ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast.
Joining me: Michael Schmidt, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter with The New York Times; Susan Glasser, staff writer and author of the weekly column Letter From Trump’s Washington for The New Yorker; and Rosalind Helderman, political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for her coverage of President Trump and the Russia probe.
President’s Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen pled guilty Thursday to lying to Congress about President Trump’s involvement in a plan to build a hotel, a Trump Tower, in Moscow. At the same time, Russia was escalating attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Cohen worked with Trump for many, many years as his fixer. And there are two other names, however, that come up in the Mueller probe that we want to talk about here: conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi and political strategist Roger Stone, both Trump loyalists, or Trump allies to say the least. Corsi refused a plea deal from the special counsel because he said he was being asked to lie by Mueller’s team. Stone is suspected of being a conduit between WikiLeaks and the Trump presidential campaign; it’s a charge that he denies.
Stone, Corsi – let’s start with Corsi, Ros. You think about this figure. He’s kind of popped out of nowhere to be this major figure in the last few weeks. What do you make of Corsi and what it tells us about Mueller’s probe?
ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Yeah, this is such a sort of strange collection of characters in this portion of the story. Jerome Corsi, InfoWars guy, the guy who really kind of popularized and help bring to Donald Trump’s attention the fake birther theory that President Obama was not born in this country. He seems key, as far as we can tell, because he has now said that he told Roger Stone in August 2016 that WikiLeaks had John Podesta’s emails. That’s sort of astounding. He claims that he sort of just surmised this; he looked at what had been released by the – by the WikiLeaks in July, didn’t see Podesta emails, and decided they must have John Podesta’s emails. You know, maybe not so surprisingly, apparently the special counsel’s office does not believe that, and they have been pressuring him to find out who his link to WikiLeaks was so that they can kind of draw a link – WikiLeaks, Corsi, Stone, then maybe Trump.
MR. COSTA: Susan, talking about WikiLeaks and Russia, how do you see that link? Is there a link between Russian intelligence at some level, based on a lot of reporting, and WikiLeaks and Julian Assange? Because that seems to be the key, as Mueller looks at it at least.
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, that’s right. I mean, again, it does appear from what has been publicly available and what has been reported, you know, by many journalistic colleagues in addition, that they’re – essentially, WikiLeaks operated as a dissemination arm for Russian intelligence – the GRU, which is the Russian military intelligence – in the case of the 2016 U.S. election hacking. And, you know, if you reconceive, then, potentially of, you know, how we’ve thought about WikiLeaks in general, not as some crusading global entity but perhaps as a – it started out that way, who knows – but essentially became captured, or that one of their major sources of information and the function that they seem to have served for a number of years was as a conduit for Russian disinformation or information and having that be weaponized to affect, by the way, the political process not just in the United States, but in the U.K., in other European elections. And so I think that really changes how we should think about WikiLeaks and even just the nature of what this entity is.
MR. COSTA: What about Roger Stone? His phone calls with President Trump under scrutiny by Robert Mueller, Mike?
MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Yeah, and a lot more than his phone calls; the entire relationship and what was going from WikiLeaks to the campaign. And an interesting wrinkle in the Corsi bit this week is that Corsi put out his plea deal, his draft plea deal that he never signed with Mueller’s office, and in it was a line about how Corsi knew that the president was in touch with Stone. And what we found out was that several weeks ago, as Trump was preparing to send in his responses to the questions from Mueller, his lawyers found out about this language in the plea deal, and they thought to the average eye it looked like Mueller was trying to say the president was an unindicted co-conspirator. And this really bothered them, and they slammed the brakes on sending in the responses until they got assurances from Mueller’s office that something larger was not afoot. They sent them in. Now they see the Cohen deal this week, where Cohen pleads guilty; they still think something else is going on.
MR. COSTA: Ros, can you explain that in the sense of how did Jerome Corsi and Trump’s lawyers have this kind of knowledge about each other’s activities and their standing? Is there an agreement of sorts, some relationship?
MS. HELDERMAN: Well, it’s interesting, there is an agreement. They are in a joint defense agreement, so the lawyers are sharing information. But our understanding is that Trump’s team did not receive the agreement through that agreement; in fact, they received it through another party that has not yet been identified. You can only imagine how angry that has likely made the special counsel’s office, that they are in confidential plea negotiations with someone – you know, that usually happens because they believe that they are giving them a good deal; they are not charging that person with as much as they could be charged with – and somehow that information ends up in the hand of the president’s attorneys.
MR. COSTA: How would that happen, Ros?
MS. HELDERMAN: Let’s wait and find out.
MR. COSTA: You have a thought, Susan, on this?
