Among the many fascinating details contained in Jane Mayer’s profile of former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele in the New Yorker is a passing reference to an episode of CNN’s “State of the Union” that aired July 24, 2016. On that episode, host Jake Tapper interviewed three people: Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who would shortly thereafter see his rival in the Democratic primaries accept the party’s nomination for the presidency; Hillary Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook; and Donald Trump Jr.
At this point, Sanders seems like the least interesting part of the program.
Steele, you’ll remember, is the person who compiled a dossier of raw intelligence reports that has become an important part of the conversation about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Mayer walks through his background and how he came to be involved in investigating any links between Donald Trump and Russian interests. She includes an assessment of how the Russia story was treated broadly as it was unfolding, herself interviewing Mook to get a sense of how Clinton’s campaign viewed it.
“Back then,” Mook told her, “people thought that we were just desperately peddling conspiracy theories.”
Which brings Mayer — and us — to that CNN show.
July 24 was two days after WikiLeaks began releasing thousands of documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee. The Washington Post had reported the previous month that the DNC had been hacked, citing initial and subsequent analyses that linked the hacks to the Russian government. The effect of the release was to undermine and disrupt the Democratic National Convention, which began July 25 and focused on bridging the gap between supporters of Sanders and Clinton.
Tapper asked Mook for the Clinton campaign’s reaction to the release.
“Well,” Mook said, “I think the DNC needs to look into this and take appropriate action, and I’m sure that they will. What’s disturbing to us is that we — experts are telling us that Russian state actors broke into the DNC, stole these emails. And other experts are now saying that the Russians are releasing these emails for the purpose of actually helping Donald Trump.”
“I don’t think it’s very coincidental that they are being released at this time to create maximum damage on Hillary Clinton and to help Donald Trump,” he later added.
“But it is a very, very strong charge that you’re leveling here,” Tapper said. “You’re basically suggesting that Russians hacked into the DNC and now are releasing these files through WikiLeaks to help elect Donald Trump.”
“Well, this isn’t my assertion,” Mook replied. “There are a number of experts that are asserting this.”
Who those experts are isn’t clear. At the time, Vox pointed to a tweet from Franklin Foer, a journalist who was a fellow at the New America Foundation. (Foer now writes for the Atlantic, where he published a lengthy look at Paul Manafort.) There was a surfeit of expertise on the general question of Russia’s apparent involvement in the DNC hacking when Mook spoke to Tapper, but assertions that the intent was to aid Trump were, at the time, largely speculative in the public sphere.
One person who had good reason to believe that the Russian government was trying to aid Donald Trump, though, was another guy with that name: Donald Trump Jr.
Tapper asked Trump Jr. to respond to Mook’s claim that Russia wanted to help his father.
“Well, it just goes to show you their exact moral compass,” Trump Jr. said. “I mean, they will say anything to be able to win this. I mean, this is time and time again, lie after lie. You notice he won’t say, ‘Well, I say this. We hear experts.’ … It’s disgusting. It’s so phony.”
“I can’t think of bigger lies,” he continued, “but that exactly goes to show you what the DNC and what the Clinton camp will do. They will lie and do anything to win.”
Trump Jr. was speaking about 50 days after he received an email from a music promoter named Rob Goldstone. One of Goldstone’s clients was Emin Agalarov, a musician in Moscow who’d met candidate Trump in 2013 at the Miss Universe pageant. (Trump later appeared in one of Agalarov’s videos.) He and his father, Aras Agalarov, also worked for a real estate developer in the city. Aras Agalarov has ties to the Russian government.
“Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting,” Goldstone wrote to Trump Jr. on June 3. “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin,” he continued.
In his response, Trump Jr. didn’t express surprise at the phrase “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Instead, he requested a conversation with the younger Agalarov and said, “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
A meeting was set up; Trump Jr. later reported being frustrated that no negative information about Clinton was offered. The next month, he said on CNN that he couldn’t think of a bigger lie than that Russia might want to aid his father’s campaign. (This is setting aside other opportunities for the Trump campaign to have learned about Russia’s intent.)
Last month, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III charged 13 Russians in connection with their roles in attempting to sway the 2016 election by leveraging social media to shift the political conversation and by pushing for real-world events. That indictment quotes some of those involved in the effort as arguing specifically that a goal was to boost the Trump campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies believed before the election that Russia’s goal was to prop up Trump at Clinton’s expense.
At the time, though, it was easier to side with Trump Jr. than with Mook. The Russians having dirt on Clinton that they were leaking to bolster Trump’s campaign? It required some dot-connecting that bordered on the conspiratorial.
Tapper interviewed someone who had good reason to believe that it wasn’t. But he wasn’t on CNN to share what he knew. He was there to promote his father’s candidacy.