Fred Ryan: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to The Washington Post. I’m Fred Ryan, Publisher. We’re delighted to share Greg Miller’s powerful new book, The Apprentice. The Apprentice was released just yesterday, and it could not be more timely. Midterm elections are only weeks away and millions of Americans are wondering whether the lessons of 2016 will be remembered. The events of two years ago show how a hostile foreign power exploiting our technology and our culture of open exchange can sabotage the democratic institutions that have been at the core of our country for 240+ years.
Russia’s meddling in our election is one of the most compelling stories of our time. Its ongoing implications continue to dominate daily headlines, fueling stories about criminal investigations and backdoor diplomacy and White House intrigue. Given the speed in which these stories move in today’s digital news cycle, it can be difficult to separate what’s true and important from what’s noise and speculation, or even deliberate distraction.
This is where Greg Miller, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, comes in. The Apprentice is a product of two years of research and reporting. It draws on hundreds of interviews with sources ranging from members of President Trump’s inner circle to senior officials in the intelligence community. It’s a bit of an over-used expression, but Greg’s work really does connect the dots. Thoughtfully and methodically, he’s pulled together key facts out of a swirl of information in order to give readers a fuller, clearer picture of Russia’s interference.
One thing that The Washington Post, I believe, does incredibly well, as we see in the case of this story, is collaboration across the newsroom. Across our newsroom, reporters have worked together to consistently break news about Russia’s continued attempts to hack our democracy. Two reporters who’ve made especially important contributions to these efforts—Ellen Nakashima and Craig Timberg—will join Greg and The Post’s Libby Casey.
But no one takes more pride in the collaborative culture than our Executive Editor, Marty Baron. The Post’s Russia coverage reflects the values he places on teamwork and on investigative reporting. And it’s now my pleasure to turn the program over to Marty, who will set the stage for this morning’s conversation. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]
Marty Baron: Good morning, everyone. Thank you all for coming for what I know will be a very lively and enlightening conversation. The occasion, as you know, is the publication of The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy, masterfully written by national security reporter Greg Miller, in collaboration with his colleagues on the national security, politics, business and local staffs of The Washington Post.
Two of those superb journalists, Ellen Nakashima and Craig Timberg, will join with Greg on stage today to talk about the groundbreaking reporting that led first to a Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post earlier this year, and now have resulted in this book that pulls together the complicated threads of an extraordinary and disturbing story.
The stunning intrusion of Russia into an American presidential election with the goal of electing Donald Trump deserved a comprehensive and comprehensible examination. This book provided it. It’s a thoroughly absorbing read. Russian interference in an American election, of course, also called for deep journalistic investigation well prior to publication of any book. And The Post did that. It was first on the story and it has stayed with it hard over the last couple of years.
On June 14, 2016, a story by Ellen in The Washington Post was the first to reveal that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee. It was a clear signal, if not fully understood at the time, that the Kremlin had been targeting American political institutions. Nearly six months later, in a story also first reported by The Post, Ellen, Greg and then-colleague Adam Entous, wrote that the CIA had concluded in a secret assessment that Russia sought to help Donald Trump win the presidency.
The Post’s early breakthroughs on the Russia story meant that by the date of Donald Trump’s inauguration, our reporters were already speaking to people across the government to understand the Kremlin’s role in 2016, the Obama administration’s response, and how policy toward Russia would change with the new administration. This running start allowed us to build on Post columnist David Ignatius’s revelation on January 12th, 2017, that Michael Flynn, then the National Security Advisor-designate, and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak had spoken by phone in late December.
In early February, Greg, Ellen and Adam disclosed that the two men had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia, a story that compelled Flynn’s resignation within a week because he had lied in declaring that no such conversation had taken place.
From that point, it was on to a year and a half of additional breakthrough reporting about the nature and extent of contacts between Russians and those close to Trump, revelations that set in motion the appointment of the Special Counsel. Over the course of The Post’s investigation, the reporting took many dramatic turns. Greg, for example, became privy to secrets flowing out of the Trump White House, even gaining possession of transcripts of the president’s calls with world leaders. His sources enabled him to reveal that Trump had shared highly-classified information with Russia’s ambassador and foreign minister in a meeting in the Oval Office. Greg went to unusual lengths to protect sources, using code words and even the ruse of a mundane business transaction to provide a plausible explanation for their interactions if ever detected by authorities.
A year later, classified memos written by FBI Director James Comey revealed that he and Trump had discussed Greg’s story and his sourcing in a chilling Oval Office exchange. “We need to go after the reporters,” Trump said, according to Comey’s memo, and trump suggested to Comey that “Ten or 15 years ago we put them in jail to find out what they know.” Now, Comey agreed that the leaks were terrible and said he was, as he put it, "eager to find leakers and would like to nail one to the door as a message. There was value,” Comey said, in “putting a head on a pike.”
So, fortunately, Greg’s head is not on a pike, as you will plainly see. He survived to brilliantly author this book, and I’m proud to now introduce Greg, fellow reporters Ellen Nakashima and Craig Timberg, and then outstanding interviewer, Libby Casey, of The Washington Post, who will lead the discussion. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]
Inside The Washington Post's new book, ‘The Apprentice’:
Casey: Good morning, and welcome. Thank you so much for being here. I’m Libby Casey, politics and accountability anchor here at The Washington Post. And I’m so pleased to be onstage with three of my colleagues, Greg Miller, national security correspondent and author of The Apprentice, Ellen Nakashima, national security reporter, and Craig Timberg, national technology reporter.
As Fred and Marty mentioned, this book is the culmination of years of reporting, deep-sourcing—and today we’re going to get a behind-the-scenes look at how this book came together, and also very importantly, where the story goes from here.
