Everyone is now pretty familiar with Luke Harding’s devastating encounter with Aaron Maté of the Real News. But it can stand a lot of repeating. So we are airing it here. Luke was clearly not prepared for an interview with someone interested in establishing facts and questioning his assumptions. It quickly becomes apparent his facts are few and his assumptions unable to withstand even the slightest objective analysis. In fact he is revealed for what he is – a shallow pseudo-journalist with edges of paranoia and some genuine areas of insanity whose fantasies are routinely indulged by an establishment media that finds his extreme russophobia and ability to believe his own brazen lies very very useful. For interest compare this interview with the kind of easy ride Harding usually gets.
The transcript was provided for us by ChrisG
Aaron Maté: This is the real News, I’m Aaron Maté. 2017 is almost over, but Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is not. In fact, the Washington Post reports that Mueller’s probe could last another year, through much of 2018 at a minimum. The prospect is sure to annoy President Trump, who has been hampered by the Russia story throughout his first year in office. Well, according to a bestselling new book, Trump has ample reason to worry. The book is called “Collusion: secret meetings, dirty money and how Russia helped Donald Trump win”. I’m joined here by the book’s author, Luke Harding veteran journalist for The Guardian and the paper’s former Moscow correspondent. Luke, welcome! Let’s start with the book’s title. Do you think there actually was collusion?
Luke Harding: I think we’re already across the line in terms of collusion. I I think actually you have to go back a long way to see when it began, Donald Trump’s first trip to Soviet Moscow in 1987, er paid for er by the Soviet Union, when he was discussing hotel deals, er um and I think we can say, and I’m sure this is something Robert Mueller is looking at, that there’s a kind of [WAVES HAND] long term um relationship. That doesn’t mean Donald Trump is an agent or a KGB colonel, merely that there’s been a kind of transactional deal, um going back a very long way indeed.
AM: Thank you for that, because that’s also an assertion of the infamous Steele Dossier, that there’s been a transactional relationship between Trump and the Kremlin, and that Putin has been cultivating Trump for several years now. But explain why you think that is, and why you think there’s evidence of a transactional relationship.
LH: [WAVES HANDS] Well I I think er you just have to kind of look at look at what’s happened. You had Donald Trump’s trip back in the late Cold War period. I talked to a whole number of sources for this book, some in Moscow, some in London, some in Washington, some defectors. I met with Christopher Steele, the author of the Dossier as well.
And I think what you have to understand is the fact that the Soviet state and its Russian successor is very keen on cultivating people, particularly Americans, and um um [WAVES ARM] bringing Trump over for this kind of trip was pretty unusual, it was it was what’s known in the intelligence trade as a classic [AIR QUOTES] “cultivation operation” and we know from a leaked KGB memo the kind of person they were looking for in this period was someone who was vain, er narcissistic, interested in money, perhaps unfaithful in their marriage, and basically Donald Trump ticks every single box, and when I was researching this I um um tracked down the daughters of the Soviet ambassador at the time who went up to Trump Tower, flattered Trump and said [WAVES ARMS] “you’ve built the most wonderful building in America.”
And so it goes on, and I think it’s gone through phases. Moscow has been interested in Trump, not interested in him, and again most recently according to the Steele Dossier um became more interested in him from about 2012-2013 onwards, at a time when Donald Trump was the foremost exponent of Birtherism , Obama was in office, and of course we have the famous trip to Moscow by Trump in 2013 for the Miss Universe beauty pageant.
AM: OK. But where then is the proof of a transactional relationship?
LH: Well [WAVES ARM] I I I mean um there are secret meetings as the book says, that we now know about, some of which we we um um have discovered about in the last few months. We have Donald Trump Jr meeting um with a Russian lawyer, now famous, Natalia Veselnitskaya, having been promised information [AIR QUOTES] “from the Russian Government” as part of its campaign to support Mr Trump and to hurt Hillary Clinton. We have four indictments by Robert Mueller er um –
AM: Look, let’s stop you there. Stop you there. If –
AM: If we already have a transactional relationship between Trump and Russia going back to the late 80s, as you say, then why would they have needed a music publicist to set up this meeting? I mean presumably that level of relationship would have entailed some high level contacts that wouldn’t have needed an intermediary like this kooky music publicist Rob Goldstone?
