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White House, Kremlin Deny Collusion; Iran and Saudi's Dangerous Middle East Rivalry

Aired February 19, 2018 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST, AMANPOUR: Tonight, what action will the Trump administration take against Russia now that it has indicted more than

a dozen Russian nationals and companies on charges of meddling in the 2016 election? Joining me to discuss are Luke Harding, author of the

bestselling book "Collusion" and Kelly McEvers, host of National Public Radio's "Embedded" podcast.

Plus, Martin Smith on his new documentary for "PBS Frontline" about the dangerous rivalry escalating between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

The Kremlin and the White House are marching in step, both adamantly denying allegations of collusion over the 2016 US presidential election.

There's nothing unusual there.

But the circumstances are now quite extraordinary. The Mueller investigation has led to 13 Russian nationals and three organizations being

indicted on charges of conspiring to defraud the United States.

Plus, another former Trump advisor, Rick Gates, has reportedly agreed a plea deal to cooperate with the investigation.

As for the president, he still refuses to acknowledge the danger of Russian interference. And over the weekend, Mr. Trump took aim at countless

people, from the FBI itself to his own national security adviser.

For the time being, there is still no definitive proof that Donald Trump's campaign and the Kremlin were in cahoots.

The journalist Luke Harding is the author of the bestselling book "Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald

Trump Win". He writes for the UK's "Guardian", which is now also a major presence in the United States. And he is joining me here in London.

And Kelly McEvers has delved deep into Trump's ties to Russia in her NPR podcast, "Embedded", and she's joining me from California.

So, welcome to both of you. Now, given the fact that you've both been working on this subject for so long, I just want to get an initial

temperature of how you think this indictment fits in. First, Luke, sitting right here with me.

LUKE HARDING, AUTHOR, "COLLUSION": I think it is extremely significant what we got last week from Robert Mueller. He is a bit like Shakespeare's

oracle. He pronounces, we read it furiously. It's calm. It's cool. It's empirical. It's factual. And, actually, what he lays out is a massive

espionage operation by Russia against America to really subvert and sabotage the 2016 election and to push Donald Trump across the line.

And, of course, the interesting thing is we have one bit. We have the troll factory in St. Petersburg, but there is a lot more to come. And I

think, for Donald Trump, this is the beginning of the agony, not the middle or end of the agony.

AMANPOUR: So, let me move over to you before we get into the details of why you think this. obviously, Luke, and you believe this is a

gamechanger. Kelly, why do you think it's a game changer? What did you see in those 37 pages?

KELLY MCEVERS, NPR HOST, "EMBEDDED": It's a really stunning document. I mean, it's just so much detailed in how exactly the Russians worked to push

this election. And keeping in mind that it is just one piece of one piece of Mueller's investigation, right?

He's investigating whether or not the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to tip the election. He is also investigating whether or not the

president obstructed justice. This is one piece of coordination and it's just the social media piece. And it's such a shocking piece? Right?

You see details about how fake news was spread, how actual rallies were scheduled in the United States, people went to rallies, counter rallies.

So much detail in just how the information part of this influence campaign went and it just gives you a sense that it is just the first of what's more

to come.

AMANPOUR: So, Kelly is talking about the rallies. I mean, there were these two notorious rallies right after the election, one pro-Trump, one

anti-Trump. And now, we find that these were actually organized by these Russians.

HARDING: Yes. I mean, the big picture is Putin, the Kremlin, trying to create chaos, to kind of make a broiling mood, if you like, by exploiting

the left and the right.

We know from Mueller's indictment that they were very keen to push third party candidates like the Green, Jill Stein, to suppress the black vote and

really to kind of fuel a kind of cultural war that still rages in America between these two poles.

But one thing that strikes me as well is the use of actors, paying American actors to dress up as Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform. This is the

kind of crazy tactic I used to see when I was a correspondent in Moscow, which would happen at pro-government rallies, and the fact that this team

had the audacity to take this political technology and to roll out into America is astounding.

