Now, by this point, you may find yourself asking why Trump? What exactly did Putin see in The Donald other than his history of behaving exactly like a Russian oligarch in his ventures, seeing no distinctions between public office and his private affairs, and treating anti-corruption and due-diligence laws as little more than formalities?
Well, remember that Russia’s cyber warfare mostly consists of spreading conspiracy theories, and Trump was constantly getting coverage on Fox News for trying to advance the conspiracy theory that President Obama was actually born in Kenya.
In fact, Fox News was happy to jump at any conspiracy fitting into the narrative of evil liberals crushing small town life and outlawing traditions just for the hell of it. Trump was not only a staple for helping them fan those flames, he was a living model Fox viewer. Older, threatened by change, longing for the old ways, prone to drastic oversimplifications of world affairs, wary of immigrants at best, and outright xenophobic at worst. But it’s highly unlikely that he was picked and groomed by Putin and his contacts in some nefarious master plan.
Trump flirted with politics often, but always backed down, using his bids and announcements to gain more airtime for himself and slink back to reality TV and his various business schemes. When he announced his run for 2016, no one took him seriously. It was a long running joke until the primaries started.
Alright Donny you got us, it was fun having you around, now let’s leave the politics to the professionals. Then he started winning. A lot. And the joke stopped being funny quickly after that, when he was catapulted towards nomination despite the warnings of establishment stalwarts to his base.
Back in 2013 he said he knew Putin personally, a claim he repeated right after announcing his candidacy in 2015 to an only semi-attentive media. It’s unlikely this was true because when he elaborated on it in a few months later, saying they were interviewed together for 60 Minutes, a simple fact check showed they were interviewed in different countries, at different times, and never actually met face to face. But if Putin didn’t want to acknowledge Trump at first, that all changed in December of 2015 when he was asked to comment on The Donald’s political success.
Mobbed by reporters at a conference, the Russian president called him a “colorful man” and said there was no question that he was talented, almost immediately adding that what happens to American politics “is not for us to decide but for the American voters” and insisting Russia would never interfere with that decision. Answering another question, he stated that he will welcome any candidate who, like Trump, was advocating for a better, deeper relationship with his country, praising the then Republican frontrunner for doing so. “How can I not welcome that?” he shrugged.
While his sudden mention of how Russia doesn’t interfere with elections may seem odd with the hindsight of the national conversation right now, it may have not meant anything at the moment. Russians don’t see Americans as an existential threat anymore, more like frienemies, and it seems like the feeling is mutual. Likewise, Putin’s full response also mentioned “them ‘helping out’ in other countries” in a pretty clear swipe at Americans’ interference of numerous elections, so it was equal parts Trump praise and a jab at American foreign policy.
At the same time, it was also dangerous to look too deeply into Trump’s comments about Russia at this point. Why? Because it’s not exactly strange to have a presidential candidate of a heavily armed nuclear superpower say he or she wants a good relationship with another not as super as it used to be, but still global player with a comparable world-obliterating capability. It wasn’t too long ago that Romney was laughed at for saying that Russia is the biggest threat to the United States, and Obama and Clinton were pushing for a “reset” with Putin.
But that reset went sour as they worked on NATO initiatives that spooked Russia, and Putin was faced with a choice. Another four years of Obama 2.0 and assurances of finding common ground and concessions that would nevertheless end up in menacing NATO maneuvers, or, if he was lucky, a Russophillic businessman who acts like the oligarchs in his inner circle. Speaking of his inner circle, don’t they have some tentacles into said Russophile’s businesses?
If this is when Putin started making inroads with the Trump campaign, he moved quickly. By the end of 2015, the GHCQ, which is the UK equivalent of the NSA, alerted the Obama administration about contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian spies. By all accounts, not wanting to enter a partisan maelstrom, the administration decided to shelve this information for later use if need be, and keep an eye on what happened next. Right after Trump secured the Republican nomination, that would come back to haunt them and cause a showdown with the GOP leadership behind the scenes. But we’ll get to that in due time.
Trump Hits The Campaign Trail
Just a few days prior to Putin’s positive remarks about Trump, his media arm, RT, hosted a dinner where Michael Flynn was paid $45,000 to deliver a speech. (Also in attendance was Jill Stein who sat at the same table as Flynn and Putin at this event, for reasons that remain unclear.) In fewer than two months, Flynn joined Trump’s campaign.
A month later, so did Carter Page, who in 2013 was meeting with Russian spies as an energy consultant, trying to make some cash selling advice to Rosneft. The long time ardent Russophile was met with polite interest to his face and groans behind his back. Why Page was hired and what he was doing is still unclear but it seems that he at least tried to spin in the same circles as Flynn, albeit from all accounts, quite unsuccessfully. Unlike Flynn, he didn’t have much of a background the Russians would find useful, nor did it seem he had any classified or important information they would find interesting.
