Aaron Maté is a journalist known for his work as a host/ producer at the Real News, Democracy Now, and Al Jazeera English. He is also a contributor at the Nation, who dedicates much of his column space to debunking claims the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government, more famously known as “Russiagate.”
Maté is well-known for his fearless and adversarial approach to interviewing guests, especially for his now infamous one-on-one interview with discredited journalist Luke Harding; as well as James Risen, a writer at the Intercept, leading one commentator to describe him as a “beast.”
With the Russiagate narrative once again dominating recent headlines, we decided to catch up with Maté for a lengthy conversation to get his take on the most recent developments.
TMU: I have seen you get into a lot of debates about the Russiagate narrative. What do you say to someone who firmly believes there is a great deal of publicly available evidence that the Trump campaign had illicit dealings, or colluded, with the Russian government?
AM: I will start by saying broadly: if you look on the surface, yeah you might think there is something suspicious going on because you have some cases of Trump-associates meeting Russians and you have emails written, like the one from Rob Goldstone, a publicist, that says the Russian government supports Donald Trump. And you know, you can put all these things together and yeah, on the surface you could say that this looks very sketchy and this looks like there was maybe some conspiracy Trump and Russia.
The problem though is, especially if you are a journalist, it’s your job to look at the facts. And in the case of Russiagate we have a lot of facts. We have Court transcripts, we have congressional testimony, there’s been a lot of reporting done. And I think the facts are all pretty clear that at least so far, all the facts, as I see them, undermine the prospects of a conspiracy. As I have also said, and I want to stress this, maybe Mueller will uncover some huge conspiracy but so far, it’s not there.
So, I mean, let’s go through some of the key things that are adduced to argue that there is public evidence for a Trump-Russia conspiracy. Let’s take the inciting incident of this entire investigation. It was a volunteer campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos being told in London, or saying that he was told in London, that the Russians had thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Papadopoulos passed on this information to Alexander Downer who was an Australian diplomat, and Alexander Downer relayed this information to his government and that information ended up going to the FBI. And that sparked Crossfire Hurricane, which is the initial FBI investigation into Trump-Russia collusion, and that’s what Robert Mueller inherited.
Well, so, now we know what happened in that case because it has been resolved. George Papadopoulos recently served twelve days in jail in his case for lying to the FBI. Okay, and what happened in that case?
Papadopoulos lied to the FBI about his contacts with the person who apparently told him this about Hillary Clinton’s emails, which is this guy named Joseph Mifsud, who is a sketchy London-based professor. And Papadopoulos didn’t deny to the FBI that Mifsud told him about Hillary Clinton’s emails he just lied to the FBI about the timing of when Mifsud told him. And what Mifsud apparently told him was that Russia had tens of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails. And he told him this in the Spring of 2016, before those emails were publicly released. And so, if Mifsud knew about Wikileaks having Democratic Party emails and he was tied to the Russian government then that could be damning. Right?
But, we know now that none of that has panned out. We know that actually the FBI interviewed Mifsud in February of 2017 when he came to the US after Papadopoulos had told the FBI about him. The FBI interviewed him and let him go. He went back to Europe and he’s disappeared since. There are rumours that he’s actually tied to western intelligence agencies, none of that has been confirmed. Certainly, there’s been no evidence at all that he works with Russia. For that reason Papadopoulos was not charged with taking part in some kind of Trump-Russia conspiracy, or being a conduit between Trump and Moscow, which was widely speculated, he was just charged with lying to the FBI about a pretty minor issue which is the timing of his contacts with Mifsud. Papadopoulos says he wanted to protect the Trump campaign because he didn’t want to implicate Trump in looking like he was tied up with Russia stealing emails. Even though in actual fact, as Papadopoulos’ case shows, Trump wasn’t implicated.
