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Interview: Pulitzer-Winning Reporter Greg Miller On Mueller, Russia, Trump, And Returning To UC Davis

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Journalist Greg Miller is a national security correspondent with The Washington Post.

Courtesy

This country’s wait for Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings from his investigation of the Trump administration and presidential campaign — otherwise known as “The Mueller Reporter” — continues this week. But journalist Greg Miller with The Washington Post says the guessing game over when it will drop and what it could include might soon be over.

“To be honest, sometimes I feel like throwing up my hands, because we've been guessing at this so much for so long,” Miller said of the protracted investigation — Mueller was appointed in May of 2017 — during a recent interview with CapRadio.

A national security correspondent for the Post, Miller and fellow reporters won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for their work reporting on Russia's interference in the 2016 election. He and colleagues also won a Pulitzer in 2014 for coverage of Edward Snowden's revelations about U.S. surveillance programs.

Miller is also author of a new book, titled "The Apprentice: Trump, Russia, and the Subversion of American Democracy," which he will discuss during an appearance at the Mondavi Center on the UC Davis campus Tuesday, March 19.

The Northern California native, who attended UC Davis as an undergraduate, spoke to CapRadio senior editor of news Nick Miller this week about the special counsel’s long-awaited report (it could drop “any day”), plus Russian troll farms, the Post’s Super Bowl ad, and how it will feel returning to the area.

I want to discuss expectations for the Mueller report, and I'm going to assume this is something you're increasingly questioned about — by colleagues, by friends, by everyone — as the country anticipates its completion.

How do you respond when people ask you about the report: What you're expecting, when it might drop, how its publication might play out?

To be honest, sometimes I feel like throwing up my hands, because we've been guessing at this so much for so long. And Mueller has kept everything so secret in his operation that a lot of what we have heard in the public amounts to guesswork, and much of it has been wrong.

That said, I think that it's pretty clear that he is all but finished with this report, and perhaps in position to transmit it to the Justice Department any day. And that, when you look at what his indictments that he has shown the public over the past year look like, I think that we can expect a comprehensive document that will be devastating for the president.

I don't know whether Robert Mueller has found smoking-gun evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia, but I do think it's not going to be a happy day for the president when the public sees this.

Your new book, "The Apprentice," is very much a window into key developments preceding the Mueller's report's completion. When you reflect back on your past few years of reporting, is there a moment that you figure will be key or central to the report's focus?

Well I think there's a couple, right? So, of course, the meeting in Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer who arrived offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, and the Trump team's absolute interest and eagerness that they demonstrated in that moment for that material, even if they ended up being disappointed with it in the end. So, some of the questions that remain unanswered are, well, did Trump himself know about that meeting, either before it happened or immediately afterward. What was his connection to that?

Also … during 2016, while Trump is running for president, we now know that he's also simultaneously pursuing a business deal in Russia. He's trying to build a Trump Tower Moscow. I mean, there's a lot of questions that are still out there about his efforts, his involvement, his awareness — of all of those conversations with the Kremlin at a time when he was denying that he had anything to do with Russia.

But I also feel like the obstruction issue may end up being the bigger and more important issue in this report, or whatever we learn next from Mueller. It there isn't evidence of a smoking-gun connection between Trump and Russia, then there’s the extent to which the president tried to impede this investigation. The extent to which he has attacked it, just repeatedly over the past year, are things that we've never seen from a president and are potentially criminal in and of themselves. So, I feel like that is an area of the report that I am extremely interested in seeing.

Your book is a clear-headed, compelling narrative that shows how, and explains why, Russia not only interfered in the election, but also worked against Hillary Clinton and for the benefit of Donald Trump. The book begins with Russia's hacking of the Democratic National Committee — and how it took nearly a year for DNC officials to realize that their networks and emails had been compromised. It's wild that it took this long, but part of your piecing the puzzle together looks at these so-called “troll farms,” and organizations like the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg.

We're entering the 2020 campaign already, candidates are announcing, and it's going to be full-on campaign mode this summer. I'm hoping you can talk a little bit about what happened at the DNC, what these foreign companies do, and whether this is something Americans need to be concerned about for the 2020 election.

I think the answer to the last question is absolutely. In fact, I think this is something Americans are going to have to be concerned about in almost every election we experience for the rest of our lives.

We're so dependent and so enmeshed in social media, and because we're a democratic society — we're such an open society — I think this is a vulnerability for the United States for the long term.

These companies like Facebook and Twitter can do a lot of things to try to rid their platforms of this content, but they're never going to be able to completely get rid of it. And so, we as citizens are going to have to get a lot smarter about social media, and the information we consume online, and learning how to identify stuff that's fake, stuff that's conspiracy, stuff that's coming from another country. And we're a long ways from that.

I'm super happy to hear the way you talk about the book, because it does cover a lot of ground. As a reporter at The Post, covering this story, covering it in real time — Russian interference in 2016 and the aftermath and the Trump administration — it was nearly impossible at times for me to get my head around it, because it was so complicated and so sprawling. And one of the main purposes of writing this book was to try to put it all together in a way that would make sense to people, because I think it's just a super important moment in our history, a super important time, and we do need to understand. And hopefully I've laid it out in a way where people can read it, and read it from beginning-to-end, and have a much clearer sense of what we're up against.