But while Page seems to almost be a curious footnote in this story, Flynn is a much bigger fish. Marked by the Obama administration as a walking national security risk and dismissed after he started getting awfully close to Russia’s clandestine service as head of the DIA, he was seen as a loyal ally by Russians. Obama made it a point to warn Trump not to hire him in any capacity, but Trump ignored the warning and promptly made Flynn a national security adviser despite even Flynn’s protests. It served Flynn’s purposes to remain in the shadows, motives driven by other interests that we’ll explore in just a bit.
In April 2016, back on the campaign trail, Russian ambassador to the U.S., the infamous Sergey Kislyak, appeared at one of Trump’s speeches and was introduced to him, despite Trump claiming they never met.
After the DNC hacking scandal started breaking in May, Paul Manafort became Trump’s official campaign manager. A shadowy figure paid in secrecy by the exiled former president of Ukraine, Manafort wasted little time in making sure the official GOP platform ruled out giving Ukraine any military aid during the Republican National Convention.
There’s some evidence this may have been pre-planned with an oligarch close to Putin, aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska. The plan in question called for a strategic lobbying effort to sneak in pro-Russian messages behind the scenes in the media, and push for business deals and government actions that would somehow benefit Russia. For his work, Manafort was to be paid $10 million. And of course, if you have a plan to benefit Russia, managing Trump’s campaign seems to fit the general scheme of things. For his part, Deripaska denies any such plan existed.
Around this time, Republican leaders scowled about Trump’s Russian ties in private meetings, with Paul Ryan saying he was sure Trump was on Putin’s payroll, which he now claims was a joke. If it was, it seemed a little on the nose as WikiLeaks was posting more and more email leaks, and Kislyak was meeting with Page and Sessions to talk about sanctions, Syria, and Crimea.
But keep in mind that so far, none of this is illegal or even all that problematic. Just like Trump associates said when confronted with evidence of their contact with Russian officials and proxies, there’s nothing inherently bad about listening to the concerns of lobbyists. Even Manafort’s actions, while unethical, were technically fine from a legal standpoint. Trump asked Manafort to resign as the campaign’s manager in August of 2016 only due to the optics of his secret Ukrainian payments being exposed to the public at the time.
Despite supposedly severing their relationship, the two appear to still be in touch, with Manafort advising him on cabinet picks a few weeks after the election. While this is a little unethical, there’s nothing illegal about offering advice to the campaign. And it needs to be noted that some of Manafort’s suggestions were quite bizarre, including the persistent lobbying of Pence as the VP pick.
No, the real problem with Trump & Co.’s meetings was their huffing, puffing, denials, and outright lies coupled with shady behavior and the-lady-doth-protest-too-much defensiveness after the election.
What was a lot more serious is Manafort’s business partner, Roger Stone, letting it slip that he had contact with WikiLeaks. Yes, the same organization that is said by the intelligence community to have received the material for the DNC dumps from Russian spies and hackers.
After the election, Stone also seemed to admit that he was in touch with Guccifer 2.0 who was alleged to be the original DNC hacker, but likely a front for Russian intelligence. This makes Trump’s declaration that he loves WikiLeaks and inciting Russians to hack Clinton’s e-mails a hell of a lot more sinister because it sounds as if Stone could’ve actually arranged that. The big question is whether Trump knew this, and considering Stone’s tantrums of Twitter on the subject, the answer may well be yes.
We also need to consider Manafort’s potential role in the hacks. He brought Stone on board, he had deep Russian connections that could’ve provided the technical knowhow, while Stone threatened various Democratic consultants and advisers on Twitter, promising serious PR problems in the near future shortly before another WikiLeaks dump. And just like with Manafort, Trump can’t seem to quit Stone either.
A Compromised President?
All in all, there were at least 18 calls and six emails between the Trump campaign and Russian oligarchs and officials. Again, this is not necessarily all that suspicious on its own since, as said before, lobbying is not illegal and just talking to other nations isn’t unethical.
But Trump’s bellicose insistence that he’s never had any interests in Russia despite a long history of trying to do business in the country, the ongoing contacts, and the scope of the people involved warranted a red flag. Even the Russians themselves said they were in touch with the campaign after the election, so the intelligence analysts didn’t get this wrong.
Bothered by what it was seeing, the intelligence community decided to brief members of Congress in September. They were warned of communications they found odd and about which the Trump campaign was violently defensive. In response one of the members in the briefing, Mitch McConnell threatened a partisan showdown, accusing the Obama administration of trying to steal the election if the then president acted on this information, and his fellow GOP leaders dismissed the Russian fingerprints as nothing to worry about.
Apparently convinced that Hillary’s victory was imminent, Obama decided to take his chances and let the Gang of 12 Congressional bigwigs kill any mitigation attempts. (It should also be noted that McConnell’s wife quickly joined the Trump administration.)
