I had the good fortune of talking to David Corn this week, who, with Yahoo! News’s Michael Isikoff, has written what is sure to be remembered as one of the best books on the 2016 election, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. Corn, an investigative journalist and Washington DC bureau chief for Mother Jones, was the first person to reveal the existence of the Steele dossier to the media in October 2016, and Isikoff was one of the first journalists to learn about the dossier, at a confidential meeting in September of that year. During the course of our conversation, we spoke about the media and the Obama Administration’s reticence to warn Americans of the ongoing attack on our democracy, James Comey’s decisions regarding the investigations of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and how ordinary Americans observing this story can contextualize the information that we have been given.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
JF: Congratulations on the book. I read it in a day. When did you and Michael Isikoff decide to write it, and how long did it take?
DC: Thank you. We started working on it early in January 2017, and it took a little over a year to finish, around January of 2018.
A lot has happened in that time, and I think the book is so useful for people who want to have all this information in chronological, easy-to-understand order.
That was part of the value we saw in writing it. It was difficult to think of doing a book about a scandal for which there are still some big questions remaining, but so much has already come, and so much of it from the same fire hose that blasts people every single day. It’s not until you put it in a comprehensive, narrative form that you really gather a deeper understanding of what’s happened over the last two years.
That’s one of the things that struck me as I read it, was how much I had forgotten because of the ADHD of the news cycle.
Stories come and go way too quickly without society processing their implications. One of the things I’m grateful for in the last week is that tens of thousands of people have purchased a book because they actually want to get off the hamster wheel and get a deeper perspective tying a lot of the bits and pieces together. Frankly, I wasn’t sure it would be received that way when you’re competing with a daily barrage of news and pseudo-news, but it’s succeeded in finding this audience who cares a lot about this particular issue and wants to become more deeply informed than they could be by looking at tweets and Facebook posts.
What do you make of Facebook’s recent attempts to deflect responsibility for their aiding and abetting the Cambridge Analytica data theft?
One of the biggest problems with Facebook is that it has become all-encompassing, and so much of what happens on it is governed by algorithms that are not shared with the public. When issues do come up where they deny anything’s wrong, they act as if they’re above any possible wrongdoing, but then it turns out their practices are not always benign, so they end up getting caught again and again and have to reverse previous statements. I think there’s a larger problem with Facebook having so much influence over how people get and share information, when for a big monopoly, it’s pretty much a black box that’s not open to public scrutiny.
When did you first realize the Kremlin was attempting to interfere?
We had indications during the campaign itself, obviously, like the hack of the DNC. When those emails were leaked before the Democratic Convention in July, it seemed as though this was a purposeful campaign. Then there were Democratic members of Congress who knew more than they could say [such as Harry Reid] talking about the needs for investigating Russian interference, and contacts between Trump associates and Russia. Throughout September and October of 2016, I was picking up and hearing from people near the National Security establishment that there was tremendous concern about Trump’s ties to Russia that could be his own, the ties of associates, or the Russians trying to influence him, but no one was willing to talk much about it.
I remember reading you during the campaign and thinking you had your nose to the ground in a way many others didn’t.
I kept working throughout October trying to follow up, and I just wasn’t able to nail anything down, like several other reporters who were working on this bit. My co-author, Michael Isikoff, had put out a story in September saying that government investigators were interested in Carter Page. It was just one small slice of it, but I kept getting a sense that there was something grander than that. It wasn’t until I made contact with Christopher Steele at the end of October, in which he told me he’d been working for months with the FBI in some capacity and I saw the memos he had written, that it struck me that there was a strong chance that there was a much more extensive FBI investigation, and the memos certainly suggested that there was a big deal there.
We know now that the FBI had its own counterintelligence investigation into Donald Trump, but why didn’t James Comey admit it publicly, the way he did with the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails?
Because the Hillary Clinton investigation was a criminal investigation that came about because the matter [of her private email server] had been referred to the Department of Justice by the State Department and the intelligence community. You can argue that Comey went too far when he said the investigation had been concluded [in July 2016], but he was handling it as response to a criminal investigation. The Trump-Russia investigation, which began in July 2016, was a counterintelligence investigation, and those things are highly, highly classified and top-secret. Not only are they never revealed, often they do not produce criminal indictments. The point of them is to gather everything you can about the suspects and use it to your advantage. You don’t want to reveal to your suspects that they might be under surveillance, because if someone was a Russian agent, they might start destroying their emails and ceasing their activity while you’re still trying to learn what you can about it.
So, if Comey had said “Yes, we have a counterintelligence investigation into Donald Trump’s ties with Russia,” then the suspects might’ve acted in a way that hindered the investigation from moving forward.
That said, he still felt he could speak publicly in October of 2016 when he reopened the email investigation.
I’m not saying this to say that he did the right thing, but in terms of the broad picture, I’m explaining how someone in that position would look at the differences between these two types of investigations and how that might affect how he talked about, or, didn’t talk about, them in public.
You were the first person in the media to reveal the existence of Christopher Steele’s dossier. The memos, as we know now, were raw intelligence, and they were never fully processed and finalized because the investigation abruptly ended after Comey wrote his letter. What would be different had all the documents in the dossier been finalized?
That’s a misunderstanding of Steele’s process. Often, intelligence reports say, “Source A says this, source B says that” and the collector evaluates the data, writing, “This person’s a liar, this person’s a trustworthy source,” etc. They don’t often come to a conclusion about what it means because it’s meant as material for the analyst, or prosecutor, or someone else to determine accuracy. Steele was sending Fusion GPS material that he had heard, expecting it would and should remain private, and that they would then evaluate it and determine its usefulness.
One of the more interesting parts of that story in our book is that Glenn Simpson was almost upset that Steele was sending him stuff involving Trump’s personal contacts in these allegations. He was looking for a solid lead, like a business deal we didn’t know about, that he could give to reporters. In the initial memos, Simpson was focused on Carter Page’s trips to Moscow to discuss lifting sanctions, which would be something that an American journalist could confirm, because making confirmations in the memos themselves was not part of Steele’s job assignment. His job was to gather the raw intelligence (or, as we call it in the media, “the leads”) and send it on to Simpson so he could direct him with what to find out more about next.
There’s a rumor that when Trump read the list of names on his foreign policy team to the Washington Post in March 2016, he was reading it for the first time and didn’t actually know about the hires prior to that moment. Is that true?…
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Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.