'Russian Roulette' Authors Seek To Connect The Dots Between Trump And Putin

Mar 13, 2018
Originally published on March 14, 2018 1:42 pm

For more than a year now, journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn have been devoted to covering the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.

Isikoff was the first reporter to reveal that there was a U.S. intelligence investigation into Russian ties to a figure in the Trump campaign — Carter Page. Corn was the first to reveal the existence of the infamous Russia dossier, the unverified collection of reports alleging connections between the Trump campaign and Russia compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.

Now, in their new book, Russian Roulette, the two men attempt to put all the pieces of the story together.

"We start the book with Donald Trump's trip to Moscow in 2013, when he really first forms this 'bromance' with Vladimir Putin," Isikoff says.

Isikoff notes that Trump's 2013 trip to Russia for the Miss Universe pageant centered on a business deal: "He signed a letter of intent to build a Trump Tower in Moscow with a Putin-connected oligarch, Aras Agalarov."

In 2016, Agalarov would later be one of the conduits for what was described to Donald Trump Jr. as an offer of help to the Trump campaign by the Russian government.

The earlier potential deal for the Moscow Trump Tower fell through, Isikoff says, after the Obama administration and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine.

But Corn says that the stalled deal may help explain other elements of the story: "People have been trying to figure out for years the positive remarks that Donald Trump has made about Vladimir Putin ... It's almost hiding in plain sight that one reason he has for saying all these kind things about Putin is that he was always interested in doing business deals there."


Interview Highlights

On Trump's interest in meeting Vladimir Putin during his 2013 trip to Moscow

Michael Isikoff: This is when he's presiding over the Miss Universe pageant. He goes to great lengths to try to get a meeting with Putin. It doesn't come through for a variety of interesting reasons, but he then wants to tell the world that he met with Putin anyway, and he actually repeatedly does, even though he didn't.

But you can see the seeds of the Trump-Putin relationship in that trip. And what was it all about? It was all about a business deal. He signed a letter of intent to build a Trump Tower in Moscow with a Putin-connected oligarch, Aras Agalarov, and it was something that was a very high priority for him and had been for many years.

On how the project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow influenced Trump's views on Russia

Isikoff: In February 2014, Ivanka Trump travels to Moscow to scout potential sites for the Trump Tower with Emin Agalarov and the project doesn't ultimately go through. Why? ... One development that may well have played a big factor ... was ... this is right at the time Putin has annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, stiff sanctions are put on by the Obama administration and the European Union, including Sberbank, the bank that was going to finance the [Trump Tower] operation.

And Rob Goldstone, who is quoted in the book — and this is, I believe, the first interview he's given to anybody about these developments — says he believes that it was the imposition of sanctions that killed the deal and that this may well have influenced Trump's view of sanctions and his advocacy later on, during the presidential campaign, of lifting sanctions on Russia.

David Corn: Sberbank is majority-owned by the Russian state, by the Russian government. Which means that Trump was trying to enter into a deal that involved the Russian government. And, of course, no major projects can take place in Moscow — and this is a deal worth billions of dollars — without the approval of the government. And who runs the government? Vladimir Putin.

On the Trump administration's denial of Russian interference in the election

Corn: [Trump's circle] had reason to believe more than anybody else that there was a Russian effort to help and to boost Trump. They knew that members of their own campaign — people like George Papadopoulos and Carter Page — were making connections with Russian officials and Russian cutouts. And Trump was even briefed in mid-August 2016 when he was a candidate about the Russian hacking of the election and still after that continued to say it wasn't happening ... Again and again and again, Trump and his defenders say that there was no contact with Russia, "We did nothing wrong."

Put that all together with a little bit of distance and you see how the Trump campaign and Trump himself almost in a way aided and abetted what the Russians were doing by continually denying that they had any role in the election and making it difficult for the United States and the Obama administration to forge a bipartisan response to what was happening.

On a Russian general who wrote a paper outlining Russia's information war

Corn: His name was Gen. [Valery] Gerasimov, and this came out in an obscure military journal in early 2013 and no one paid much attention to it until a translation appeared a few months later. He basically said, listen, the war of the future will not be played out in real space. It won't be between battalions and fleet of aircraft and fighter jets, it's going to come about through other means.

