Aaron Maté Discusses His Russiagate Skepticism & Calls For Opposing Trump in More Meaningful Ways

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We spoke with one of the most well-known skeptics of the Russiagate narrative on the left, Aaron Maté, about what he believes the Mueller indictments mean, and how the Russiagate controversy has shaped Americans’ resistance to Trump. Maté is a host and producer for The Real News Network, a contributor to The Nation magazine, and a former producer for Democracy Now! and Al Jazeera.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

MFU: There has been a lot of conflation and confusion surrounding Russiagate and we’ve seen many stories published by corporate media fall apart under scrutiny, but there have been some indictments. Can you talk about what you think those indictments have shown?

AM: There are two sets of indictments — two important sets of indictments — and let’s go through them. There are the indictments of Russians accused of interfering with the U.S. election in 2016, and then there are members of the Trump campaign who have been indicted. Let’s start with the Russians. There are two major indictments there. First, there was the indictment of thirteen staffers of a Russian troll farm operation. They were accused of launching this extensive social media campaign to divide the country and tip the scales in favor of Trump. If you look at what was actually produced to substantiate that claim, the advertisements that were used on Facebook, on Twitter, and on social media, most of them had nothing to do with the election. They were about sort of quote unquote divisive social issues. When it comes to Facebook in particular, there was about $100,000 spent on ads. Most of that was spent after the election. And the ads were very juvenile, they were not very sophisticated. It’s possible that whoever did them, these people in Russia, had a preference for Trump. I think maybe you can conclude that if you look at all of them. The majority maybe were negative towards Hillary Clinton versus those that were negative towards Trump, although there were some that were negative towards Trump. But to suggest that this had any impact on the election I think is comical. You’ve seen the images I’m sure. There’s the one of buff Bernie. There’s the one of Jesus arm-wrestling the devil, talking about how the devil would support Hillary. It’s ludicrous. And even inside that indictment of the troll farm there’s a strong hint of what I think was actually going on, which is what reporters who have seriously covered this troll farm (the Internet Research Agency) have noted — it’s a commercial marketing scheme. They put out all kinds of content across media everywhere to try to attract followers and likes and then they leverage their followers to sell ads to other vendors to make money.

Then you have the indictment of the Russian military intelligence officers more recently by Robert Mueller. That’s one of the few concrete things that we actually have in this Mueller probe so far, in terms of actual material pointing to Russian government meddling in the U.S. election, because Mueller names a bunch of Russian intelligence officers and he claims to have had access to their computers and seen them undertake the operations to steal files and emails from the Democratic party. I don’t think that just because Mueller alleges something that that means it’s proof. I’ll remind people that Mueller went before the Congress back when he was the director of the FBI, before the Iraq War, and he substantiated the claims of the CIA that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and expressed his personal concern that Saddam was going to pass chemical material on to terrorists. Now I don’t think Mueller was lying back then, or at least I can’t prove he was lying, but I think sometimes intelligence officials say things based on faulty information. And I don’t rule out that he was right here, that he’s actually caught the Russian military intelligence hackers, but I also don’t rule out that he’s been fed some wrong information. And because of the unlikelihood that this will ever be tried in the U.S. court because the Russians would have to come here and stand trial — which they won’t do — I don’t think we’ll ever have a way, at least through this case, the legal process, to find out the answer. And there are other clues in that indictment that I think show some contradictions. There are questions about the timing of certain messages. They talk about how Wikileaks was in touch with this persona known as Guccifer 2.0 who was alleged to be a cut-out of military intelligence, and they talk about how Guccifer 2.0 transferred all of these DNC emails to Julian Assange by a certain day. But way before that happened, in early June, Julian Assange said that he already had the material. It’s possible Julian Assange was misspeaking, he was bluffing, or whatever. But what I’m saying is that there are enough questions and an absence of actual evidence, so until we see that, I’m not going to automatically believe that it’s fact.

Then we have the Trump campaign. None of them have been indicted for Russiagate’s underlying crime, a conspiracy with the Russian government, which is the aim of the whole Mueller probe. I think that’s the most important fact to keep in mind. They’ve been indicted for process crimes — for lying to the FBI, in the case of Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos, and in the case of Paul Manafort, as Mueller has acknowledged, his case has nothing to do with the 2016 campaign or alleged collusion with the Russian government; it all has to do with lobbying activities that he did when he was working in Ukraine. Those who believe that there is a conspiracy or that there is likely a conspiracy between Trump and the Russian government believe that Manafort was doing the Kremlin’s bidding in Ukraine and that’s why that case is relevant. But actually if you look at the case, what’s emerged from it, in Manafort’s first trial and the indictment that resulted from the subsequent cooperation deal with Mueller to avoid a second trial, is what people who have been observing Ukraine closely I think have known for years, which is that when Manafort was in Ukraine he was pushing a pro-EU, pro-West agenda on his client at the time, Yanukovych. Yanukovych, in the end, decided to reject a trade deal offered by the EU and go with Russia. But that, by all accounts, including documents included by Mueller, was against Manafort’s wishes.