So, if you have questions, if you’re in the audience or if you’re watching online, if you’ve got questions for our panelists you can send them to us via Twitter using the hashtag #POSTLIVE and we’ll get to some of those later on in our conversation. So, let’s just jump right in.
You know, Greg, as I was reading this book it was almost like a Shakespearean tragedy from the perspective of the Obama administration as the election rolled forward. There were so many missed opportunities to stop the Russian interference, to stop the hacking that was happening. Can you take us through some of the biggest missed opportunities to stop Russian interference? Missed opportunities, either because of ignorance, missed signals, or pure politics.
Miller: Yeah, of course. Can I take a quick second to say a few things before we get too far along? First, I just want to thank Marty and Fred for that great introduction. I want to ask Marty whether—we’ve worked together for many years. I’m sure there have been moments when he does wish my head was on a pike. [LAUGHTER]
It’s our great privilege and this city’s great fortunate to have terrific leadership like Fred and Marty and the editing and team of editors here at The Post who really give us the support we need, not only give us the support we need to do this sort of work, but ensure that this gets done in the most accurate and fair way possible. In this moment in history in journalism, there’s nothing more critical than that.
And I also just wanted to really thank Ellen and Craig for their terrific and important contributions to the reporting along the way and to the work that’s in this book. There’s only one reporter on this planet who gets to say they wrote the very first story about Russian interference in the election, that that’s Ellen Nakashima, who’s sitting right next to me. And Craig has done just valiant work in explaining to those of us for whom Silicon Valley and all of these social media platforms seem so opaque at times, their role and their culpability in what happened.
So, to return to your question, thank you—oh, sorry—no, not quite yet. I’ve got to talk about my shoes. So, these shoes are more than 50 years old. Whenever I have a special day I wear these shoes because they were my father’s. And he is here today along with my mom; they flew in from California to be here. He took great care of these shoes and I’m trying to take care of them as well. And I just wanted to call them out and express my gratitude that they came here for this special day. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]
So, there were tons of missed opportunities, and you’re right, it does seem tragic, when we look back on it. And that was one of the really stark things, things that jumped out at me when I started working on the book, because we were all scrambling in real time as this story was unfolding. There wasn’t a lot of time for reflection until this year, when I started trying to build out timelines and detailed chronologies, and seeing events overlapping with other events and seeing how things kind of fit together in a bigger picture.
So, obviously, Ellen has written extensively about the first real missed opportunity, and I hope that she can talk about that in a minute. She wrote about the Russian penetration of the DNC’s computer networks and how long it took for the FBI, which had detected that penetration and knew about it, to get the attention of the DNC leadership, for the DNC leadership and for its cybersecurity teams to understand the significance of what was happening and to take the measures which, if they’d taken in time, might have prevented a lot of damage from happening many months later.
But there were other moments along the way, and one that jumps out for me is the Obama administration really struggled to figure out how to respond to this attack by Russia during the election. President Obama was really concerned about not being perceived as interfering in the election, not putting his thumb on the scale, he often said. And that meant that they really tried to get bipartisan statements from Congress to call attention to what was happening, to call out Vladimir Putin, to call out Russian intelligence services and explain to the public what was happening.
And Republican leadership resisted that on all fronts. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to go along with any kind of bipartisan statement until very late in the game, and even then, it was really watered down; it made no reference to Russia at all. Others went even farther in trying to prevent this from becoming an issue that the government could talk to the public about in time.
And even after the election we are still right now—one of the most baffling aspects of all of this is that here we are, well over a year and a half later, and the president continues to describe this all as a hoax, all as fake news. He’s convened a single NSC meeting on Russian election interference. It lasted for, as far as we can tell, about 45 minutes. No decisions were made. He picked up immediately after that and went golfing.
I mean, this was a huge, huge thing. This is why we did this book. It’s a critical moment in our country’s history. An adversary interfered in our election and had an enormous impact, an impact even greater than they expected. And because the president refuses to acknowledge even that that occurred, it’s really impaired our ability to respond and shore up the defenses that we need to, to prevent it from happening again.
Casey: Let’s bring Ellen and Craig into the conversation. Ellen, the DNC hack was noticed by the FBI; they contacted essentially the tech team of the DNC and tried to liaise with them. What do you see, looking back, and as you reported this story? Was this ignorance? Was this our national collective ignorance of how hacking can be so intrusive, and how vulnerable we are?
The RNC was hacked as well, something that Republicans have downplayed. But their information was not weaponized, so to speak. So, the DNC wasn’t necessarily unique in the intrusion.
Nakashima: That’s right. Yes. And first, I, too, would like to thank you all for being here and thank Marty Baron for all his wonderful support and leadership over the past years that’s just enabled us to do this work, which is dependent so much on the awesome team, and to thank Greg most of all for being such a wonderful colleague. You really are unique in the way you are able to synthesize the masses of information we are all pulling in day after day and kind of step back and sort through it and put it into a very compelling, revealing narrative and read. So, I urge everyone to get the book and get is signed.
To get back to your question, Libby, so yes. In fact, I should explain that when it comes to computer hacks of political systems, of government systems, of company systems, these have been going on for decades now, and especially in the last 10, 15 years. Big nations like Russia and China have really been hacking with a vengeance, but much of it—the vast majority of it—has been for what we just call straight espionage purposes, political espionage to figure out what our government agencies are working on, what their secret plans are, what the officials thinking, for corporate secrets, for intellectual property on paint and grass seeds.
