Seth Abramson Interview: Author Formulates Substantive Case for Trump-Russia Collusion
Image attributed to Seth Abramson
Seth Abramson is a former criminal defense attorney and criminal investigator who teaches digital journalism, legal advocacy and cultural theory at the University of New Hampshire. A regular political and legal analyst on CNN and the BBC during the Trump presidency, he is the author of eight books and editor of five anthologies. In November 2018, Abramson released Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America, the first, full, explosive record of how a United States president compromised American foreign policy in exchange for financial gain and covert election assistance.
Abramson is a graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the PhD program in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two one-year-old rescue Hounds, Quinn and Scout.
"As far as Republicans go, people often say that they will never support impeachment in the Senate. But now, they won’t have the numbers to block it in the House."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Seth, the book is very interesting, and I really like the layout in each chapter with the subheadings of Summary, Facts and Annotated History. How did you decide on those subheadings?
Seth Abramson: One of the things that I realized very quickly was that the Trump-Russia collusion narrative is really 75 different narratives involving different people, different places on different continents, different types of transactions, different areas of subject matter expertise. So the struggle for me, my agent and editor, was trying to figure out how to simultaneously tell these 75 narratives and the ways in which they intertwined without losing people.
I came up with the idea, with advice from others, that what was needed in each chapter was sort of the 10,000-foot view of that period of the story and then the narrative proper, but then also a space in each chapter where I could really drill down on individual parts of the narrative. That was because every aspect of the story has such a depth to it that if you were to explore at that level each stage of the 75 narratives, you’d have a 3,000-page book. So that’s how we came up with this idea of essentially a book within a book within a book. You can read the book at one level of specificity or another or a level of generality that you get just from the summaries.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What kind of researching went into writing the book?
Seth Abramson: I’ve been researching the Trump-Russia narrative for about two years since December of 2016. So a lot of the archiving of investigative reports from reliable media outlets around the world has happened during that period of time. Some of it is stored on my social media feed where I’ve been compiling all these stories, some of it on my computer and some of it, frankly, in my head. I’ve had to create a sort of a mental picture or map or really most importantly, a timeline of events that I can keep in my head and have recall for at a moment’s notice. So it’s a lot of digital research and then a lot of mental construction of a complicated timeline that sort of weaves together those 75 narratives.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Over the last couple of years, you’ve been called everything from a conspiracy theorist to an attention seeker for your tweets and theories of the Trump-Russia collusion scandal. How would you answer those critics, and what kept you going?
Seth Abramson: The Trump-Russia collusion scandal is the most significant domestic political news story of any of our lifetimes, and by its end, it may be considered internationally significant to the same degree. I’ve been a politically committed journalist for over 15 years, so when I saw that the country I love was entering a period of national crisis and emergency, I asked myself, as I think millions of Americans have asked themselves, “Is there anything I can do?” I considered my skillsets as a writer, a journalist, a post-internet cultural theorist, an attorney, an obsessive researcher and a former criminal investigator, and I created a public research venue through my Twitter feed, in which Americans could learn more information about the most complex, far-ranging criminal investigation any of us have ever seen.
I felt (and feel) that my Twitter feed is one of the more valuable contributions I personally can make at this moment; others are making other contributions that are likewise in line with their idiosyncratic roster of talents and interests. So it’s against that backdrop that I can honestly say I have little to no reaction to those who are strangers to me who believe they understand my motives or who so little understand the Trump-Russia criminal conspiracy (especially in light of the historically frightening degree of inculpatory evidence that conspiracy has produced in the last two years) as to regard it as mere theory.
As for what keeps me going: a sense that the nation’s rule of law, election security and commitment to democracy is genuinely under existential threat. I think that would keep anyone going. But I admit to being, like everyone else, exhausted by the daily accounting of the ways, large and small, in which a single venal politician (who lost the popular vote for his office by millions of votes) is putting all we hold dear under threat.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there any new information in the book that the public is not yet aware of?
Seth Abramson: I think there are several types of new information in the book. One is information from overseas media outlets that exists and was available to be seen by American news readers but never was just because we’re all not as fluent with international media, of course, as we are with domestic media. So I think many people would be surprised to find out, for instance, about the interviews that George Papadopoulos gave with Greek media or some of the things that Hungarian media were reporting regarding the national security aides to the president and that many of them made unexplained trips to Hungary in the middle of 2016 during the presidential campaigns. There’s that type of new information.