[14:05:06] AMANPOUR: It really is. Kelly, you just mentioned fake news. Obviously, for us journalists, it's a very, very sensitive issue.


AMANPOUR: And do you think this finally puts to bed, amongst all decent and truth-loving people, the notion that this is fake news?

MCEVERS: (INAUDIBLE), right? I mean, if you look at the campaigning and the preparations for the 2018 mid-term elections, you are still seeing

stories out there, you're still seeing Russian bots on Twitter.

Every time a news item comes up, you start to see #ReleaseTheMemo, pointing people to think that somebody is a white nationalist, whether they are or

not. I mean, you still see this kind of influence.

And I think what a lot of people in Washington will say is that's because you've got an administration that's not willing to fully admit how much

meddling the Russians are doing, that there's not a national strategy to attack this and, therefore, it's going to continue.

That's also, I think, why this indictment is so interesting, right? It's Robert Muller's team saying, look, this is how we're going to have to

enforce this, these are the names, these are the people, now we know it's laid out, you can't just ignore it anymore.

AMANPOUR: Well, then that begs the question. Obviously, President Obama's administration was kind of blamed for not coming out publicly and telling

the nation and the world what they knew about Russian interference.

They said it would have looked like a purely political gambit, but now President Trump and his administration and the whole world knows according

to these indictments. So, what should this administration do in terms of punitive - what's open to them in terms of taking punitive measures against

the Russians?

MCEVERS: I mean, after the Obama administration came forward talked about what happened in the election - yes, a lot later than people thought they

should and in a lot less detail than people thought they should, it wasn't really until after the election that you've got a full reporting on it -

there were sanctions put in place.

After Trump became president, Congress voted on sanctions. This administration has not enforced those sanctions, existing sanctions. So,

the question is whether or not the Trump administration is going to pursue further sanctions now that we have these names, these people laid out in

this indictment.

AMANPOUR: And, Luke, you wrote the book "Collusion", but we do have to say, and everybody is saying, and, in fact, the assistant attorney general

said that this is not about collusion. This indictment did not investigate or charge regarding collusion. Is he saying that because it just didn't or

because there isn't any collusion?

HARDING: No, it's because we're not there yet. This is the first indictment. There are going to be many more indictments which follow.

And, of course, one thing that Muller is looking at very closely are these secret meetings between known or suspected Russian assets, agents,

including in this town, London, and Trump people. We already know about George Papadopoulos. There will be other people probably we don't know


And another thing I take away from this indictment is just how much spying material he had. It's clear that the NSA, that the British spy

organization, GCHQ, were all over this troll factory. And you imagine that there's an awful lot of intelligence, which has been fed into Washington,

which will figure in future indictments.

AMANPOUR: Fed into the Mueller investigation?

HARDING: Fed into the Mueller investigation. And we are talking about financial flows, we are talking about secret meetings and, of course, we're

talking about Donald Trump's long history of engagement with Russia and indeed the Soviet Union.

He first went to communist Moscow in 1987. Now, the KGB, I think, have a huge file on Donald Trump and his interactions, clearly, something which

will greatly interest Mueller's team.

AMANPOUR: You're talking about the business in those days?

HARDING: Well, I mean, the business and also the kompromat, which is kind of the word of last year, what Trump may or may not have done when he was


Now, we have the dossier of Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer -

AMANPOUR: Who you interviewed -

HARDING: Whom I've met. Donald Trump says it's all fake, nothing to see here. But as yet, I think Steele is in a pretty good place today because

the indictment vindicates some of his reporting, his analysis of what was going on and this huge Russian espionage operation to help Trump win.

AMANPOUR: You've mentioned the troll factory. And I wondered if both of you can weigh in as to how important this is. It's got a name right, some


HARDING: Yes. They always have a very anonymous bland name. It's the Internet Research Agency. But what's kind of interesting as someone who's

followed this closely is they got better.