What the Russians did, actually starting in 2015 and 2016 here, was different, and I can’t say that people cannot be blamed now in hindsight for not anticipating—because no one did—anticipating that the Russians would hack into in this case the Democratic National Committee system, steal masses of information, and then dump it out onto the internet, in this case through Wikileaks, effectively weaponizing this information
That was not something that people really expected to happen. So, when the FBI first detected—because they were informed by the NSA—that the Russians had gotten into the DNC system—I think they were told sometime in the summer of 2015—they actually did make attempts to contact the DNC, as they would any other victim that they’d gotten this information on. Their initial efforts were not very successful at getting in touch with the person who could actually do something about it or raise it up to the higher levels of DNC leadership.
And through a series of miscommunications and miscues, one of the IT people that the FBI agent did get in touch with was very skeptical that this was even the FBI, and it took months for the two to actually finally meet and ascertain that the FBI agent was who he really was, and that this IT person could trust him. That took months, and by the time the IT official really started to try to move things up it was too late. And in fact, one could say that there were also sort of miscommunications at midlevel within the DNC, where a person who should and could have raised it to the executive director inexplicably failed to do so.
Now you could say, “Why didn’t the FBI just go straight to the top and go to the executive director or the chairwoman and say, ‘Hey, you know, you’ve been hacked by the Russians.’” Well, that’s something they might have and could have done, but in this case they thought that they were doing the right thing by just going to try to through to the IT staff.
And so, months went by. The leadership of the DNC didn’t know about it, and then another Russian spy agency hacked in, in the spring of 2016, and I think this was the hack that was the most consequential. This was the military spy agency, the GRU, that got into the DNC sometime in maybe April of 2016. And it was their hack that I think eventually led to the material that was dumped out in July on Wikileaks. And by that point, it was too late.
The DNC finally did hear about; the leadership heard about it. They hired a company called CrowdStrike to investigate and to try to kick the intruders out, but by then it was too late. The Russians had taken masses and masses of emails and communications and opposition research from the DNC and were starting to already assemble it to be put out online. And so that was one of the sort of technical tactical missed opportunities.
And then as Greg said, there were much more sort of strategic-level missed opportunities that I think were actually far more significant.
Casey: Like what? Give us some of those.
Nakashima: Well, for instance, there were people, obviously, inside the Obama administration who were starting to see signs of Russia’s growing aggression and use of disinformation and manipulation of social media against, for instance, Ukraine, Eastern Ukraine, and the invasion of Crimea in 2014, moving into 2015. They saw this going on in Eastern Europe and in Europe. They didn’t see it—anticipate it happening in the U.S., but they knew that Russia was becoming increasingly aggressive in this front, in what we call, maybe “active measures” or “hybrid warfare.”
There were some growing attempts inside the administration to try to become more aggressive against Russia. But at that time, a lot of the focus was still on counterterrorism, on ISIS, and not thinking about sort of deterring Russia in its efforts to undermine Western-style democracy. But then when, in 2016, the FBI noticed and saw and knew that Russia had hacked into the DNC, and as soon as they saw that Russia had weaponized this information in July of 2016, on the eve of the Democratic Convention, this was now full-on attack, an information warfare operation against the United States and U.S. democracy.
And there was heated debate within the Obama administration. We reported that out last year. There were, as Greg mentioned—there was a reluctance on the part of the president himself and his senior advisors to take any public action to call out Russia, to impose meaningful, forceful sanctions or deterrents, out of the belief or fear that that could be seen as the Democrats, the Obama administration trying to influence the election in favor of Hillary Clinton. There were fears that it might escalate and provoke an even greater, stronger Russia response. There were fears that it might do the Russian’s work for them and cast doubt on the integrity of the election.
For all those reasons, despite some of the arguments made a mid-levels and lower levels of the administration interagency, the Obama administration didn’t take forceful action until after the election. And even the measures it took, some say, are just not strong enough.
Casey: You report that they did use the red phone system, which, of course, we all know about, on October 31st. So, really, on the eve of the election, to send a warning, to say, essentially, “Back off, don’t meddle. Meddling in the election would represent serious interference in the fundamentals of U.S. society.” The Russians acknowledged they received the message, although, Greg, you report that they weren’t very fulsome in their response. And you report that that may have prevented, the Obama administration believes, a more direct cyberattack on election day.
Miller: Yeah. You have sort of two views about this among the senior Obama administration officials. We spoke to many of those officials when we were reporting the stories out over the past year-and-a-half. And there was a quote we used in one of our stories that got a lot of attention, from a pretty senior person who said that when he looked back at this time, he felt like we sort of choked. He used the word “choked” in how they handled Russia.
And even afterward you’ve seen the second guessing. Former director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper, has a great line in his book where he talks about he marvels at the fact at how reluctant Obama was to put thumb on the scale in the election, and here’s Putin over here, on the other end of the scale, standing on it and jumping up and down on it. [LAUGHTER]
But many of the senior Obama administration officials, including Denis McDonough, would say they believe that their warnings to Russia succeeded in one way. That they scared Russia away from launching any kind of cyberattacks on election day. That could have been a nightmare, right? Disabling voting systems around the country, creating chaos as the nation tried to vote. That really didn’t happen. And they would argue that that is largely because of the warnings that they issued.
Casey: Although, you also point out that the U.S. is antiquated and disorganized voting system may have been a benefit in this case.
Casey: Because it’s hard to hack an entire system if it’s disorganized and in disparate pieces. Craig, I want to bring you in. Talk to us about the role of the social media companies because the book points out that it almost becomes this very successful loop. The Russians hack, they release material, and then they use social media as a way to highlight that material, flag it, point out the most embarrassing details. As well as, of course, as we now know, propagate things that weren’t true and drum up the problems and the passions that were already happening in this country.
Timberg: Yeah, thanks. I’d like to also echo the comments of Greg and Ellen about what a great place this is to work. I just passed my 20th anniversary at The Post. I’ve lived through good times and hard times. This newsroom and this institution has never been better led. Thank God, because we really need great journalism now. And I’ve very pleased to work with folks—though I missed the memo to bring my awesome heritage shoes. [LAUGHTER] I am very proud to be here with two of my favorite colleagues.
