TRANSCRIPT: Hillary Clinton's ex-campaign chairman John Podesta's interview on ABC News' 'The Investigation' podcast

Transcript of John Podesta's interview as it appears in episode 3 of the podcast

ByABC News
February 26, 2019, 3:05 AM

Hillary Clinton's former campaign chairman John Podesta sat down for a wide-ranging interview for the third episode of “The Investigation," a new ABC News podcast focused on the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller. A transcript of Podesta’s interview as it appears in episode three of the podcast follows here:

ABC NEWS' CHRIS VLASTO: Welcome to The Investigation. Kyra is off on assignment. I am Chris Vlasto. Glad to have my friend and White House correspondent, Cecilia Vega here by my side.


VLASTO: And also, We are glad to have John Podesta here. And what's interesting-- our second guest was Lanny Davis. And Lanny and I had a long history 25 years ago. And now, John Podesta is here--

VEGA: John's already laughing. (LAUGHTER)

VLASTO: I-- he's already laughing because actually, I-- I tell everyone is that--

JOHN PODESTA: All my hatred for Chris was transposed through Lanny.

VLASTO: Yeah, through Lanny. (LAUGHTER) But what was funny is, all the same characters from 25 years ago just never leave. They're all here again on the Trump side--

VEGA: Washington, baby. (LAUGH)

VLASTO: --and-- and-- but-- but it's an amazing-- John-- the one question, before Cecelia talks about you-- because I knew you when you were a chief of staff in the White House and a senior advisor to Clinton for all those years. And it was a battle between the White House -- even the reporters and Congress back then. Now, I look at this Trump White House-- I said last week that this is, like, on steroids. But I think the big difference is President Clinton had advisors do it. Like, you know-- the attacks or leaks or et cetera. This President does it all himself. And-- and-- is that the crazy thing?

PODESTA: Well, I don't think-- any of us ever described the media as the enemies of the people or incited violence against the media at the rallies. Look, we had a contentious relationship during those days. But I think we handled it fairly and tried to be on a level. And I think one of the things that Lanny was known for was always advising-- just get the story out. And I think that's what we were trying to do. But it was-- you know, it was-- it was a heated political battle and a battle, I think, really for control of politics in the country. And that's what Clinton's impeachment was all about. You know, our strategy was to kinda isolate the investigations-- and the look by the media in-- in-- you know, beginning with Whitewater. But then-- you know, ultimately-- with the Lewinsky-- matter-- to isolate it from the business of government, from the-- what the press secretary was doing at the podium, to concentrate on-- trying to get the job done for the American people. In some-- level, I think what President Trump does is to drag it back into the White House, make it everyone's busy-- busy-- business in the White House. It makes it, I think, a lot harder for people to do their jobs. I think we found a way to have a team that was in the White House counsel's office that dealt with it every day. You know, my job was really to enforce that and to make sure that people kept their nose to the grindstone. And I think one of the reasons that the American public stuck with-- President Clinton-- and his job approval rating during-- even during impeachment was in the 60s, was 'cause they-- they got the fact that he was trying to do the work of the people. And I think with Trump, the reason he stays in the 40s, notwithstanding the strong economy that he inherited and has-- and has lived with-- is that he can't get away from the combat-- that is at the heart of these investigations.

VEGA: Well, let me just formally introduce you and give our listeners a little bit of your background so they know where you're coming from here. You just mentioned it-- the-- served as the White House chief of staff to President Clinton, counselor to President Obama. You are currently the founder and director for the Center of American Progress. We know each other-- in my past life covering the Hillary Clinton campaign, where you were the campaign chairman. At the risk of sending you into a fit of P.T.S.D., let me play a sound for you from President Trump-- July 2016 at an event in Florida. And we'll talk to you about it on the back end.SOT: “If it is Russia – which it’s probably not, nobody knows who it is – but if it is Russia, it’s really bad for a different reason, because it shows how little respect they have for our country when they would hack into a major party and get everything. But it would be interesting to see, I will tell you this: Russia if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30-thousand emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.”

VEGA: Okay.

PODESTA: I was shocked to hear him say that--

VLASTO: Or were you more like--

PODESTA: --in particular.

VLASTO: --what the hell is he talking about? Or no?

PODESTA: No, because at that point we knew that the Russians had-- engaged in interference. They had hacked the DNC-- later learned that they had also hacked my personal e-mail. But we knew that they were actively interfering in the election. And we knew-- and we were making the argument, the press was skeptical at that point that the reason they were doing it was because they had someone they couldn't have probably imagined being the nominee of a major party in this country. And couldn't have imagined a senior political figure taking, in essence, their side of all the foreign policy disputes from Ukraine to Europe to NATO to Syria. You had someone who rejected the bipartisan views about the way the U.S. pro-- should proceed with respect to viewing Russia as a competitor and instead kind of essentially embracing Putin's foreign policy.

