Did America's current president cooperate with a foreign government's attack on the election that put him in office? Is that same hostile foreign government now holding incriminating or damaging evidence over the president's head? And could any evidence emerge that would be damning enough to compel the president's own party to turn against him and vote for impeachment? These are the haunting questions that would have sounded completely surreal three years ago—the makings of a Hollywood political thriller too far-fetched to swallow.
But as guilty pleas and indictments pile up from the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, more observers are being forced to confront the very real possibility that President Donald Trump and his associates are guilty of criminal conspiracy with the Russian government. At the same time, the sheer volume of reporting, evidence and allegations that have accumulated on the subject of collusion can be difficult to grasp in their totality. That's what makes Seth Abramson's chilling new book, Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America, a useful guidebook to the still-unfolding crisis.
Abramson, who teaches digital journalism and cultural theory at the University of New Hampshire, has cultivated an enormous Twitter following with his exhaustive threads covering every wrinkle of the Trump-Russia affair. Proof of Collusion methodically assembles the most important pieces of the puzzle to present a comprehensive picture of what Abramson calls "the most significant criminal investigation of our lives." Most of the material in the heavily-annotated book has already been reported, but the Trump-Russia case is in some ways so complex that a book like this is needed to keep track of it all. Last Friday we spoke with Abramson about his book and the sprawling ongoing criminal investigation into Trump and his associates.
What is the proof of collusion as you see it, and what proof has been reported?
Well, as you know it essentially takes an entire book in order to lay out that case. I can say this, though, I approach the case as an attorney, a former criminal investigator, and a journalism professor. I did all of that, all my writing and bringing my background to bear knowing that there was a hope for a single Hollywood-style smoking gun, where someone opens a door and sees Donald Trump hacking the DOD with Vladimir Putin on his lap. And the reality is that smoking guns of that sort are purely for Hollywood. What I can say is that the volume of evidence in Proof of Collusion is enough to blow a jury's hair back. And there are specific federal criminal statues that fall under this lay umbrella term "collusion" that I refer to in the book and that Donald Trump and his aides, allies and associates are eligible for charging under based upon their activities in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Can you tell us one or two of those specific statutes and who you think could be charged under them?
Absolutely. So the statutes that are in play here are bribery, money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit election fraud, aiding and abetting computer crimes, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, perjury, making false statements, lying to Congress, illegal solicitation of donations from foreign nationals, failing to register as a foreign agent and several others.
Fundamentally, you have a large number of witnesses who are going to be charged with making false statements, perjury, lying to Congress. You have Donald Trump who, in public, has committed acts that would qualify as witness tampering and obstruction of justice. The broader conspiracy that is being investigated here and that involves a small number of Trump allies, aides and associates as well as Donald Trump himself is a conspiracy to commit election fraud and aiding and abetting of computer crimes, a conspiracy to defraud the United States and also a bribery case.
Depending upon what Robert Mueller discovers in the tax returns of Donald Trump, which presumably would be the first thing that he tried to acquire, there may also be money laundering charges.
Now it's been reported in the Times and elsewhere that Mueller agrees with the DOJ guidelines against indicting a sitting president. What do you make of that? How much truth do you think there is in that?
Well, Robert Mueller is a straight shooter prosecutor and lawman. I expect that he will follow the guidelines as they've been laid out by DOJ and will neither indict nor try Donald Trump while he's sitting in office. I think that everyone agrees, legal scholars and those in law enforcement, that you can't try a sitting president. There is some split among legal scholars as to whether you could indict a sitting president but not try them.
Either way, I think the way that plays into the situation we're in now is that this, as Rudy Giuliani and other Trump attorneys have said, is fundamentally a political case for Donald Trump. It is a criminal case for everyone else but a political case for Donald Trump. What it also means is that he really cannot resign his position as president, even if he finds himself in the midst of an impeachment trial or even if facing potential conviction in the Senate at some point down the line in 2019 or 2020. Because if he resigns, he then could face indictment and criminal prosecution by his former DOJ.