I feel like one of the themes that comes up a lot, as we reflect back on the Russia stuff, is there was really a failure to quickly apprehend what the heck was going on. And it was kind of a failure of imagination. I think, in a way, we had a failure of imagination, as well. Like, living through this in real time, nobody really quickly figured out what was going on. And that’s true of the social media companies, as well.
I mean, I’ve written very critically about Facebook and Twitter and Google, and how some of this stuff has played out. But the same sort of questions about the way the system—what the Russians were doing and what to do about it, were going through Silicon Valley in the exact same time. Because they were arrayed against a certain kind of threat, hackers, right? Or they didn’t imagine that the Russians, on a wholesale basis, were basically going to take this massive, incredibly lucrative social media system and turn it against the country that created it.
And so, that failure of imagination made them slow. It made them tentative. They also, of course, had huge business interests in appearing very even-handed, not wanting to be perceived as having the thumb on the scale, in favor of one side or another. All of those same things played out with these companies. And they all led to a response that, frankly, everyone in Silicon Valley now really regrets. And there’s these amazing anecdotes of election night in Silicon Valley and the next day, and they’re just like, “People couldn’t believe it. People were shocked.” And there was a particular blowback within the walls of Facebook, where people just—it dawned on everybody pretty quickly that they had a role in a disaster.
Now, who knows if it was a decisive kind of role, but, man, this system got turned against us. And I don’t think anybody really saw it coming. Though, as Ellen argues, they probably should have because of what happened in Ukraine and some of the other places. But I really don’t think people saw it coming.
Casey: I want to talk about politics for a moment. This is so relevant now, to this day, still, because we’re talking about the lead-up to the election. Largely, this book spans through—I don’t know. Greg, it’s like you published it a minute ago. It goes all the way through the Helsinki summit. So I want to talk about the presidency, but this political threat is very important. Because as the Republicans rejected the appeals, not by the White House, the Obama White House, but by the intelligence community and intelligence leaders, to make a statement to do something to fight back against the Russians. They shut it down.
And you write, Greg, that Putin had weaponized intelligence. McConnell and the GOP had weaponized denial.
Miller: Yeah. There’s a scene in the book that is new, that describes a confrontation between the CIA Director, John Brennan, and the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the fall of 2016, as the election is approaching. Brennan had spent—the CIA had gotten some amazing intelligence, breakthrough intelligence—we lay it out in the book—in the late-July timeframe. Brennan spent two days sequestered in his office. He was so alarmed by this, he closes the door, doesn’t let anybody in, and he spends two days in his office, just pouring over all of the intel on Russia that the agency has.
He comes out of it just sort of stricken. Calls the White House, “I need to see the president right away.” Goes to the White House, tells Obama what’s happening. The first thing they do is try to set up a series of one-on-one meetings with the congressional leaders, for Brennan, so that he can tell them the same thing he’s told the president. That’s pretty unusual. The CIA director usually meets with groups of lawmakers, doesn’t do these one-on-one briefings. So, really indicative of the level of alarm.
He’s just astonished that when he gets to McConnell and they have their meeting, and he starts to lay out all of this intelligence that shows that Putin has actually approved this operation himself. And is leading toward the idea of, we need to call this out. We need to do something about this. McConnell argues that, no, it sounds like you’re trying to meddle in the election, not Russia. He says that he is not prepared to call out Putin, but would be prepared to call out Obama and Brennan and the Obama administration for meddling in the election if they tried to do anything like this.
It’s just one of many moments in this book, and it’s part of a broader theme that speaks to, as you were saying, the sort of political forces we’re dealing with in this country at this moment. It wasn’t always like this, right? There’s just time after time where partisan impulses just overwhelm everything, overwhelm concern for the country. In this case, overwhelm concern for one of the most precious mechanisms of American democracy, a presidential election. What is more sacred than that? There was an utter inability to get any agreement, to have any bipartisan condemnation of what Russia was doing.
Casey: Ellen, you’re nodding your head.
Nakashima: Yeah. I think, Greg, you put your finger on it right there. Because what Russia, in fact, exploited was this particular moment in time, in our country, where we are so deeply divided and polarized along political lines, and sometimes religious lines, social-economic lines. Our ground was fertile. We were susceptible to Russian interference because of the those divisions. Russia was able to exploit them. They didn’t create the divisions. The scene you just vividly laid out, it just encapsulates that.
And as Craig probably explained, too, it’s not just the Russians that exploited all of this. We have internal domestic actors that put out divisive messages from the left, from the right. And Russia amplified those messages. And sometimes it amplified them and impersonated those messages better than the groups themselves. There was, like, I think one Black Lives Matter, Blacktivists group that sort of took on the Black Lives Matter’s themes, and put up a fake page on Facebook that way more likes and shares than the actual Black Lives Matter’s page.
But this was all happening in the same moment in 2016. We had internal political turmoil and Russia just swooped in and brilliantly exploited that.
Timberg: And if I can expand on that, just for a second? People wonder, “Well, hasn’t propaganda always been out there? Hasn’t active measures been part of our relationship with Russia and the Soviets for a century?” But there was something very particular that happened in 2016 that actually couldn’t have happened much sooner. And that is, the Russians were able to identify particular groups and send them individualized messages. So it isn’t like I was getting messages that were aimed at a young African American man in Oakland, right? He was getting those messages. I was getting messages aimed at boring middle-aged white people in Washington.