So yes there have been indictments, but the sheer number of indictments isn’t relevant to me if none of them have anything to do with Russiagate’s underlying crime, which is this alleged conspiracy between Trump and the Russian government. The only significant indictment was the indictment of the Russian military officers, and that’s an issue that I think just needs more investigation. Again, I’m not going to believe the assertions of a prosecutor without seeing the evidence first.

MFU: And what’s your take on the NSA document leaked by Reality Winner?

AM: Well that’s interesting because Mueller, in his indictment of the Russian military intelligence officers, uses a lot of the same information that appears in the NSA document that was released by Reality Winner, which to me raises questions about the information that Mueller is using. The Intercept published this document leaked by Reality Winner, who was an NSA contractor, purporting to show that the NSA believes that Russian military intelligence was behind a cyber operation against US voting systems in 2016. But the Intercept didn’t look at what the document actually says, or at least if they did, they left out what it says. Understanding the document requires looking at the actual graphics, so I recommend people watch a segment that I did on The Real News. I interviewed the Intercept’s James Risen and we discussed what the document actually says. There’s a legion on the document that has categories of attribution: confirmed information, which is green; analyst judgement, which is yellow; and contextual information, which is gray. And basically what this cyber operation was was spear-phishing, where you send an email to someone, impersonating someone else, in this case impersonating a voting software company, and you try to get credentials which you then use to login to voting systems to mess around and steal information. But if you look at the actual chart that shows the attribution of this to the Russian government, the line that attributes it to the actor that carried it out is yellow for analyst judgement. So one analyst’s judgment says that this is probably carried out by this cyber actor, and then the line that links that cyber actor to the GRU (Russian military intelligence) is gray, for contextual. None are green, which is for confirmed information. So we have an attribution that is one analyst’s judgment, and that analyst’s judgement attributing it to the Russian GRU is contextual. On top of that, you have the fact that spear-phishing is a pretty common tactic, it’s not very sophisticated. And my problem with that document, the way it was reported by The Intercept and then picked up by everyone else, was that it was perceived as this massive cyber hacking operation, when really it’s spear-phishing, which happens all the time, and that distinction unfortunately has not been reflected in the coverage of this story. So if anything I think that this story undermines the case for asserting conclusively that the Russian government has been meddling with US voting systems because on the document itself it shows that it’s one analyst’s judgement using a contextual attribution to the GRU.

MFU: The former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said on NBC that Russians are ‘almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor’. What are your thoughts on this comment?

AM: I think that’s another reminder why we should not reflexively believe what intelligence leaders say, on top of their own records — in the case of Clapper, lying to or at least misleading Congress when it came to wiretapping, in the case of John Brennan, spying on the Senate when it was investigating torture. And Brennan was at the CIA during the Iraq War, he was a high official under then CIA director George Tenet. He was there when they were cooking up the intelligence to justify the war. He knew about this, he didn’t resign, he didn’t say anything. Brennan was also the architect of the Obama Administration’s drone program that’s killed many innocent civilians, which he also lied about for a long time, saying there were no civilians killed. So then you have this bigoted comment by James Clapper, who says that Russians are genetically predisposed to be misleading. What does that tell you about the mindset of the people who are accusing Russia of carrying out this massive operation against the US? It shows that they’re actually predisposed to bias, and Russophobia, in the case of Clapper. So that’s why I think people like them, on top of their own records, deserve all the more skepticism — as much skepticism as we give Trump.

MFU: Would you say that the Trump Administration’s actions in relation to Russia indicate improved or strained relations?

AM: The experts who I talk to tell me this is the worst moment for US Russia relations since the height of the Cold War; some people would argue even worse. The US has imposed more and more sanctions, we’ve kicked out diplomats, the Trump Administration has approved measures that President Obama did not want to do because he did not want to further inflame tensions between the US and Russia. Critically, Trump has approved the sale of weapons to Ukraine for the fight against Russian-backed rebels in the east of the country. Everybody in Washington basically wanted Obama to do that but he stood up to that and rejected it. Trump came in and he faced the same pressure and he caved and he did it. And that has made an explosive situation in Ukraine even worse and is not helping to end the crisis there. Trump’s national security strategy talks about terrorism not being as important as great power competition and names Russia and China as the biggest threats. His nuclear strategy is bellicose and includes the development of more warheads with a specific reference to countering Russia. Trump has bombed the Russian client in Syria twice now — something Obama did not do. And the Trump administration is now staying in Syria indefinitely. Although he personally said he wanted to leave, his administration says it’s staying until it kicks Iran out, which means a long time. So there’s example after example where the Trump administration is taking hawkish policies and there’s no one on the Democratic side to basically take the Obama position, which is to argue for certain areas where we should defuse tensions with Russia. Instead Democrats are basically egging it on because they’re accusing Trump of not being tough enough on Russia. So it has become this bipartisan Cold War posture which I think is very dangerous when you remember that these are the two global nuclear powers and tensions between them is not a good thing.

