Glenn Greenwald on Sucker Journalists—and Why There’s No Silver Bullet Coming for Trump

Glenn Greenwald. Kaitlyn Flannagan for Observer

Glenn Greenwald brought The Guardian the biggest scoop of the Obama years when he reported on U.S. agencies collecting metadata on its citizens—turning whistleblower Edward Snowden into a household name, while defining the national conversation surrounding government surveillance. But in the Trump era, the national security wonk’s relationship with The Guardian is… tenuous, at best.

The Guardian’s happy to be used,” Greenwald told Observer during an interview at The Intercept’s New York offices. 

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After The Guardian published an uncorroborated report by Luke Harding and Dan Collyns alleging Paul Manafort met with Julian Assange at London’s Ecuadorian Embassy, Greenwald called out the reporters for failing to vet the information—accusing the publication on Twitter of behavior that “erodes trust in journalism and undermines the work of journalists everywhere.” From Greenwald’s perspective, it was indicative of a much more frightening trend in media: the reliance on government sources for scoops and information

“I think journalists ought to be aware that when you’re using intelligence [sources], there’s always a high risk you’re being deceived, lied to, propagandized or manipulated since that is what those agencies are designed to do,” explained Greenwald. “That’s clearly what happened here.”

The veteran investigator says he’s working on follow-up reporting intended to set the record straight. In the meantime, Greenwald appears content to snipe at his former colleagues, often over Twitter, while reveling in his role as edgelord of international politics.

“If you look at Luke Harding’s traffic metrics, they went through the roof,” Greenwald told Observer. “That’s an incentive scheme to continue to do shitty journalism.”

From its hawkish immigration crackdown, to its support of Saudi Arabia even after details of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder came to light, the Trump administration has mired itself in countless scandals that a younger Greenwald might have sought to expose. But the gadfly who now calls Brazil his home has reserved his powder for attacks on the Democratic Party and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, in a quest to draw “attention to things that were being overlooked.”

“Obviously the people who engage in money laundering and tax fraud and the like belong in prison, and I am happy Paul Manafort is there,” said Greenwald. But The Intercept founder says there are “tons” of Trump’s policies he agrees with, such as the president’s stance on Russia and NATO.

In a wide ranging discussion with Greenwald, he conceded that Trump raises legitimate questions “in a very sloppy, manipulative, deceitful way,” often times with “bad motives.” He is also deeply skeptical of the White House’s courtship of Arab Gulf States to form a new coalition in the Middle East against Iran. But Greenwald also maintained that there’s overlap in the “deep state” actors Trump decries on Twitter and those the reporter contended with when publishing the Snowden revelations. Like Saudi Arabia and Israel uniting against their mutual enemy Iran, Greenwald has found himself occasionally aligned with nationalists over U.S. intelligence agencies.

Our full conversation below.

Observer: The Luke Harding piece in The Guardian seems to be sourced by Ecuadorian intelligence—they admitted as much. What are some of the dangers of this kind of reporting?
Greenwald: In general, I think journalists ought to be aware that when you’re using intelligence agencies of governments, there’s always a high risk that you’re being deceived, lied to, propagandized or manipulated, since that is what those agencies are designed to do. That’s their function. Obviously, in the U.S., people learned that lesson really well through the terrible means that was the Iraq War—when they woke up and said, “Wait, the fact that government is feeding this information doesn’t mean it’s true.” So, in general, I think there ought to be huge skepticism, as a journalist, when someone from inside one of these agencies comes to you.

[The Guardian wasn’t] digging for it. They were approached with this report. There’s this internal warfare going on within the Ecuadorian government. The prior president Rafael Correa, who was sort of Julian Assange’s protector for all these years, has had an arrest warrant issued for him by the successor government of Lenín Moreno. He was the president for 12 years, so there are a lot of factions of the government loyal to him and then some that are hostile to him. Knowing that there are divisions within the Ecuadorian government over everything, certainly whether over Julian should stay in the embassy, when someone comes to you with that kind of written report that they won’t let you actually publish but only see—huge amounts of skepticism are warranted. They knew the explosive nature of that story. You say to them, “OK, you are the Ecuadorian government. Every person that comes in has videos and photographs taken of them. Where are the photographs of Manafort entering the embassy? If anyone has them, you do.” Either they didn’t ask for that, or they asked for that and got rebuffed in some way and then ran the story anyway. That, to me, is incredibly reckless.

What kind of motivation would Ecuadorian intelligence have to place something like this?
There are a lot of people who are really hostile to the fact that Julian is at the embassy and want him out. Trying to implicate him as much as possible in what people in the U.S. and the West generally regard as a really nefarious plot, which was to manipulate the 2016 elections in favor of Donald Trump, just intensifies the pressure. It makes him a much less sympathetic figure. I think the primary target was the Ecuadorian population because Lenín Moreno makes no secret of the fact that he wants to expel Julian. The problem is that if he would just expel him, he would look so weak, because Correa, for 12 years, was saying “fuck you” to the U.S., Spain and the UK, “we’re a sovereign country, we make our own decisions, we have the obligation to give him asylum.”