There are a few instances in which there is new information that I myself uncovered. I’m not an investigative reporter. I’m what’s called a curatorial journalist. In a few instances, just within the process of being a curatorial journalist, if you come across two pieces of information and realize a connection between them, that naturally happens with curatorial journalism that has not yet been reported.
That’s the reason why, as I was writing the book from December 2016 on, there were many times when I would have conversations with conventional investigative reporters, and they would be getting information from me that they hadn’t heard before because I just happened to see two stories that had been reported across time and space by reliable investigative journalists that had a gap between them which I knew could be filled in by a third story that I had read. So the result of that triangulation of information was the production of new knowledge. I think that’s something that could happen in digital reporting that is new in a sense. Creating a matrix of existing stories allows the production of new information.
A third type of new information that I think readers will come across is just the fact that this is the most complex, far-ranging criminal investigation of our lifetimes, and as a result, even people who are avid Trump-Russia watchers and readers will find that they’ve only come across maybe 20% of what’s in the book simply because there’s so much information to take in that it’s almost impossible to do so with any sort of fidelity unless you’re really dedicating many, many hours each week to not just reading what’s coming out in real time, but going back in the archive to stories that fell through the cracks, and that’s something that the book does.
So I think people who are reading it right now are reporting all sorts of new information that’s coming in to them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it was never reported anywhere. But it does mean that it will be new to the overwhelming majority of readers.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe that your conclusion is that even though the Mueller report has not been made public in its entirety, the evidence of Donald Trump’s collusion with Russia is already there. So is there a particular smoking gun that led you to this conclusion?
Seth Abramson: I think there’s three things I would say there. One is that even though this book is a pretty comprehensive account of the public information that we have on Trump-Russia collusion, which the book goes all the way back to 1987 with media reports going back to 2016, it’s probably an estimating 20% of what Robert Mueller has. So when we say, “Even without Robert Mueller’s report, we have the evidence in this book,” that’s true. Then I would add to that and say that we’re possibly going to have four or five times as much information once we get a report from Robert Mueller. That’s the first thing I’ll say.
The second thing is to clarify how collusion is defined by the book, which is addressed in the introduction. Collusion is only a legal term in antitrust law. It is otherwise a lay term. I use it even though it’s a lay term because it’s an umbrella term under which you find several dozen federal criminal statutes that are implicated by the Trump-Russia collusion narrative.
People sometimes say to me, “Why don’t you just say conspiracy?” The answer is that conspiracy is, in fact, a federal criminal statute, but it’s only one of the several dozen that are implicated by this particular fact pattern, and as a result, if I say “conspiracy,” I’m actually narrowing the story impermissibly, in my view, as a journalist. For that reason, I say “collusion,” and then explain just very early on in the book that I don’t discuss collusion as a legal term, but it will help us understand what’s actually happening.
When I say several dozen criminal statutes that are contained within the term collusion, I’m referring to, just to give you a brief for instance, bribery, money laundering, aiding and abetting computer crimes after the fact, illegal solicitation of foreign donations, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, perjury, making false statements, lying to Congress, Foreign Agents Registration Act, and it goes on and on and on. But we need a term to encapsulate that panoply of crimes.
Now, let me give you the direct answer to your question of a smoking gun. One of the things that I often say to people is that I approached this book as someone who practiced criminal law as an attorney for many years, who’s been a criminal investigator, who has also been a journalism professor and a practicing journalist. I ask myself, within those roles, whether the totality of the evidence on each of these individual potential federal criminal violations, if it were put before a jury, what the reaction of the jury would be. What I tend to say to people is that it would blow their hair back. It is that powerful.
Having said that, people sometimes ask, “Do we have a movie style, Hollywood style smoking fun like the scene in a movie where someone opens a door, and Donald Trump is sitting at a computer hacking into the DOD and Vladimir Putin is standing over his shoulder?” No. And you almost never get that in complicated federal or even state level investigations nor is that what is required to prove a case in a court in the United States. But when people ask, “Could you present this case to a jury?” The answer is, “Absolutely, and you would be shocking that jury at every single stage.” That’s the primary answer.
