It might be the ultimate journalistic cliché to announce that Donald Trump’s presidency is not normal. Indeed, it’s just as likely that this is what normal looks like now, and that the naked power politics of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation — embraced by Republicans for many reasons, but most of all as a smackdown to feminists and liberals and everyone else perceived as preachy and condescending and threatening to the old order — is a sign of the times.
To use another overused phrase of the moment, conservatives will surely reap the whirlwind for this fateful decision, to an extent they cannot now imagine. They don’t appear to care. Meanwhile, the Republican Party as we once knew it — the party of middle American businessmen, upstanding New England ladies and the Presbyterian Church — has been fully digested by the Trumpian virus. Susan Collins, Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake make polite, mournful noises about this, but most Republicans appear to be delighted. All of that is the new normal too.
Greg Miller’s painstakingly researched new book, “The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy,” is an attempt to explain how we arrived at this new normal, and beneath the surface a lament for the old one. Numerous other books have been written about the history-shaping 2016 presidential election and Trump’s mysterious relationship to the Russian oligarchy and Vladimir Putin. Miller, who is a national security correspondent for the Washington Post, does not go nearly so far as some reporters in alleging conspiracy or — yes! — collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, or in building a thesis that Putin holds compromising personal information about Trump. (He raises a valid point, both in the book and in conversation: Given what we already know about the president, how bad could the kompromat we don’t know possibly be?)
Instead, Miller builds an exhaustive and authoritative case, as suggested in his subtitle, that a Rubicon was crossed in American political history during that campaign, quite likely without anyone consciously intending to cross it. A mendacious demagogue with an incompetent, unprofessional campaign operation conquered a political party that had come untethered from its philosophical moorings, and then became both the target and the pawn of a highly capable foreign adversary who wanted to sow as much chaos as possible. We can all see the results around us in the ruined state of American political life and civic culture, and most of us would agree (Miller included) that this was the culmination of a long process for which Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin cannot be blamed.
Miller is a consummate institutional journalist, and I mean that to be descriptive rather than pejorative. He has won two Pulitzers as a team member at one of America’s most venerated daily newspapers (probably the best of those, at the moment) and has spent much of his career covering the national security establishment, an especially shadowy institution governed by an arcane set of unwritten codes. As befits that background, he’s a somewhat sphinxlike presence, a handsome, well-dressed white man of indeterminate middle age, whom you might pass on the street without quite registering. (I spent about an hour with him, and I’m not sure I could pick him out of a police lineup.)
Along with that institutional identity perhaps comes a certain myopia, especially in an age when all institutions are in crisis. During our casual conversation before our Salon Talks interview in New York, Miller mentioned a “thought experiment” in which Trump’s conciliatory victory speech on election night in November 2016 actually set the tone for his presidency, and was followed by the customary “honeymoon” and a lot of conventional rhetoric about healing and unity.
I thought that was a startling thing for a reporter of Miller’s experience to say, and even more so for the one who wrote this book. That’s not a thought experiment; it’s an ahistorical fantasy, a middle-path version of making America great again. Donald Trump could no more have become a unifying, “presidential” president than he could have built Trump Tower with his own meaty little hands.
As “The Apprentice” makes clear, Trump’s presidency was born out of poisonous division, and all along that has been the core of his political brand. Virtually none of the incoherent promises he made to his followers will be fulfilled, but they are nonetheless delighted with his xenophobic vitriol and his sweeping contempt for all the formerly sacred norms and institutions of democracy.
The Trumpian masses will evidently tolerate any number of betrayals and reversals, from selling out the country’s fiscal future to the richest of the rich to embracing a prep school graduate and Yalie from an ultra-privileged background as (in some symbolic way) a man of the people. But if their hero had tried to “pivot” himself into yet another vaguely benevolent White House father figure — that might have been the one thing they could not forgive. In Michael Moore’s famous phrase, they wanted to extend a giant middle finger to the American establishment, and didn’t much care about the details.