To what degree do you think Mueller is considering the political landscape as he decides how to move forward at various stages of this investigation?
I think a good federal prosecutor, or any prosecutor—and Robert Mueller is certainly a good prosecutor—doesn't take politics into account whatsoever in making investigative decisions, such as who to interview, who to subpoena, who to charge. I do think that Robert Mueller has been in the unusual position of having to consider whether actions that he might take in this investigation could cause him to be unceremoniously, and probably illegally, fired, either directly or indirectly by the ultimate target of his investigation, President Trump. Politics plays into the investigative strategy purely in that sense, but I don't think we see any evidence thus far that politics has played into any of the charging decisions or even necessarily any of the decisions on who to interview.
Though I will note that Ivanka Trump is her father's top advisor on all business deals, including some of the secret deals involving the Kremlin that we learned about recently, and as far as we know, she hasn't been interviewed yet. That might be because she is one of the targets of the investigation or it might be that Robert Mueller has determined that Ivanka Trump and perhaps the other Trump children are third rails, which if he touches could lead to his firing.
In that case, he might have made a decision about whether he will interview someone based on certain political realities but not based on any political bias or prejudice.
You also hear in the press, stated as fact again and again, that the Mueller investigation is wrapping up, reaching its end stage, winding down. What do you make of assertions of that nature?
Well, so far I think we have seen stories suggesting that the Mueller investigation is almost over seven times in major media. Each time I have said publicly on my Twitter feed and elsewhere that those stories are incorrect and are almost certainly coming from either the Trump camp attorneys and aides and allies of the president, or attorneys for grand jury witnesses who naturally would only have access to the small piece of the investigation that their clients are associated with.
Each of those seven times we've found out that in fact we're not close to this investigation being over. Now, the reason I said each time that those reports could not be trusted and were coming, frankly, from sources who wouldn't be in a position to know that the probe is almost over is because look at what's happened recently with Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort. Paul Manafort was interviewed for more than 50 hours by Robert Mueller recently. Michael Cohen has been interviewed for more than 70 hours. We hear news that there are impending indictments of Donald Trump Jr., Jerome Corsi, Roger Stone, Paul Erickson.
We have in the public record sufficient information about interviews that are intended to lead to future indictments as well as indictments that we are expecting shortly that there is no possibility for this case to wrap up even in the next few months. What I have predicted is that we might see a referral in a report form from Robert Mueller to the DOJ sometime in summer 2019.
In the meantime, if you had to make an educated guess, who would be the next person or persons to be indicted?
Roger Stone has told friends that he expects to be indicted. Donald Trump Jr. has told friends that he expected to be indicted. Jerome Corsi has all but been told by Mueller and his investigators that he will be indicted. Paul Erickson, we just discovered a few days ago, received a target letter from the FBI and usually that leads to an indictment at some point down the line. Those are four people who I think are in that group of individuals that we might see indicted next sometime in the next 30 to 90 days.
What is the end game here? If it's true Mueller will not indict a sitting president, that means the results of a potentially explosive report could result in impeachment proceedings, and Republicans have for the most part stood by Trump no matter what.
I think it's important to remember that anyone but Donald Trump, who has been interviewed and investigated in the Trump/Russia probe, and that includes scores of individuals, can be charged and tried. They do not have the same protection that President Trump has. What that means is Robert Mueller is in a position to get valuable inculpatory evidence from every single person involved in this case who doesn't have some sort of a privilege that they raise prior to prosecution. Though even if they did, they might well cooperate after an indictment with Robert Mueller. That information can then be used to issue a referral to the DOJ with respect to the President, the DOJ would then determine whether and when and how it would be sent to the House Judiciary Committee for possible referral to the full house for impeachment proceedings.