LH: Yeah, and I think [CLEARS THROAT] what you have to understand about Russian espionage is that it’s not Vladimir Putin sitting in a cave er flicking a red switch er and thIngs happening [WAVES ARMS] across the continental United States. It doesn’t work like that. It’s opportunistic, it’s very often pretty low budget, er the kind of the hacking operation to hack the Democratic Party was done by two separate groups of kind of Kremlin hackers probably not earning kind of huge sums of of of money, and and so some if it is kind of improvisational.
The most important thing is that you have people with access which in this case is Donald Trump and his entourage. And so the oligarch involved is someone called Agalarov who hosted Trump in 2013, and you’re right, the music publicist is a bit of a curious guy called Goldstone, but nonetheless it worked. He managed to bring the Moscow lawyer to Trump Tower and set up this meeting which by the way the Trump team said nothing about until it finally leaked out in the summer, a year almost after it happened.
AM: Right, but their explanation is that the meeting had nothing to do with the emails that were later released by um you know Wikileaks. It was about the lawyer was offering compromising information about Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia, and in return she wanted some assistance in lifting sanctions, which has nothing to do with the whole Wikileaks aspect.
LH: Well I think Donald Trump Jr didn’t know that when he took the meeting so it’s about intentionality. Um and meanwhile we have George Papadopolos, former policy aide to Donald Trump, who in the spring of last year was running around my town, London, meeting a mysterious professor who features in Mueller’s indictment who has contacts er to Moscow, who tells Papadopolos –
AM: Hold on, let’s take a look. He tells Papadopolos that he has contacts to Moscow. We actually have no clue what those contacts are. His name is Joseph Massoud, he’s a professor in the UK right now, Papadopolos claims that Massoud told him that he has high level Russian government contacts but so far there’s been even no proof of that.
LH: Well, it’s in the indictment, I I [WAVES ARMS] either you kind of live in the empirical world or you don’t, but I mean –
AM: No, in the empirical world, in the indictment Massoud claims that or Papadopolos says that Massoud claims that he had Russian government ties, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
LH: Well no but when you know when a lot of journalists in the US and elsewhere have obviously tried to get in touch with Mr er Professor Massoud to try and talk to him, and we haven’t had um much um luck. But I think I think you have to kind of understand the context, which is that what happened in the US last year isn’t off course from other kinds of Russian influence operations particularly where I sit in in Europe. This is not a new movie, it’s kind of an old movie. There’s been quite a lot [WAVES ARM] of Russian intelligence activity you see, um over the years, including most spectacularly the murder in 2006 of the Russian dissident called Alexander Litvinyenko with a radioactive cup of tea. Um I wrote a book about this um case, which came out in the US earlier this year, there was a kind of huge public enquiry. So there’s a volume of evidence, forensic, scientific, intelligence, to support this, and I think that this is this is –
AM: Sorry, sorry , support what?
LH: To support the fact that that that [WAVES HAND] essentially the the level of espionage from Russia at the moment is [WAVES BOTH ARMS] comparable to [inaudible] levels [inaudible] and what happens is [inaudible] influence operations if you like, but how effective it was, whether it pushed Donald Trump over the line, whether he was going to win anyway, erm and so on, but I mean I think that Russia played a role in last year’s election is is is a matter of fact, I mean it’s certainly what US intelligence agencies believe. Practically everybody recognises it apart from Donald Trump who equivocates or something.
AM: I have to tell you, just because US intelligence agencies say something, and by the way it’s not even all the intelligence agencies, it’s a hand-picked group assembled under the outgoing president Barack Obama by James Clapper, they say something but you know I’m speaking of empirical evidence. They presented no empirical evidence and they still haven’t. So I don’t understand why we’re supposed to take that on faith.
