This week on Freak Out And Carry On, Ron Suskind and Heather Cox Richardson talk with Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. He's currently writing a book, with David Corn, investigating the Trump-Russia connection. They discussed the indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, and comparisons to Richard Nixon and James Buchanan.
Ron Suskind: What a week. We are all now inside of a new novel. A powerful, exhausting and absolutely irresistible novel. The wheels of justice turning. Bob Mueller indicted two associates of Trump. Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign chairman, and Rick Gates, a longtime aide. The charges include money laundering and failing to register as a foreign lobbyist. This is big news. And Trump tweets out after this big news pops "no collusion." Then, literally, like a call and respond, the second shoe drops. And we learned that Muller has also been sitting on a guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump. Papadopoulo seems to be working with Mueller now. He was arrested in July and at that point, based on all estimations, it seems as though he has been wired or a source. We don't have a smoking gun yet showing collusion with Russia. But we have lots of intent.
Heather Cox Richardson: I expected somebody very low to be indicted. And when I picked up my phone in the morning and saw the first two indictments I was shocked at the level. And then of course I saw the thing about Papadopoulos coming down and and I got very quiet and introspective all of a sudden. I actually sat down and I wrote a letter to my children. By God we are a nation of laws and you people have apparently broken those laws and we are going to hold you accountable. It was the moment when politics became law and the very central moment of what America is all about. And to me it was a profoundly moving moment. And I made sure to mark it not just in a letter to my children but I also said to my students, "This is not a partisan moment. This is a moment when the American government is asserting itself as the beating heart of our democracy."
Michael Isikoff: There was a lot of meat on the bone and and we learned a lot [in the indictments]. Let's start with Papadopoulos, because in some ways that's the more significant one because it relates to what was going on in the campaign. The Russian government was making a concerted effort to cultivate and ultimately penetrate the Trump campaign. There were stories about the intercepts had been picked up by the NSA showing some sort of communications but we never had any details about that. Now to be fair to the Trump folks it is not clear how well and to what extent they followed up on Papadopoulos' offers to set up meetings. We know of no meeting beyond the Trump Tower meeting that actually took place. But the e-mails, as laid out in the court papers and the statement of offense, are suggestive. Manafort at one point gets involved and says well we can't have "D.T."--Donald Trump--taking such a meeting but it might be OK to have some lower level person do it. The Russians made a concerted effort to influence our election. They spent money to do so. They took out ads covertly through fake accounts in Facebook. That was only one facet of a multi-dimensional, unprecedented campaign by the Kremlin to interfere and meddle in our elections. That included hacking the Democratic National Committee. Hacking into voter registration databases at the state level and doing very sinister information warfare campaign on Twitter, on Facebook, on YouTube. All of which was designed to disrupt our democratic process. The U.S. intelligence community concluded that the purpose was to denigrate Hillary Clinton and promote Donald Trump.
Ron Suskind: It's almost like if you line up Trump, the Russians, and Julian Assange from WikiLeaks, they are really working in a coordinated integrated effort as though they are one campaign.
Isikoff: It sure looks pretty damning. But we don't have that smoking gun yet. And that I say "yet", that's perhaps unfair. We don't have that smoking gun. We have a lot of really suspicious communications and events when lined up can look really damning. But in a court room you'd still have to come up with the witness who can say, "yes I was there. I heard Donald Trump or Donald Trump Jr. or Steve Bannon or Jared Kushner say "we need to get in touch with the Russians about this or we need to wait to hear from Moscow about this." You know we don't have that we don't have the John Dean. Right now, we have George Papadopoulos. And while it's fascinating reading on Papadopoulos, he is not a John Dean.
Suskind: Let's place John Dean. He was special counsel to the president, President Richard Nixon. He was young. And he is the person who turns. He steps in front of the hot lights of the Senate committee and he lays out the letter and verse of what happened with Watergate how Nixon covered it up. And he says, famously, there is a cancer on the presidency.
Isikoff: Well every scandal is sui generis. They're all unique, in and of themselves. So it's a little difficult to compare them. But we need that John Dean, the insider who can step forward and say I was there and now I want to tell you the truth, I want to tell you what was really going on. And we just don't know if Mueller is going to get one here. Clearly I think they would have loved to have flipped Manafort.
Cox Richardson: What we're really looking at, it seems to me, in some ways is what technology has done to democracy. Nixon certainly did this kind of information stuff. But for him that was hiring individuals to write letters to newspapers and how many letters can you write to how many newspapers? Now we can weaponize knowledge and technology in such a way that all we can do sizable damage.
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