And you're right, there are moments in here that are just maddening. I kind of feel like, when I was writing about the DNC and its inability to figure out that it's networks had been compromised and penetrated, it's like one of those movies you see, where there's a villain looming in the background and the protagonist can't turn around in time or see it coming. You just want to scream at the screen the whole time, and that's how you end up feeling during a lot of moments in this Trump-Russia story.

One of the more remarkable moments in your book is the section on Michael Flynn. You've discussed this in other interviews, notably your chat with Terry Gross of Fresh Air, but I want to ask not only about that story, but also specifically about discussions in your newsroom: about “dialing in” the facts when you're working on these stories, getting the story right, and the premium that's placed on locking a story in, especially given the intense criticism and scrutiny of the press right now.

We are under attack. I don't think that's too strong a word for it.

Day after day after day, the president calls us the enemy of the people. Labels a lot of what we do fake news. A lot of Trump supporters now do the same. We feel like there's been a pressure on us to figure out ways to be more transparent with our readers and the public. And one of the things I tried to do in the book is take people inside The Washington Post newsroom and write about scenes that unfolded here that I was directly involved in when we were covering these stories.

And one of them had to do with Mike Flynn, the national security adviser at the beginning of the Trump administration. And I write about our efforts to report out the tips that we had: that he in fact had spoken to the Russian ambassador about lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia, even though he was denying it; even though Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, was denying; even though Vice President [Mike] Pence was publicly denying that he had done so. And I write about the reporting steps we took.

But I also write about the meetings that we had to have, at the last minute right before we were going to go to print, when Flynn denied that — once again, face-to-face with our reporters — this is not true, you're wrong, you're wrong. It made us pause, right? I mean, we have to get things right. The fate of the post depends on our accuracy.

And so, you'd never step forward with a story of that magnitude without being absolutely certain of your sourcing. There was a time there where we held the story for a night just so we could regroup, make sure we had everything in order. And then, when we published it the next day, immediately everything crumbled for Flynn. He actually had changed his story, from denying that he had talked sanctions to saying he couldn't recall whether he had. And now, of course, it's clear that he had. He's since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about that same conversation.

The Washington Post aired a commercial during this year's Super Bowl extolling the importance of a free press. And the ad debuted at a time when there are these attacks on journalism, including by the president — and the president has, as you wrote in your book, even put your work in the crosshairs. You'll be at UC Davis on Tuesday and invariably there will be young, aspiring journalists in the audience. What do you tell them about the future of journalism and a free press, and pursuing that career, when they see people in their communities — and even the president — disparaging the profession?

I want to show people that Super Bowl ad, but I also want to show people the reaction that I got from people that I grew up with in Northern California, who are Trump supporters — who know me, have known me my entire life, but are now extremely skeptical of the work I do just because of the political climate that we're in, and the hostility toward the news organizations that is kind of endemic now. And I want to talk to people about that, and how I try to go about confronting that.

I meet with a lot of young people who are interested in careers in this business. I teach a class at Georgetown University. I'm in the moment trying to help one of my students get an internship at The Sacramento Bee. And I tell them the paths into this profession have changed wholesale since I started. It's much harder to make your way up from regional papers to big city papers and into big national papers. But on the other hand, technology has opened up a whole new collection of doors for people to get into news organizations.

When I come to the Post every day, I'm surrounded by young people who have digital skills that I don't have and never could develop. They're these are people who are native on social media, who understand these platforms in ways that that people in my generation never will. So, there's been a proliferation, and kind of a renaissance, in how we do storytelling in journalism, even if the traditional opportunities are harder to come by.

You were a student at UC Davis before attending Stanford for grad school, and I'm curious to hear a little bit more about your thoughts on returning to campus, and maybe a window into what you might be discussing on Tuesday.

I'm super excited to come back to UC Davis. My family is kind of a UC Davis family. I also have two sisters who went to UC Davis. I come back to Northern California as often as I can. I love Sacramento. I miss Northern California. I've lived in Washington for way too long now, and I'm constantly thinking, “Is there some way I can pack back home someday?” Because I do still feel like a Californian.

Davis is a special place, and it's become more special to me in time. As I look back on it, it's just so unique and it's such a great university, and yet with a college-town feel. It's really unique in California.

What I'm hoping to talk to some of the students about who come on Tuesday is just how much we need them, and how what they're learning — and what they're doing and studying and taking on at UC Davis — is great preparation for careers in any direction. I've seen a lot of the world now. I work. I went to Stanford. I teach at Georgetown. I travel extensively. And my path in this profession began at UC Davis with one professor who took me under his wing in the economics department, and and helped me feel like I could do something special. I should give him a little shout out here, his name is Phil Martin. He's retired now, but I stay in touch with him.

We all can make these connections from from campuses everywhere, and those of us who went to Davis I think should feel lucky.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Greg Miller of The Washington Post will speak on Tuesday, March 19, at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center. Learn more or purchase tickets at MondaviArts.org.

Nick Miller

Senior Editor, News & Features

Nick Miller is an award-winning editor with more than 15 years of newsroom experience. Previously he was editor-in-chief of the East Bay Express in Oakland, and worked as an editor for 12 years at the Sacramento News & Review.  Read Full Bio 

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