VEGA: I gotta ask you what it's like behind the scenes though. You know Hillary Clinton better than anybody. Is she coming to you, going, "How in the hell have you guys not gotten this on to the front pages yet? Are you screwing this up?" Why are they not taking you seriously, what's happening?

PODESTA: I think she was very frustrated by it. You know, and I think that it wasn't for lack of trying. (LAUGH) I think we were both pushing the argument that Russia was in fact interfering on his behalf. And we were on television. I did, you know, probably every Sunday show making this argument. You know, people were-- were actually surprised at how far we were going. Now in retrospect, everything we were saying turns out to be true.

VEGA: By people--


VEGA: Do you mean the Obama administration?

PODESTA: No, I'm talking about people in the-- in the press corps.

VLASTO: Do you think the Obama administration dropped the ball?

PODESTA: Look, I think they coulda been-- you know, they finally-- in-- it took them till October 7th. And on October 7th, they finally came out and issued a statement that came out from-- from the Director of National Intelligence and from the Secretary of Homeland security, Jay Johnson that said that Russia was-- in fact, interfering in the election. That was the same day they started dropping the e-mails that-- that they had hacked from me, by the way, from WikiLeaks.

VEGA: And we're, like, four weeks out from the campaign-- from the election--

PODESTA: We're four weeks out from the--

VEGA: --day, at this point?

PODESTA: from-- from the election.

PODESTA: But, you know, it was-- it was extremely frustrating to us. I think that it showed something that I'm still not sure and particularly given the people who now are in charge of the government. And I've, you know, talking to both the House and Senate Intelligence Committee about when you receive information through classified channels, sometimes you're uncertain about how much you can tell the American public about what you know. Obviously-- John Brennan, Jim Clapper, Jim Comey-- knew more than they were saying. And notwithstanding-- you know, again, this is a grudge I bear, I guess. (LAUGH) Notwithstanding, Mr. Comey's willingness to talk publicly and break precedent and break policy of the Justice Department about Hillary Clinton and her e-mails, they were unwilling to basically confirm what they knew. And I think that you know, so I think the-- do I think the press should have taken this more seriously and done more during the election? Yes, I do. Do I think that, to some extent they would have done more had the administration been more forthcoming? That's probably true too. You know, the most important thing is have we learned anything?

VLASTO: Right.

PODESTA: And, you know, the Russians are getting ready to fix-- you know, (LAUGH) getting ready to do this again.

VLASTO: Andrew McCabe said in an interview, I don't know if it's in his book, but he definitely said it in an interview yesterday, that he actually could entertain the notion that Donald Trump, I think could be a covert-- did he say--

VEGA: Yeah.

VLASTO: --covert agent?

VEGA: Asset of Russia.

VLASTO: I mean, that is-- an enormous allegation. That is-- that-- what's your-- when you heard that, what do you think?

PODESTA: Well, look, I think-- (LAUGH) look at his course of conduct. You know, I always felt like the hooks into Trump were more on the financial side. And I think it's interesting, because I think that Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has felt like that may be an issue that was left unexplored by the Mueller Investigation. And they seem to be interested in-- in pursuing that. And you know, they were always trying to do business on that side. But obviously Trump has somethin' about Vladimir Putin. I don't think it's just that he admires-- authoritarians, although that seems to be true too. That he was always excusing Putin's conduct. He always had some affinity for Russia, where that came from whether, you know, it was from kompromot, whether it was from the financial connections, whether it was from-- some other, you know-- relationship that he had with cut-outs for Russia. They seemed to be perfectly happy to do-- to encourage the Russians to interfere in our democratic process. And in the end of the day, they were rewarded for it because Donald Trump sits in the-- sits in the Oval Office today.

VEGA: But I can see a lot of people listening to this right now, wringing their hands at what they're saying. And not to re-litigate 2016, because you-- we've already all done that. But are you-- do you really think that Hillary Clinton lost the election because of Russia and not because of her candidacy in the way she campaigned?

PODESTA: Look, I think that it was a tough campaign. And she bears some responsibility, the campaign bears responsibility for that. On the other hand, she got, you know, more votes than anybody ever running for President, except for Barack Obama in 2008, and she got three million more votes than-- than Donald Trump did. So, I think that we were unable to convince people whose economic fortunes had stalled or gone down particularly that group of people in the upper Midwest, who had seen their-- who had put some hope in the Obama Presidency but had not seen their economic-- you know, fortunes improve. We were unable to convince them that she was gonna be able to do things differently. And we paid a serious price for that. So yeah, it's the campaign's fault, maybe it's her fault. But I think that you know, Trump was-- un-- in his own way, he was an effective candidate, both in the primaries and in the general election breeding hate and division. Do I think the Russians were the cause? You know, I think when you lose by those few votes and those three states you know, everything counts. If I had to put one my finger on one thing that I think was-- really turned the election right at the end, it was it was really more Jim Comey's statements that he had reopened the e-mail investigation. That's when we really saw the race tighten again. And in the end of the day, I think that probably did us in at the very end.