So, we have the inciting case of the Trump-Russia investigation turning up nothing. Then we have the Trump Tower meeting. So, that’s where in June 2016, you have a music publicist named Rob Goldstone, he writes to Donald Trump Jr, and he says: hey I know some Russians who have incriminating information about Hillary Clinton and her dealings with the Russians that might be useful to your campaign and this is all a part of the Russian government’s support for Donald Trump’s campaign. And Donald Trump Jr says if this is what you say it is, I love it. So, they have the meeting, and by all accounts the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, has no incriminating information on Hillary Clinton and she just wants to talk about her effort to repeal the sanctions which were imposed under the Magnitsky Act — which is an issue she has been working on for a long time. By all accounts the meeting ended after 20 minutes. And then Robert Goldstone – the publicist who set up the meeting – he comes out and says well yeah, actually, what I said there in that email was just “publicist puff” – those are his words. Because he just wanted to get that meeting set up for his client – the Agalarovs – the Russians who had told him about the Russian lawyer who had wanted to meet with the Trump campaign.
By all accounts, no evidence has emerged that a Trump-Russia conspiracy came out of that meeting. It is totally plausible that this Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, wanted to talk about lifting sanctions under the Magnitsky Act because that is an issue she has been working very hard on for many years. And by the way, she has working with the firm Fusion GPS, which is the firm behind the Steele Dossier. They hired Christopher Steele, the ex-British spy, who wrote that Dossier alleging a conspiracy between Trump and Russia.
So, the odds that the Russian government is going to set up a meeting in which it colludes with the Trump campaign with the same woman that is working with the firm that ends up accusing Russia of colluding with the Trump campaign is pretty nonsensical. It doesn’t make any sense. If you were going to collude with the Trump campaign you probably would want to find a more discrete way to do it.
We also have recently, Michael Cohen being indicted because he lied to Congress about Trump’s effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Well, there’s a few things about that. First of all, we have known about that for over a year. Trump tweeted about it in 2013. There is a tweet of him saying “we are going to build Trump Tower Moscow” and he is really excited. We also know that this deal went absolutely nowhere. All they got was a letter of intent from the Moscow Development Bank – not affiliated with the Kremlin. The Kremlin gave it no help, no financing. The only assistance that the Kremlin gave is the fact that a Kremlin assistant called Michael Cohen back after he emailed them and basically said to him “yeah sorry we can’t help you but if you want to come to a St Petersburg economic forum come visit us.”
So, those are the big planks of collusion. And the problem is, overall, on the surface, if you don’t like Trump and if you suspect that Russians and contacts with Russians are nefarious then yeah on the surface you can maybe think that something bad is going on but if you go through all the evidence as I’ve been doing, you know, pretty thoroughly, for a long time now, it’s just not there.
TMU: Is it a bit of a coincidence then that we have people talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails and then a few months later or so these emails start appearing?
AM: In the case of Joseph Mifsud – let’s say he did indeed tell Papadopoulos that hey, the Russians have tens of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Well at that point, that was already a very widespread right-wing talking point. Because Hillary Clinton’s State Department emails had been in the news forever – I mean, that was the subject of an investigation by the FBI; it was a big scandal. So, if Mifsud indeed told Papadopoulos that, then it’s quite possible. And by the way, this is what Papadopoulos says he thinks happened: that Mifsud was just talking about those State Department emails, which is different than the Democratic Party emails that the Russian government is accused of hacking.
TMU: This is a quote from a recent article on Forbes that came out approximately a little over a week ago:
“It turns out that Russia’s disinformation campaign is more far-reaching, more sophisticated, more differentiated than previously suspected, and is still ongoing. In fact, the level of activity after 2016 is greater than that during the 2016 presidential election.
Firstly, it is worth noting that now they have dropped the “collusion” line and have fallen back on this term “disinformation campaign.” And secondly, in terms of your overall assessment is there any truth to this idea that Russia’s strategy is sophisticated, far reaching, and still ongoing?
AM: I think what’s going on is a sustained disinformation campaign in the West to convince people in the West that they are susceptible to a massive Russian disinformation campaign. I mean if you look at it, it’s a joke. These so-called sophisticated posts that we are supposed to be afraid of are juvenile, stupid, clickbait content that nobody would be talking about and that nobody would even have noticed really unless every single corporate media outlet and all these government officials were making them such a big deal. I mean, it’s ludicrous.