It was pretty stunning to see it in retrospect — [he] talked about how to take advantage of the divisions within your enemy. If you look at what happened in 2016 with the social media campaign and with the hacks and dumps that the Russians pulled off, what they did was exploit existing sometimes very bitter divisions within America.

They did it on Facebook, they did it on Twitter, they figured out how to turn Bernie Sanders supporters against Hillary Clinton, they really took advantage of some of the political conflict and strife that we're ultimately responsible for in the United States, but that was one of the things that the general pointed to that could be weaponized, and they did so quite well, I think, in 2016.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Philip Ewing adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests, investigative journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn, are the authors of the new book "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." They write that with Trump unable or unwilling to come to terms with Putin's war on American democracy, it's fallen to government investigators and reporters to piece together the complete story. They offer their book as a step in that process.

They've each broken major stories. During the campaign, Isikoff was the first journalist to reveal that there was a U.S. intelligence investigation into ties between the Kremlin and an adviser in the Trump campaign, Carter Page. Corn was the first reporter to reveal the existence of the Steele dossier, the collection of reports on alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russia compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Corn is Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones. Isikoff has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek and NBC News and is now chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News.

David Corn, Michael Isikoff, welcome to FRESH AIR. There's been so much great journalism about Trump and Russia and how Russia hacked our election. Where do you see your book fitting in?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, I think what we've tried to do in this book is make sense of a sprawling, complicated story that, you know, people have been getting in bits and pieces with a steady diet of, you know, cable news and media reports. But to weave it into a single narrative that sort of explains it from the beginning, we start the book with Donald Trump's trip to Moscow in 2013 when he really first forms this bromance with Vladimir Putin.

He's obsessed with meeting Putin during this trip. This is when he's presiding over the Miss Universe pageant. He goes to great lengths to try to get a meeting with Putin. It doesn't come through for a variety of interesting reasons. But he then wants to tell the world that he met with Putin anyway (laughter), and he actually repeatedly does even though he didn't. But you can see the seeds of the Trump-Putin relationship in that trip.

And what was it all about? It was all about a business deal. He signed a letter of intent to build a Trump Tower in Moscow with a Putin-connected oligarch, Aras Agalarov. And it was something that was a very high priority for him and had been for years.

DAVID CORN: And if you go back and look at what happened during the campaign itself, you see of course there was the infamous Trump Tower meeting where Trump campaign advisers met with a Russian emissary hoping to get dirt from the Kremlin on Hillary Clinton. But whether they succeeded or not, from that point on, they kept denying there was any Russian meddling in the election.

Any time it came out either reported or even when finally the Obama administration said it officially in October, Trump and his minions kept saying, that's not true. They kept denying it. And Trump was even briefed in mid-August 2016 when he was a candidate about the Russian hacking of the election and still after that continued to say it wasn't happening.

Put that all together with a little bit of distance, and you see how the Trump campaign and Trump himself almost in a way aided and abetted what the Russians were doing by continually denying that they had any role in the election and making it difficult for the United States and the Obama administration to forge a bipartisan response to what was happening.

GROSS: So the Steele dossier, the dossier put together by the former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele who used to head Britain's intelligence Russia desk and then started his own, like, private investigative agency - his dossier said that four sources had told him that - and this is the most lurid part of the dossier - that Trump, in his hotel room in Moscow during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, had women in the hotel room urinating golden showers for his pleasure. They were doing it on the bed.

But you say that one - then-FBI Director James Comey tried to warn Trump that this information had been relayed, that it hadn't been verified but it was out there and Trump should know that it was out there. He just should know for his own good it was out there - that Trump thought it was actually Comey who was blackmailing Trump. And that's what he was worried about. He was worried about Comey, not about the Russians blackmailing him. Would you explain?

ISIKOFF: Yeah. This is an extraordinary scene and moment. The U.S. intelligence community is briefing then-President-elect Trump in early January about the - their findings that the Russians hacked the election, had a - this massive influence operation going that was approved by Putin. And at the end of it, all the other intelligence leaders - John Brennan, the CIA director; James Clapper, the DNI director - leave the room. And Comey stays behind and hands Trump this two-page synopsis of the Steele dossier that contains these lurid allegations and a lot of other allegations more broadly about the Russian operation.