Even Miller would not claim that there are explosive new revelations about the Trump-Russia connections in “The Apprentice.” But it is researched and sourced at vastly more depth than any other book on the subject to date, and as Miller puts it, almost every page features a nugget of new reporting or reveals a previously hidden connection.
If you had forgotten that the Russian spear-phishing attack on the Democratic National Committee began two or three hours after Trump invited the Russians, in July 2016, to release Hillary Clinton’s emails, that is documented here. If you didn’t know that circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Trump knew about the infamous Trump Tower meeting of June 2016 in advance, and understood its intended purpose, that’s here as well.
In the bigger picture, Miller means to banish any remaining doubt, on both the Trumpian right and the radical left, about whether Russian agents interfered extensively in the 2016 election with the aim of helping Trump, and about whether they succeeded. In the end, I believe that latter question remains subjective, and likely unanswerable. Given the flukish nature of the final outcome, it’s reasonable to claim that any one of dozens of marginal factors was decisive. Even Miller clearly agrees that to point the finger exclusively at Putin and his troll army is a way of avoiding the massive failures of American political culture and American society that made this possible in the first place.
As for whether there was an active, conscious conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or whether Putin is blackmailing Trump with the “pee tape” or a trail of bribes and payoffs or something else — as befits a journalist of his background and temperament, Miller gestures at all those things but renders no judgment. Instead he offers an Occam’s-razor explanation that’s about as good as any other that I have heard: The “smoking gun” that explains Trump’s obvious and puzzling subservience to Putin is no secret, and has been visible the whole time.
Our conversation has been lightly edited here for clarity. You can watch the whole thing embedded below.
Greg, your book obviously addresses a loaded topic. And considering your background and reputation, the subtitle is striking.
Yeah, these words, believe it or not, are chosen pretty carefully, right? I mean, “the subversion of American democracy.” I just don't think you can dispute that this combination of things, Trump and Russia, have subverted aspects of our democracy.
To be fair, this is mostly a coherent narrative built from known facts and existing reporting, right? There's not like some bombshell revelation in this book?
Yeah. I wouldn't claim to have a bombshell, but I would say that if not on every page then in every chapter there is new material, previously unreported details and material about the most important developments from this story. My goal here was to write a book that would help people, including people I work with, and including myself in some ways, try to come to terms with and comprehend the magnitude of this moment that we're living through. And understand and put it together in a coherent narrative.
And I have to say that the exercise in organizing myself for this book was really eye-opening. Just putting things on a single timeline and making, drawing connections from things that were unfolding too fast for us to understand.
Well I can testify to the power of organizing the information into a timeline. Just to cite one example, which has certainly been mentioned before, on the day when Donald Trump asked the Russians, jokingly or not, to find Hillary Clinton's emails, what was the timeframe between that and the spear-phishing attack on the Democratic National Committee?
It's almost immediate. It’s hours, right? It is, “Russia, if you're listening?” And then Russia is listening. And there are these incoming spear-phishing attacks within hours.
We don't know that at the time, what Russia does. We only know that now because Robert Mueller has told us that, through this indictments, right? There is so much material out now already, that help to sustain a comprehensive narrative like this that wasn't available when we were writing about this in real time. Those indictments from Mueller, including his indictment of the Internet Research Agency and the GRU and all the named hackers from Russia, tell us extraordinary things about what was unfolding in Moscow as we were watching this presidential race unfold here in the U.S.
For the last couple of years we've heard critics, on both the right and in some cases the left, arguing that we don't have proof that the Russians actually stole this stuff. And we don't have proof that they tried to influence the outcome of the election. You would say conclusively that those two things happened, right?
I would say that for sure. I don't think there's any serious national security official from the Obama administration or even the Trump administration, save for the president, who would dispute either of those things. Where you find a little more argument is whether that affected the outcome. So I would even go a step farther at this point and say it seems increasingly evident that this was among several decisive factors during that election.