And so, like, the ability to—the social media companies have atomized all of us. They’ve identified us. They’ve put us into a thousand different buckets. And they’ve given the ability to aim a particular message at those individual buckets, and, really, all of us individually, to advertisers. Well, guess who advertised? The Russians advertised and they paid in rubles. So we, “we” meaning the country, build this unbelievable, completely unprecedented system to, in an atomized way, target individual voters. That has never ever happened before and the Russians did it.
And so, that’s one reason why everybody was so slow to perceive what was going on, on the social media front, because everyone was getting different messages. And it was slipping in between our newsfeed messages about, like, you know, Aunt Mary’s tuna casserole, or my brother’s new kid. All that stuff just flowed into these feeds. And they managed to deliver it in a way that absolutely confirmed people’s pre-existing ideas about what was going on.
And that meant if you were a huge Bernie Sanders supporter, you were getting messages that said, “Bernie Sanders was great and Hillary Clinton was a crook.” If you were a huge Donald Trump supporter, “Donald Trump is great. Hillary Clinton’s a crook.” So there was a consistent message about Clinton, but in every other way, it was targeted in a really, really particular way. And if you were a Clinton supporter, you probably were getting a message that you shouldn’t bother to vote. Particularly if you were African American.
People have not really keyed on how much the suppression efforts were serious and rich. And it’s not like that’s never happened before, but to have another country target a core Democratic Party group and tell them not to vote in a way that was completely secretive and sneaky, that’s just never happened before.
Casey: I want to remind you, you can ask your questions by using the hashtag #PostLive. Send them in and we’ll read some to our panelists. I want to jump into Michael Flynn’s tenure in the White House. And this seems pivotal because this was a key moment for you, as reporters, to break through the denials of the Trump administration and run with a story, even as you were getting noes, noes, noes, noes, denials, denials. And that must have been kind of a nail-biter for you guys, despite having a lot of sources.
President Obama warned President-elect Trump, “Don’t hire Michael Flynn.” He did anyway. Why is that such a pivotal moment? Why is it such a pivotal character as you reflect, even a couple years later, on his very brief tenure in the White House?
Miller: I’ll tell you a couple things about that. I mean, Flynn became the national security advisor for Donald Trump. He ignored Obama’s advice. Flynn had been essentially fired as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under the Obama administration. And he was embittered by that that he became this really strident, partisan against the Democrats in way that made even a lot of his peers in the military—this is a guy who had a very highly decorated career in the Army for decades. And his behavior after his termination was really troubling to a lot of his friends. He latches onto Trump. He becomes this figure who’s showing up and rallying the base at lots of Trump’s political appearances and things like that.
But I think the significance of this is that—so once he becomes national security advisor, the designated national security advisor in the Trump administration, before it’s even in office—I mean, it’s just such an important job. He becomes—you know, you have all of this crazy interaction between people close to Trump and Russia, throughout the campaign. Paul Manafort. You have these sort of second-tier characters, like Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, who are on the Trump campaign, who are having weird interactions with Russian individuals.
But here’s Michael Flynn, decorated, three-star Army general, who he also has had these troubling interactions with Russia. And he is the one who sort of executes what, to this point, still looks like the closest we’ve seen to kind of a quid pro quo. One of the looming questions over all of this is, what has Russian gotten out of it? Well, Russia really wanted a lot of things. They wanted sanctions to be lifted, for starters. And Michael Flynn is telling Russia, in late December, “We got you covered,” basically. “Sit tight. Once we’re in office, we’re going to review all of this stuff. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to take care of you.”
The book really details—I mean, this was a huge story for Ellen, myself, and our former colleague, Adam Entous, who’s a terrific reporter and who was responsible for a lot of these stories that we broke on Russia and Trump. And in the book, we unpack this. There are new scenes in the book about when the FBI comes to visit Flynn, to interview him in the West Wing, in the White House. Lawyers at the NSC learn about it late, run down to his office, try to cut off the interview, but they get there too late. Flynn is coming out of his office. He’s already patting these FBI agents on the back. He’s already taken a fatal step that’s going to lead to a criminal conviction in that very moment.
Casey: Initially, he denied that he discussed sanctions at all with the Russian ambassador. And you had nine sources? Is that the point where you had nine sources on this story?
Miller: Yeah, right.
Casey: And so you and your editors had to make the call of whether to go forward with the story, when you were getting a very strong denial.
Miller: Yeah. So one of the things we do in the book, too, is we turn the camera back on ourselves. We look inside the newsroom at some of the key moments in this, and this is one of them. Adam, Ellen, and I had been working on this story about Flynn for weeks, struggled to gain traction. Adam got a breakthrough with one source. Then we started to get other breakthroughs, that told us, that made it clear, Flynn was not telling the truth about his interactions with the Russian ambassador. He was lying about that.
And we had another colleague, Karen DeYoung, who had a previously scheduled interview with Flynn. She was going over to the White House on a Friday night—or a Thursday night, perhaps—to talk to him just about his foreign policy objectives in the Trump administration. And we knew that she was going. We asked her, “Wait till the end of the interview, but then ask him one more time, did he talk sanctions with the Russian ambassador. And tell him we have sources saying he did and getting ready to run a story along those lines.” He says to her, “No, no, no.”
She comes back to The Post. We put the story on hold because his “no” was so categorical, it sort of caught us off guard. And we wanted—you know, these are these really high-stake moments where you’re happy to have leadership like Marty and Cameron Barr, the managing editor, and Peter Finn. We waited that night. We regrouped, had a meeting the next day in Marty’s office. We talked about it. Marty decides—evaluates our sourcing. We decide we’re going to publish anyway. We’ll use Flynn’s denial. We need to call him to tell him that.
