For years Steve Harper produced timelines for the cases he argued or defended in court as a successful litigator. Retired now from practicing law, Harper has turned his experience, talent, and curiosity to monitoring for BillMoyers.com the bizarre and entangled ties between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump and the murky world of Russian oligarchs, state officials, hackers, spies, and Republican operatives. You can check out the over 700 entries. For an overview — and some specifics — of recent developments, I called up Steve to give us a sense of the emerging story. —Bill Moyers
Bill Moyers: You’re the consummate trial lawyer with a celebrated reputation for summing up the closing argument for the jury, but from our work together on the timeline I know you also have the instincts of a journalist. So write the lede to the story this far: What’s the most important thing for us to know about the Trump/Russia connection as of today?
Steven Harper: Everything the Trump campaign told you about the connections between Trump and Russia was a lie.
Moyers: Go on.
Harper: Well, there are a number of different dimensions to the issue, but let’s just take the easiest one. The other day The Washington Post published a very good article that said for all of Trump’s denials during the campaign of any connections between him, his campaign and Russia, it turns out there were 31 interactions. And there were 19 meetings. Furthermore, what Trump and his people have been doing since then is everything they can to keep the public from being aware of the truth. And this feeds into the obstruction story.
Moyers: How so?
Harper: Up to and including the firing of James Comey, Trump did everything he could to try to shut down, slow down or stop the investigation. First, he tried to shut down the investigation of Mike Flynn. Then it turned out that Mike Flynn is probably just a piece of a much larger problem, which is Russia. Trump admitted to the Russian ambassador and to the Russian foreign minister shortly after he fired Comey that now he’s got some relief from the Russia problem — in other words, Comey’s gone! But what’s happened since then is the continuing effort to interfere with the investigation, even in the form of tweets — all of which sure look a lot to me like witness intimidation for some of the key players in the saga.
And then there’s a third component, which is in a way the most insidious — the willingness of the congressional GOP to be complicit in all of this. We’re talking now about a prescription for disaster for democracy. It’s all part of the same story. If you think about it, every single person who has said something about there being no connection between Trump and Russia during the campaign has been caught in a lie about it. Even with this fellow George Papadopoulos, the talking point immediately became, “Well, he didn’t get in trouble for anything that he did, he got in trouble for lying to federal investigators.” Sure, and what was he lying to federal investigators about? About whether or not there were any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. And that’s the part that everybody glosses over in terms of the talking points on the Republican side.
Moyers: George Papadopoulos was the youngest of Trump’s foreign policy team and not a prominent public figure. Now Trump loyalists say he wasn’t taken all that seriously by the campaign.
Harper: That’s another remarkable thing, of course — all the policy advisers all of a sudden are relegated to the status of low-level, unpaid volunteers, even though they sat in a meeting of foreign policy advisers with the presidential candidate himself early on. When they turn out to be suspects in this investigation, they all drop to the bottom of the heap, and it’s as if Trump had never heard of any of them.
Moyers: It’s usual in a case like this to move the paramount figures to the expendable list, no?
Harper: Oh sure, absolutely, and I fully expect before this is over, you’re going to get to a point where Donald Trump will say, “Oh, yeah, Donald Jr. — you know he was only my son for a very limited period of time.” It’s absurd. And it started with Paul Manafort — the same Manafort who actually delivered decisive delegates to Trump during a crucial period of the campaign. When the heat was turned on Manafort, they all said: “Oh, well, he played a limited role for a limited period of time.” Yeah, he was only manager of the campaign, how about that?
Moyers: Perhaps Trump, who aspired to be a great American president, will confess: “And I was just a real estate guy.” [laughter] Robert Mueller is moving quickly with the investigation now. We have new news almost every day. What’s the most recent development that strikes you as most important?
Harper: Three different strands have now begun to coalesce. There’s a core strand running through it that I call the “follow the money” strand. Perhaps most of what happened throughout the campaign, if you view it from Vladimir Putin’s side of the transaction, looks quite reasonable and makes a great deal of sense. Putin wants to eliminate sanctions on Russia, both because they affect him personally in a financial way and because they affect his country’s economy in a big way. So you dangle in front of Trump the prospect of a Trump Tower in Moscow. We always knew that Trump wanted a Trump Tower in Moscow, because Trump told us he did. But what we didn’t know was that during the campaign, the Trump organization was actively negotiating for such a development.