It's no longer, I don't think, realistic to argue that the Russian interference didn't have an impact. I mean, we now know that Russia, through its propaganda network, was reaching more than 100 million Americans on Facebook alone. And this was an election decided by fewer than 80,000 voters.
There are other decisive factors: Hillary Clinton's flaws as a candidate, Jim Comey's inserting himself and the [FBI] into this drama, are also big factors. But I think at this point it's hard to argue that Trump didn't benefit significantly from Russia's involvement.
Having interviewed Jim Clapper [the director of national intelligence under Barack Obama] when his book came out earlier this year, I know that he has reached the same conclusion, when in the immediate aftermath of the election he said he wasn’t sure.
Yeah, exactly. I've talked to Clapper, we’ve covered him for many years now. And when he says something like that, I mean, he's such a serious guy, he doesn't say these things lightly. He doesn't say these things because of some hidden political agenda. There's also a line in his book that I love, where he expresses some frustration with Obama and Obama's reluctance to call out Russian interference early enough in the election for it to make a difference. He's talking about how Obama just seemed hamstrung, so nervous about putting his thumb on the scale. And here's Putin on the other end of the scale, jumping up and down on it, Clapper says. It's a beautiful line.
Another thing I know you've talked about is that when the Obama administration finally did try to engage with this issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among other Republicans, was completely uninterested in pursuing it. Is that fair?
I would go even further and say that he did everything he could to prevent that from happening. I think when we look back on this period in history, obviously everybody's going to focus on Trump and his conduct and what he's done and the implications of that for the United States, for our system of government and for institutions like the FBI and the CIA. But he's been abetted in certain, in key instances, by allies who have their own partisan agendas. And McConnell's one of those.
The book goes into great detail on this. There are scenes that we never reported in the paper, a shouting match for example, when John Brennan, the CIA director, becomes convinced that Russia's playing a bigger game here and they're doing something that is much more dangerous than anybody realizes. He proceeds to set up one-on-one meetings with all the congressional leaders. Very unusual for him to do.
He gets to McConnell, starts to lay out the evidence, what Russia's doing, they're trying to help Trump, they're really messing things up. McConnell not only says he will not go along with calling out Putin, he then warns, “I am however prepared to call you out and and call out Obama if you try to do this, if you try to say that Russia's helping Trump. I'll accuse you of interfering in the election. I'm not prepared to accuse Russia of doing that.”
You could argue that sets the table for what comes later. You’re seeking to avoid being understood as a partisan political commentator, I understand that. But a political culture where that kind of thing becomes an acceptable tactic opens the door to all kinds of other stuff that has happened since then.
Exactly. Right. It's a threshold moment. I think it wasn't always this way. If you look back at Watergate, it was the Republicans who turned on the president, who were putting concern for the country ahead of their partisan interest, right? It’s much harder to find examples of that in this day and age.
Just in that moment, choosing your party over taking any meaningful steps whatsoever to safeguard what has to be one of the most precious things about American democracy, a presidential election. I mean, what could be more sacred?
Mitch McConnell also refused to consider a legitimate Supreme Court nomination from the elected president, which was also without precedent as far as I know. All this stuff created a climate ...
Yeah, there are all of these overlapping currents and trends. Even now, we're in the middle of uncertainty over what happens with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Again, the Republicans are, instead of trying to get as many facts as possible and treating that as the overriding objective, they are trying to short-circuit the process to get any of those facts. Even to collect them, let alone to offer them to the public.
Let's address the question of what the collective effect of Russian Facebook messaging and other social media messaging may have been. Because one of the counterarguments all along has been, well, OK, there were all these fake posts that got read and forwarded, some of which were cleverly constructed and some of which were laughably absurd and obvious, to my mind and perhaps yours. But in the overall universe of all the stuff that people saw and people shared throughout the 2016 campaign, it wasn't a very large proportion probably and probably didn’t have much effect.