So if Moreno gets into office and immediately turns things around when everyone knows he’s being coerced, threatened and bribed, and kicks out Julian, he’s going to look pitiful. So they’re preparing the Ecuadorian government to think no, actually he deserves to be removed because he abused and exploited the asylum they gave him by, for example, interfering in the 2016 election to elect somebody that everybody hates, who is Donald Trump. I think that was the real goal, to turn the flames up on Julian’s expulsion. The Guardian’s happy to be used.

How vulnerable is the current hyper-competitive, page-view based news model to manipulation?
Number one, even if you publish something like a totally fake story, there are so many benefits to it and almost no consequences. Last year, The Washington Post—and this bothers me greatly to this day—published a story claiming the Russians had invaded electricity grids in Vermont, with the strong implication that they were doing so in order to deny Vermonters the ability to have heat in the winter. And it was a total bullshit story. Russia had not invaded the electrical grid of Vermont, and yet the Post got zillions of page views that count to their advertiser revenue. Their reporters went on cable. It spread all over the internet. The reporters that published got 30,000, 40,000 retweets, tons of new followers.

Three days later, they retracted the story fully, and now nobody even remembers who those reporters were. Did they get fired? Were there any professional repercussions? Same with The Guardian. So, if you look at the number of people who spread that, Luke Harding’s story, I think there are individual tweets spreading it that got 20,000 retweets, then the tweets raising questions or doubts got 100 or 200 retweets. So if you look at Luke Harding’s traffic metrics, they went through the roof. His name is out there. CNBC mentioned him, and then the fact that—I’m not gonna say it’s untrue because I cannot affirmatively disprove it—but the fact that there are huge holes in the story and major doubts raised about it produces no costs. That’s an incentive scheme to continue to do shitty journalism.

You have been critical about many of the narratives surrounding the Russia investigation. How do you think the media should cover it?
Skeptically, and only based upon actual evidence that they can verify. So, the fact that the CIA issues a report blaming Putin for having directly approved the DNC hack should be insufficient to convince journalists that that’s actually true, absent evidence accompanying those claims that can be independently verified. If someone says that WikiLeaks is an arm of Russian intelligence or that Trump and his campaign conspired with the Russians, there ought to be evidence that we can see that proves and substantiates that to be true. And until we have that, there should be skepticism applied to those claims.

Have the past several weeks changed your opinion on how much evidence there may be towards the question of Russian collusion, with regards to how many Trump advisers have lied to federal investigators and the Mueller filing?
I would say no. This collusion sits poorly with me, maybe because I was a lawyer before I was a journalist. It’s not really a word that has precise meaning and therefore has been used in an elastic way to mean whatever the wielder of it wants it to mean. To me, as a lawyer, if you think about why Robert Mueller was appointed, it’s because there were potential crimes committed during the 2016 elections. Thus far, he has indicted no American for any crimes in connection with the election. He’s indicted Russians for crimes in connection with the election, and he has indicted Americans for lying during the investigation, or over unrelated crimes like Manafort and his tax evasion and money laundering schemes, unrelated to the election. So, nothing in the past two weeks, or even in the past year, has changed my mind on whether there was criminality as part of the Trump campaign, and the 2016 election, and the Russians.

On the question of whether the Russians are behind the hacks, I think the officials provided a lot of detail about who did it and how they know. Even though there are no underlying documents, you have to essentially believe that Mueller invented it or fabricated it, which I do not think is likely. I do regard the Mueller indictment as some evidence, not conclusive, but at least some evidence finally that the Russians are involved, but that doesn’t say the extent to which Putin was involved, let alone the extent to which Trump officials are criminally implicated.

You told the Huffington Post that Trump is linked to Russian organized crime, Russian banks and money laundering. How might that be different from actual collusion with Russia?
When you get into the Michael Cohen tax money, the fact that Trump was trying to develop a Trump Tower in Moscow was to me the most unsurprising thing in the world. Why wouldn’t he? That’s his business. Russia is a big, important country with a lot of rich people, which is where Trump gravitates to, and always has. Trump long ago lost the ability to borrow from traditional banks because he has no credit with anybody because of how many times he’s gone bankrupt and squelched on his obligations, so he’s always turned to sketchier and darker sources of financing. And Russian financing would be an obvious place that you would look, if you were Trump, to finance your operations.

Trump dispatches lawyers with people close to Putin and connection with real estate—that’s stuff I’ve always believed to be true. Just to answer your other question, why people lie during investigations. Bill Clinton lied about having sex with Monica Lewinsky, under oath. Why did he do that? It was no crime to have sex with Monica Lewinsky; it was because it was politically embarrassing, so he lied to cover it up. I think in the climate that got created after the 2016 election, where all these accusations were being circulated, it became politically uncomfortable to admit you knew Russians or talked to them. Knowing the political implications, people like Michael Flynn denied talking to Russian officials. Others minimize their interactions with the Russians, which to me isn’t proof of a crime any more than Bill Clinton was trying to cover up a crime with Monica Lewinsky. They were just attempting to hide something politically damaging.