I was looking at one of the studies that came out and the most popular post on Facebook from this Russian clickbait agency was of a gun-wielding cartoon character, Yosemite Sam and he says “I was banned from television for being too violent. Like and share if you grew up watching me on television and haven’t shot or killed anyone.” And you see Yosemite Sam with two pistols and a confederate flag behind him. That was on March 9, 2016. It was the most shared post on Facebook of all the Russian content.
The most shared post on Instagram was of a picture of Jesus and it says “like if you believe, and keep scrolling if you don’t.” Okay? And there is a picture of Jesus and then a picture of Jesus again with his face crossed out. So those are the two popular Russian posts on Instagram and Facebook we are supposed to believe somehow influenced the 2016 election.
Of course it is convenient, now they are saying: no it is not even maybe about the election it’s about this ongoing disinformation campaign – and what it is – it has been widely reported what this internet research agency in Russia is. It is a clickbait farm. It is one of many around the world. They make clickbait trash, junk content, they target certain demographics, in a bid to win many followers and then use their audiences to sell space to advertisers.
Now, it looks like the people that worked there favoured Trump over Hillary Clinton and no one is defending people trying to create duplicitous posts to try to fool audiences. But the idea that this could influence a single vote, let alone decide an election as has been widely said, it’s laughable.
And what it actually reveals, I don’t think people realise this, but it shows what contempt liberal elites have for average voters – this notion – that anybody could have been duped by these stupid juvenile ads, and this idea that these ads could sow discord. I am not joking, the latest headline on this front that I saw was this one from the site Qz: and this is the headline: “Russian operatives were promoting sex toys on Instagram to sow discord in the US.”
And what is amazing is how many grown adults in positions of influence in media and in politics are taking this seriously and are trying to present to us that we should be afraid of all this, when there are so many more problems – there are so many problems out there that decide elections, it’s a joke.
And that’s the point in it really – to get us all scared about Russia – to deflect from real issues. And real issues that the same elites who are sounding the alarm about Russia are responsible for including the Democratic elites who lost an election to Donald Trump, got totally discredited and embarrassed, had their agenda rejected by a sizeable amount of voters in the Rust Belt which has suffered from neoliberal policies. Now they need an excuse, and we are all paying for it still, two years later, by talking about Russian clickbait. It would be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic.
TMU: It’s interesting what you are saying about we are all paying for it, because we certainly feel that in the independent media. Recently, over 800 Facebook pages were purged and removed and some of our associated media sites were on that list. I have a theory that in order to not be lumped in with the crowd and being shut down, that you have to buy into certain narratives, which is why outlets like the Intercept continue to openly adopt this Russiagate narrative. Do you agree?
AM: It’s tricky. I mean, broadly, yes. I do think there are certain narratives that you are pressured to buy into if you want credibility. In the case of the Intercept, the Intercept is not susceptible to being shut down, it is too big and it is backed by a billionaire, and there is still some respect for free speech in the US, they couldn’t get away with and they wouldn’t try to shut down the Intercept. But, in a media culture, where conformity is rewarded, and you stray from the consensus and you get attacked and smeared as like a Putin apologist or a Russian dupe, there is a certain pressure. Especially right now, it’s tricky because, if you are on the left, you don’t want to be accused of supporting Donald Trump and, there are certain liberals who disingenuously accuse people like me of being Trump supporters for daring to challenge the notion that Trump conspired with Russia.
I think that this whole Russiagate fixation actually helps Trump’s agenda, because it distracts us from his actual policies and makes us put all of our faith in Robert Mueller instead of mobilising against those policies. I do think that in liberal media culture if you want to conform there is a pressure to not challenge the party line. In this case it has been decided that Russia interfered massively in the US election, that there are credible reasons to believe that Trump may have conspired with it and if you challenge that then you’re going to be smeared as a Putin apologist or a Trump apologist or you’re going to be dismissed as a conspiracy theorist.