The reason I go through that whole chain of events and lay out what we would expect Robert Mueller to do over the next few months is that when people ask, "Could this Senate, this incoming Senate, ever get to 67 votes for conviction of Donald Trump on high crimes and misdemeanors?" We can't look at that question through the lens of what we know now or even what is known by Congress now. At any such time that Senators would be making a decision on the conviction of the president for high crimes and misdemeanors, they will have thousands of pages of evidence from Robert Mueller that they don't have right now.
That is why I say I do believe, because I believe in the rule of law, I believe in our democracy, I believe in the good faith of most of the Senators in the U.S. Senate that when all the evidence is compiled from all these other individuals who can be charged and tried and put into cooperation deals if they agree, you will find 67 Senators will indeed convict this president of high crimes and misdemeanors unless he has resigned beforehand.
Though as I mentioned before, that would lead to him potentially then being chargeable immediately upon him leaving office.
So you really believe, despite the way that Republicans have completely tied themselves to Trump, you think that what will be presented by Mueller will be so damning that it will cause enough Republicans to vote for impeachment?
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump during their joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Shutterstock)
Okay. Can we talk about Trump's new attorney general nomination, William Barr? Could he stop the Mueller investigation? Can the Mueller investigation be stopped?
I think the concern that members of Congress are expressing about William Barr is that attorney Barr has, himself somewhat recently, expressed an interest in pursuing certain far right fringe conspiracy theories involving Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. I think there is a concern that Donald Trump has, for quite a long time and has said as much publicly many times, wanted to distract the country from the investigation into him, his aides, his allies and his associates by turning the nation's attention to the alleged crimes of Hillary Clinton. He tried to do that during the campaign, he tried to do it during the transition, he's talked about it repeatedly on Twitter since then. That's one concern that I have about William Barr being attorney general, is whether he will pursue those far right fringe conspiracy theories for which we've seen no evidence whatsoever thus far.
Then number two, whether he would agree to recuse himself as necessary from the Trump-Russia investigation and permit Rod Rosenstein, who's done a great job overseeing that investigation, to continue to do that work. There's no particular reason why any new attorney general appointee from Donald Trump should have to take over the Russian investigation from Rod Rosenstein. Rod Rosenstein has acted impeccably thus far. There is no cause, good or otherwise, for removing him from that role and I think that's something that Barr will be questioned about substantially when the new Congress is seated.
But say he's approved and he says, "Okay this is gone on long enough. I'm putting an end to the investigation." What happens next?
I think the first thing that we might expect is a court battle in which Robert Mueller challenges any attempt to remove him from his position or simply to end the Special Counsel investigation all together. I think concurrent with that, there is the reality that there are a number of field indictments in the D.C. Federal Court that may or may not be indictments that were previously sought by Robert Mueller as a protection against the possible future of him being fired. There have been substantial hand-offs to other prosecuting entities, both federal and at the state level, such that the cases that were handed off in that way would be able to continue.
I think that there is so much information that already is in the public sphere that is inculpatory, that you would see enormous outcry, even among Republicans in Congress. A number of whom have said that firing Mueller would be a red line, such that there would be incredible political pressure on Donald Trump to relent in his pursuit in the firing of Robert Mueller or failing that, to have the Congress appoint itself a new special counsel or to create an independent commission to carry the work forward.
We also don't know to what extent Robert Mueller has spread any evidence he has around the federal investigating bodies in the U.S. such that there is in fact no way to actually kill this investigation, because it's proceeded too far. The evidence has been spread too wide for it to be ended in that way. But there is also a possibility that even though William Barr is the potential new attorney general, he might well do what so many agreed to do in the Watergate era, and that is refuse an order to fire a special, or in that case independent, counsel because that order itself was an illegal one. An act of obstruction of justice, which is an impeachable offense. I do think that Donald Trump issuing an order of that sort would be obstruction of justice and would be impeachable in and of itself.
Most of the information in the book is aggregated from news sources, but you did obtain some new information.