The secondary answer I give is that, from my standpoint as an attorney, investigator and journalist, there are individual facts here where, in the view of an attorney, would be considered a smoking gun in the context of presenting something to a jury. I’ll give you an example of that. A national security advisor of Donald Trump, J. D. Gordon, says that he was explicitly ordered by Donald Trump himself on March 31, 2016, to change the RNC platform in a way that tremendously benefitted the Kremlin. He then executed that change of the Republican National Convention at Donald Trump’s order at a time when he was on the phone regularly that day with Donald Trump getting his orders.
The platform was changed. Gordon lied about it to the media. Paul Manafort lied about it to the media. Donald Trump lied and said that he had no knowledge of the change. Meanwhile, a top Kremlin agent, Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate of Paul Manafort, was telling all his friends in Russia, “I negotiated that change of the Republican national platform by working with people on the Trump team.” That is a smoking gun of collusion as a for instance.
Likewise, George Papadopoulos says that he went to a national security meeting at the Trump International Hotel in DC on March 31, 2016, sat down with Donald Trump and 11 other national security advisors and informed the room that he had been secretly in contact with the Kremlin, was acting as a secret intermediary for the Kremlin, wanting to set up a secret clandestine meeting between Trump and Putin and had been authorized by Kremlin agents to negotiate on their behalf to make that happen. He said this directly to Donald Trump. He wasn’t fired. He wasn’t reported to the FBI.
In fact, Papadopoulos was immediately promoted to be one of Trump’s top Russia advisors even though he had no specialty in Russian politics or geopolitics. He was a Middle Eastern oil guy. But he was immediately put on Trump speechwriting team for his first foreign policy speech. That would be considered a smoking gun of a desire to and in fact a successful execution of a clandestine mutual agreement between Kremlin agents and Trump himself to secretly collude without informing the American people. Those are smoking guns, but the Hollywood moment that people want would probably be in Mueller’s report even though the smoking guns already exist. I tend to say there are about 50 smoking guns from a legal standpoint in proof of collusion.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is the starting point for the quid pro quo agreement between Donald Trump and Russia in your money-for-sanctions theory?
Seth Abramson: The broad shape of the quid pro quo is that Donald Trump wanted current and future business opportunities in Russia. He wanted the maintenance of his relationship with hundreds of Russian oligarchs who were his present clients at the Trump Organization paying him hundreds of millions of dollars if not in the low billions in rents and whose continued payments were essentially a spigot controlled by Vladimir Putin, so he wanted that money to continue to roll in.
What Vladimir Putin wanted was a politician who was electable in the United States as president who would support the unilateral dropping of sanctions on Russia. There’s a couple of points to make there. Number one, the dropping of sanctions was not worth millions or billions of dollars to the Russians. It was worth trillions of dollars, much of that in new oil exploration and in partnership with some US entities. But essentially, Russia was not able to execute the Arctic Ocean exploration that it wanted to because of the sanctions. Just that alone was in the trillions of dollars.
On the other side of the unilateral dropping of sanctions against Russia, there was absolutely no financial or diplomatic or geopolitical benefit to the United States to unilaterally drop sanctions, so that’s why it’s a unilateral dropping to the extent that the United States is getting nothing in return. That’s what Putin wanted, and that’s what his primary ambition was in striking a quid pro quo.
But within that broad quid pro quo structure, we should clarify there are specific moments where that quid pro quo crystallizes in an actual event. Felix Sater, a longtime real estate agent of Donald Trump, was working on a very specific deal with a Kremlin-owned bank and a Russian oligarch by the name of Andrey Rozov in 2015 and 2016 while Trump was running for president.
Felix Sater’s missives to Donald Trump during this time makes it very clear that it is a quid pro quo, that this building can happen, which was worth many millions of dollars to Trump. Trump has a pro-Russian foreign policy, and his foreign policy is a euphemism often used by Russian agents of promoting peace between our two countries, But, of course, peace can only be had in Putin’s view if the United States unilaterally drops sanctions.
So we even have emails and letters from Felix Sater to Michael Cohen and Donald Trump which are establishing that these two things are juxtaposed. So you have Trump’s pro-Russian foreign policy and Vladimir Putin’s willingness to let the deal go through. The quid pro quo was both philosophical and conceptual, decades long and broad based, but it also led to specific events.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You also speak about the “second letter of intent that Trump signed” to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. What is the significance of that?