But two other strands have come together, and we need to understand them for all this to become a cogent narrative. The second strand involves political operatives. It turns out we’re hearing about people like George Papadopoulos, who obviously was in communication with the Russians, and that strand is now probably taking Mueller — certainly taking me — further up the food chain. Papadopoulos implicated Sam Clovis, the former co-chairman of the campaign. And with people like Stephen Miller and Hope Hicks, you’re getting right to the inner circle of the Trump campaign. All of a sudden last year, these low-level underlings, as they are now being described to us, were getting remarkable access, and they’re getting responses from within the campaign. They’re not sending emails off into cyberspace that no one ever answers; they’re hearing back from some of these higher-ups.
And the third strand is what I would call the “digital strand.” Cambridge Analytica, the Kushners, WikiLeaks — they’ve started coming together in a very dramatic fashion over the past two or three weeks. Pundits say they keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well, didn’t John McCain say, “This is a centipede. I guarantee you there will be more shoes to drop.” It seems as though there is just no limit to the number of shoes that keep dropping in this thing. Everyone thought the big bombshell was the June 9 meeting and the Don Jr. emails that had set up that meeting in Trump Tower relating to dirt the Russians were promising on Hillary Clinton. And then we just get this even more stunning series of interactions and communications and exchanges that show the people that Kushner hired to run the digital campaign going to WikiLeaks, and reveal Don Jr. having direct Twitter communications with WikiLeaks about Clinton documents. It’s just remarkable. If all of this had hit at the same time, it would have been blockbuster, but because of the dribbling out of it, no one focuses on the extent to which some of these three strands coalesce. And they sometimes coalesce around what I call very hot dates in the timeline.
Moyers: Let’s pause right there. There’s a beginning to a story like this. So I hope you’re reading a new book out this week by Luke Harding, once the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian of London. The title is Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and how the Russians Helped Donald Trump Win. Have you been following coverage of the book?
Harper: Yes. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve read a couple of excerpts and summaries of certain portions of it.
Moyers: Harding, who’s a very experienced reporter, quotes the British ex-spy, Christopher Steele, who worked in Russia for years and compiled that notorious dossier on Trump that mysteriously appeared last year. He quotes Steele saying that “Russian intelligence has been secretly cultivating Trump for years.” As you and I discussed in August, Trump appears to have attracted the attention of Soviet intelligence as far back as 1987, on his first visit to Moscow — a visit arranged by the top level of the Soviet diplomatic service, with the assistance of the KGB.
Trump was of course looking for business in Russia. If you go to Trump’s own book, The Art of the Deal, he acknowledges “talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government.” And he quotes a letter he got from the Soviet ambassador to Washington saying the Soviet state agency for international tourism is inquiring about his interest in that partnership. Now, one has to ask: There were lots of ambitious real estate moguls looking for deals with Russia in the mid-’80s; why did they select Donald Trump?
Harper: And that’s the $64,000 question. It’s very interesting and Harding notes this as well, and it also was an early entry on our timeline — that in 1988, when Trump came back from the Soviet Union, he first made noises about wanting to run for president. Which brings us back to the second strand developing in this story, which is the personal contacts, the personal operatives, involved in a pretty straightforward if not classic Russian intelligence operation. Russian agents — the recruiters — look for soft spots in their target — in this case, the US — and those soft spots become points of penetration. The Russians must have been astonished at how they achieved penetration in Trump’s circle — astonished at the success that they were having across many different fronts simultaneously.
Moyers: I remember from my own experience in Washington in the ‘60s that the Russians were always trying to find “soft targets” — American citizens — who were drawn to that sort of relationship.
Harper: And what could be a softer target for a guy like Putin than a guy who measures the world and everyone’s self-worth in dollars?
Moyers: Much of what Harding reports in his book is circumstantial, but it adds up to what is fairly damning evidence. You’re the lawyer — how much can circumstantial evidence be introduced in an argument in a trial?