LH: Well, I mean you don‘t take anything on faith, obviously you seek to verify and to be evidential and [WAVES ARM] to kind of follow leads wherever they go, but when writing my book I mean I talked to a lot of people, one of whom was Steele, but I talked to other sources as well erm, and I I think people who are [WAVES ARM] sort of sceptical about the whole kind of Russia [AIR QUOTES] “thesis”, and it sounds to me that you are one of those people, –
AM: Yeah. Yes, I am.
LH: Yeah, right, [GRINS] you don’t kind of appreciate the nature of Vladimir Putin’s state, ah ah I mean I lived there for four years, I was there between 2007 and 2011, I was eventually kind of kicked out [WAVES ARM] for for writing stories about kleptocracy, about um Putin’s fortune, er er about human rights, about journalists, um I’m not sure if you know but some of my [WAVES HAND] friends in Moscow, journalists, have been murdered, um this is not a nice or benign regime. It’s –
AM: I’m certainly not arguing that Vladimir Putin is a nice person or that he has great policies, but to me that doesn’t automatically mean that he waged a massive influence campaign that got Donald Trump elected, and part of the reason why I’m sceptical about that is that still there’s actual – there’s zero evidence so far. There’s a lot of supposition and er innuendo.
LH: Look, I’m a journalist. I’m a storyteller. I’m not a kind of [WAVES ARM] head of the CIA or the NSA. But what I can tell you is that there have been similar operations in France, most recently when President Macron was elected —
AM: Well actually Luke that’s not true. That’s actually that’s straight up not true. After that election the French cyber-intelligence agency came out and said it could have been virtually anybody.
LH: Yeah. But, if you’ll let me finish, there’ve been attacks on the German parliament —
AM: Okay, so, so, but wait Luke, do you concede that the France hack that you just claimed didn’t happen?
LH: [PAUSE] What — that it didn’t happen? Sorry?
AM: Do you concede that the Russian hacking of the French election that you just claimed actually is not true?
LH: [PAUSE] Well, I mean… that it’s not true? I mean [WAVES ARM] the French report was inconclusive, but you have to look at this kind of contextually. We’ve seen other attacks on European states as well from Russia, they have very kind of advanced cyber capabilities.
AM: Where else?
AM: Where else?
LH: Well, Estonia. Have you heard of Estonia? It’s a state in the Baltics [MATÉ SCOFFS] which was crippled by a massive cyber attack in 2008, which certainly all kind of western European and former eastern European states think [WAVES ARM] was carried out by Moscow. I mean I was in Moscow at the time, when relations between the two countries were extremely bad. This is a kind of ongoing [AIR QUOTES] “thing”. Now you might say, quite legitimately, well the US does the same thing, the UK does the same thing, and I think to a certain extent [WAVES ARM] that is certainly right. I think what was different last year was the attempt [WAVES ARM] to kind of dump this stuff out into kind of US public space and try and influence public opinion there. That’s unusual, um, and of course that’s a matter of congressional inquiry and something Mueller is looking at too.
AM: Right. But again, my problem here is that the examples that are frequently presented to substantiate claims of this massive Russian hacking operation around the world prove turn out to be false. So France as I mentioned; you also mentioned Germany. There was a lot of worry about Russian hacking of the German elections, but it turned out — and there’s plenty of articles since then that have acknowledged this — that actually there was no Russian hacking of Germany.
LH: I mean, I’m afraid there was hacking of the Bundestag, the German Parliament, in 2003, I spent four years as correspondent in Berlin. I do understand your scepticism but I think maybe [WAVES HAND] you just might go to Moscow for a couple of weeks, talk to human rights people, there’s a fantastic um organisation there called Memorial, meet [WAVES HAND] Alexei Navalny, um who’s the main kind of opposition candidate there, he’s an anti-corruption campaigner whose brother has been jailed for his activities, and he’s been disqualified by the Kremlin from [WAVES ARM] standing in the elections. Just talk to people, ask them about Kremlin hacking, ask them about [inaudible]. I mean talk to Russians on this. I mean er um –
AM: The Russians I’ve spoken to – and again obviously I can’t speak to everybody, the ones I’ve spoken to think all this is ridiculous. [PAUSE FOR RESPONSE, NONE COMES] Um, and again, I’m not arguing that the Russian government is not a repressive right wing state, it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s managed to elect a president. And let me ask you –
LH: Sorry, what do you think Russian spies do? Do they sit around having cups of tea?