Seth Abramson: American voters need to understand that, while he was running for president, Trump and his top aides were negotiating not one but two multi-billion dollar Moscow real estate deals with the Kremlin. Those negotiations were deliberately kept secret from the media, from voters, and even from the top brass at the Trump Organization. And the reason those conversations and those fairly well-advanced deal negotiations remained clandestine is that they would have explained, almost instantly, Donald Trump’s historically pro-Russia foreign policy, which was the immediate dropping of all sanctions on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea. That foreign policy was worth trillions to Russia over the next decade and yet had absolutely no value to America.
In fact, Trump’s foreign policy toward Russia was and is a danger to our national interests and national security. So those two letters of intent (as well as the ways in which the deals they undergirded had advanced further than a letter of intent, to the point of securing building sites and financing for the project) are a shibboleth of sorts that unlock the “money-for-sanctions relief” quid pro quo at the heart of the Trump-Russia scandal.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): This theory is now being widely recognized. Do you believe you should be acknowledged by the media and given credit for your work?
Seth Abramson: I think anyone who’s actively using their professional skillset in the public sphere wants to be treated as a professional, and part of being treated as a professional is experiencing the courtesy of having one’s work honored when it’s used by others. To want to be appreciated for one’s efforts is a very human quality, I think.
That said, in the larger picture, it doesn’t matter much where the credit for this or that element of the coverage of the Trump-Russia story lies or where it goes. A just resolution of the Trump-Russia investigation is finally what’s important. So, while on occasion, I’ll note on my Twitter feed the ways in which independent, freelance digital journalists are both invisibly relied up and deliberately sidelined in American media culture, tweets addressing that topic make up less than 1% of what I post on my feed. The rest of the tweets (besides those few about some of my other, non-political interests) are focused on the chief issue at hand: will America survive (at least as we know it) the current threat to its rule of law and system of government?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): John Brennan called Trump’s failure to acknowledge Russian’s election meddling at the press conference in Helsinki as “nothing short of treasonous.” Can collusion, if proven in this case, rise to the crime of treason?
Seth Abramson: Not in this case, but generally speaking, it could. Obviously, if you have a case where someone commits capital “T” treason where they violate a federal statute called treason, that would be in the context of collusion. In this case, what I think the former CIA director was referring to was the small “t” treason, the lay person’s definition of that term which is simply treacherous conduct that is a betrayal of the United States and is a violation of federal criminal statutes, but not the treason statute particularly.
The reason that federal statute capital “T” doesn’t apply here is that there has to be a declared war between two countries. I think we can credibly say that there was a hot cyberwar occurring between Russia and the United States where Russia was the unilateral aggressor in 2016, but the United States was not in a declared state of war with Russia, and therefore, the treason statute does not apply.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): If Donald, Jr., Eric, Ivanka and/or Jared Kushner are indicted, what’s the likelihood that they will cooperate with Robert Mueller?
Seth Abramson: With Don, Jr., I can foresee legal trouble for lying to Congress. The media reports so far say that he is probably going to be indicted. He believes that. His family believes that, and that’s the whispers among Washington attorneys who have gone before the grand jury for Mueller. I do think that Robert Mueller would like to turn Donald, Jr. if he could. I don’t know whether he’ll be able to or not because obviously, Donald Trump, Sr. is his father but also is the basis for his entire family inheritance. There would have to be a substantial amount of prison time put on the table against Donald Trump, Jr. for him to flip.
Eric Trump, on several occasions, has let it slip that the Trumps, in fact, have a substantial financial connection to Russia despite what the patriarch of the family is saying. So there’s no question that Robert Mueller would love to interrogate Eric as to those connections. But at this point, it doesn’t seem that he has any criminal statutes that he could bring to bear against Eric. For that reason, Mueller would only get that information during a voluntary interview, and the moment he tries to bring in Eric Trump for a voluntary interview, there’s a real chance he’d get fired either directly or indirectly by the president, so I don’t think he wants to go there.