Harper: Plenty. There are lots of people sitting in jail who were convicted on circumstantial evidence. In fact, how often is it that there is actually what you would call eyewitness or direct evidence of criminal behavior, except in a situation where you can get one of the co-conspirators to turn state’s evidence and squeal on the others? People talk about circumstantial evidence as if there’s something terrible about it. Circumstantial evidence is the way most people go about proving their cases, whether they’re civil or criminal cases. And what separates circumstantial from direct evidence isn’t even all that clear. Would you say that the email exchanges between Donald Trump Jr. and the lawyer who was supposed to come to Trump Tower with dirt on Hillary Clinton were circumstantial evidence or direct evidence? It’s certainly direct evidence of Donald Trump Jr.’s intent when he says, “If you have what you say you have, in terms of dirt on Clinton, I love it.”
Some people keep saying there’s there’s no collusion. Trump’s favorite expression is “No collusion. No collusion. No collusion.” All right, let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about something the law recognizes as conspiracy or “aiding and abetting.” Let’s talk about a conspiracy to obstruct justice. In that respect, Trump’s own tweets become evidence. So it’s not as clear as I think some of the talking-head pundits would like to make it, that no collusion means the end of the inquiry. That’s just wrong.
Moyers: Suppose the circumstantial or direct evidence prove to be true; does it have to be out-and-out treason for Trump and his team’s actions to be impeachable offenses?
Harper: No. In all likelihood, treason may be the toughest thing of all to prove, because treason, at least in a technical legal sense, requires that you’re actually at war. And a decent defense could be for Trump that there’s been no declaration of war, so whatever was going on you’re never going to get it past the threshold of treason. There are still plenty of legal bases for concluding that Trump has some serious problems. One would be the election laws, including the financing of elections. It’s pretty clear you can’t accept help from a foreign government in order to win an election, and it seems pretty clear, at least to me, that if they weren’t actually using the help — and that’s a big if; I think they were, based on some of the things that I’ve seen — there’s certainly ample evidence that they were willing to be participating in whatever help anybody would give them to help Trump win the election.
The second category — apart from election laws and related finance laws — would be aiding and abetting computer theft insofar as there were illegal hacks into the DNC computers, and WikiLeaks and/or the Trump campaign knew that that happened, knew the hacks were illegal and knew they were willing to do everything they could to take advantage of it in order to help Trump win the election. That’s another fertile ground for illegality.
And the third category would of course be what I think will ultimately turn out to be the easiest to prove: the obstruction issues, relating to some of the behavior that we already know that George Papadopoulos, for one, engaged in when he lied to investigators about the nature of the connections between Trump and Russia.
Moyers: On the money issue, The Atlantic magazine published a very strong piece last week by Bob Bauer, in which he argues that Donald Trump Jr.’s private Twitter correspondence with WikiLeaks provides evidence of criminal violations of federal campaign finance rules which prohibit foreign spending in American elections, as you pointed out. He reminds us that those rules disallow contributions, donations or “anything of value” provided by a foreign national to sway an election. Those rules also bar a campaign from offering substantial assistance to a foreign national engaged in spending on American races.
Here’s a direct quote from Bauer’s article: “Trump Jr.’s messages not only powerfully support the case that the Trump campaign violated these rules, but they also compound the campaign’s vulnerability to aiding and abetting liability under the general criminal laws for assisting a foreign national in violating a spending ban. … The facts and circumstances here are without precedent in the history of campaign finance enforcement, and it’s hard to imagine that any truly neutral analyst informed about the law would conclude otherwise.”
So he concludes that Trump and his campaign face a “whopping legal problem.”
Harper: I agree with him completely. And here we reach one of what I call “the hot dates” when all these strands coalesce. You have these September-October email exchanges between Don Jr. and WikiLeaks. But now listen to what else you have: On Oct. 12, [Trump’s friend and former adviser] Roger Stone tells NBC that he has a backchannel communication with WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks’ private message to Don Jr. suggests that Trump publicize the Clinton documents from WikiLeaks. Fifteen minutes later Trump Sr. tweets about those WikiLeaks documents. That’s on one day. This is all on Oct. 12. And two days after that, Don Jr. tweets the very WikiLeaks link that WikiLeaks had already suggested that they publicize. That’s one point where these strands coalesce. My point is that Bauer’s case is even stronger than he may realize when you look at what you and I have called circumstantial evidence of what other things were happening, and how other layers of action were behaving at the same time.
