BOB GARFIELD: One of the great frustrations for the media in the age of Trump is that the commander-in-chief leaves very little to the imagination. An industry that lives to decode the political words said and unsaid, to interpret legislative smoke signals, to speculate on strategy, intent and feasibility finds itself faced with a president who blurts and tweets out exactly what's on his mind, exactly when it's on his mind, no matter how pathological. Decode? It’s like decoding a kidney stone.
But this week's announcement of first indictments in Robert Mueller’s special investigation, now, that’s a mystery cloaked in an enigma shrouded in a grand jury.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Three arrests, a guilty plea and a surprise proactive cooperator who was actively trying to collude with the Russian government.
BOB GARFIELD: Months of secrecy broken by an announcement crafted to send distinct messages to the media, to the public, to the administration and, not least, to the next defendants. To understand the president, you just need Twitter. To understand these indictments, you need a Virgil.
Marcy Wheeler is an independent national security journalist and longtime observer of high profile prosecutions. “Virgil,” welcome back to OTM.
MARCY WHEELER: Thanks for having me back.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, for those who have been overwhelmed by the cascading news this week about the indictments, walk us through the basics, please. Who was named and what for?
MARCY WHEELER: So there were indictments of two people and a plea agreement released. The indictments of the two people were Paul Manafort, who was, for a time last year, Trump’s campaign advisor, and his long-term deputy, Rick Gates for basically garden-variety money laundering and then a guy named George Papadopoulos who was rolled out in March as a foreign policy advisor, was interviewed in January and February of 2017 and asked about some people with close ties to Russia, as well as somebody he believed to be the niece of Vladimir Putin. And he lied both about how serious he thought those people were, when he talked to them and, very importantly, he lied about whether he could have shared news that one of them had heard about dirt on Hillary Clinton in Russia, which was basically thousands of Clinton emails. And in July, the FBI arrested him as he came back in the country and flipped him, so now he has been chatting with the FBI about what actually went on in the campaign ever since.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so those of the charges and, concerning Manafort and Gates, they are conspicuously absent of anything to do with the campaign or with a Kremlin connection, but there's a reason for this.
MARCY WHEELER: Right. What Mueller basically rolled out on Monday was an attempt to use Papadopoulos to flip Manafort. The charges themselves were meant to do that. He charged Manafort with fairly easy-to-plead-guilty-to charges that don't, for example, accuse him of having spied for Russia. And he rolled out the Papadopoulos plea agreement, making it clear that he had other information about what Manafort had done in the campaign. It, it’s basically Mueller nudging them and saying, hey, we know that in May you, Manafort, and you, Gates, had a conversation about hiding efforts to reach out to set up these meetings with Russians. We know more but we’re not gonna tell you what else we know, giving him one more reason to want to plead guilty and, again, cooperate against others in the campaign.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me some of your misgivings about the general coverage of the indictments and the aftermath.
MARCY WHEELER: It really behooves the press in high-profile cases like this to explain things that are normal in any kind of prosecution. One that involves Manafort, for example, is in the back and forth on release provisions earlier in the week, the prosecution listed some things that looked spectacular to you and me.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Including the new news that Paul Manafort had three different passports, with three different numbers.
MARCY WHEELER: Which is common for people who travel to countries where you need visas.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: That he was using an -- a phone that he obtained in an alias name for foreign travel.
MARCY WHEELER: That's becoming more common as phones get searched at the border. So they listed a bunch of things that make it look like Manafort is a flight risk. And they kind of pitch it in the worst light. That's normal. Yes, those are kind of really interesting things, that Manafort has three passports but I think the press should educate viewers and, and let them know that there’s this back-and-forth for every single detention hearing, where the prosecution says, flight risk, and the, and the defense says normal guy, has family, yada-yada.
With Papadopoulos early in the week they said, well, he must have been running around wired up for the last two months.
COREY LEWANDOWSKI: Today, he is called a proactive cooperator. Does that mean, as has been speculated all day, that he was wearing a wire?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, guess what, Mr. Lewandowski, if, in fact, Papadopoulos was wearing a wire, you’ll be reminded by Robert Mueller --
MARCY WHEELER: It’s clear that Papadopoulos is cooperating. His lawyers have said that the, the plea agreement says that. But, in this day and age, you don’t necessarily need a wire for people like the Trump campaign who weren’t thinking very much about hiding from the FBI. Papadopoulos was carrying these discussions out with Russian handlers over Skype and Facebook, which are easily accessible to the FBI because they’re overseas. These people are easy targets for overseas surveillance. So in the age of Facebook, you don't necessarily need to send a witness wired up to go incriminate other people.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's discuss the willing suspension of disbelief. One of the principals in all of this is this guy Sam Clovis, a Republican, who, until Thursday at least, was President Trump’s nominee for a top position at the US Department of Agriculture. Tell me about him and what the media did when his lawyer got involved.
MARCY WHEELER: Clovis is an Iowa Republican who very early on supported Trump. He was a cochairman of the campaign and he's described in the Papadopoulos plea agreement as having, in August, 2016, said to Papadopoulos, hey, if you want to continue to pursue setting up these meetings with Russians, go ahead, see if you can pull it off. After the plea agreement was released, his attorney, Victoria Toensing, who is kind of this long-term Republican scandal monger who likes to play the press, went out and said, Sam is cooperating, he testified before the grand jury, here's what he said.
And that's interesting for two reasons. One is she got her spin in. This is how what looks very incriminating about my client isn't. But she also let anybody who didn't already testify know what story Clovis is telling. And this is what happens when you get approached by defense attorneys. But for readers and listeners who don't know it, it's really useful to remind them that the press can be a way that one can legally tell others, Victoria Toensing can tell, for example, Corey Lewandowski, here’s what Sam said before the grand jury. If you haven't already testified before the grand jury, you might want to kind of coordinate with my story so it looks better than George Papadopoulos’s.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now as you’re reading the prosecutorial tea leaves, you also see something else brewing concerning Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Now, he is not included in any of the indictments but your antenna are raised. Why?
MARCY WHEELER: Not just my antenna but also a bunch of senators’. In the plea agreement, there is a March 31st meeting described of Trump's foreign policy team. The president was at that meeting. Sessions was at that meeting. And, at that meeting, Papadopoulos explained that his role in the campaign was basically to broker a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin. Just this meeting, by itself, is yet another indication that Sessions has lied when he's been asked, as recently as two weeks ago.
SENATOR AL FRANKEN: You don't believe that surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians, is that what you’re saying?
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFFREY SESSIONS: I did not and I’m not aware of anyone else that did.
MARCY WHEELER: We now know that there was a meeting where it did happen, and he didn't disclose it. So there's more to the Sessions story.
BOB GARFIELD: One more thing, Marcy. On Wednesday, the president, once again, asserted, I think, to the New York Times that he is not under investigation. My question is, is it possible, is it even possible that the president is not under investigation?
MARCY WHEELER: Not at all. I mean, the -- we already know that the president is under investigation, from what they’ve been asked for. One of the things that I think has surprised everybody in DC is that the Papadopoulos plea agreement was kept secret for so long. Not only is that a testament to how locked down the Mueller team is but it's also a testament to how many other things may be going on that we would not know about. But it's clear that he is being investigated.
BOB GARFIELD: Marcy, thank you.
MARCY WHEELER: Thanks so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Marcy Wheeler is an independent national security journalist who blogs at emptywheel.net.
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Coming up, when the edict, “Physician, heal thyself” becomes, “Reporter, report on thyself.” This is On the Media.