Yes. Proof of Collusion is, as you say, a compilation, a curation and synthesis of hundreds of major media investigative reports from around the world and from the last few decades. Nearly everything in the book is an attempt to create a comprehensive public record of all publicly known information about Trump-Russia collusion, which is voluminous and as I've said many times, sufficient to blow a jury's hair back. When you engage in what I've termed "curatorial journalism" or "meta journalism," that is an effort to bring together the best existing investigative reports from around the world on a single subject simply because the people who wrote those reports often didn't have access to or didn't see on another's work. So there are gaps that can be filled in through acts of curation. Sometimes what develops is, in fact, entirely new information.
One example of that is in researching the interviews that George Papadopoulos gave to Greek media when he went to Athens, Greece, twice in May 2016 and again in December 2016, and each time met with top allies of the Kremlin in Athens. Members, I should say, of the Greek government. I also discovered that George Papadopoulos made his second trip of May 2016 at the exact same time that Vladimir Putin was traveling to Athens, Greece for his only trip to an EU country of the entire presidential campaign. I learned that both George Papadopoulos and Vladimir Putin met with the same people and talked about the same topic, which was the removal of all sanctions on Russia. Specifically, one person they both met with is Panos Kammenos, the Greek Defense Minister, who is considered by Western Intelligence agencies to be a close ally of the Kremlin, who perhaps even has been politically compromised by the Kremlin. That was one piece of new information.
An example of a more conventional situation of new hard news reporting was that I was contacted by an individual who gave information about the 2002 Miss Universe Pageant, which was held in Puerto Rico. Which, based upon the information I received, was rigged by Donald Trump so that a woman then believed to be Vladimir Putin's mistress, Oxana Fedorova, would be crowned Miss Universe. And she was, in fact, crowned Miss Universe. The first ever Miss Russia to receive the Miss Universe designation. Those are two examples of new pieces of information that came out during the course of my curatorial journalism.
What can you tell us about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's brother and how he fits into this, and whether you think he is going to be facing charges?
Erik Prince's role in the Trump-Russia collusion story is incredibly complex, in keeping with Erik Prince's life, which is incredibly complex. He is someone who has lived in the United Arab Emirates for many years. He is a friend and ally of the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed. Erik Prince is, as we all know, the former owner of the Blackwater mercenary company. He now runs a different mercenary company and in January of 2017 he went to the Seychelles to meet with the head of the Russian direct investment fund, Kirill Dmitriev and Mohammed bin Zayed and it turns out someone named Mohammed Dahlin, who has been connected to Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
And in acting as Trump's envoy during that meeting, he was attempting to negotiate a Trump/Putin back channel but also it appears a larger criminal conspiracy of collusion between the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar and Israel, as discussed in Chapter 11 of Proof of Collusion.
The "Grand Bargain," Part #1,423: https://t.co/sYvEmZLjjW
— Seth Abramson (@SethAbramson) December 9, 2018
"The Grand Bargain."
The Grand Bargain, that's exactly right. One of the things that has led to significant suspicion that Erik Prince—who did act as a shadow national security advisor to Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign—that he was involved in this broader pre- and post-election conspiracy, is that when he testified before Congress he provably lied repeatedly to Congress. For which I do expect he will eventually be charged. He lied about every aspect of the Seychelles meeting. He lied about his contacts with the Trump campaign during 2016, prior to the election and many other subjects. Erik Prince is likely one of the top and ultimate targets of the Trump/Russia investigation along with Trump himself, Jared Kushner, possibly Steve Bannon. We will be hearing much, much more about Erik Prince and I expect that the new Democratic majority, which now has the chairmanship of the oversight, intelligence and judiciary committees, would love to bring in Erik Prince once again to talk to him.
Because the first interview that Prince gave with the then-Republican controlled Congress was highly explosive, and creative of numerous opportunities for Robert Mueller to bring charges against him for lying to Congress.
Do we know if he's been interviewed by Mueller?