VEGA: Let's fast forward to 2019. Roger Stone. You wrote in an op-ed recently, "Despite my Italian roots, vengeance doesn't run deep (LAUGH) in my veins. But I admit, I smiled when Roger Stone's arrest was announced." What do you wanna happen-- see happen to Roger Stone?

PODESTA: Well, I think Roger Stone's on his way to prison, quite frankly. (LAUGH) I think that, I think the prosecutors have made a prima facie case for certainly against him. But I think he in the end of the day, he can he can strut and he can, you know, do his Nixon impressions. But, you know, maybe when the when the cell door clanks, he'll feel a little bit more remorse.

VLASTO: Do you think he knew about your hack beforehand?

PODESTA: Do I personally think that? Yes, I do. You know, there are excuses that they've come up with, both he and Mr. Corsi, who he asked to come up with some cover for it. Don't, you know, they fall apart when you actually look at the facts. So you know, he claims he didn't. I think there's every indication that he probably did. But, you know, I think that's a question that will get settled in the course of a trial. And in this context, I don't think it really matters because I think whatever he knew or didn't know he gave false, both gave false statements to the House Judiciary Committee and then tried to and then tried to cover it up if you read the indictment.

VLASTO: But don't you think Mueller should have charged him for that? I mean, everything Mueller's doing is charging people for lying. But he's not charging them--

PODESTA: That's-- I'll tell you something though, Chris?

VLASTO: No, no, no--


VLASTO: --but you know what I mean.

PODESTA: Yeah, that-- (LAUGH)

VLASTO: In the sense of--

PODESTA: He is well, you know, when you're national security advisor, your campaign chairman, your deputy campaign chairman, (LAUGH) your longest political associate--

VLASTO: Okay, you got me.

PODESTA: And your-- (LAUGH) and—your longtime personal counsel are all charged with lying, it should tell you something about the culture that Donald Trump has built around himself.

VLASTO: I hear you on that. But you understand my point is if he colluded, if he knew about your hack before.


VLASTO: That's a big, big deal. That's you know, conspiracy to I think--


VLASTO: --fraud the election?

PODESTA: I mean, I think-- you know, Donald Trump says, "No collusion, no collusion, no collusion." When you step back and you look at the 101 contacts, the 28 meetings, the, you know, particularly the meeting in Trump Tower in-- in June, Donald Jr. saying and setting up that meeting and saying, you know, that this is great. I don't think there's any real question that people could conclude that there was no collusion. The question does it rise to a criminal conspiracy. And that's something that only Mr. Mueller knows or I think it his job, in the end of the day is to render a judgment about that. There's reporting that his investigation is about to wrap up, at least his phase of the investigation. These cases will go on and proceed. The Southern District of New York case, which involves Mr. Cohen and others will go on. The case involving what happened at the inauguration and the Inauguration Committee will go on. But, you know, Mr. Mueller will wrap that up. We don't know what he's gonna say.

VEGA: But what if he doesn't say--

PODESTA: You know, we don't--

VEGA: What if there's no smoking gun? What if there's no massive conclusion of a cover-up, of a conspiracy, of obstruction? Does the American public turn a page and move on? Would you, would the Democrats--

PODESTA: Well, I think the--

VEGA: --be willing to--

PODESTA: --I think the--

VEGA: --walk away from this?

PODESTA: You know, I think there are again, there are other investigations that are ongoing that could-- that I think are almost certain to prove troublesome for the administration. I don't think people are ready to say that this report to the Attorney General is the last word. Because there are trials that are gonna continue to go on. There could be more indictments coming, we don't know. (LAUGH) He could say, "It's Justice Department policy that I can't indict a sitting President." If he basically says, "Look, we ran this to ground and while there's a lot of, you know, inappropriate conduct-- conduct unbecoming a President of the United States, but we can't make a conspiracy case." You know, I think then the American public is gonna have to decide whether Donald Trump was fit temperamentally fit and whether he's the President they want or whether they are gonna vote him out of office. But I think, one way or the other we oughta know what Mr. Mueller says to the Attorney General. There's been a lotta confusion about what the attorney general intends to do with the report. He-- Mr. Mueller's obligation is only to issue a report saying, "Why did we indict the people we did and why did we decline prosecuting-- others." And I think there's no question that Mr. Barr is gonna have to cough that up to the Hill.

VEGA: You were interviewed by the special counsel.


VEGA: Based on your interaction with his investigators, do you expect, can we expect any big surprises out of the report?