So I call the White House, say, “We’re going forward with the story. We’re going to use him denying it.” They say, “Okay, wait a minute. We need to modify his statement.” [LAUGHTER] “Flynn now cannot be sure that he didn’t raise the subject of sanctions. He doesn’t recall whether he discussed sanctions.” It was just one of those moments where you just knew you finally had it. This lie that had been presented to the American public, it involved the incoming vice president of the United States. It involved—the White House spokesman crumbled in that instant.
Casey: Bill on Twitter is asking, what, if anything, did Vice President Pence know about Russian interference in the run-up and especially to the election day?
Miller: Anybody else have?
Nakashima: I’m sorry. What did he know about Russian interference in the run-up to the election?
Casey: Bill’s asking specifically about run-up to the election, but we can also broaden that to what happened during the transition. And then what happened in the aftermath? Do we know—do we have a clear sight on the vice president’s knowledge and information flow?
Miller: I will take a quick crack at it. I think that there’s a lot of indication, especially during that timeframe, leading up to the election, he was not even necessarily in Trump’s inner circle. He’s not in the Trump Tower meeting. He is sort of on the outside looking in on a lot of their discussions. I haven’t really seen any indication, I have to say, that he was really particularly aware of all of these troubling interactions that involve Manafort, Page, Papadopoulos.
Casey: He vouched for Flynn.
Miller: He does vouch for Flynn. That becomes really important. He goes on the Sunday shows and attributes it to Flynn. He’s very careful and says, “I spoke with Mike Flynn. He told me that this was absolutely not true that he had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador.” That’s one of the reasons that Flynn gets fired, because he lied to the vice president.
Nakashima: And that’s one of the key reasons that Sally Yates, who became the acting attorney general, got so concerned about Flynn’s potential for being compromised by the Russians and took it upon herself. She went to White House, the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to warn him that Flynn, by misleading Pence—and having Pence go out on the Sunday show and say this publicly to America that Flynn had not spoken about sanctions with Kislyak. When Flynn knew that to be true, and when most importantly, Russia knew they had spoken about sanctions, that this opened Flynn up to potential compromise by the Russians, and that’s just not a good situation for the government to be in. And she felt that she should warn the White House, McGahn, about this. And so she did. Right after Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI.
Casey: So many of the moments where President Trump interacts with the Russians are done in plain sight. On the campaign trail. You know, go ahead, look into Hillary’s emails. Holding a meeting with top Russian leaders, with, I believe, the ambassador, which of course a Russian photographer captures, even though American photographers are not allowed in for that typical pool spray, but a Russian photographer captures it. And other interactions that he has that are happening before all of our eyes. Are we almost missing it? We’re missing something because it’s so obvious?
Miller: That’s one of the themes of the book. And it is an interesting kind of intellectual exercise to think about what if what we’ve seen Trump do as president, and as a presidential candidate, had occurred in secret. Right? What if instead of at a campaign event where he says, “Russia, if you’re listening, can you go looking for those Hillary emails?”—what if, in fact, we had learned months later that he had sent in an encrypted communication to the Kremlin saying, “Russia, can you look into these emails for me?” We would just have such a different picture of this, right? It is staring at—a lot of the collusion—is one of the words that gets thrown around—does stare at us right in the face, right? It is his praise, his odd, inexplicable admiration for Putin. It is his language on the campaign trail. It is his effort, throughout his presidency so far, to impede any policy or plan internally by the U.S. government that would inflict any pain on Russia for what it’s done.
I mean, we have a completely schizophrenic administration in this way. In this, we’ve been talking about the 2016 election a lot, but I want to make sure people understand that the book starts there but it carries deep—right up through the present moment with the Trump presidency and the Mueller investigation. And it just is loaded with example after example of Trump’s efforts to protect Russia from any consequence for what happened.
Timberg: Yeah, I just want to jump in. Not only does the book go right up to the present moment—everything we wrote about with the social media manipulation goes up to the present moment. Facebook and Twitter and some of the other companies took down a bunch of these obviously Russian accounts, but all of the intel we’ve gotten both from government officials and from kind of independent researchers—and actually the companies themselves, to be fair—is that the Russians are doing the same thing. They’ve gotten better at it. They’re not paid in rubles anymore. They’re using VPN, so it doesn’t pop up as in a square in St. Petersburg as the origin of these things. But there is every reason to believe that something very much like what happened in 2016 is happening in 2018. We probably won’t know about it until afterwards, in the same way we didn’t know about this until afterwards, because, so far as I can tell, nobody has a handle on this. The U.S. government does not have a handle on this. The tech companies are definitely trying harder and have done some things, but it’s not at all clear that they have a handle on this.
And so, in a way, really the only meaningful response that’s happened on that front is that we all kind of understand it a little better. So when you see something on your Facebook feed or on Twitter or on Reddit that totally verifies exactly what you already think, be skeptical. Because it could have been written by a Russian.
Casey: You’re getting asked in interviews, okay, was there collusion? Is there going to be a mega-indictment of someone in Trump’s family or in the inner-sphere? I’m not going to ask you that question [LAUGHTER]. I was warned by Bob Woodward himself not to look into a crystal ball. But I do want you to talk about, sort of, the value of the reporting, even if you can’t necessarily answer that question, and why is that a hard question to answer? Are you all really the appropriate people to be answering that question?
Nakashima: Well, I think Bob Mueller is the best person to ask, first of all. And, you know, I think Adam Schiff, the Democratic leader of the House Intelligence Committee, said before that, you know, there’s evidence of collusion or conspiracy, but whether that evidence rises to sort of the degree of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that could stand up in court to get a criminal conviction is another question. And that’s a question I think only Bob Mueller can answer.
But you know, certainly things like Trump just saying publicly, “Russia, if you’re listening, please go hack Hillary and find those missing emails,” that’s, in a sense, asking Russia to help his campaign. And foreign assistance to a political campaign is not legal.
