Debate: Are Trump’s Ties to Russia a Dangerous Security Issue or Critics’ Fodder for New Red Scare?

The ongoing mystery of Russia’s role in the 2016 US election took an unexpected turn early Saturday morning when President Trump took to Twitter, writing: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump offered no evidence, but within 24 hours he called on lawmakers to probe Obama’s actions. The New York Times is reporting FBI director James B. Comey has asked the Justice Department to publicly reject Trump’s assertion that Obama ordered the tapping of Trump’s phones. The Times described Comey’s request as a “remarkable rebuke of a sitting president.” For more we host a debate between attorney Scott Horton, lecturer at Columbia Law School and a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, and Robert Parry, veteran investigative journalist and editor of the website Consortiumnews.com.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The ongoing mystery of Russia’s role in the 2016 US election took an unexpected turn early Saturday morning when President Trump took to Twitter, writing, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

AMY GOODMAN: Trump went on to tweet, “How low has President Obama gone to tapp…” — spelled T-A-P-P — “…to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” President Trump offered no evidence, but within 24 hours he called on lawmakers to probe Obama’s actions. On Sunday morning, Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the remarks to host Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week.”

MARTHA RADDATZ: The President of the United States is accusing the former president of wiretapping him.

DEP. WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think that this is again something that — if this happened, Martha…

MARTHA RADDATZ: If, if, if, if.

DEP. WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: [laugh] I agree that…

MARTHA RADDATZ: Why is the president saying it did happen?

DEP. WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, I think he is going off of information that he has seen that has led him to believe that this is a very real potential. And if it is, this is the greatest overreach and the greatest abuse of power that I think we’ve ever seen, and a huge attack on democracy itself. And the American people have a right to know if this took place.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It appears the information Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders is referring to is a Breitbart article based on a claim by the far-right-wing radio host Mark Levin. On “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd interviewed President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.

JAMES CLAPPER: I can’t speak officially anymore, but I will say that for the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against the campaign. I can’t speak for other Title III authorized entities in the government, or a state or local entity.

CHUCK TODD: I was just going to say, if the FBI, for instance, had a FISA court order of some sort for a surveillance, would that be information you would know, or not know?

JAMES CLAPPER: Yes.

CHUCK TODD: You would be told this.

JAMES CLAPPER: I would know that.

CHUCK TODD: If there was a FISA court order…

JAMES CLAPPER: Yes.

CHUCK TODD: On something like this.

JAMES CLAPPER: Something like this, absolutely.

CHUCK TODD: And at this point, you can’t confirm or deny whether that exists?

JAMES CLAPPER: I can deny it.

CHUCK TODD: There is no FISA court order?

JAMES CLAPPER: Not to my knowledge.

CHUCK TODD: Of anything at Trump Tower?

JAMES CLAPPER: No.

AMY GOODMAN: During the same interview, James Clapper said he has seen no evidence of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. Meanwhile, The New York Times is reporting FBI director James Comey has asked the Justice Department to publicly reject Trump’s assertion that Obama ordered the tapping of Trump’s phones. The Times described Comey’s request as a “remarkable rebuke of a sitting president.” This all comes just days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation into last year’s presidential campaign, following reports he met twice with Russia’s ambassador to the US while serving as a campaign surrogate for Donald Trump. To make sense of what’s happening, we are joined by two guests who will not agree on most anything on this issue. Attorney Scott Horton, lecturer at Columbia Law School, contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. And Robert Parry, veteran investigative journalist and editor of the website “consortiumnews.com.” His latest article is “The Politics Behind ‘Russia-gate’Russia-gate.” Scott, let’s begin with you, around this FISA order. Why does President Trump have to say he has heard reports? Can’t he pick up the phone and find out?

SCOTT HORTON: Absolutely. As Commander-in-Chief, he would have the right to demand and receive a briefing about anything that’s gone on, and he would also have the power to declassify and release any information that has been obtained, including FISA court orders, warrants, or other documents. And he has obviously chosen not to do that, and instead rely on a Breitbart report of a Mark Levin rant.