MFU: How would you say the Russiagate narrative has affected Americans’ ability to deal with the nightmare that is the Trump Administration?

AM: Well that’s tough because on the one hand it’s soothing; it’s comforting to think that, oh shit, if we can get him on this conspiracy thing then he’s out and our nightmare is over. The problem is it’s not grounded in reality, I’m sorry to say, and it’s meant that our resistance to Trump has been really diluted. Instead of focusing on all the awful things he’s doing, many of us are hanging on to the latest revelation and the ultimate finding from Mueller that’s going to bring Trump down. And there have been a series of leaks from people in the intelligence community and Democrats that’s sort of been like giving us catnip to make us want more, and think it’s coming, but I don’t think it’s coming based on everything I’ve seen so far. The FBI investigation of Trump and Russia started on July 31st 2016. I think some things might have started even earlier. We know at least that Christopher Steele, the author of the pee tape dossier, met with FBI officials in early July of 2016. So we’re basically two years into this thing. And we have a bunch of indictments, but as I said, none of them are for the issue at hand. And I think by pinning so much hope on bureaucrats like Mueller we’re setting ourselves up for a big let down, and in the meantime, we’re taking our eyes off all of these horrible things that Trump is doing. If you look at media coverage, how much coverage has there been of the tax heist, this record upward transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich under the Republican tax cut? Or the further gutting of the healthcare system in this country? The support for the genocidal war on Yemen? There was some coverage for a bit of the kidnapping of immigrant children, but think about that — it took holding children hostage to get us off Russiagate for a bit. And quickly that faded into the background; we don’t hear about that as much. So it may have been soothing at the beginning but I think ultimately it has been a poison chalice because Russiagate has really undermined our ability to confront Trump and his agenda, which is what matters. This Russiagate thing has left us all kind of as spectators instead of as actors in a real resistance.

MFU: You’ve said that one proven case of campaign collusion involves Israel. Can you talk about that?

AM: That’s the one documented case of the Trump campaign colluding with a foreign government, although it happened after the campaign, during the transition in December of 2017. Obama decided on his way out that he was gonna buck his own trend of vetoing measures at the UN that call on Israel to respect international law. He decided that he wasn’t going to vote yes because that would be too radical for him, but he decided he would abstain on the vote. And the Israeli government and its staunchest supporters in the US, including billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who’s a big donor to Trump and the republicans, freaked out and asked the Trump campaign to undermine the vote. And according to the Wall Street Journal, during that month of December of 2017, that was the Trump transition team’s top priority — not the issue of sanctions with Russia. So Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner worked the phones, they called ambassadors, they called the Russian ambassador and asked the Russian ambassador to vote no. And that’s even included in Flynn’s indictment for lying to the FBI, but we don’t talk about that because Flynn also apparently talked about not responding harshly to new sanctions on Russia. We don’t talk about Flynn asking the Russian ambassador to veto the outgoing administration’s policy for us. So basically Flynn and the rest of the Trump team were trying to undermine Obama’s policy at the highest body in the world — the UN security council. And actually I think that this case tells us something about the state of Trump/Russia relations and collusion — Russia said no, and they went along with others and they supported the measure, which didn’t matter anyway because it’s not like Israel will respect it. And of course when Trump took office he immediately showed his massive support of the Israeli government through moving the embassy to Jerusalem, selling more weapons, backing the massacre of innocents in Gaza, but no one in Washington on the Democratic side really objects to that because that kind of foreign collusion we’ve taken part in. And they didn’t even mind seeing Trump trying to undermine a Democratic president’s policy at the time at the UN, which tells you something about how much we care about foreign interference in this country.

MFU: Aaron, thank you so much for speaking with us today. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AM: Thanks for having me. Just be skeptical. Trump needs to be opposed at all costs, but that doesn’t mean embracing everyone who challenges him. Some who are challenging him have their own reasons to and they’re not woke reasons. John Brennan is not challenging Trump because he’s woke. And others in the national security establishment are challenging Trump not because they’re woke but because they want someone else to manage the empire. And we should not be enabling them and venerating them as heroes or allies. All of them deserve our skepticism and resistance.

Kelly Wilkins