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In 2018, I became famous or notorious depending on your point of view for writing a story assuming Russia had secret power over Trump (which turned out to be correct). The most controversial suggestion in history was that it was plausible, though uncertain, that Russia’s influence over Trump could even date back to 1987.
Here is what I wrote in this controversial section:
During the Soviet era, Russian intelligence services cast a wide net to gain influence over influential figures abroad. (The practice continues to this day.) Russians would attract or trap not only prominent politicians and cultural leaders, but also people they saw as having the potential to rise in prominence in the future. In 1986, Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubinin met Trump in New York City, flattered him with praise for his building exploits, and invited him to discuss a building in Moscow. Trump visited Moscow in July 1987. He stayed at the National Hotel, in the Lenin Suite, which would certainly have been bugged. There isn’t much else on the public record to describe his visit, except for Trumps’ own recollection from The Art of the Deal that Soviet officials were eager for him to build a hotel there- low. (It never happened.)
Trump returned from Moscow inflamed with political ambition. He began the first in a long line of presidential flirtations, which included a flashy trip to New Hampshire. Two months after his visit to Moscow, Trump spent nearly $ 100,000 on a series of full-page newspaper ads that published a political manifesto. An open letter from Donald J. Trump on why America should stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves, as Trump said, launched angry populist accusations against allies who benefited from the umbrella of American military protection. Why aren’t these countries paying the United States for human lives and the billions of dollars we lose to protect their interests?
I conceded that it was probably just a coincidence that Trump returned from his trip to Russia and started to bring up themes that dovetailed closely with Russia’s geopolitical goal of separating the United States from its allies. . But there was a reasonable chance that I vaguely set it at 10 or 20 percent that the Soviets put some of these thoughts, which he had never expressed before the trip, into his head.
If I had to guess today, I would put the odds higher, maybe over 50%. One of the reasons for my greater confidence is that Trump continued to fuel suspicion by taking abnormally pro-Russian positions. He met Putin in Helsinki, appearing strangely submissive, and launched Putin’s propaganda on a number of topics, including the ludicrous possibility of a joint Russian-American cybersecurity unit. (Russia, of course, committed the most serious cyber-hack in American history not long ago, making Trump’s idea even more self-defeating than it was then.) He appeared to be doing everything he could to alienate American allies and blow up cooperation whenever they met during his tenure.
He refused to admit Russia’s wrongdoing Trump refused even to concede that the regime had poisoned Alexei Navalny or would repeat bizarre bits of Russian propaganda: NATO was a bad deal for America because Montenegro could launch a attack on Russia; the Soviets must have invaded Afghanistan in the 1970s to defend themselves against terrorism. Those talking points were missing, and he was resuming them in his usual routine of watching Fox News and calling Republican sycophants.
A second reason is that journalist Craig Unger asked a former KGB spy to officially confirm that Russian intelligence had been working on Trump for decades. In his new book, American Kompromat, Unger interviewed Yuri Shvets, who told him that the KGB manipulated Trump with simple flattery. When it comes to his personality, the guy is not a complicated cookie, he said, his most important characteristics being low intellect coupled with hyper-bloated vanity. This makes him a dream for a seasoned recruiter.
It’s quite similar to what I suggested in my story:
Russian intelligence is gaining influence in foreign countries by operating with subtlety and patience. It exerts different gradations of leverage on different types of people and uses a basic toolkit of blackmail that involves the exploitation of greed, stupidity, ego, and sexual appetite. All are traits that Trump possesses in abundance.
This is what intelligence experts mean when they describe Trump as a Russian asset. It’s not the same as being an agent. An asset is someone who can be manipulated, as opposed to someone who consciously and secretly works on your behalf.
Shvets told Unger that the KGB cultivated Trump as an American leader and persuaded him to run his publicity to attack American alliances. The announcement was rated by the Active Measures Directorate as one of the most successful KGB operations at the time, he said. It was a great thing that three major American newspapers published KGB sound clips.
To be clear, while Shvets is a credible source, his testimony is not conclusive. There are a number of possible grounds for a former Soviet spy who became critical of the Russian regime to produce an indictment against Trump. But the story he tells is almost exactly the possibility I sketched out. And that fits with the known facts about how Russian intelligence works and what Trump has been doing pretty closely.
One thing I’ve changed my mind about since my story was published is the effect it would have on the American public even if it was proven.
There is an attraction to the mysterious which gives certain unknown facts a disproportionate meaning. The discovery of Deep Throat’s secret identity was considered one of journalism’s greatest prizes, until FBI Associate Director Mark Felt admitted it was him, after which hardly anyone was ‘worried. Had Jimmy Hoffas’ body appeared shortly after his disappearance, his location would have been forgotten almost immediately, rather than being the subject of decades of speculation and polling.
The nature and origins of Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia likely fall into this category. The full story will probably never be known for sure. Robert Mueller was thought to be pursuing him, but he moved away from the counterintelligence investigation to focus more narrowly on criminal violations; the Senate Intelligence Committee produced tantalizing evidence of the 2016 campaign’s collusion, but was denied access to Trump’s inner circle. In theory, Trump’s seizing lieutenants Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, or their Russian contacts, like Manafort’s partner Konstantin Kilimnik, could possibly provide some sort of deathbed confession, but even that would be rendered inconclusive by its fundamental lack of credibility. .
If something like the most sinister plausible story turns out to be true, what does that matter? Probably not that much. Don’t get me wrong: Russia having secret channels of influence over an American president is not a good thing. I just came to think that even if we could have confirmed the worst, to the point that even Trump supporters could no longer deny it, it wouldn’t have changed much. Trump would not have been forced to resign and his Republican supporters would not have had to repudiate him. The controversy would have simply receded into the broad landscape of partisan talking points, one more thing the liberals laugh at Trump, and conservatives complain about the media for covering instead of the freezer or the antifa Nancy Pelosis or the latest campus scandal.
One reason I think it’s because a lot of incriminating information has been confirmed and very little has actually changed as a result. In 2018, Buzzfeed reported, and the following year Robert Mueller confirmed, explosive details of a Russian kompromat operation. During the campaign, Russia suspended a construction deal in Moscow that gave Trump hundreds of millions of dollars in profits without any risk. Not only could he earn this windfall, but he was lying in public at the time about his relations with Russia, which gave Vladimir Putin extra leverage over him. (Russia could reveal Trump’s lies at any time if he did something to displease Moscow.)
Mueller even testified that the arrangement gave Russia blackmail power over Trump. But by the time these facts had passed from the realm of mystery to confirmed, they had become uninteresting.
We don’t know what other sources of Russian influence are, or how far back it goes. In the end, whatever value Trump offered Russia was compromised by his incompetence and limited ability to firmly control the foreign policy of his own government. It’s not just the legendary Deep State that has undermined Trump. Even his own hand-picked candidates have consistently undermined him, especially on Russia. Putin’s leverage was limited to a single individual, which meant there was no one Trump could find to head the State Department, the National Security Agency, etc.
The truth, I guess, was both as bad as I suspected and paradoxically anti-climatic. Trump was surrounded by all kinds of heinous characters who manipulated him to say and do things that were against the national interest. One of those characters was Putin. Ultimately, their influence came up against the limits that the character they had gained influence over was a weak and failed president.
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