And Trump's reaction when - after Comey leaves the room is it's a shakedown. He views this as an attempt by the FBI director to blackmail him, to tell him, we've got something on you. Now, that was not Comey's intention, as he has explained it - that he thought it was important to give the president-elect a heads-up about stuff that was circulating. He knew that the news media had learned about this, that this was likely to pop. And he thought the president, as he has explained it, deserved to know about this.

But from Trump's point of view, this matched up with the way he thought business operated in New York and Washington, which is, we've got something on you. And you can almost trace Trump's hostility to Comey and ultimate decision to fire him, which was arguably the most disastrous decision of his presidency, to that particular moment when Comey hands Trump the two-page synopsis of the Steele dossier.

CORN: And the interesting thing is, as we tell in the book, is that the intelligence chiefs - not just Comey but John Brennan, James Clapper, Mike Rogers, the head of the NSA - had gotten together beforehand and said, what are we going to do about this particular dilemma? We have to brief Trump on the report that they were issuing at the time saying that the intelligence community had reached the conclusion that Russia had intervened in the election to help Trump become president. But then there was this other piece, the Steele dossier.

And they ended up basically taking a vote (laughter). You know, we'll walk out of the room. We'll let Jim Comey handle this. They knew it was sensitive, and they felt compelled to let the president-elect know that the material was out there. He could only see this as some underhanded attempt to show him that they had the goods on him and they could pressure him and manipulate him. And as he told his aides, he wasn't going to stand for that.

GROSS: So I think the golden showers part of the dossier has gotten a lot of attention because, A, it's lurid and, B, it's easy to comprehend. There isn't...

ISIKOFF: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: It's not a complicated story with a lot of interconnected Russian oligarchs and shady business deals where you need a kind of Venn diagram to (laughter) understand what's going on. And you do spend time on this part of the dossier in the book. And so I just want to ask you a little bit of it because that's also the part that was excerpted in Mother Jones or, you know, part of what was excerpted in Mother Jones. How much credibility do you think Christopher Steele places in that allegation?

CORN: Well, it's interesting because the memos he wrote - the majority of the material was about Russian interactions with the Trump campaign or Russian effort to cultivate Trump going back years, including dangling business deals in front of him. Yes, it did contain these allegations in the context that they could be used to possibly compromise Trump and also mentioned other sexual antics involving Trump in Russia in previous years and other places. But it was still a small part of what Steele was reporting.

He now believes - he tells associates, and we report this in the book that he thinks 70 to 90 percent of the overall dossier, particularly these big-picture items about Trump and Russia connections, was accurate. But he tells colleagues that when it comes to the particular allegation about the pee party - it's even hard to say - in that Moscow hotel room, he says at best 50-50. It's 50-50 that it actually happened.

So as we report in the book, Trump was in Moscow for a short period of time. It was a window in which something like that could've happened, but not a lot of opportunity. And we also report in the book that at other times, Trump has been - I'm not sure accused is the right word, but people around him have talked about how he would go to Russia and engage in improper personal conduct. It's possible that there are other allegations that have been floating around in Moscow for years.

ISIKOFF: There are a couple of sort of just additional points that are worth pointing out here. You know, Keith Schiller, who was Trump's bodyguard for years, has told Congress that somebody did offer to bring prostitutes to his hotel room in Moscow.

CORN: To Trump's hotel room.

ISIKOFF: Yeah, to Trump's hotel room in Moscow, and he brushed it off and said we don't do that sort of thing. Now, you know, Schiller's credibility as a alibi witness for Trump could be subject to question. If you go back to the interview that Stormy Daniels gave to In Touch Weekly before she was silenced under this hush agreement, she says Keith Schiller was actually the go-between between her and Donald Trump when they had their affair back in 2006, that whenever she wanted to get in touch with Trump, she went to Keith Schiller and he set up the liaisons in various hotel rooms. That doesn't prove that the incident that Christopher Steele first reported was true or actually happened, but it's a data point that's worth keeping in mind.

Also another aspect of the book that did get some attention is Trump was - the Miss Universe pageant grew out of meetings that Trump had with Aras Agalarov, the oligarch, his son, Emin Agalarov, the pop singer, and Rob Goldstone, the music publicist, in Las Vegas in June of 2013. And, as we report in the book, one place they went during their Las Vegas jaunt was this raunchy Las Vegas nightclub called The Act in which its regular performances included women simulating urinating on each other.