Moyers: As you know, American intelligence has identified WikiLeaks as a conduit for information that Russian operatives stole from Democrats during the 2016 presidential campaign, and now of course it seems there was a connection between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign, as you’ve just outlined it. What do we know about why the Russian government would choose WikiLeaks to release information hacked from Hillary Clinton’s computers?
Harper: I think it was an outlet that would ensure publicity, maximum publicity. It’s a notorious organization. And I think if you want bad stuff to get out there and you want everybody to notice it, WikiLeaks would be the way to do it.
Moyers: Donald Trump Jr. reportedly has released all of his correspondence with WikiLeaks. Does this indicate his lawyers don’t think it is incriminating?
Harper: I think it is probably more likely the case that his lawyers assume that it’s going to come out eventually anyway. So the best way to do it is to sort of dribble these things out, hope for an intervening scandal, like Al Franken groping somebody or Roy Moore upsetting the Alabama election, and then let the mind of the body politic move on to something different. The good news is that Robert Mueller is not going to be distracted by the intervening events, and he’ll put all this together.
Moyers: But how significant is it that when Donald Trump Jr. had all of this information from WikiLeaks, it’s now being reported that he looked around the campaign to see if he could find someone who would act on WikiLeaks’ information, and it doesn’t seem that anyone responded? His appeals seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
Harper: What makes you think no one responded? The fact that there’s no email trail doesn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t a response. We know, for example, that what was happening throughout the campaign were interactions and conversations and discussions in which certainly one of the topics included granting Russia relief from sanctions. I don’t conclude that because an email response to Donald Jr. has yet to make its way into the public domain, nothing happened.
Moyers: So when Donald Trump on Oct. 10, tells the crowd at a campaign rally, “I love WikiLeaks,” and accuses the press of not picking up on what WikiLeaks was publishing, he knew WikiLeaks had dirt on Clinton, where it came from, and he wanted to get it out.
Harper: You would think so. And I’m most happy, frankly, that Mueller has such an extraordinary team of talented lawyers working with him, because the case from the prosecutor’s side is a dream in terms lending itself to a coherent, cogent narrative that strikes me as a really damning case.
Moyers: Is Julian Assange of WikiLeaks in any danger of facing US prosecution?
Harper: Not as long as he stays in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Let’s assume he will stay out of the country for a while. I suppose Trump could pardon him.
Moyers: Is there any way that Assange could be viewed as an agent of a foreign power at this point, or is he just a rogue player?
Harper: My opinion is that during the election, he was an agent acting for the benefit for Trump. He claims that he wasn’t dealing with Russian documents. I find that difficult to believe. And certainly, as you said, the US intelligence community is of the view that WikiLeaks was the vehicle through which Russia distributed and disseminated its hacked documents. And I think he’s clearly acting on behalf of interests that are Russian interests.
Moyers: What do you make of Assange and WikiLeaks urging Donald Trump Jr. to suggest to his father that if he loses the election, he should contest the election? What was that about?
Harper: Chaos. I think the goal was chaos. That’s what takes me back to believing that at some level Russia was behind what WikiLeaks was proposing. Because for Putin there are two ways for him to improve Russia’s standing. One is to figure out a way to bring his country up. One easy way would be to get some relief from the sanctions. But an equally powerful way to do it is to bring Western democracies, especially America, down. So what better way to foment chaos than a postelection trauma, if you will, in which Trump is contesting election results in various states and doing all of the things he certainly would have been capable of doing? And of course, WikiLeaks feeds right into Trump’s soft spot by suggesting, in that same email that you just mentioned, that this could be good for him too, particularly if what he really wants to do is launch a new media network. So it all fits.
Moyers: What do you make of the fact that Donald Trump Jr. did not report to the FBI that WikiLeaks was soliciting him last year? Does that put him legally at risk?
Harper: The mere failure to report doesn’t, but it certainly adds to the question about what Trump Jr.’s true motives and the motives of the Trump campaign were in pursuing the information WikiLeaks was offering. Now, let me give you something else to think about, and see if your reaction causes you some of the heartburn it causes me.