Initially, they were very rubbish. They would post tweets in bad English and they became more sophisticated. We know from the indictment they were

working in American time zones. They took note of American public holidays. It was a real major sort of plot conspiracy.

And, of course, the Russian embassy in Washington would have known about this, as would Putin, as would other spies.

AMANPOUR: Kelly, I just want to read you - I mean, you know, everybody knows, but Donald Trump has been tweeting about this and in a way sort of

trying to deflect attention.

[14:10:03] He said, "I never said Russia did not meddle in the election. I said it may be Russia or China or another country or group or it may be a

400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer. The Russian hoax was that Trump campaign colluded with Russia. It never did."

But he did say, I mean, he did say that actually I don't believe they interfered. So, how do you assess Trump's reaction?

MCEVERS: It's interesting. He says this indictment proves there is no collusion because the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said none of

the Americans named in this indictment are accused of any crime. They're unwitting.

So, he's really parsing words here. And I think Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is a very careful man. And I think he was very careful to

say none of the people who are named in this exact indictment, right, are accused of any crimes. That doesn't mean other people may not in the


Look, we don't know. It's a tight ship. Like, we don't know what's going on behind closed doors in this Mueller investigation. But I think a lot of

legal experts you will talk to will say this is how you do it. You build a case, you start with this and you can build the blocks on top of it later.

People could even be added to this existing indictment, let alone indictments that could come after this. Do we know for sure there was some

kind of criminal cooperation? That's the question. And this indictment didn't answer that question, but it definitely gives us a window into what

they're doing.

AMANPOUR: And could I just play a little bit of an interview or a statement from H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor, over the

weekend. He was quite categoric about what it said about Russia.


H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in

the public domain.


AMANPOUR: Well, he said it. And he said it to the world there, the Munich Security Conference over the weekend. President Trump didn't like it. And

again, he tweeted against his own national security advisor.

But, I guess, let's just talk also about Gates, the operative who now may be taking a plea to cooperate and may, in fact, I don't know, according to

reporting, talk against Manafort. I mean, it's becoming more and more embedded and involved.

HARDING: This is absolutely fascinating. I was searching through my inbox and I found an email from Gates from September 2007 today. That was when I

was in the Ukraine reporting on Viktor Yanukovych, then the prime minister.

And there was Manafort. I met him too. And Gates was at his elbow. The point is Gates knows everything Manafort has been doing for over a decade.

He knows about the dirty money, allegedly. He knows about the meetings with Russian oligarchs. He knows about his dealings with Moscow. And, of

course, he knows what happened in the summer of 2016 when he was working on the campaign.

Now, I think this is pretty deadly for Manafort. Manafort seems to be doing the strategy of going for presidential pardon, but the charge sheet

is piling up and getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

AMANPOUR: So, Kelly, with your podcast, you're delving - and you have been for a long time - into this issue. Where do you go next? You said this

sort of sets the table, it's a piece of a piece of this big investigation. What do you see coming next?

MCEVERS: I think that's interesting. We're going to have to see what else Robert Mueller is going to drag up in terms of what the Russians are doing.

I think, again, this is why this fascinates me so much. You're not seeing it coming from the White House. You're not seeing the president of the

United States saying I want to review across all agencies, I want to talk about what we're going do for 2018 for these mid-term elections.

We know that the Russians scanned and probed electoral systems in many states in 2016. What's going to happen there? So, are we all going to

have to rely on Robert Mueller to sort of give us the tools that we need to see what we have to look into for 2018.

I don't know, but that's where we're turning our attention, is how is the next election going to be affected.

AMANPOUR: And, Luke, go ahead. You want to -

HARDING: I was just going to say, there is the big question of interference elsewhere. This troll factory had 80 people on the America

desk, but had other desks as well. And I think there are question marks -

AMANPOUR: Eighty people and $1.25 million budget. That's a lot.

HARDING: But the question marks about the UK, about Brexit, about France and Germany and interference in other relations. And, of course, there is

only one Bob Mueller. And he's only looking at the United States, but this goes much bigger.