MS. GLASSER: Well, you know, I mean, just in general, I would like to just pull out for a second to say, like, you know, the details are so extraordinary they’re each worth lavishing time over. It’s just breathtaking, though, to, you know, examine any one of these in the context of what we know about the American presidency. And, you know, I just – I feel like that’s worth saying at least once in conversation. For example, the idea of the president of the United States being in a joint defense agreement with someone like this figure of Jerome Corsi is truly breathtaking to me. You know, we’re talking about a kind of conspiracy theorist, propagandist, as you pointed out one of the leading people to advance the false conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. OK, this is, again, really extraordinary. Today you had the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, put out a statement from the White House, an official government statement – she’s an official; she’s a paid government employee of the United States – talking about the hoax, the rigged witch hunt hoax that the government of the United States is apparently carrying out against the president of the United States. Again, this is not something that we should just sort of say, like, oh, well, you know, isn’t that just a quirk of this White House. Regardless of how these legal issues play out, I just – this week has been one of those weeks that, for me, that’s really hit home.
MR. COSTA: Susan, you’ve spent – sorry, Mike.
MR. SCHMIDT: But you don’t even mention the most –
MS. GLASSER: (Chuckles.) No, I didn’t mention the –
MR. COSTA: She can’t mention everything.
MR. SCHMIDT: No, no, no, hold on, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. But this week, Rudy Giuliani said that they were getting real-time information from Paul Manafort’s lawyer, Paul Manafort who was cooperating, and Rudy said that Mueller’s investigators were pressuring Manafort to give up information that Trump knew about this 2016 meeting that his son had with Russians offering dirt. And Giuliani’s saying that they – that they didn’t believe Manafort when he said he didn’t know anything about that. And that is, like, I mean – we lose perspective a lot. And to just hear that and to think that Mueller’s investigators think that Manafort’s not telling the truth when they say that – when he says, you know, I don’t think the president knew about the meeting. I mean, if you’re the president’s lawyers, that’s a troubling development.
MR. COSTA: What do you think about that, Ros, about the Manafort and the Mueller relationship?
MS. HELDERMAN: I mean, it’s extraordinary. And, you know, the amount of topics about which we may find that they – I mean, there was some reporting from The Wall Street Journal that one of the topics that they believe that Manafort was lying about was his relationship with this Russian assistant he had who ran his Kiev office, Konstantin Kilimnik. Konstantin Kilimnik has been assessed by the U.S. government to have ties to Russian intelligence. He met with Paul Manafort in the spring of 2016 and then on August 2nd of 2016, right in the heart of the Russian interference in the election. He was his liaison to the – to the oligarch. He was Paul Manafort’s liaison to the oligarch, Deripaska, Oleg Deripaska. So if Bob Mueller believes that Paul Manafort has not been honest about his contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik, that is an extraordinarily interesting development.
MR. COSTA: When you think about all these Russian figures, does anything stand out about these relationships with Manafort?
You mentioned a little bit of this during the show, Susan, but any thoughts on that?
MS. GLASSER: Yeah. Well, you mentioned Deripaska. I brought him up on the show as well because he is the central nexus in a way connecting Manafort and his activities inside Ukraine for the, essentially, deposed former President Viktor Yanukovych, who is Russia supported, and Deripaska, a Kremlin-connected oligarch, you know, and gateway into the world of Russian money.
And, you know, again, I just can’t emphasize enough for people, like, this is extraordinary, the people who are in business with figures who are some of the wealthiest and most potentially corrupt figures you could deal with on an international level. To have them brought into the United States campaign and, again –
MR. COSTA: What about even Vladimir Putin? There were reports that Felix Sater, I believe, an associate of Michael Cohen, there was talk of a $50 million penthouse apartment in Trump Tower Moscow for Putin.
MS. GLASSER: Right. So I’m glad you brought this up because this is one thing I have to say. First of all, can you imagine any normal country in which you would think that it made sense if you wanted to do a real estate deal that you would get in touch with the president of the country? No, unless you were corrupt, you assumed the president, you know, him or herself to be corrupt and those around him. Presidents don’t decide on real estate deals unless there’s a system that is not functioning in a transparent manner – number one.
Number two, you know, the Russian system is a system of basically state-captured corruption. And Putin sits at the top of it. He’s been reported by U.S. sources, who have looked into this, to be worth extraordinary sums of money and the idea that this was the dream of Donald Trump to do business with these people.
Also, again, I come back to in the middle of the presidential campaign, OK? So this – if I told you, without any names, like, well, there’s a story about a presidential candidate of one country, who has a decent chance to become the president of that country, who wants to get into business with the president of another country and is asking for their help –
MR. COSTA: Right. Well, the question – the question is, does it break norms or break the law?
MS. GLASSER: Or both.
MR. COSTA: Final thought. When you look back at this week, who – I know you don’t want to speculate, but based on your reporting, who’s more important, who could be a bigger headache for President Trump? Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort?
MS. HELDERMAN: Oh, God, that’s a hard one.
MR. COSTA: Ros?
MS. HELDERMAN: I mean, I think they’re both extraordinary headaches. I don’t know that I can choose between them. Mike?
MR. SCHMIDT: I think it’s Cohen because, you know, Manafort has at least shown willing to allow his lawyers to talk with the president’s lawyers about what’s going on. It wasn’t happening on Cohen’s side. Mueller just tore up his agreement with Manafort. I’m sure Mueller didn’t want to do that, so they’re sort of averse to each other.
And always, you know, there’s an interesting transparency about what the president says sometimes publicly, has stood by Manafort time and time again publicly, not stood by Cohen.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.