Well, there's been a significant amount of research done just in the past couple of years that actually shows how much faster fake news and false claims travel online than the truth does. It's very hard to clean up, right? And it’s very infectious once it's out there. So, I mean, there were all these examples during 2016, the supposed endorsement [of Trump] by the Pope, the numerous instances in which Russian propaganda outfits were spreading disinformation about Hillary Clinton's alleged grave illnesses.
I mean, you're right, it all gets churned into one, it's very hard to disentangle. It's all woven into lots of other complicated threads. Nevertheless, those things, we're talking about them now, right? Because we remember them, they resonate, they stand out.
So you're saying the effect is not precisely knowable, but you think it mattered?
To frame this issue in a different way, we were just talking about Mitch McConnell’s role in the election, and nobody's accusing Mitch McConnell of being manipulated by the Russians or being Putin’s pawn. He represents a political or cultural division that was already there. That's what the Russian propaganda was able to exploit, right? Things that were already present in our society.
That's right. That's exactly right. I mean, it's not that Russia created a whole bunch of nonexistent divisions, it was that they slipped into these streams, where it was easy, right? To create content, to create propaganda that didn't even have to be pushed, right? There was a pull in the United States. These were just embraced and spread. Much of this, the spread of this, was on us, right? It was on consumers here and readers here and voters here and how susceptible we were to messages that reinforced our political leanings.
Whatever social phenomenon Alex Jones and Infowars represent, he's been doing that for many years without any help from the Russians. We don’t do both-sides-ism at Salon, but I will say, yes, it is absolutely possible to find these kinds of things on the left. There are people who subscribe to theories that are blatantly untrue or who embrace wildly unlikely scenarios about the 25th Amendment and things like that. But there is something, is there not, about conservative politics in America that has become an especially fertile ground for this stuff?
Yeah. I think that many of us see this in our lives. Where there are these entities now and they're on a spectrum, right? You mentioned Infowars, Breitbart's there, Fox News is there. You can try to point to corresponding entities on the left and, I don't know, some might argue they're just not as good at it yet or something. But I don't think that if they exist, that they have that same impact.
I mean, it's hard. I'm a reporter, the Washington Post obviously prides itself on fair and objective and balanced reporting. And this whole discussion makes me a little queasy and I hate to start pointing fingers at other news organizations. But there is this sort of brainwashing aspect that happens now, where it's really hard to have enough force behind truthful reporting to overcome so much of the either blatantly misleading reporting or just the heavy, heavy spin that is applied to it at a place like Fox.
You can definitely find plenty of evidence of reluctance on the left to accept truth that doesn't conform to their political predispositions, right? And we saw that, I saw that, in particular very recently with the New York Times story about Rod Rosenstein and the fact that he had discussed wearing a wire in meetings with the president. I mean, there was a rabid rejection of that story from the left because it was depicting somebody that they have invested so much hope in as a hero, as somebody who is going to save the country, as having been flawed, or having mused about things that are a little troubling.
There is this interesting tension in American political life between the institutional people -- and maybe we can say that about Rod Rosenstein and Robert Mueller, they are institutional guys. They may both be Republicans, nominally, but they are institutional guys first and foremost. A lot of the Trump administration has been about not being that, right?
Anti-institutional people. I mean, Trump and others have intentionally tried to damage the standing and credibility of very critical institutions. That is a major theme of the book. It's something that I try to document at length and to use lots of examples to illustrate why this happens. There's such a contrast in, sort of, not just personalities but internal codes, right? Moral codes between Trump and his perceived antagonists, including Mueller and Comey, Mueller in particular.
I find the stand-off between Trump and Mueller fascinating, almost from a psychological warfare standpoint. Trump loves to drag his adversaries out into the open where he can just beat them with mean tweets and derisive comments and insults. And the more they engage with him, and fight back, the worse the outcome.
Mueller is almost all smooth surface. He gives Trump nothing to grab onto. Right? He has not uttered a word except for speaking at a granddaughter's graduation since this thing began. It's amazing.