Now, we don't know that it happened the night Trump was there. And we cannot establish there's a connection. But it's another interesting data point. Look, at the end of the day, I think we've got to go back to, you know, this remains an unproven allegation. It's clearly the most sensational one that got the most attention for the dossier. But, you know, I think it's fair to conclude that there's a lot more that we need to know before one can reach a final verdict on it.

GROSS: So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Michael Isikoff and David Corn. Isikoff is an investigative reporter with Yahoo News. David Corn, an investigative reporter with Mother Jones. And their new book is called, "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are investigative journalists David Corn and Michael Isikoff, authors of the new book, "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump."

One of Trump's goals in Russia, where he held the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, was to get a deal for a Trump-branded hotel or tower. And you write that he actually got further with a deal like that than is publicly known. How far did he get?

ISIKOFF: Well, yeah. They signed a letter of intent. This was a serious project. They publicly announced that there was reporting...

GROSS: Who's the they?

ISIKOFF: Trump, the Trump Organization and the Crocus Group, which is Agalarov's company.

GROSS: And Agalarov was, like, a billionaire real estate developer.

ISIKOFF: Yeah. He's known as Putin's builder because he's done various projects for the Kremlin and was awarded a medal by Vladimir Putin himself. So he did have a connection.

GROSS: And he helped Trump get the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.

CORN: He was a partner in the project.

GROSS: He was a partner in the project.

CORN: He was a financial partner. It could not have happened without Agalarov.

ISIKOFF: So just a couple of quick points on this - one, he was going to be financed by Sberbank, which is majority-owned by the Russian government, and Donald Trump Jr. was placed in charge of the project. In February 2014, Ivanka Trump travels to Moscow to scout potential sites for the Trump Tower with Emin Agalarov. And the project doesn't ultimately go through. Why?

One development that may well have played a big factor and probably did was this is right at the time Putin has annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine. Sanctions, stiff sanctions are put on by the Obama administration and the European Union, including Sberbank, the bank that was going to finance the operation. And Rob Goldstone, who is quoted in the book - this is, I believe, the first interview he's given to anybody about these developments - says he believes that it was the imposition of sanctions that killed the deal, and that this may well have influenced Trump's view of sanctions and his advocacy later on during the presidential campaign of lifting sanctions on Russia.

CORN: And there's another important point here. As Mike just mentioned, Sberbank is majority-owned by the Russian state, by the Russian government. Which means that Trump was trying to enter into a deal that involved the Russian government. And of course no major projects can take place in Moscow - and this was a deal that was worth billions of dollars - without the approval of the government. And who runs the government - Vladimir Putin. So you look at - and people have been trying to figure out for years the positive remarks that Donald Trump has made about Vladimir Putin, and they kind of start about the time he's bringing Miss Universe to Moscow.

He tweets out, will Putin be my new best friend? And while he's there and in interviews he does before and after and ever since, he's very, very positive about Putin and dismisses all the criticisms that Putin is an autocrat, that journalists and dissidents are routinely killed within his reign. And you can see - it's kind of obvious; it's almost hiding in plain sight - that one reason he has for saying all these kind things about Putin is that he was always interested in doing business deals there.

And he had to know at some level that if he was out there criticizing, Putin would make it very hard to hold Miss Universe there and even more difficult to proceed with a Trump Tower. And of course in the beginning of his presidential campaign a year and a half later in 2015, he has yet another deal going to do a Trump Tower in Moscow, which he's not telling the public about and, at the same time making, again, positive statements about Putin.

GROSS: So let's dial back a couple of years again. So after the Miss Universe pageant, the daughter of Aras Agalarov, the billionaire real estate developer who partnered with Trump on the Miss Universe pageant and tried to partner with him on a Trump Tower deal in Moscow - so his daughter goes to the Miss Universe office in New York with a gift for Donald Trump from Putin. And you write it was a black-lacquered box. Inside was a sealed letter from Putin. What the letter said has never been revealed. I think that is the most tantalizing part.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What was in there?

ISIKOFF: It is a mystery and a mystery well worth resolving. But just to take the story even further - so Putin delivers this gift courtesy of the Agalarovs. And then cut to January 2015. And this is a new revelation in the book. Emin Agalarov, the son of Aras, the pop singer, and Rob Goldstone go and visit Trump in Trump Tower. It's the first Trump Tower meeting that - and Trump personally welcomes them.

