this story was that the Russian operation and hacks targeted Democratic congressional campaigns in 2016, not just Hillary Clinton’s campaign. They did so in a fashion that seemed to suggest a fair amount of sophistication. Russians stole and released internal Democratic material related to key House races for the Democrats. And Russian hackers often found local bloggers and reporters to give this material. This tells us they know how to mess around in Congressional contests.

Four-hundred-and-thirty-five members of the House are up for re-election in 2018. Thirty-three senators. It’s going to be harder for the federal government and national media to see what’s happening across the country in all these different districts, if there’s any mucking about by the Russians or anybody else. Local campaigns and officials are sometimes less sophisticated, and have less resources to be sophisticated in defending themselves against hackers related to Russia or anywhere else. So I think you really have the potential here, should Putin want to intervene, for a repeat that could be even harder to see, understand and thwart.

Q: Your Mother Jones colleague Ari Berman credibly argues that the Republicans are suppressing voters. Is he right?

A: Yeah, we already have an election integrity issue in America. We have Republicans who have for years tried to find ways to repress the vote, and make it harder to vote. Throwing in Russian interference compounds the problem, and runs the risk of causing people to believe that our election system is not fair, not accurate,  and that might depress turnout and keep people from voting. So it’s hard to think of a more fundamental issue than a foreign adversary attacking the United States, also attacking the United States in a way that raises the legitimacy of our elections. It’s very devious on the part of Putin and Moscow to attack the United States in this spot. Which is why it makes all the more important that we have a president who acknowledges what happened, and realizes the threat still exists, and takes sufficient and robust action to counter it. To date, Donald Trump doesn’t fit any of those descriptions.

Alexander Bisley can be reached at [email protected].


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