In June of last year — quite a month, no? — there was another “hot date.” Jared Kushner — Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser — assumed control of the digital campaign and hired the firm Cambridge Analytica. We talked about Cambridge Analytica a moment ago. Well, Cambridge Analytica’s vice president had been Steve Bannon. And about the same time that Kushner hired Cambridge Analytica, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica is reaching out to WikiLeaks with an offer to help disseminate hacked documents.
And then you get to July 22 and WikiLeaks is releasing hacked documents. In August, George Papadopoulos is continuing to push Russia on the campaign team, Roger Stone is continuing to talk about his communications with Assange and WikiLeaks (and it certainly looks as if Stone is predicting more WikiLeaks releases of documents) and the daughter of the part-owner of Cambridge Analytica, Rebekah Mercer — who is also a Trump donor — tells its CEO to reach out to WikiLeaks too. And then Donald Jr.’s email exchange with WikiLeaks comes in September. See what I mean? There’s a ramping up of the process that culminates in those email exchanges that Don Jr. had with WikiLeaks and that becomes, I think, an important narrative to understanding the story.
Moyers: I need some Tums. [laughter]
Harper: It’s good and bad, I guess — getting mired in all these details. The good news is we learn more facts. The bad news is we learn more facts — and it may not be possible for Americans to put it all together and conclude that anything significant happened, when actually there’s a grave threat to democracy.
Moyers: Let me pause right there. As Josh Marshall points out at Talking Points Memo, the Justice Department is directly overseeing Mueller’s investigation. It has absolute power over the inquiry. Meaning that Mueller is now investigating his overseers. Isn’t that certain to have some impact on the process?
Harper: I don’t think so. Let me tell you why. I think the only thing that will affect the process, and this is the thing frankly that I fear more than anything else, will be if Trump fires Mueller. We know Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself. If he should resign, that would be a great victory for Trump, who could then appoint someone else as an acting attorney general who could then fire Mueller, and the ball bounces to Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein’s been on record a couple of times saying that he hasn’t seen any basis for firing Mueller. And at this point, I have competing views of Rosenstein in general, but I think on this issue, he realizes that his personal interest and his professional interest and even the country’s interest requires that if Trump were to issue an order to fire Mueller or even if he were to try to interfere with Mueller’s investigation in some way, allowing him to do so will be a very bad thing for Rosenstein personally. I don’t think he’ll do it.
Moyers: There’s a precedent for this, of course. Nixon went ahead and fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate.
Harper: Yes, but he had to go through [Attorney General] Richardson and [Deputy Attorney General] Ruckelshaus to do it. Trump would have to fire Rosenstein, then he’d have to fire an associate attorney general named Rachel Brand, who — based on everything everything I’ve read about her — would likely balk and not be inclined to follow an order unless she were satisfied that there was in fact good cause to do it.
Moyers: What might provoke Trump to risk everything — firestorm, constitutional crisis, even impeachment — to fire Mueller?
Harper: I think he’ll do it if he thinks that things are getting too close. I think he’s already been close to doing it in the past. And I think at some point, and I think it’s probably a question of when [not if], he will fire Mueller. I really fear that’s what’s going to happen. And of course the irony is that for the amount of time Mueller has spent on the job, he’s achieved remarkable results. He’s working very quickly, very efficiently. The median life of a special counsel is just under two years. The average is three years. The Iran-Contra investigation went for six and a half years. Whitewater went for more than eight years. The Valerie Plame NSA leak went for two years. We’re what? Just five months in?
Moyers: And Mueller’s already obtained two indictments and one guilty plea.
Moyers: The indictments are for Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. But the indictments are not related to the Trump/Russia connection, are they?
Harper: I think the answer to that is it remains to be seen. That’s clearly the way the Trump people are going to continue to try to spin it. But step back for a minute and think about the fact that a campaign manager [Paul Manafort] for a presidential candidate [Donald Trump] has been indicted for money laundering, tax evasion and all sorts of other wrongdoing arising from his work for Ukraine, where Putin and Russia were fomenting trouble. And shortly after he became the manager of the campaign, as we’ve learned, he was also offering to provide special briefings to a Ukrainian oligarch with whom he’d had business dealings. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see at some point some of these things merge into one another.