As Goldstone colorfully tells the story, Trump is listening to some YouTube video about himself, and Rob Goldstone kind of says, if you listen to the words, they're mocking you. Trump says, who cares what the words say? It's got 90 million hits on YouTube. And then he tells Emin Agalarov, who he has formed a bond with, maybe next time you'll be singing in the White House, giving a early hint to the Agalarovs and the Kremlin about his plans to run for president.

And that, you know, kind of takes on greater significance when one realizes that the famous, notorious Trump Tower meeting some 17 months later was set up by Rob Goldstone and Emin Agalaorv if you just read the emails that Goldstone sends to Donald Trump Jr. So you get this sort of fuller picture of these relationships that really do go back and do revolve around Trump's intent to do business in Moscow.

GROSS: My guests are Michael Isikoff, who's now chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, and David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones. They wrote the new book "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." After we take a short break, I'll ask each of them to choose an example of new reporting in the book that they think we should be paying attention to. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAT METHENY'S "SPIRIT OF THE AIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with investigative journalist David Corn and Michael Isikoff, authors of the new book "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." They started covering the story of Trump's ties to Russia during the campaign. Isikoff was the first journalist to reveal that there was a U.S. intelligence investigation into ties between the Kremlin and an adviser in the Trump campaign, Carter Page. Corn was the first reporter to reveal the existence of the Steele dossier, the collection of reports on alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russia compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.

I want to ask each of you to choose a part of the book that you think is new that we should be paying special attention to.

ISIKOFF: Well, one key figure is George Papadopoulos, who was a member of the Trump foreign policy advisory team. And Papadopoulos of course was large in this story. He was virtually unknown. He was an energy consultant who didn't have very many credentials on shaping foreign policy.

But it was Papadopoulos who in effect triggered the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign after being named on the foreign policy board. This mysterious professor from Malta in the U.K. who's got connections to the Kremlin seeks him out, takes him to lunch with a woman he introduces as Putin's niece and tell him they want to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin. Later they tell him that the Kremlin has dirt in the form of thousands of emails incriminating about Hillary Clinton.

There's a very crucial meeting March 31, 2016 with Trump at the Old Post Office building in Washington that's being converted into the new Trump International Hotel. This is the first time Trump meets with this foreign policy advisory team. And Papadopoulos pitches him on setting up this summit with Putin. The previous public accounts of this were that the - Papadopoulos's proposal got shot down, that Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator, said, this doesn't make any sense, and we shouldn't be talking about this.

What we do report in the book for the first time is what Papadopoulos has told Mueller's investigators since he's become a cooperating witness in the Mueller investigation. And he says Trump encouraged him, said he found the idea interesting and that Trump then looked at Sessions, expecting him to follow up, and Sessions nodded. That's new information that contradicts the previous public accounts. And it is potentially significant because it explains why after this meeting, Papadopoulos so vigorously and aggressively pursues these Russian contacts, more meetings, more emails to top Trump campaign officials to try to set up this meeting between Putin and Trump.

GROSS: So, Michael, if Trump in fact did give Papadopoulos a green light to try to set up a meeting between Putin and Trump during their campaign, what would the significance of that be?

ISIKOFF: Well, it could explain why Papadopoulos continued to have these contacts with the Russians. And remember; the broader sort of, you know, context here is the Russian influence campaign to penetrate the Trump campaign, to forge relationships, to basically insinuate themselves and penetrate an American political campaign, which is extraordinary. And Papadopoulos appears to have been one vehicle for that penetration operation by the Kremlin.

CORN: Papadopoulos, according to Robert Mueller's filings in court, continued into August of 2016 to make contacts with Russians, particularly trying to set up an off-the-record meeting, as he called it, or channel with Putin's office. This was throughout the period that Russia was hacking the election. And there was news accounts about this. People were talking openly that Russia was behind this.

So if you're Moscow and you see the Trump campaign not criticizing you in public about this and you see members of the Trump campaign - at least one, if not more - making contact to you and saying they want to have a positive engagement and a secret positive engagement, I think it's a fair assumption to make that that emboldened them and lead them to believe that they could continue their operation against the election and at least not be put into a bad position by the Trump campaign.

GROSS: So David Corn, I'm going to ask you to choose a part of the book that reveals something new about the story of Trump, Russia and Russia's hacking of the election.