PODESTA: I won't speculate 'cause I have no idea what he's gonna do. I know that when I was interviewed even at that moment, I wasn't, they didn't put their thumb on the scale one way or the other. They asked me factual questions and I gave them the best-- to the best of my knowledge answers to those questions. So I couldn't tell which way they were going. And I suspect most of the people who have interacted with his team who are professional prosecutors don't know either. So we'll just have to wait and see. But I think again, I think I have to say that and I've seen a bunch of different special counsels (LAUGH) and independent--


PODESTA: --counsels in my years, particularly during the, during my years with President Clinton, handle things in different ways. And I think you have to give it to Mr. Mueller, that he's been extremely professional.

VLASTO: You know, could-- Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen. Do you think that's an impeachable offense?

PODESTA: Well, I think there's two questions, is it a crime and is it an impeachable offense. So it's seems to me like the-- that to the extent that there was a conspiracy to violate the campaign finance laws, which Mr. Cohen got ensnared in and in the end of the day, pled guilty to, there was more conspirators, including the President, who directed him to do it. Whether it's an impeachable offense is a question I think that members of the House of Representatives need to consider. Does it rise to the level of-- high crimes and misdemeanors that requires the removal from office? And will the public accept that? And I think that there are a lot of people who think that just that crime itself should. My guess is that the committee and the House will demand more. I think that if you're thinking about the things that the President has done as President, his continuous interference in this election seems to be of a nature that's even more important and should at least require the inquiry by the House Judiciary Committee as to whether Trump was in fact obstructing justice or at least attempting to obstruct justice. And I think they will view that in a way as a more serious crime because he was doing it as President of the United States.

VEGA: So assume Mueller concludes, any minute really it could happen, now Barr has to decide how much of this report to make public. How much should he make public?

PODESTA: Congress needs to see the whole thing. The country is driven apart by this. I think one of the only ways for people to feel like this is fair, it's on the level, is for the Congress to have access to it. And the public should see everything that doesn't need to remain classified.

VEGA: Hypothetically though, do you think you would actually be saying this if this was your guy in office?

PODESTA: I think that I lived through it with my guy in office, right? I don't think the--


PODESTA: Republicans--

VLASTO: The Starr report was all over the place.

PODESTA: I think the Republicans didn't hesitate, without reading the Starr report--to put it on the internet. And I think, you know, the-- we lived with the consequences of that. I think the only way to reassure both sides of the political spectrum is for the public to get to see what the product of Mr. Mueller's investigation. Look, it might not help us. Maybe he'll say, you know, whatever. You know, there was a lotta shenanigans, but none of it rises to the level of a crime or of criminal intent.

VLASTO: About shenanigans. I mean, do you regret as the campaign chairman of Hillary Clinton hiring, like, Glenn Simpson and Chris Steele to go off and who knows who Chris Steele was talking to in Russia. I mean, is that a regret?

PODESTA: I think it's worth saying for the record this occurred without the direct knowledge of the campaign but through our campaign counsel, who was-- had the responsibility, our outside counsel, had the responsibility of doing oppo research, they hired Fusion. I do think it's quite different to try to you know, this began as an effort to unravel Trump's business dealings with Russia. Mr. Steele was a professional, someone that the F.B.I. in other cases relied on. He had come out of British intelligence and was viewed as having good contacts. So, no I don't think it's the same as soliciting information from the Russian government, which was committing crimes to obtain that information. You know, we forget sometimes that those hacks were themselves crimes and that, you know, I found myself on the receiving end of that and being a victim of a crime. And there-- and those are serious crimes that the Russian government was committing.

VEGA: Do you have a sense of how close Hillary Clinton is following all of these-- the iterations in this investigation?

PODESTA: Look, I think she's trying to move on as best she can. I'm sure she's, you know, I'm sure she's following them with interest. And I think, you know, it's hard to get over a loss like this.

VEGA: Final question to go full circle. Is she gonna run again?

PODESTA: No. You know, I think she woulda made a great president. I thought that from the first day I signed on to the campaign and on election night, when we knew it wasn't to be. But I think she has said that she doesn't intend to run again. And I don't-- and I take her at her word. And I think, you know, the country loses for that, 'cause she woulda been a fabulous president.

VEGA: John Podesta, thank you for being here.

VLASTO: Thank you very much, John.


"The Investigation" is a podcast series offering an in-depth look at special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, analyzing the potential fallout and political consequences. Hosted by ABC News correspondent Kyra Phillips and the ABC News investigative team, led by Senior Executive Producer Chris Vlasto. "The Investigation" is available for free on Apple Podcasts (via iPhone), Google Podcasts (via Android), Spotify (via smartphone and desktop), Stitcher (via smartphone and desktop), TuneIn (via smartphone and desktop), the ABC News app (via your smartphone) or your favorite podcast player.

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