Despite the heavy shade of Russian influence on Trump the businessman, Trump the politician, and almost all of his key associates, he won the election. While it’s easy to point to Russia as his key to victory, that would be giving Putin far too much credit. Voter suppression in key states, Clinton’s missteps on the campaign trail, the political maelstroms in American culture, and the slow death of the working middle class, all played their role. But let’s set that aside for now and focus on what happened after he won and started setting up shop in the White House.
Almost immediately, Flynn started calling Kislyak and talking about easing sanctions if he just ignored Obama’s fury about election interference, and dragging Kushner to meetings with the Russian ambassador along with the representative from Vnesheconombank we mentioned before. It’s at these meetings that Kushner allegedly asked for a secure back channel to Russia. Ordinarily, this should not have raised eyebrows because back channels to speak bluntly are a common practice. But alarmingly, Kushner seemed to be requesting that this channel be managed by Russian assets, effectively hiding it from American intelligence and diplomats, spooking the ambassador.
Meanwhile, Trump’s old real estate friend Sater suddenly reappeared to establish a backchannel for negotiating the situation in Ukraine. All of the oligarch connected figures who surrounded Trump were quickly getting to work on a conciliatory relationship to Russia and cold shoulders to NATO allies. This open contempt was on full display at the NATO summit where instead of affirming America’s commitment to the alliance, Trump berated European partners for not pulling their military weight, prompting Angela Merkel to remark that the U.S., once the indispensable nation, was now an unreliable partner, and Europe must take matters into its own hands.
Throughout his campaign and presidency Trump is yet to utter a single negative comment about Russia, and as Flynn’s intercepted calls raised alarms with Obama holdovers well aware of him being compromised, he has stood by Kislyak’s man in the White House. This devotion to Flynn and his other allies has frequently been explained by him prizing loyalty above all else. Paeans to his seemingly unshakeable trust in friends and family have recently been written to explain his demand of loyalty from Comey before firing him in a self-inflicted political gunshot to the foot. But his devotion to loyalty has as much truth to it as The Art of the Deal.
Over the years, he hasn’t hesitated to throw anyone under the bus in a crisis, and considering that he’s in crisis mode now, his friends should be going overboard left and right. After 70 years of self-serving narcissism, did he suddenly find an overriding sense of loyalty so strong he’s willing to risk his presidency for it? This seems a little doubtful to put it mildly. And this is where we need to address the issue of kompromat (compromising material) and the Steele dossier, which as you may notice, seemed to be missing from this story so far.
The dossier alleged many things, mixing rumor and fact since it was raw intelligence from primarily paid sources which had every incentive to feed into desired narratives or exaggerate to make some cash. The most popular of these claims was the existence of the now infamous “pee tape” for future use in blackmailing Trump, supposedly depicting him enjoying prostitutes urinating on the bed on which the Obamas slept while in Moscow during a state visit. This sounds way too good to be true, even if it does seem to explain Trump’s meekness towards Putin.
But there may be a far more realistic and powerful stack of kompromat on him, and that’s the fact that he may be using his real estate business to help oligarchs from former Soviet republics launder money. If they were feeling particularly vindictive, they could air out some questionable deals we don’t know about yet and bring the FBI investigations into his business empire barging through his office doors. A well known homebody and teetotaler, the wild, kinky parties of the dossier don’t fit Trump’s style.
He may be the kind of person who admits to sexual assault on tape, but again, that doesn’t seem to fit his particular brand of creepy kicks. Shady real estate deals involving questionable money? We know he does it, so much so that the FBI has been asking questions since 2011. Since Trump often rubs elbows with Russian oligarchs who frequently need assistance avoiding sanctions and moving money, it’s possible there’s plenty of dirt available to threaten to share with law enforcement agencies.
As the White House leaks like a sieve and his undisciplined team attempts to wing one of the most difficult jobs in the world, its path dictated primarily by conspiracy theories and furious paranoia, those charges may be coming anyway. By holding on to Flynn, Manafort, and Stone, even pining for Flynn to come back “when the investigation is over,” Trump has opened himself up to complicity in their actions.
He may actually be a pawn in this scheme, but he’s not without guilt and his head would also be on the legal chopping block. In rebuilding his empire and going for the top job in the country on sheer bravado alone, he seems to have gotten himself mixed up with some pretty bad hombres happy to play him like a harp. And if he doesn’t play along, they can air some very nasty dirty legal laundry that, while boring to the public at large, might be fascinating for prosecutors who have been sniffing around Trump Tower for years now.
Or at least that may have been the plan until the Russians seemed to start writing op-eds about how embroiled in scandal, Trump wouldn’t be able to do much to advance the relationship between the two countries. Whatever grand designs Putin may have had for The Donald are very rapidly collapsing under the withering gaze and fury of the majority of the American public. And what happens next depends on the lessons the United States takes from what happened and why because it will shape both how we deal with Trump and resolve the internal conflicts that got him elected, as well as how we prevent a repeat of this bizarre saga.