Moyers: You mentioned earlier that a new series of Trump advisers are under scrutiny. Hope Hicks is one of them. She’s perhaps the closest staffer to Donald Trump. Not even 30 yet, keeps a low profile, been with him a long time, apparently spends more time with the president than anyone else on the White House team. We’ve learned Mueller wants to talk to her. What have you learned about her and what can she add to this?
Harper: She can add a lot, I suspect. And I suspect that Mueller thinks so too, because as you say, she’s as close to the inner circle as you can get. She was also present at two really key points in this story — and many others, I could add. One in connection with what ultimately led to the firing of James Comey in May of 2017 — she was around for that. And as you may recall, we now have learned that it turns out that Trump had dictated to Stephen Miller, another close aide, what was apparently a four-page rant, or screed, of his real reasons for wanting to fire James Comey. So it’s hard to imagine that Hope Hicks wasn’t somehow involved in, or at least aware of, what was going on that weekend in Bedminster, New Jersey, when Trump was pouring his rage into that letter.
She was also aboard Air Force One — and maybe the lesson is you just never want to be on Air Force One with Donald Trump — when they were coming back from Europe, and Trump, as we learned much later, had a hand, a very heavy hand, in drafting a very misleading statement about what had transpired at that June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Don Jr., Manafort, Kushner and some Russians with ties to the Kremlin. Hope Hicks reportedly was advocating on behalf of transparency, but it appears that she lost out. And that’s just what we know Ms. Hicks was involved in. Who knows what else she was involved in and participated in, but I suspect a lot.
I also think she’s got a bit of problem because Carter Page revealed that she had been copied on those messages about what he had learned in Russia, or what he was planning to learn in Russia, when she had denied adamantly there had been no Trump campaign contacts with Russia. So she’s got a bit of a consistency issue there, it would seem.
Moyers: You mentioned Carter Page. He and George Papadopoulos traveled the world, apparently representing themselves as able to speak for the Trump campaign, even though the Trump campaign later said they weren’t. You’ve tracked down many instances of Papadopoulos in particular speaking to foreign leaders on behalf of Trump. Why is that important?
Harper: Well, he’s given extraordinary access to some very high-level people. He was giving speeches in which he was representing himself as being able to speak on behalf of Trump at least with respect to certain policies. And you know, it’s hard for me to imagine that he gets that kind of access unless there’s some credibility to what he’s saying about what his actual role in the campaign is. And of course we all know from the infamous photo taken at the Trump International Hotel that Papadopoulos was one of a handful of people seated at the table with Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump as Sessions presided over a meeting about Trump’s foreign policy and Trump told the group that he didn’t “want to go to ‘World War III’ over Ukraine.”
And I believe that’s what started the process of making clear to everybody who was on Trump’s foreign policy team that easing relations with Russia by easing sanctions, would be something that Trump would be open to. And I think a lot of what happens afterward you can fit into this broader framework of the question: What is Putin’s angle in all this? Well, Putin’s angle in all this is if he can get the Russian sanctions lifted, he’s a winner. And if Trump will help him do that, great. And even if Trump can’t help him, even if Trump doesn’t win the election, it can’t hurt that he’s created some chaos in a Western democracy, which clearly is what he intended and what happened.
Moyers: You mentioned Jeff Sessions. In his testimony to Congress last week, Sessions said it’s hard for him to remember meeting with, and conversations about, the Russians because the Trump campaign was in constant chaos. The fact that the campaign was in chaos certainly seems accurate, but would his excuse play at all in a trial?
Harper: No. And remember what Steve Schmidt, who was involved in John McCain’s campaign, said? He said he hopes that Jeff Sessions never gets a puppy because he’s not going to remember to feed it, he’s not going to remember to get it watered, he’s not going to remember to let it out. That puppy’s just going to be in terrible trouble.