CORN: One of the big questions that people have is why the U.S. intelligence community and the Obama administration seem to have been blindsided by the Russian information warfare campaign against the United States that targeted the election. We've discovered that two years or so before this began - actually, maybe even only one year in 2014 - a U.S. official in Russia developed a relationship with a secret source in Putin's inner circle in the Kremlin.

And at first, this person was providing gossip - who is up, who is down in Putin's world. He also told the U.S. official that Putin and his crowd despised Barack Obama. Sometimes they thought he was too weak. Other times they complained that he was meddling in sophisticated ways in Russian internal politics. They tried to have it both ways. Often they denigrated him using racist terms, including the N-word. The source also told the U.S. official that a Orthodox bishop, a monk, had become a key advisor to Putin, sort of pushing him on to a grand vision of a Russian renewal.

But more importantly, when Putin made a move on Crimea in early 2014, it was this source who told the Americans, listen; he is going to go in there big and strong; you should be prepared for this. And that was considered very valuable intelligence. About the same time, maybe a little bit afterward, he started telling his U.S. contact that Russia had a gigantic, extensive plan for a campaign against the West and the United States. This would include cyberattacks, propaganda, disinformation, covert social media campaigns. Putin wanted to undermine democratic institutions in the West and sort of undermine the general idea of liberal democracy. These reports were written up, sent through channels. They got to the right places in the U.S. government, yet they never garnered the right amount of attention.

GROSS: And there was a Russian general who actually wrote a paper outlining the kind of information war that Russia should be waging and that they actually apparently did wage during the election.

CORN: Yes. His name was General Gerasimov. This came out in an obscure military journal in, I believe, early 2013, and no one paid much attention to it until a translation appeared a few months later. And he basically said, listen; the war of the future will not be played out in real space. It won't be between battalions and fleet of aircraft and fighter jets. It's going to come about through other means. It was pretty stunning to see it in retrospect about how to take advantage of the divisions within your enemy.

And if you look at what happened 2016 with the social media campaign and with the hacks and dumps that the Russians pulled off, what they did was exploit existing, sometimes very bitter divisions within America. They did it on Facebook. They did it on Twitter. They figured out how to turn Bernie Sanders' supporters against Hillary Clinton. They really took advantage of some of the political conflict and strife that we're ultimately responsible for here in the United States. But that was one of the things that the general pointed to that could be weaponized. And they did so quite well I think in 2016.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guests are investigative reporters David Corn and Michael Isikoff. They co-wrote the new book "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SIMON'S "ONE MAN'S CEILING IS ANOTHER MAN'S FLOOR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are David Corn and Michael Isikoff, authors of the new book "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." And Corn is Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones. Isikoff is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News.

Since you've both played such an important part in breaking aspects of the story of a Russian interference in the election and connections between Donald Trump and the Kremlin and Russia, what have some of the consequences been in terms of, you know, personal attacks, getting trolled? You tell me.

ISIKOFF: Well, yeah, look; you get blowback, you know? So it's not a surprise that when I look on my Twitter feed, I will often see attacks on myself from a variety of figures, including Julian Assange, which was quite interesting.

GROSS: What did Julian Assange have to say?

ISIKOFF: Oh, you know, I was part of some, you know, Democratic political research operation to - you know, to tear down Donald Trump. But, you know, look; it kind of goes with the territory. It's not pleasant, but I'm used to it. And you shrug it off, and you just do your job.

GROSS: David, anything I want to add?

CORN: I think that's my attitude as well. I mean, it is unusual to be targeted by members of Congress. And I'll give Representative Jim Jordan a particular shout-out as a crucial player in a conspiracy theory that doesn't exist. But what's troubled me is that he and other Republicans have focused on people who they think gave me information who did not and have demonized them.

These are - you know, one is a public servant who has worked at the FBI long time. And I find it quite troubling that this matter - you know, it's a crucial issue whether Russia - not even whether - how Russia intervened in American democracy and what the Trump campaign did or did not do to encourage that, facilitate it. These are crucial matters, and to see them politicized without any care or regard for facts to me is what worries me the most. I don't care what trolls say. I don't care about insults aimed at me. Particularly I don't care about insults aimed at Mike.