The Intercept, with the exception of basically, Glenn Greenwald, in terms of the people there that write about this topic, has bought into it. They now publish, James Risen, who just parrots Robert Mueller’s claims and who is incredibly credulous and superficial in how he looks at the facts and bending them into this idea he has of a Trump-Russia conspiracy. It’s really sad to see because the Intercept brands itself and it was founded on this idea of being fearless and adversarial. When in fact really when it comes to Russiagate, with the exception of Glenn and sometimes Jeremy Scahill, it has been careerist and fearful. You know, it is just too bad.
I do think that Donald Trump winning has got people out of sorts. It is very scary – the fact that he’s the president, and so I sympathise with people who want to latch onto any narrative that is comforting and that you know holds the potential for undoing him – because if Mueller can find this big conspiracy then Trump can be gone and that would be great. But especially as journalists we are supposed to be in reality; we are supposed to look at the facts and even if those facts are inconvenient for a conspiracy theory that a lot of liberals have adopted, it doesn’t mean we shy away from them. It is our job to be faithful to the evidence. Sadly, it’s been too popular on the liberal left right now to forget that.
TMU: You mentioned just then that you think the Russiagate narrative helps Trump’s agenda. Sometimes it feels as though he also helps promote the narrative, and at times provokes it to get the reaction from the media. What are your thoughts on this point?
AM: I totally agree. Because if you’re him – right – and let’s say he’s actually not guilty of a big conspiracy – I think the odds are looking pretty good for him in that favour because it’s been two years and there’s nothing. Robert Mueller hasn’t indicted a single American for anything to do with actions pertaining to the 2016 election, or to collusion with Russia. Everything has been for either actions before the election like with Paul Manafort in Ukraine or with – after the election – and mostly to do with process crimes during Mueller’s investigation.
So, if you’re Trump you have got to be loving it I think, because this totally helps rile up your base as you can say look at all these people trying to undermine your democratic vote. You voted for me and they’re trying to take me down – like the Deep State, or whatever you want to call them. They’re trying to take me down with this witch hunt, this investigation. It’s great for him and his base, he knows it’s not a threat to him. And meanwhile, MSNBC every single day, is declaring that the walls are closing in, and it is the beginning of the end, which they have been doing for well over a year. So, if you were Trump, why would you not want to fuel this and watch your opponents make fools of themselves and rile up your base?
For example, Trump fires Jeff Sessions and there’s tens of thousands of people protesting across the country because they think it’s going to be a big threat to the Mueller investigation. Even though by the way, so far, it has gone on totally as normal. And meanwhile, Trump passes this tax heist, where it is the biggest upward transfer of wealth in US history from the poor to the rich by cutting corporate taxes. The protests around that are pretty negligible and way smaller than they are when he fires Jeff Sessions.
The same with when he guts Obamacare and takes care away the people’s healthcare. Jeff Sessions being fired got more of a reaction. So if you are Trump, why would you not want to fuel something that continues to distract people from your own actual policies?
TMU: The recent protests in Paris have also been framed as a “Russian plot” to sow discontent. Does it strike you as odd that every single action that threatens existing power structures is a Russian plot?
AM: I think you’re hitting on something very important – this massive belief that Russia is some sort of existential threat to western society, is entirely the result of failed western elites needing a scapegoat for their own failures. You see that in case after case. It happened with the Democrats who lost to Donald Trump – one of the worst if not the worst candidates in history, he is a former reality TV host. And they lost in part because he was openly calling out their failed agenda. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote so it’s not as if the majority of the country rejects the Democrats, but the point is in the states that mattered to win, she lost. And a big reason why she lost is that she didn’t campaign in Michigan and Wisconsin. The reason she didn’t campaign there is because her own people saw that her message, her platform, was not resonating because she’s associated with the Clinton-Obama neoliberal legacy that has shipped out jobs to foreign countries and just led to economic stagnation in large parts of the country — the neoliberal failure.
So, afterwards, Russia was a convenient boogeyman to blame. It is the same thing with Brexit. Brexit has been blamed on Russia as well, because there were some Russian tweets and some Russian accounts buying ads. Again, that was the case where voters felt left behind by western neoliberalism and enough of them decided to be desperate enough to leave the EU in the same way the voters were desperate enough to vote for Donald Trump. And now it’s the same thing in France. Voters are rising up around real issues, tax cuts for corporations, the price of fuel and again it has to be Russia’s fault. It speaks to how pervasive this narrative is, not because of an actual threat from Russia but because of how threatened Western elites are by their own populations. So, the answer has to be that all this is a Kremlin plot.