AMY GOODMAN: And he could declassify.

SCOTT HORTON: Absolutely. And release.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Scott, what is your sense of, as this continuing Russia situation has developed over the last several weeks, of what is going on here?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think there is growing pressure for a probe of Russian activities in the election within Congress. I think it is gathering support from more leaders of the Republicans. I think it’s more difficult for the Republican leadership to push back against it. I think what we see right now is an attempt by President Trump to derail all that and change the agenda to another issue. Now I have to note, if you look at General Clapper’s statement, it was very carefully phrased. I mean, so he said “no FISA court order of this type of the Trump Tower.”

And I think that there is something in the background that the media is so far not doing a good job of reporting and covering. And there is a FISA court order. But to be clear, it is not an order that directed tapping of Trump Tower or Donald Trump. Rather it is an order that was issued on October 15th, has not been reported in the US media. It has been reported in Europe more extensively. And it is in connection with a counterintelligence investigation that has been going on since last summer that targets not Donald Trump, but five individuals who have or at one point did play some role in his campaign, and their dealings with people who are suspected to be Russian intelligence operatives.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about that.

SCOTT HORTON: Well, we don’t know much about it, because the entire process surrounding FISA court proceedings is secret. But when you see…

AMY GOODMAN: The Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act court.

SCOTT HORTON: Act court. And to obtain that order, a judge had to review an application that justified it, and had to find that there was probable cause to issue the order. Now, all of the judges of the FISA court are Republicans. In fact they’re all selected by Chief Justice Roberts, and they’re all people very much like him. So for a FISA judge to have authorized this is quite something. I think we saw Lindsey Graham hinting at that in the past. And when we see reports previously about intercepts of communications and what they may or may not have said, that’s all coming out of this investigation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bob Parry, you have written there is no “there there” in this issue of all of the hullabaloo that we’ve seen in the press over Russia and Trump. Can you expound on that and give us your take?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, I’m not sure there is no “there there.” What I’m saying is that so far, the Obama administration and as far as we know, what has happened since then, with some of the holdovers from the Obama administration, they have not presented the real evidence to show that there was this effort by the Russians to leak this material or hack this material and provide it to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks has flatly denied that they received this information from the Russians. They have indicated there were apparently two American insiders who they believe would have been the sources of this information.

So what you have got is a lot of ifs going on. Not just the ifs that President Trump has put out through his tweets, but also now there is also a lot of ifs about what happened initially. So we have a situation where Washington has kind of gone nuts. Where there hasn’t been the kind of evidence presented on anyone’s part that convinces me or a lot of other people who have looked at this, including former people from the National Security Agency. People like William Binney. So you have problems here, where the evidence is not supporting, at least to this point, a lot of these allegations. We’ve had a lot of suspicions and a lot of smoke, but so far, not much in the way of fire.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you have raised that Russia is increasingly being made the boogeyman, not only by those on the right, but many on the left who were either supporters of President Obama or were progressives who ended up supporting Hillary Clinton, that you feel that there is an necessary heating up of a new Cold War.

ROBERT PARRY: Well, there is no question. We’re now into a new Cold War. And we’re also seeing kind of a new McCarthyism. What you’ve seen is a very hostile approach that the United States has taken toward Russia going back really to the Ukraine crisis. And it has been escalating. And the Russians have responded somewhat in-kind. So you had a much more cooperative relationship between President Obama and President Putin that preceded the 2014 Ukraine crisis. They worked together on the Syrian crisis. It was Putin who got Assad to give up his chemical weapons. They worked together on Iran, getting Iran to constrain its nuclear program. But then with the crisis in Ukraine, which was not simply a case of — it was a case that involved some American input to try to create that as a turning point in how this whole relationship developed. So we’ve had this narrative set up where the Russians are made into the bad guys, and that has now continued into the campaign and now into the new presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, your thoughts on the allegations of Russian hacking of the election and Russia’s involvement with Donald Trump and his associates, even if we are talking about oligarchs hoping to finance Donald Trump’s development projects because it was hard for him to get lines of credit since he had gone bankrupt so many times?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think just the hacking and release of information all on its own is actually relatively little. Not so much a big deal. In fact, assuming the Russians do it — and I think the evidence, unlike my colleague, I think the evidence is very convincing that they did — it is not a big deal. It’s what intelligence services do all over the world. What would make this a far bigger matter is if there were collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians throughout the process. If the hacking were requested. If it were being guided by them. And then if beyond that, it were to turn out that the Russians in fact financed Donald Trump to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, as indeed his son acknowledged in a press statement before the campaign got going.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