I know that he has had computers and records seized by Robert Mueller. I don't know that we know that there has been an interview otherwise. I think that many people say, not without reason, that when Robert Mueller has someone in his sights as a possible interviewee and then holds off for a very long period of time or even up until the present and therefore indefinitely, it might indicate that that person is one of the final targets. People do sometimes say that about Ivanka Trump, they certainly should be saying it about Erik Prince, because I think there is no question when you read Proof of Collusion, you come away understanding that Erik Prince was at the heart of, not just Trump-Russia collusion, but the broader collusion with certain countries in the Middle East that intersected at almost every point with Trump-Russia collusion.
We're speaking Friday, December 7th in the afternoon. I think two major things are expected to happen today.
What we're going to see is a sentencing memorandum involving Michael Cohen and the charges that he has recently pled guilty to, for his dishonesty in attempting to protect Donald Trump. As with the recently-released Michael Flynn sentencing memo, there is certainly a chance that we will see a number of redactions in this document, to the extent that the lies that Michael Cohen told to Congress were about a 2015 secret business deal between the Trump Organization and a Kremlin connected oligarch, which involved direct negotiations with the Kremlin. Michael Cohen lied according to the information brought against him for which he faces up to five years in prison about how long those negotiations went on, who knew about them, what steps he was willing to take to further them.
[Editor's note: Cohen was sentenced today, December 12th, 2018, to three years in prison.]
We'll get possibly a little bit more information about that 2015 deal, which is referred to as the Trump-Rozov deal, after the man who agreed only once Donald Trump had announced his presidential intentions, to go into business with Donald Trump. Then also today we're going to find out whether there will be new charges against Paul Manafort for lying to federal prosecutors after he signed a cooperation deal with them. Also, what some of the lies were that he allegedly told after he entered into a plea agreement with the federal government. As well as some sentencing information regarding charges for which he was already convicted. We might get more information on that as well.
The question always is how much will be redacted? Which is a function of the extent to which Robert Mueller believes releasing certain information could compromise potential future indictments against other individuals who are currently uncharged, including Donald Trump himself.
Manafort was sharing information with Trump's lawyers while he was also supposedly cooperating with Mueller. Do you think it's plausible or likely that Mueller suspected or was aware of this and was somehow manipulating Manafort?
It would be pure speculation to say one way or another whether Robert Mueller knew that Paul Manafort was, through his attorneys, providing information to Donald Trump. I don't like to speculate when we don't have any evidence on a question. I would say that it would have become immediately apparent to Robert Mueller based on the evidence he had previously gathered, that when he sat down to get information from Paul Manafort about Paul Manafort's connections to the Russians and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, that Paul Manafort was not telling the truth to federal investigators. I suspect that the delay in the first sentencing for Paul Manafort and the ongoing negotiations between the parties that ultimately led to a breaking off of relations between Manafort and his attorneys and the Mueller team is because Robert Mueller had known for some time and finally was bringing to a head the question of whether Paul Manafort had been honest with him.
Have you experienced any personal or professional repercussions as a result of your outspoken work on the subject of collusion, and have you felt threatened in any way?
Yes. Though I don't think there's more I can say about it than that.
What really keeps you up at night at this point?
I think it would surprise a lot of people to hear that I'm actually fairly optimistic that there will be a just resolution to the Trump-Russia investigation. I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution in 2001 because I believed in the rule of law and wanted to become an attorney. Someone who fought to defend the Constitution day in and day out as a public defender, which was a role I served in for many years.
I am kept up at night more by the way in which Donald Trump has changed our political culture and our discourse than I am about whether he will ultimately be brought to justice for his actions during the presidential campaign. I'm not sure how long it's going to take to heal this country of the divisions that have opened up between the left and the right; between Democrats and Republicans; between those of us who believe that equal justice under the law means that all defendants are treated the same rather than special treatment for the rich, the powerful and the famous; and those who make decisions about how the criminal justice system should operate based upon the political affiliation of the defendant.
That's what keeps me up at night, is how we heal from this, how long it will take and what sort of damage Donald Trump has done to our rule of law and our democratic principles that perhaps can't be undone for a generation or more?