TMU: I want to ask you about this article in the Guardian by your friend Luke Harding. There’s one paragraph in the article that says:
A separate internal document written by Ecuador’s Senain intelligence agency and seen by the Guardian lists “Paul Manaford [sic]” as one of several well-known guests. It also mentions “Russians”.
How did we get to a point where that’s an actual sentence in a mainstream article? The implication is that there’s a document that mentions the word “Russians.” There’s no context to what he is saying; there is no explanation. Can you help explain how this came to be?
AM: We’ve gotten to this point because some journalists have become such servants to power that they are willing to degrade journalism as part of their servitude. To such a degree where they think it’s acceptable to write stuff like that, and to write transparently false stories that Paul Manafort visited Assange three times in the embassy, one of the most surveilled places in the entire world – it’s a joke. It’s sad and it’s embarrassing for the profession that it’s tolerated.
And if you look at the reaction from the Guardian there’s been no accountability whatsoever. Because, when you serve power, when you write stuff or put up content that serves powerful elites, in this case, you are going along with the prevailing Russiagate narrative, there’s no consequences because a lot of journalism right now, in the west, is not about doing our job and being truthful to the facts and holding the powerful to account it’s about serving the narratives of the powerful and that’s a perfect example of it. And it’s disgraceful.
TMU: There are many issues with the Guardian these days. It is, in general, very pro-war. It is also very anti-Trump, but not in the way that some of us would be anti-Trump, for example, because of human rights concerns or killing thousands of civilians, it’s more like, the media want him to be doing even more of that stuff.
AM: There are two main factions that I see as anti-Trump. There are the people who are anti-Trump because they feel as though he is mismanaging the US empire and is cartoonishly running the White House and being crude about it versus the more, sort of, esteemed and smooth Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, so there is that faction of anti-Trump.
And then there’s the people who are actually anti-Trump because they oppose his policies. You know, his racism, his militarism, his alliance with Saudi Arabia and Israel, his attack on poor and working people in the US. Those are two very, very distinct factions and the mistake we make is in conflating them and unfortunately, outlets like the Guardian are too often falling into the first camp because the first camp is the one with the power. If you’re in the first camp then you can go on corporate media and you can be treated as an expert and you can pretend as if you’re standing up to power when really all you’re actually doing is standing up for the powerful against someone who they feel is not properly serving their interest in Donald Trump.
So that to me, is not anti-Trump. That to me is simply pro-militarism, pro-corporate, they just want someone else to be doing it, aside from Trump.
TMU: In terms of recent developments, what do you make of the claim that a US withdrawal from Syria is a gift to Russia? I also want to ask what you think of the idea that a victory for Russia in any scenario is always in and of itself a bad thing.
Look, Syria is complicated. Everyone there has done horrible things and caused a lot of suffering. But the idea that yes, the US pulling out of Syria is a bad thing because Russia might support it, might “win”, is just ridiculous. First of all, we have no right to be there. The US occupation there was illegal. It followed a US role that fuelled a really horrible proxy war that went on forever and by the way, if not for that proxy war, I’m not sure if we would have seen Russia’s intervention in the first place.
The reason Russia intervened is its ally in Damascus faced a very real threat of losing to al-Qaeda-linked rebels. And in terms of Russia killing civilians and bombing civilian populations I can’t support that but if we’re concerned about Russia’s presence there, then we have to look at the background to it. I don’t think it would have happened if not for our own intervention there and by the way, the US intervened in Syria before Russia did. So, it is strange then to be upset about handing over a victory to Russia when, if not for our own involvement there in fueling the proxy war, Russia might never have gotten involved in the first place.