(LAUGHTER)

CORN: But I do care that our national political discourse seems to be unable to deal with the essence of the story here. That's what keeps me up at night more than anything else.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you a question a lot of people have been asking, but I'll ask it to you. Do you see any impeachable offenses that have been committed by Donald Trump?

ISIKOFF: Impeachment is in the eye of the beholder. It's a political matter. Congress will decide what it wants to impeach a president for. There's no real definition of high crimes and misdemeanors. So, you know, obviously a lot is going to depend on what Robert Mueller discloses through criminal cases.

Robert Mueller - I've known him for years. I've covered him for years. He only cares about one thing, and that is bringing indictments, going after bad guys, putting them in jail. I don't think he thinks about the politics of this at all. I don't think he's at all thought about the impeachment process. I think he's entirely, 100 percent focused on what indictments he could bring.

But look; if the Democrats get back control of the House in November - and it seems like they have a better than 50-50 chance right now of doing so - it's hard for me to see how Trump is not impeached. Now, assuming he is impeached, you know, the matter goes to the Senate. There's a trial. You need 67 votes in the Senate to convict and remove from office. That seems like an extremely tall order and unlikely at this point. But if we've learned anything, it's that it's impossible to predict how this matter's going to play out.

GROSS: David Corn, I'll ask you if you see any other criminal offenses or treasonous offenses that Donald Trump may be tried for.

CORN: I think any discussion of impeachment is quite premature at this point. I'm much more concerned with us getting the full story. I think it's quite sad what's happened to the congressional investigations. They - on the Senate side, they haven't had the same drama as the House side. But I fear that the investigation is not as thorough and extensive as it needs to be. And on the House side, it's really turned into a bit of a clown show, again, demonstrating that - and I hate to sound partisan, but - that the leaders of the investigation care more about protecting Donald Trump than they do telling the American public what truly happened.

And remember; Robert Mueller, the special counsel, as Mike says, has one job. That is to try to find, you know, cases that he can prosecute, indictments he can bring. It's not his job to find out everything that happened and give us the thousand-page report. He could choose to do that perhaps, but that's not his mission.

It is the mission of the congressional investigations to tell us everything they can and that we need to know about what happened with the attack from Russia and any interactions that Trump and his associates had with the people who were waging information war against the United States.

ISIKOFF: And I can't agree more about, you know, Congress's failure to do its job here and first and foremost, the fact that all the testimony they've been taking, all the witness interviews, they're all being done behind closed doors. We have not seen the witnesses stand up, take an oath, testify in public, subject themselves to questioning. And this is different than every other major congressional investigation of political scandals going back decades to Watergate, Iran-Contra, you name it. They were always done in full public view before the TV cameras so the public could be educated about what happened. That hasn't happened here. And that is deeply unfortunate.

CORN: And, Terry, you asked whether there was anything treasonous. Treason is often in the eye of the beholder. But I do think we have seen President Trump engage in a dereliction of duty by denying this attack even happened. It sort of makes it impossible for him and his administration to do what needs to be done, to tell us the truth and more importantly, to prevent it from happening again. During the campaign, his denials made it very difficult for Republicans, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan in particular, to join with the president, that was President Obama, to come up with a bipartisan response to this assault on American democracy.

In a lot of ways, you can say that Donald Trump aided and abetted the attack and afterwards, has almost engaged in, for his own purposes, some form of cover up that has prevented the government from coming up with a way to protect us from these sort of attacks in the future. I leave it to other people to decide whether that meets the definition of treason or not. But I do think it is an important matter that should be discussed without the histrionics that we see coming from Congress.

GROSS: Michael Isikoff, David Corn, thank you so much for reporting. Thank you for joining us on FRESH AIR.

CORN: Thank you.

ISIKOFF: Thank you.

GROSS: David Corn and Michael Isikoff are the authors of the new book "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." We recorded the interview yesterday morning. Later in the day, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee announced that they'd ended their investigation after concluding that Russia interfered in the election but finding no evidence of collusion, coordination or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The announcement was made without consulting the Democrats on the committee and without sharing with them the report.

Democrats had wanted to continue the investigation and say that all the evidence had not yet been gathered. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that Republicans on the committee had put partisan politics over fact-finding and it placed the interests of protecting the president over protecting the country.

After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a biography of Agatha Christie and a true crime book about a cold case. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO'S "CHARLIE M") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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