SCOTT HORTON: That is that, if you look at Trump’s situation after the bankruptcies that occurred in 2004, when the banks withdrew their letters of credit, most people thought he was finished. From that point forward, there was an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars into Trump projects — Trump branded projects all around the world, that re-floated the Trump Empire and made it viable. All that money seems to have come out of Russia — from Russian oligarchs, from Russian organized crime groups. And that’s something that was really not very well developed during the campaign. And those facts all together would explain what is otherwise an almost inexplicable relationship between Donald Trump and Putin, where he cannot criticize this man or say a negative thing about him.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bob Parry, you are famed for your investigative reports and you have said that unfortunately, in journalism today, there is a lack of real investigative reporting.

ROBERT PARRY: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It’s basically, who can get the first leaks from which branch of which intelligence agency in the government. What do you think is lacking in terms of the kinds of investigations that journalists should be using? What about this whole issue of the long-term economic relationships that may have existed between Trump and Russian oligarchs?

ROBERT PARRY: Well, again, there are a lot of ifs here. And I don’t think there has been any hard evidence presented on these things either. There was this reference from the son, who was apparently talking about some of these Russian oligarchs buying up Trump condos and other kind of properties. But that doesn’t mean it was coming from the Russian government. This idea that everything in Russia is controlled at the top is not really true. It is a large country like ours is, and there are many different factors and factions that operate. So to pretend that we all know this is somewhat misleading.

And there’s a huge amount of this whole question of if. We are at a very dangerous point here, where there is a real possibility of a crisis between the United States and Russia. And instead of anything that has been very serious or hard in terms of evidence, we have been dealing with suppositions. And as Scott says, even if the Russians did somehow get this information to WikiLeaks, the information itself was all accurate. It dealt with things that were relatively significant in terms of what we would know about how the Clinton campaign was operating. But it was not decisive in any way to the election. Hillary Clinton herself blamed James Comey for his reopening of her investigation into her email situation as the principal cause for her defeat. It wasn’t the Russians.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton?

SCOTT HORTON: Well I think any election in which the man who was second past the post wins and is installed and president, and a shift of 40,000 votes would have dramatically affected the outcome, any of a number of hundreds of things could’ve caused a change in the election. I think what we have seen here, and I agree with Bob Parry on this, is a really dramatic failure of inquiry by the press during the election. Failure to develop a number of really important issues relating to Trump and the Trump campaign. But there is no reason not to fully explore and develop them right now. And I think in the end, if everything goes in the direction I think it is going to go, this would be the end of the Trump presidency.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you have also said, haven’t you, that you basically, you would agree with Bob Parry on the general outlines of the criticism of the US policy toward Russia. That there has been much more aggressive posture by the United States and interfering in affairs close to the Russian borders?

SCOTT HORTON: Yes, I agree. I think the US made grave mistakes in the way it expanded NATO into the region, the way it interacted with Georgia, for instance, before the war in 2008. But that’s another set of questions.

And I think the confrontation we’re looking at from Russia today is not the old Cold War kind of confrontation with nuclear weapons and armored divisions. It is a very aggressive policy of intervention and engagement in Western politics and Western elections. This is not just in the United States. It is going on today in France and Italy and Germany. And following the same shadow, the same profile, in almost every single country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this conversation and then post it online at democracynow.org. Scott Horton teaches at Columbia Law School, writes for Harper’s Magazine. And Bob Parry writes for Consortiumnews. And we’ll link to his piece there.

That does it for our show.