The whole framing of Russia as an existential enemy is just, is extremely dangerous, and the utility that serves is not in defending anybody, defending civilians, it serves mostly defence contractors who profit off of tensions with Russia. So, it’s good for them if we see Russia as a foe and if we have to you know, counter Russia in Syria and in Ukraine, and expand NATO, it’s good for them but it’s not good for any of the civilian populations. It’s at the peril of the entire world because tensions between two nuclear powers is not a good thing. Putin said the other day that the risk of nuclear war is still very real and it’s scary – however you feel about Russia and its policies, the idea that it’s a bad thing for these two nuclear powers to cooperate and to not have tensions is very dangerous.
TMU: There seems to be a clear difference, as you say, between the US role in Syria and Russia’s role in Syria, in that you could argue Russia’s intervention was in accordance with international law due to the open invitation from the Syrian government. The US never had any invitation. Yet, Russia is still painted as the aggressor, where as the US is painted as a saviour which should come to Syria’s aid, even under Donald Trump. This is a guy they say is too crazy to run the White House but then they want him to intervene in Syria to protect Syrian civilians.
AM: Exactly. I find Syria very tough. My views on it have certainly changed. The problem for me is I haven’t been there. It’s hard for me to make sweeping conclusions about it, because I wasn’t there when the uprising started and I haven’t been there. But from what I know, basically, I would have loved it if the initial protests against Assad had been successful. What those were about were demanding democratic reforms. They weren’t even calling for the overthrow of the government. They wanted basic reforms. They wanted more freedom, they wanted to not live under a repressive dictatorship and they wanted change, and who can oppose that?
Unfortunately, at a certain point, it turned into something far different which was an armed regime change operation fueled by foreign governments that have no concern for the Syrian people but just wanted a government more in line with their agenda in the Middle East, which then destroyed the country. Yes, it’s true that Syria did invite in Russia, and so it’s legal. The argument against that is that the Syrian government lost its legitimacy when it cracked down so brutally on these protesters. But in terms of international law, one hundred percent. It’s also true, that if not for Russian and Iranian intervention, we would have al-Qaeda or ISIS controlling Damascus right now, and we have to be honest about that.
This doesn’t mean we excuse the atrocities that have been committed by Assad and the Russians but it also doesn’t mean that we adopt this fantasy that the Russians just came into crush a peaceful uprising. And we have to recognise the fact that, as much as we don’t like Assad – I don’t see how he could possibly be supported in any context – but the fact is, having him in power, having the state remain intact seems to me a far better option than having these foreign jihadists take over the country. I wish Assad hadn’t cracked down so brutally on the initial uprising, but the fact that he did does not justify a years-long proxy war that has destroyed the country.
TMU: Going back to the Russiagate story for our final question. In your opinion, what are some of the actual scandals or stories that they media should be talking about it instead of fixating on this non-scandal?
AM: Okay, well domestically in the US, we have the tax heist to me was a criminal act of robbing from the poor and giving to the rich. Cutting corporate taxes and taxes for the wealthy – the biggest upward transfer of wealth in US history.
Trump has further attacked Obamacare. Obamacare, which is a pretty awful system but it is better than nothing, I think, because at least it covers some people. And, Trump has gutted that.
Trump pulling out of the Paris climate accord and Trump pulling out of the Iran-nuclear deal, doing things that really endanger human survival. These are existential issues, especially, climate change and also recently pulling out of the INF treaty with Russia, so undermining another key nuclear treaty. These are things that threaten the extinction of the planet. And yet, we’re focussed on Roger Stone and Robert Mueller and all these characters in the neverending legal drama that’s based on a conspiracy theory.
Globally we have the occupation of Palestinians with key western support; critical western support. It wouldn’t be happening if not for the US. But both parties, not only don’t challenge it, they actually go along with it and the media follows their lead, for the most part.
The genocidal war in Yemen – I could go on.
The through-line is that all of these issues benefit or cater to US and western elites in some ways but they’re bad for the people and because of that, that’s why we have non-scandals like Russiagate because elites need something to distract people and to focus their energy and attention elsewhere; to weaken their capacity to fight back on real issues, because they get diverted into sideshows like Russiagate – and this false belief that people like Robert Mueller are going save them.