AM: I think they – Luke, come on! I think Russian spy agencies do what all spy agencies do, they carry out the government’s interests abroad. But again, I don’t see how you get from that to “they pulled off a massive conspiracy to elect a president” based on the fact that back when Donald Trump was hosting The Apprentice they had the foresight to see a future US president they were going to get elected.
LH: Nah, I mean that’s a kind of caricature of sort of précis of what’s happening –
AM: But it’s true! According to the Steele Dossier they cultivated Trump when he was hosting The Apprentice.
LH: Well I mean, they cultivated Trump I’ve got no doubt about, um by the way talk to, I’ve talked to a lot of people about Steele. I mean he was a kind of British intelligence guy for 22 years, he spent 3 years in Soviet Moscow between 1990 and 1993 when he saw the kind of collapse of this empire first hand, the end of Communism. He – you may not like it but he’s actually regarded in London and Washington as being pretty kind of credible, and ah before the Trump Dossier he produced a series of other reports including on the war in Ukraine in 2014 using the same sources that he used for his his sort of Trump memos which actually were [WAVES HAND] were true, read by the State Department even read by John Kerry when he was US Secretary of State. So, um, there is a kind of context to all this, ah um –
AM: Look, Luke, why should we care if people who we haven’t met, anonymous officials, say that this British, this ex-British spy, who was hired by Donald Trump’s political opponents, first of all Fusion then the Clinton campaign, say that he’s credible? What matters is the evidence, and whether there is evidence of Steele’s claim that Donald Trump hired prostitutes and that Putin has a tape of that. I mean, you I’m sure agree that these are pretty wild claims, and instead of just believing them based on the fact that some people say he’s credible, we should have evidence.
LH: [PAUSE] Did you read my book, by the way?
AM: Well listen. I did what I usually do when I do a book interview.
AM: No listen, I skimmed through it. I have some parts that I want to quote for you.
AM: So listen. No, I did not read the full book, no. I did not. But I skimmed through it as I do when I do book interviews. You know it’s hard to find time to read full books. But go ahead.
LH: I understand that. I mean – sorry the lights just went out here – but I I think I mean you know if you’d read my book which unfortunately you didn’t, before you decided to do the interview, you would have seen that there’s a whole history of FSB and its kind of KGB predecessor doing these kind of entrapment operations, going back to the Cold War, um enticing American diplomats, British diplomats and so on with kind of honeypots. The KGB even had a kind of term for attractive young women they would send to try and seduce and um compromise officials, they called them [AIR QUOTES] “swallows”, which is a kind of pleasant and poetic title, and and really anyone who [WAVES ARM] really knows Russia or has bothered to read books on the Cold War realises [WAVES ARM] this is precisely what they do. Now, did they do it with Donald Trump? We we don’t know.
Ah Steele thinks they did. Donald Trump will know the answer to that question for sure, and so will Vladimir Putin. And one of the kind of themes er through the kind of last few months which I think probably you would agree on is that um Donald Trump is incredibly nice about Mr Putin when he’s very rude about a whole host of other leaders including for example Theresa May the Prime Minister of my town in in England, or the Germans, Angela Merkel, but we see this repeatedly, um –
AM: I agree. Luke, he has an affinity for right wing leaders. He speaks highly of Putin, he speaks – I’ve never heard him insult Netanyahu, or heard him speak critically of Netanyahu, but that doesn’t mean I think that Netanyahu controls Putin [sic]. Even though by the way there’s more proof of collusion for now at least between Netanyahu and Putin [sic] because we know now from the indictment of Flynn that Netanyahu got Trump and his team to undermine Obama at the UN when Obama was going to let pass a UN vote critical of Israel.
LH: [PAUSE] Yeah, I mean I understand that. But I I think it goes beyond [WAVES ARM] the sort of Trump-Putin relationship goes beyond a kind of affinity with kind of um ultra-nationalist dictators, I mean you can call it that, but there’s more to it I think I think that Putin genuinely does have influence over Trump –
AM: And my point is that just because Trump hasn’t criticised Putin does not mean that he is Putin’s puppet. By that logic he would be Netanyahu’s puppet too. Let me, you know, in terms of what he –
AM: Go ahead.