AMANPOUR: OK, just a quickie. Now that we know this, why can't we shut them down?

HARDING: Shut the Russians down?

AMANPOUR: Yes. Why are they still able to surprise us with their interference?

HARDING: Because they don't care. Because they deny it, they sort of lie about it. Putin says nothing to see here and you carry on. That's part of

the sort of tactic.

AMANPOUR: Isn't it the consumers, isn't it us who need to get savvy?

HARDING: Well, maybe we have to exit from Facebook and Twitter and social media. And, of course, we can't do that because it's 21st century and

we're addicted to it.

And this is all about the porousness of Western society from external attack.

[14:15:00] AMANPOUR: Yes. And the poison. Luke Harding, Kelly McEvers, thank you so much for joining us. Fascinating ongoing story. Thanks a


So, while Vladimir Putin is using information warfare to destabilize American and other Western democracies, he's using military force to shore

up his Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad.

Syria has become a major battlefield in a growing proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia as each floods money and weapons into regional conflicts

extending from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in the north to Yemen in the South.

A major new "Frontline" documentary dives deep into what it calls the bitter rivalry between the two powers and its fallout across the Middle


Here, the host Martin Smith hears from the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia on just who is to blame for the escalating conflict.

MARTIN SMITH, "PBS FRONTLINE" HOST: The Saudis insist that Iran is a hostile, belligerent, adventurous nation attempting to export revolution

around the region. How do you respond?

JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, talk is cheap. Let's look at the actions. Saudis helped Saddam Hussein for eight years. Saudis helped

Al Qaeda. Saudis created Daesh. Saudis created Al Nusra. Saudis are funding terrorists who are operating in Eastern Iran.

So, they started sectarian message. Not us.

SMITH: The Iranians look at you and they say you've been busy supporting and exporting extremism. What's your response to that?

ADEL AL-JUBEIR, SAUDI ARABIA FOREIGN MINISTER: Nonsense. The Iranians are the ones who are exporting terrorism. They're the ones who are stoking the

fires of sectarianism. They're the ones who are violating international laws and norms and acceptable behavior. And they are the ones who have

been on an aggressive path since 1979.


AMANPOUR: And Martin Smith joins me now from New York. Martin, welcome.

SMITH: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: So, you've got to smile when you listen to those two foreign ministers back to back. Both equal and opposite blame games. What did you

think when you heard them, when you were doing the interviews and sitting with them?

SMITH: Well, as someone at the "Frontline" offices who was reading the interviews turned to me and said, reading these two interviews, it seems

like a script from "Mean Girls". So, there is this kind of immature blaming that's going on that indicates that they're not ready to sit down

and talk. They're ready to continue this across Iraq, across Lebanon, Syria and, of course, as you mentioned, now Yemen.

So, they're not giving ground. Where this goes, I don't really know.

AMANPOUR: Well, on that note, let me just read something that you have from your documentary.

Quote from your conversation with Karim Sadjadpour, who, as we know, is the Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment. This is what he said. "When

Elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. And in today's Middle East, the two elephants are Iran and Saudi Arabia. There's been over a million

casualties in the Middle East over the last decade, but they have been Syrian, they've been Yemeni, they've been Iraqi, but Iranian and Saudi

citizens aren't the ones who are suffering."

I mean, did you find that because it's proxy and they're not facing off against each other, there's a greater willingness to continue this Cold War

or this proxy hot war?

SMITH: Well, they wouldn't benefit from having a war between the two countries. Their oilfields are along the Gulf and it would be those that

would be the ground over which their planes would have to fly if they decided to go at each other. So, they don't have an interest in a direct


But as time has gone by - and this has built since 1979 with the revolution in Iran, the coming of Ayatollah Khomeini, this rivalry has built since

then and we now have Saudi Arabia deciding to go in itself, not through a proxy in Yemen, running their own bombing campaign with some other Gulf


So, it's getting hotter. Most people - everybody that I talked to really who has expertise in this area says it's going to get worse before it gets


AMANPOUR: Well, that's very clear because everybody seems to be stepping up to the plate, not just the Iranians and the Saudis, but now we have the

Americans, we have the Israeli prime minister, both gave quite stern speeches at the Munich Security Conference this weekend.