But what’s interesting about Sessions to me is this: What Sessions said in his recent statements was, I haven’t remembered that Papadopoulos raised the issue of Trump meeting with Putin or members of the campaign meeting with representatives of Putin until I read about it in the news reports. But now that I’ve read about it, now I remember, and listen — I pushed back really hard and I said that it would not be appropriate for anyone to be meeting with a representative of a foreign government. All of the sudden, it’s like the light has gone on in Jeff Sessions’ head. Now, you have a situation sometimes in trials where a witness in a previous setting had sworn that he couldn’t remember something. And then six months or a year later, all of a sudden they have this epiphany and the memories came flooding out. And there’s something counterintuitive about somebody who says they remember more now about a specific event than they did a year earlier when asked about that same specific event. That just doesn’t play well with most juries.
And bear in mind, too, something else about Sessions that’s worth remembering that I doubt would necessarily be obvious to non-lawyers. Going into those Senate hearings, going into each one of those hearings, Sessions had to know that he was going to be asked about all of this stuff. And he had to know that he needed to be as familiar as he could be with whatever he could learn so that what he gave was truthful, straightforward, candid and ultimately something that the public and Congress would believe. And yet despite that, at each subsequent appearance, somehow there’s something new and the attorney general of the United States shrugs his shoulders and says, “Oh, I guess I did know that.”
My problem is, I want Sessions to hang on. I don’t want him not to be attorney general yet, because the minute that Sessions resigns or Trump fires him, then you have the door open to an acting attorney general, and I don’t want to live to see Scott Pruitt [head of the Environmental Protection Agency] or [former New York mayor and Trump ally] Rudy Giuliani become acting attorney general, which is something that Trump could do without even Senate confirmation. It doesn’t even have to be those two guys, because we know Trump has a plethora of cronies who will do whatever he says, because Trump says that’s what he wants, and if Trump says he wants Mueller fired, that to me is the disaster scenario for the country.
Moyers: So, to sum up for now: What’s the most innocent explanation for everything we know? What if all of this was simply Trump’s inexperienced people trying to establish diplomatic rapport with the Russians and hoping to reset America’s connection with Moscow?
Harper: Well, the most innocent explanation would be a level of incompetence and ignorance and stupidity that I honestly don’t think anyone could credibly believe, because the most innocent explanation is that Russia was launching a very sophisticated, multipronged intelligence operation and succeeded, but they succeeded because of the blind ambition and greed of the Trump organization coupled with a lack of judgment and intelligence and a fundamental failure to take into regard anything that would remotely look like patriotism when it came to the defense of democracy, subjugating all of that to the need to win. That’s the most innocent explanation. And I just don’t think all of them are that stupid.
Moyers: So what’s the most damning explanation for everything we know?
Harper: The most damning explanation is that the Russians launched a sophisticated intelligence operation. They found willing partners up and down the line throughout the Trump organization. And up and down throughout the Trump organization, as the details of that intelligence operation became known, the participants lied about it, lied about its existence, lied about their personal involvement in it and now they are all facing serious criminal jeopardy as a result.
Moyers: One more: I assume most people believe Russia’s interference in the election last year is a bad thing, a serious offense, but is it possible that by treating Vladimir Putin and his cronies as an existential threat, we’re playing directly into Putin’s hands and making him appear a more significant figure in the world than he really is?
Harper: Well, he’s already achieved that, but the problem is, what’s the alternative? Back in January, John McCain and Lindsey Graham were on national television acknowledging the seriousness of the Russian interference. McCain called it the cyber equivalent of “an act of war.” And if you acknowledge and recognize the existential threat, do you sit back and let the let the next thing happen in 2018 that Vladimir Putin wants to do? Remember, we have elections coming up next year. The uniform view of US intelligence is unambiguous, and if you don’t view it as an existential threat then you’re willing, I think, to sacrifice democracy.
We keep hearing, “Yeah, but Trump was still legitimately elected, he won the election fair and square.” Now we’re realizing that that may not even be true. I don’t personally believe that to be true anymore. I rankle every time somebody says he won fair and square, because that’s become less obvious every day. So the last line of defense would be, “Well, even if he didn’t win fair and square, he’s our president, so we’ve got to sit back and let whatever Putin’s going to do to us continue to happen because we don’t want our response to raise his standing in the world.” Well, I would submit it raises Putin’s standing in the world even more to have an accomplice in the White House.
Moyers: Thank you, Steve Harper.