Jared Kushner is one of the really bad actors here, someone who was attempting to make hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars off US foreign policy in a clandestine way involving individuals from a number of different nations, not just Russia. And yet there have been persistent rumors that he’s cooperating with Robert Mueller out of his own self interest and to save his own skin. His level of cooperation would have to be extraordinary because otherwise, he’d be one of the major targets of this investigation.
The same thing was true of Michael Flynn really. So the sweetheart deal that he got from Robert Mueller suggests that he has given an extraordinary level of cooperation and insight to Robert Mueller about the Trump-Russia collusion. If that’s true, I don’t know that Jared has given to Mueller that level required for him to escape any criminal liabilities here. So I tend to think Jared will not escape legal difficulty in the long run and that he’s probably not cooperating.
Certainly, we think Ivanka is a confidante of Donald Trump and would have a lot to offer Robert Mueller. But there are no criminal statutes that we can clearly see she has violated. Therefore, it’s not clear how Mueller could get to her without putting a rift in the entire investigation by angering the president by interviewing or interrogating Ivanka.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you believe Robert Mueller’s report will contain, and will the Republicans in Congress support his findings?
Seth Abramson: I don’t think Donald Trump will be indicted, certainly not tried because he can’t be. But I don’t think he’ll even be indicted while he is sitting in office because there’s a DOJ regulation that advises against that, and I think Robert Mueller would follow that guideline. That said, the proscription against indicting a sitting president doesn’t apply to anybody else. It doesn’t even apply to the vice-president if evidence of criminality is found on the vice-president.
About all Mueller can do is indict a large number of people and have those people involved in cooperation deals where they give significant enough information regarding criminality by Donald Trump, which the DOJ then gives to Congress as a referral for impeachment proceedings. Impeachment proceedings to not preclude him being criminally tried once he is removed from the Oval Office should that happen or once his presidential term ends. So it’s not that Donald Trump can never be indicted or tried, just not while he’s in office.
As far as Republicans go, people often say that they will never support impeachment in the Senate. But now, they won’t have the numbers to block it in the House. Important analysis is notwhat they would do now. Right now, there have been no leaks from the Mueller investigation, so I wouldn’t expect them to turn against Donald Trump. The question is, what will they do when there’s a 1,000+ page report on their desk alleging things that are not currently in the public sphere?
What I believe is that the Mueller report will show a years-long course of bribery, money laundering possibly to the extent of RICO violations on the part of the Trump Organization, which were the approximate cause of Donald Trump’s historically pro-Russian foreign policy and historically anti-America to the extent that the foreign policy he offered toward Russia had no benefit whatsoever to the United States. So I think it will show that.
I think it will also show that there was an illegal source of donations during the campaign. I think it will show that after August 17, 2016, when Donald Trump and Michael Flynn had their first classified security briefing as Trump being the candidate of the Republican Party, they were told the Russians were committing cybercrimes against the United States and trying to influence the election. I think that Robert Mueller will find that after that meeting, Donald Trump engaged in sufficient actions to be charged with aiding and abetting computer crimes after the fact by trying to cover up, with the assistance of the Russians who had committed the hacking and who committed the disinformation propaganda campaign, any role the Russians had in coordinating WikiLeaks to get this information to the American voters.
All of that is separate from the other half of Mueller’s investigation which we broadly call obstruction. But I think what will be found is that Donald Trump, absolutely on multiple occasions, committed multiple counts of obstruction of justice, quite possibly witness tampering as well, including witness tampering on his own son’s statement regarding the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. I think there will be a lot of charges committed by Trump aides all the way up to Jeff Sessions for perjury, making false statements, lying to Congress and failing to properly register as a foreign agent. There are many different lines this will follow.
If you ask me how long I would expect the entirety of the Mueller report to be, this is a report that could easily be 2,000 or 3,000 pages because just the money laundering component of this would be very long. Donald Trump’s financial universe, as the head of the Trump Organization, is incredibly complicated. Just laying out the money laundering aspect and the bribery aspect would take a volume of documentary evidence and narrative that it would run in the hundreds and hundreds of pages before you’d even think about aiding and abetting, illegal solicitation, RICO, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
So that’s the question. What would the GOP do when it has 1,000 to 3,000 pages from Robert Mueller alleging crimes committed by the president and his top aides, allies and associates? I still have a belief that the Democrats would be able to join with at least 20 Republican senators, once that information is out there, to do the right thing for the country.
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