The Israeli prime minister warned Iran just to watch out. We were told by an investigative reporter who has done a lot of reporting on this that the

close call between the countries about ten days ago could foreshadow a looming war.

[14:20:07] And, today, in Iran, a leading ayatollah has warned that if Israel launches any military attack inside Iran, Tel Aviv "would be razed

to the ground."

How much of that picture did you get into when you were doing your reporting for this documentary?

SMITH: Well, we cover a lot of territory. We started in 1979 with the revolution in Iran and the reaction then of the Saudis to having a cleric,

Ayatollah Khomeini, take over and declare that the Gulf monarchs that were allied with US needed to be toppled.

We looked at their reaction. They doubled down on their religion. Out of that came Al Qaeda, which eventually became ISIS.

So, again, it's gotten hotter and hotter. And I don't think at any time the rhetoric has been any more pitched than it is right now with threats

going back and forth.

And now, Israel being very much involved as Iran has moved into Syria, has constructed - seems to be constructing missiles there for Hezbollah.

They're looking right at the Golan Heights, a contested piece of territory that Syria and Iran would love to take a nick at.

I don't know where the cooler heads are right now.

AMANPOUR: It's interesting because, obviously, Saudi Arabia is backed by the United States and most of the West and all those Gulf Arab monarchies


Iran has Russia and, I guess, Hezbollah and a bunch of others. But, again, this is what Foreign Minister Zarif said to you because, as we know, Iran

has, along with Russia, been the Savior of President Assad in Syria.

And this is what he said to you about the relative power in that region.


ZARIF: Despite the fact that the United States and almost every other powerful nation supports Saudi Arabia actively and tries to undermine us

actively, we are still the most influential power in the Middle East. That should tell you something. That should tell you that we have made the

right choices and they have made the wrong choices.


AMANPOUR: I mean, it's pretty stark there, right? I mean, they do seem to have -

SMITH: Not very modest.

AMANPOUR: Not very modest, but perhaps clear-eyed.

SMITH: Well, they've had success after success. They have been able to dominate the politics in neighboring Iraq. They've been able to continue

to support Hezbollah, their proxy army, or as proxies in Lebanon.

The Saudis have pulled out of Syria. They've told me that they consider that a lost cause. They blame the Americans for not coming to their aid.

They blame Obama for that. And they can irritate Saudi Arabia. They can keep a sort of a sharp stick in their side in Yemen without much cost.

So, it's not clear that they fomented Houthi rebellion, but it is clear that they're now supporting them to some degree. And for a very little

cost, they can have support - something that is holding Saudi Arabia down, distracting them from efforts in Iraq or Syria.

So, at this point, the Iranians have had a winning strategy for some time now.

Now, they've got problems at home. They've got a restive population that's concerned about unemployment, about food prices and about the expenditures

and the new budget for this year that shows how much money is going to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for foreign adventures, as they would


AMANPOUR: Just very, very quickly, what did you find in Yemen that proved that Iran was backing the Houthis? Any weapons, any personnel?

SMITH: Yes. There is a group called the Conflict Armament Research and this is made up of former UN weapons inspectors. And they've gone into the

battlefield where the Houthis weapons have landed, and they've analyzed these weapons and they have found that the internal components of the

weapons, the design of the weapons is Iranian. It has all the markings of being Iranian.

When I asked them what they thought when the Houthis say they're not getting any aid, he said they're lying.

AMANPOUR: Well, Martin Smith, we look forward to the documentary on "Frontline". Thank you so much for joining us.

And that is it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at and follow me on Facebook and

Twitter. Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.