OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS
On Monday, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 campaign broke open with public charges against Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his business associate, Rick Gates, for money laundering and conspiracy. It was also revealed that a junior aide, George Papadopoulos, had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia on behalf of the Trump campaign — and is cooperating with Mueller. We turned to OZY senior columnist and former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin for insight on the new revelations.
How much trouble is Paul Manafort in?
John McLaughlin: This is very serious. Bob Mueller, the special counsel, is someone who approaches these things with great care. When he offers evidence, it’s because he has great confidence that it’s going to hold up in court. So I think this is a serious situation for Manafort, even though he pleaded not guilty Monday.
How is all this linked to the Trump campaign?
McLaughlin: There are some linkages. But I don’t believe the information about Manafort establishes collusion. That’s a difficult concept to deal with legally. But certainly Monday’s evidence thickens the smoke. The way in which this is linked to the campaign is that Manafort was at a meeting in June when the Russian lawyer came offering evidence of Hillary Clinton’s wrongdoing that would help Trump. And Manafort cannot claim naiveté over this in the way that, say, Donald Trump Jr. could claim to be inexperienced. Manafort had been around Russians and Ukrainians and had worked closely with a Vladimir Putin ally in Ukraine.
Manafort was there, and so he may be in a position to say how that meeting came about. Did anything happen after it that we don’t know about? Was the offer accepted? Those are things he can explain. The indictment of George Papadopoulos also constitutes the second documented evidence of Russia reaching out to the Trump campaign to offer assistance in targeting Hillary Clinton. So while we don’t know a lot about how that information was received, used or followed up on, it’s clear that there was intent by the Russians to offer assistance, and there was not immediate rejection of that on the Trump side. Nor did anyone from the campaign report to the FBI that a foreign power was offering to provide information — presumably and possibly illegally obtained — on Hillary Clinton. Remember, this offer from the Russians came in April 2016, about a month after the first WikiLeaks release of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails and six months before the U.S. government formally charged the Russians with responsibility for the hack.
Will Manafort shed more light on that meeting, or is this arrest an indication that he’s not cooperating?
McLaughlin: There may not yet be a final decision on his part. We simply have no visibility on whether there are negotiations under way between his attorneys and the special counsel. At this point we have no evidence that he’s cooperating. It would make some sense that he would want to bargain a bit before agreeing to cooperate.
There’s also a message here, in the way that Mueller has dropped this news, to other individuals who may be worried about being targets of this investigation: First is the example of Papadopoulos, who was arrested in July and at some point between July and October agreed to cooperate and has some kind of plea bargain arrangement — and may have even been gathering evidence secretly for the special counsel during that period. The other example they’re looking at is someone who did not agree to cooperate and who’s been indicted by a grand jury and is in serious legal jeopardy.
With these two indictments, I think the special counsel protects himself from being fired — unless Trump does something truly foolish. A month ago the president would have kicked up a lot of controversy by firing Mueller, whom he has criticized vigorously; Trump has even called this investigation a hoax. Firing Mueller would have led to very bad things for Trump, but he might have gotten away with it. Now, however, it’s very difficult to see how he could consider firing him without exposing himself to serious charges from Congress.
What would it take to prove collusion?
McLaughlin: Collusion is very difficult to prove in a legal sense. I hear lawyers say that collusion is not well defined legally. So I think to prove it here you would have to have irrefutable evidence that members of the Trump campaign in authoritative positions either reached out to Russia to accept information or to guide Russian efforts to interfere and then used Russian assistance in some way that materially affected the campaign and the outcome of the election. I think the bar would be very high to establish collusion to everyone’s satisfaction.
What do you make of recent revelations that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped pay for the famous “dossier” on Trump?
McLaughlin: If I understand it correctly, Christopher Steele, the British intelligence veteran, did not start working on this problem until the DNC took over the contract from the company that was originally hired by Republicans to do research on Trump. As an intelligence veteran reading that dossier, one of the thoughts I have is in dealing with sources: What you get from them depends to a large degree on how you ask the question. If you ask the question in terms of “what do you know about Russian attitudes toward the American election campaign,” you might get one answer. If you ask the question in terms of whether Russia is doing anything to help Donald Trump in the election campaign, you’re probably going to get a different answer. And if the source is being paid and senses that you’re looking for certain information, with human sources you always have to ask: Are they telling me what I want to hear? This is why professional intelligence officers subject human-agent reporting to rigorous vetting and feel obliged to characterize a source’s reliability and reporting record.
Not knowing who the source is, or whether the source had some intent, I think the net result makes the contents of the dossier harder to judge. That said, some of what’s in the dossier seems to resonate with what we are learning. The first message in the dossier, for example, talks about the Russian government’s willingness to provide information to the Trump campaign that is harmful to Clinton. That message is dated June 2016, around the time of the meeting with Donald Trump Jr. But, fundamentally, I think the more we learn about the dossier from an intelligence perspective, the harder it is to judge its reliability.