LH: He’s not Netanyahu’s puppet, that’s your words not mine.
AM: But look, in terms of the book, I do want to quote you one part that I did read that I found um interesting, which is where you are talking about ah potential connections between Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, and the Russian government. And so you spoke to a Manafort associate, hopefully I can pronounce his name properly, Constantine Kilimnik, and Kilimnik wrote you by email in response to your questions about his relationship with Manafort. And you recount that Kilimnik responded by telling you that the collusion issue was was gibberish, and that he signed his email off with ah by saying “Off to collect my paycheck at KGB” and then he has an emoji smiley-face with two parentheses. OK. And you write:
The thing that gave me pause was Kilimnik’s use of smiley faces. True, Russians are big emoticon fans. But I’d seen something similar before. In 2013 the Russian diplomat in charge of political influence operations in London was named Sergey Nalobin. Nalobin had close links with Russian intelligence. He was the son of a KGB general, his brother had worked for the FSB. Nalobin looked like a career foreign intelligence officer.”
And you go on to write: “On his Twitter feed Nalobin goes on to describe himself thus: ‘A brutal agent of the Putin -:) .’
So are you inferring there that because two Russians used a smileyface that’s proof that Manafort’s associate was a [LAUGHS] was a tool of the Russian government?
LH: No, really what you’re doing now is rather a silly exercise. You haven’t read the book [WAVES ARMS] but you’re telling me one small bit and jumping on that, er –
AM: Do you think an emoticon is proof of a Russian tie? I’m asking you about it.
LH: If you let me finish I’ll answer your question and maybe you can read the rest of the book when you finish the interview. But I mean [WAVES HAND] Kilimnik is a guy that Paul Manafort last summer emailed about trying to set up a kind of private briefing, this is when Manafort is still Trump’s campaign manager, for a very famous oligarch called Oleg Deripaska. Now now Deripaska more or less sits at the right hand of Putin. Putin has very close relations with him. And I think it’s um perfectly kind of legitimate to ask what kind of Kilimnik role you know Kilimnik was playing, er I emailed him, we were in daily correspondence. He’s still in contact by the way with Paul Manafort, he emailed him a couple of weeks ago. Er Manafort I met [WAVES HAND], there’s a whole chapter about what he was doing in Ukraine, about his work for Dmitry Yanukovich, about how you know Yanukovich became a kind of kleptocrat. He’s now been indicted [WAVES ARM] with money laundering, with conspiracy against the US by Robert Mueller, so I think it’s perfectly legitimate to look at him. And I might say [WAVES ARM] –
AM: Luke, I’m not saying it’s not legitimate, I’m taking issue with you writing “The thing which gave me pause” [LH INTERRUPTS] is some smiley faces. That the use of smiley faces is somehow evidence of a nefarious Russian government tie. And by the way, let me ask about Manafort. What was Manafort doing in Ukraine? Because as I think you even acknowledge in the book, again because I did read ah through it, you even acknowledge in the book that Manafort was not even trying to steer Yanukovich towards a pro-Kremlin policy. I mean that’s why they reported he was actually trying to orient Yanukovich towards the West.
LH: Well it’s I mean um more complicated than that, um ah I mean certainly some of the things [WAVES HAND] that he did were kind of pro-Western but at the same time what Manafort really did was to take somebody who was essentially just some kind of pro-Soviet [sic] crook and gangster and refashion him into the image of a modern Western style politician. It was kind of successful. And when I met Manafort in 2008 he told me that Yanukovich believed in the rule of law, that he’d changed, that he was not a creature of Moscow any more, ah and so on. Um this strategy worked quite effectively and in 2010 Yanukovich became president. And when he did that the first thing he did was to jail the main opposition leader, someone called Yulia Timoshenko, basically kind of suborned Parliament, get rid of independent courts, and loot the state to the tune of billions of dollars.