Miller: And we now know from Mueller, because of his work, that Russia was listening and, within hours, had launched spear-phishing attacks against—
Nakashima: Was that coincidence or—?
Timberg: Which is also illegal. Right, hacking is illegal.
Nakashima: Hacking is illegal.
Timberg: So he was encouraging a foreign power to commit multiple legal acts against his rival.
Casey: Do you see evidence of changes in Trump’s behavior during the presidency itself, in terms of lessons learned from any of this?
Miller: I think that—I got to be delicate here, but you know, there’s not a lot of evidence of, shall we say, growth. [LAUGHS] You know. The book opens with his visit to CIA headquarters on the second day in office, which was disastrous. He gives this self-aggrandizing speech in front of this sacred memorial wall at the CIA, which just dismays everybody at the agency. So much, though, that after he leaves, people the rest of that week are laying bouquets of flowers on the floor where Trump had stood.
I am convinced that he’s perfectly capable of delivering that same speech right now, if he were to go back to CIA. He delivers a similar speech every other day. I mean, he gave one last night in which he was attacking Dr. Ford.
As far as we can tell, he is not paying very close attention to his intelligence briefings. He’s not reading the daily PDB, the intelligence paper that’s prepared every day for the president. He does not appear to have—despite all of these many months he’s now had to spend with some of the world’s best analysts on Russia and China, and other countries and other issues, his views don’t seem to have changed much about Putin, the Kremlin, their objectives, the threat they pose, and how those run counter to our own.
So I just think it’s hard to see a whole lot of evidence of any kind of shift in position or a deeper appreciation for the complexities of the world.
Casey: Were there questions you wanted to answer through writing this book?
Miller: Yeah. I mean, for me, the book was really about trying to put together, for readers, something that would enable all of us—including myself—to understand this crazy moment in history, and consequential moment in history, that we’re living through. And I think a lot of the value is in just laying it all out, and telling it in a narrative sequentially—understanding one event, you know, as it happens in relation to others, as opposed to the way we were reporting it at the time, which was just sort of—it was just overwhelming, right? A big breaking story this week, and then something happens two months later. You don’t necessarily see the connection. But when you lay it all out, you do see those connections.
But I also wanted this to be a really richly told story, and there are—we went back over a lot of the stories we’d told in the newspaper, to build out them in almost cinematic way and describe things that are happening inside the White House, inside the West Wing, inside the CIA, and, to as much extent as possible, inside the Mueller investigation.
Casey: Ellen, there’s a passage in the book that tells the story of you getting a manila envelope mailed here to The Washington Post with some hot tips in it. Truly anonymous. And, Greg, you of course explained that. Usually anonymous sources are people—reporters know who they are; the reader may not know, but the reporter and editor knows. But in this case, you didn’t know who it was from.
Casey: And it’s very dramatic, and it almost feels sort of like this classic moment for all of you, where sources are reaching out to you in whatever way they can. I’d love for you all to talk a little bit about how important sources are right now, and how sometimes a statement made by someone from the president’s team can motivate sources to reach out and say, “I know that’s not what happened. I know that’s not true.” In a sense, they push people from the inside to reach out. So, Ellen, tell us about what was in the manila envelope you got. And this is in December 2016.
Casey: So post-election, but before President Trump takes office.
Nakashima: Right, sort of an early Christmas present. I walked down to the Post mail room, the basement of the building, and just collected the mail that accumulates—flyers, books—and then there was this one manila envelope that I thought would probably just have some public relations flyer that I would throw out. But it looked it didn’t have a return address, and it had sort of a—it was like a postmark that was very vague. And I think that Greg mentioned, it was like a little Charlie Brown Christmas stamp in the corner.
And it was—actually, it was to me and to a colleague, Josh Rogin, here at The Post. And it was a single-spaced typed letter, no signature, no name. And it claimed to be from someone inside the transition who was very concerned about what he was seeing or they were seeing or hearing.
M: Inside Trump Tower?
Nakashima: Inside Trump Tower. In particular mentioning a meeting. They gave the date, too, I believe. Which started us—I showed it to Greg. I said, “Look at this. This person claims that there were meetings with senior transition officials talking about wanting to have some sort of secret communications channel with the Kremlin and the Trump Organization.” And we were stunned and intrigued, and we started reporting out, and I think that’s part—one of the things that started us on the road to—like there was this story about the meeting in the Seychelles with Erik Prince and what turned out to be a Russian oligarch. There was a story that I did and Adam about a secret communications channel that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, wanted to have set up in a Russian embassy so that Flynn could communicate with Russian generals, as a result of the letter.
In fact, in the end, the writer never revealed themselves, never came forward. But it was indicative of, I think, a degree of concern that was going on inside the transition, which carries through, I think, to this day, and which is how a number of us and our colleagues have gotten tips on stories.
Timberg: It’s worth noting, I mean the whole idea of anonymous sources, there’s sort of pushback on it periodically—“Oh, how could they be talking to people? Everyone should talk publicly.” Like, I don’t know, there’s lots of sensitive stuff in the world. People have jobs, they have families, they have responsibilities. And I will just tell you, if it weren’t for people who talk to us without our using their names in the newspaper, we wouldn’t know any of this. I don’t think there’d be a special counsel investigation. And so to the extent you’re glad that things the government doesn’t want you to know come out, thank an anonymous source, every day. Because without them, we don’t know anything. Because what people say officially, you know, those are press releases. Our job is to get the unofficial, the truth, the thing that the powerful people don’t want us to know and don’t want you to know. If people don’t come forward and work with us, we can’t do that.