Where do you see this investigation going?
I think we’re close to the end. I wrote an article in February 2017 saying, it was actually a time that a bunch of Democrats from the National Security world, it was when Rachel Maddow was going on air every night strongly implying that Robert Mueller was coming to drag Trump out of the Oval Office in handcuffs any moment now, stop expecting a silver bullet coming for Trump. It does not exist. And I have always thought, if there were conversations, given how much scrutiny they were under, with Trump or Jared Kushner or Trump Jr. or Roger Stone talking to actual Kremlin officials planning to do the hack, this would have leaked a long time ago. Like, if there’s a picture of Manafort entering the embassy to visit Julian, that would have leaked a long time ago, which is why I do not believe it exists. In that article, I said there’s probably going to be some low level hangers-on in the Trump world, I mentioned Carter Page as an illustrious example, indicted for acting as a Russian agent for collusion or conspiracy along with Manafort for unrelated financial crimes, unrelated to the 2016 election. I don’t know what Mueller’s doing, but it seems to me they’re going to catch a few more low-level people like Roger Stone or Jerome Corsi. But there’s no real signs yet, no evidence of criminality. That’s why Mueller was appointed.  

Why does it seem sometimes you’re more focused on attacking the DNC than the actual people in charge of the show right now?
You go back and look at how I began writing about politics. It was always from the perspective: there are things that aren’t sufficiently talked about by large media outlets that deserve attention. I always saw it as my role to draw attention to things that were being overlooked and have a big enough platform to justify echoing what CNN and The New York Times were already saying. I don’t see the point in doing that. Obviously, the people who engage in money laundering and tax fraud belong in prison, and I am happy Paul Manafort is there. But every major media outlet in our country, every single day, is talking about these things. Why do I need to echo and copy and recite from the same script? What good does that do, except signal people I’m on the good side? I don’t see any value in journalism that does that.

You’ve said that there is an emerging alliance between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Russia, Trump and the alt-right movement generally. Could you expand on that?
When I use alt-right, again it’s kind of like collusion, it means whatever people want it to mean. I use it to distinguish between classic or neo conservatism, Bush-era conservatism or Reagan-era conservatism. This modernized right of Donald Trump, those who identify with parts of the alt-right, but have a lot of doctrinal divergence. That’s what I mean by alt-right. I put Trump in that category. He ran against a lot of Republican orthodoxies, like the Iraq War and free trade.

One of the most under-covered stories on foreign policy has been the movement of Israel to form an alliance with countries that until very recently did not recognize its existence, namely Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States—united principally but not exclusively to camp out their common enemy, which is Iran. Obviously, Trump loves those Gulf State monarchs. He even said that. “Why would I hate Arabs? I love Arabs. They buy my 15 million dollar apartments.” And there are a lot of people in the Trump administration closely allied with Israel who are forming this new movement. I also was using alt-right because, we just had a meeting about Brazil and their president, Jair Bolsonaro, modeled after Trump, who is fanatically pro-Israel. There is an irony, these far-right movements in Europe, who brought about the Holocaust 70 years ago, are very pro-Israel, because they’re united in their animosity toward Muslims. You see this realignment taking place. Gulf state tyrannies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Israel, the U.S. getting into bed with all of them, and then kind of the far-right movements of Europe as well, which Russia supports.  

Has Trump set any policies during his term that you have found yourself agreeing with?
Yeah, tons. I think his general impulse that the U.S. and Russia should make strides to reduce tension rather than escalate them. Why should we arm the Ukrainians and involve ourselves in a region of direct national security interest to Russia and risk escalation with Russia, a nuclear armed power, in order to defend Ukraine, which we have kind of a direct interest in? I think it’s entirely legitimate to question what the going value of NATO is, an alliance constructed around an ideology that basically no longer exists, or an alliance that no longer exists, the Warsaw Pact. I think asking about these internationalized institutions like the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, TPP, who they’re benefitting, and serving the interest of the people who [Trump’s] supposed to be representing, not the transnational oligarchical elite, but the everyday citizen. The problem is that Trump often raises legitimate questions in a very sloppy, manipulative, deceitful way with bad motives, but the views themselves are often very valid ones.

Have you personally ever felt threatened by intelligence agencies in a way that would create more skepticism?
When I was doing the Snowden work for the first year, they were verbally, explicitly threatening me in public—but also a lot more in private—with arrest, and saying that if I left Brazil there was a good chance they would try to apprehend me. There were never any charges filed; I think they were just trying to put me in a state of fear in order to deter me. If there was a document that was particularly sensitive, and I was weighing whether to publish it, they wanted that fear to militate in favor of not publishing. I dealt with those organizations a lot. And I’ve been lied to a lot, in trying to convince us to publish things—about what the implications were. What the meaning of those documents were that we discovered was false, when they didn’t know what we had. They made claims that the documents I was holding in my hand were utter lies. So I was already a big skeptic of those agencies, being threatened as a journalist with prison, being lied to right to your face many, many times definitely increases your skepticism.

One final question: Has anyone from the special counsel’s office ever reached out to you?
No, never. The only conceivable interest they would have is conversations I have had with WikiLeaks, but I have never had an inquiry of any kind.

Glenn Greenwald on Sucker Journalists—and Why There’s No Silver Bullet Coming for Trump