That’s a really interesting point. I wonder if Trump's opponents will have to think hard about that. He hates to be ignored, we can say that for sure. He's certainly like a child in that respect, in demanding attention from all sides. He doesn't like negative attention or criticism, but he may prefer that to somebody acting as if he's not there.
Yeah. I mean, it's attention in general that's important. We're all wondering what's going to happen with Rod Rosenstein. Trump seems to have put that decision off, his meeting with Rosenstein. We all expected that to happen last week, but it was put off and may be put off another week. You wonder whether he just knows that there are ratings around that and why don't we hold that off until we can maximize those?
He spent a long time in reality television, he knows that's how it works. The reveal has to be delayed.
People are going to wonder about the presence of a smoking gun or lack thereof in “The Apprentice.” So let me frame this question carefully. You make suggestions that Russian intelligence, even going back to the Soviet era, was interested in Donald Trump decades before his emergence as a presidential candidate. And you suggest, but do not state conclusively, that he may indeed have known about the famous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting before it happened.
Yeah. I think that that's still an open question.
So those things are all there, but you steer away from some of the murkier things that have come up from other reporters, who have argued that there’s a long trail of potential money laundering at Trump Tower and financial dealings with the oligarch class in Russia -- essentially that there’s a record of financial corruption connecting Donald Trump to the Russian regime.
Yeah. I think I go in that direction, but I don't really know. I don't necessarily doubt that. I think that the closer you look at Trump's business empire and how it has evolved over the years, the more puzzling it seems, right? And obviously his transformation from a guy who was this self-proclaimed king of debt and borrowed to the hilt for all of his development in real estate properties, to suddenly, 10 years ago or so, throwing out cash from unknown sources to acquire golf courses in Scotland and other things that don't make any money. It's a bizarre thing. I think there's been a lot of good reporting that I didn't have time to focus on in the throes of the Trump story in 2016 and 2017 about some of his financial entanglements with really problematic characters.
There have been stories about Trump properties in Florida where there are a disproportionate number of buyers with Russian passports. And they are just among a larger collection of buyers whose identities are impossible to determine because they're all hiding behind blind corporate entities.
The question I have is whether these financial entanglements are the definitive leverage that Russia exerts, that Putin exerts, over Trump? Does that explain his subservience, his status as the apprentice, as I put it in the book, for Putin? And that's harder to figure out, right? There are all these theories. There are competing theories that Putin has some kompromat on him from recordings.
You don't seem to buy that very much.
I don't doubt it. I mean, again, who knows? Who knows? Truly. But would having photos of prostitutes in Trump's hotel room, at this point, really give you definitive leverage on this guy? I mean, ordinarily, yes. Ordinarily that would be fatal to an American politician, but it just hasn't been for Donald Trump.
The thing that I do argue in the book, and this sort of occurred to me in Helsinki, where I was in the room when Trump had his summit with Putin, and that crazy press conference, is that Putin has something that seems far more precious over Trump. He knows exactly how far Russia went to interfere in the American election. I mean, there's this fiction that Trump holds onto most ferociously, that the Russian interference wasn't real. “Don't you dare taint my victory. I won this election. It was all me.”
Putin could say otherwise. He could have said so in Helsinki. That would be, I think, more devastating to Donald Trump if that had happened in that setting. To sort of rip that rug out from under him is far worse than Putin releasing some compromising photos to WikiLeaks of Donald Trump in the Ritz Carlton Moscow.
This is your argument that the smoking gun, in a sense, may not be hidden at all. It may be right there on the surface in information that all of us have seen.
And that's not just me sort of theorizing. I mean, I've covered the intelligence beat for the Washington Post for nearly 10 years now and before that for the Los Angeles Times. These are knowledgeable CIA officials who have been saying this to me throughout this whole period. They believe that a lot of the collusion is in plain sight. And it's astonishing if you think about Trump's behavior that way, right? If we learned that Trump was secretly doing many of the things he doesn't bother to hide, we would be astonished. We would be aghast.