Nakashima: I also want to say that we do—we vet the information very carefully and rigorously, despite tremendous pressures to get the story and get it out first and beat everyone in the competition. The story about Mike Flynn and Kislyak that had nine sources. I mean, we wanted to and had to made sure that we had the story right before we would print something that explosive. And that, again, is a testament to your reporting—[OVERLAPPING]
Miller: Even that letter that you got, I mean, that never ends up really being a source in our definition of the word.
Nakashima: It’s more like a tip sheet.
Miller: It’s a tip sheet. It’s a road map for lots of stories. A lot of it panned out. But we never relied on that for anything that we ever published, because we don’t know who that person is. We still don’t.
Casey: Do you find that sources come to you sometimes out of frustration when they read the official account, or they read sort of what the line—you’re all nodding your head.
Miller: There’s a lot of motivations for sources. Not all of them are pure motivations. And sometimes that is something you have to take into account. But mostly it’s we’re evaluating whether their information is good, more than whether their motivations are always good. Sometimes they’re motivated by pride and other things. But yes, in this case, in this moment, you know, a lot of it is coming because of deep concern—profound concern in some cases—from things that they are witnessing from inside institutions and agencies that they care about deeply.
Casey: We’re about out of time, but I want to have each of you talk to us about what questions you’re asking now, without tipping your hand too much as to what stories you might be working on. But what questions should we all be asking, as we head into this midterm election and as we head into the midterm of the presidency?
Miller: Why don’t you start, Craig?
Timberg: I mean, the question that’s on our mind is, what are the Russians and other powers doing now? And does anyone have a handle on it? Is anyone doing anything that’s truly effective at keeping this kind of thing from happening again? I have not yet gotten a satisfactory answer to any of those questions from anybody I talked to.
Nakashima: Yes. Exactly. It’s sort of, what is Russia up to? Also, what is China up to? And other countries. But Russia and China, in particular, I think, are the two big strategic threats that we need to be worried about and need to be focused on. And what is this administration doing now—and what is it planning to do in the future—to detect and counter and deter the malign actions of both Russia and China, not to mention North Korea.
Casey: A brief follow-up. Have other countries taken a signal that there’s not a lot of repercussion if you interfere? Now, there have been sanctions. I mean, the question about what President Trump might be able to promise versus deliver on are two very different things.
Nakashima: There have been sanctions on Russia, and for instance, the sanctions on a number of companies and Russian companies and oligarchs were maybe among the most impactful—at one point even causing one Russian company, aluminum company linked to the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, to have its shares price plummet. So much so that I think the Treasury Department is maybe easing off on it a bit.
But generally speaking, these sanctions are a little more symbolic, as opposed to having true pain or cost impacts on Russia. Because Russia, even more so than I think China, is able to withstand great amounts of pain in its country and economy. And Putin is sort of, you know, just going to gut it out. And he doesn’t think that these sanctions are really going to, at this point, crater his economy. And until there are more forceful sanctions that will in fact maybe cause some pain to us and our allies, I don’t know that anything will change Putin’s behavior.
Casey: Greg, questions you’re asking?
Miller: Can I take a stab at that?
Casey: Yeah, sure.
Miller: So, I think about some questions that I’m not sure we can answer, and that are about, you know, where does this moment in our—this political moment lead for us. This sort of extraordinarily polarized moment in our political history. Where does this take us as a country? Is this a sort of spasm that we snap back from and we somehow recover what we used to think of as an equilibrium? Or are we into a new era, some sort of new era of dysfunction, hyper-partisan dysfunction, that we’re going to have to figure out a way to adapt to, going forward? I mean, and also just sort of how much every institution, almost, in Washington now, every agency is under just an enormous stress test, right, in this Trump administration. The Justice Department perhaps most of all. How do they respond? How much damage can they sustain before it becomes too much? How much can they be discredited? How much can they be vilified by the president before the reputational damage becomes too much burden to carry for them to be able to function the way we need them to function in our democracy?
And then I just think there are these societal divisions that I wonder how we heal. And if you’ll let me, there’s just one tiny little anecdote I’ll share that I use in the epilogue in the book, that really was touching to me. And it has to do with John Dowd, who was the president’s lawyer. He is a big Trump fan, a big Trump supporter. He is also a devoted father to five children, grown children, at least three of whom are mixed race. So he has mixed-race grandchildren. And there’s a scene I write about in the book where he comes out of a meeting with Trump at the White House, he’s had lunch with Trump. He goes back home to his house in Virginia. And the grandkids are swimming in the pool, and he climbs in to the pool with them and they’re splashing around and the kids are like asking him questions. They’re pretty impressed that he’s now the president’s lawyer, and they’re asking him what’s it like, what’s he like—oh my gosh, how cool this is.
But one of his granddaughters asked him, “Grandpa, does the president know about us?” And he says, “Oh yeah, he knows that I have a big family.” And she asks him again because he hasn’t grasped what she’s trying to get at. “No, I mean does he know about us. Does he know, in other words, that our skin isn’t white?” And Dowd turns this into a story that he intends to make Trump look good because his grandkids then write a letter to the president and he scrawls his signature and then sends it back to them, and what a great guy Trump is. But to me it just sort of showed that here’s somebody, a member of the president’s lawyer’s own family, who is feeling vulnerable in this moment. Suddenly feeling unsure about her place in this country. And I don’t know where that takes us, but the fact that it can reach down into a 10-year-old girl is troubling.
Casey: Thank you all so much for talking with us today. Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, Craig Timberg, thank you. Thank you all for being here. If you’d like to catch highlights of this, you can go to WashingtonPostLive.com. We’ll have those later on today. And I’d like to let you know that The Apprentice will be on sale. Greg can sign copies. Right back in the lobby after this. And The Apprentice is now out and online, The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy. Thank you so much, everyone.