And what I actually write in my book is that everything that Manafort told me during this 2008 period was essentially a lie, kind of untrue. Now we know from Mueller that Manafort made about $75 million allegedly from his kind of activities in in Kiev the capital of Ukraine and then in Moscow, and of course his next client after Yanukovich who’s [WAVES ARM] skipped off to Russia with his millions, was Donald Trump. And and one question that I’ve never got a satisfactory answer for is how did Manafort end up running Donald Trump’s campaign? And [WAVES ARM] you have to look at kind of the constellation of people around Donald Trump and very many of them, not all of them but very many of them, have a Russian connection. Whether it’s Wilbur Ross the Secretary of State [sic], or Michael Flynn, er or Carter Page or George Papadopolous who’s been done for lying to the FBI, or Wilbur Ross the Commerce Secretary. Um now [GRINS] you can even deny it and say it’s a curious coincidence but I think it’s more than that.
AM: Well, I think that Manafort is a long time Republican operative [LAUGHS] and I don’t think that the answer necessarily is that because he had ties to a Ukrainian whom he was trying to orient towards an anti-Russian policy essentially, which by the way does not make for, does not add weight to the argument that Manafort was in Putin’s pocket. He was trying to get Yanukovich to steer towards the West. But I think we can move on from that point. Let’s wrap, Luke. Can we agree then that there is no proof of collusion, there is even no proof of hacking, and if I have it right from you, the main reason to question, to think that there is a tie between Trump and Russia is there’s a financial connection between people in his circle and Russians possibly, and also the fact that Russia has a history, as we’ve heard you outline, of cultivating foreigners.
LH: I mean I don’t agree, this is your view, that there’s no collusion and no proof of hacking. This is what you assert. Um –
AM: I said there’s no proof of it. Yes.
LH: Um personally I don’t [WAVES ARM] accept that, I don’t think it’s the case. What I was trying to say at the beginning was just to explain that actually what happened last year um happened in a kind of wider ah context of Soviet and Russian espionage. And and we haven’t talked very much about Vladimir Putin, the kind of person he is. I mean he’s a former KGB agent who um spent most of his career in an organisation that regards the United States as an adversary, not just any old adversary but what’s what you call in Russian as the [AIR QUOTES] главный противник main adversary and and he um he thinks about America in zero sum terms, what’s good for Russia is bad for America [WAVES ARMS] and and vice versa, and there’s no doubt that he dislikes Obama that he loathes Hillary Clinton and um that he was very very keen for Donald Trump to win.
I mean you just have to look at Russia, I mean I speak Russian, look at Russian state media in the runup who were portraying Hillary as a kind of [WAVES ARM] deranged madwoman warmonger, and and Trump as a kind of peaceful er nice guy with whom Russia could do business. There were kind of clear preferences but also this this history of espionage which is still, whether you like it or not, whether you accept it or not [WAVES HAND] very much ongoing. And I think we’ll see again, both in 2018 and 2020.
AM: OK. I think I’ll just say that we’re conflating the fact that Putin is not a nice person with – yes, he does not like Hillary Clinton, he loathes the US for many reasons including the expansion of NATO, but I think we’re conflating that with evidence and the conclusion that that meant he cultivated Trump and intervened in the election. I think those two things are different.
LH: That’s your view [WAVES HAND] and it would be great if you could go to Moscow, go to Kiev, go to the post-Soviet world, talk to people from the Russian opposition, talk to human rights activists, talk to journalists whose colleagues have been murdered, and perhaps understand a little bit better the kind of state that that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is. I think you’d be doing yourself a service. You’d be doing your listeners a service.
AM: I don’t think I’ve countered anything you’ve said about the state of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The issue under discussion today has been whether there was collusion, the topic of your book.
LH: Yeah, but you’re clearly a kind of collusion rejectionist, so I’m not sure kind of what sort of evidence short of Trump and Putin in a sauna together would convince you. Clearly nothing would convince you. But anyway it’s been a pleasure.
AM: But again – [CONNECTION IS BROKEN] but look, this gets back to the issue, whether there is any evidence so far, and I just don’t see it. And it looks like Luke has logged off. Has he? We’ve lost Luke Harding….