Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart — Or His Handler?
A plausible theory of mind-boggling collusion.
Artwork by Barbara Kruger for New York
07/08/2018 9:00 pm
On June 14, 2016, the Washington Post reported that Russian hackers had broken into the Democratic National Committee’s files and gained access to its research on Donald Trump. A political world already numbed by Trump’s astonishing rise barely took notice. News reports quoted experts who suggested the Russians merely wanted more information about Trump to inform their foreign-policy dealings. By that point, Russia was already broadcasting its strong preference for Trump through the media. Yet when news of the hacking broke, nobody raised the faintest suspicions that Russia wished to alter the outcome of the election, let alone that Trump or anybody connected with him might have been in cahoots with a foreign power. It was a third-rate cyberburglary. Nothing to see here.
The unfolding of the Russia scandal has been like walking into a dark cavern. Every step reveals that the cave runs deeper than we thought, and after each one, as we wonder how far it goes, our imaginations are circumscribed by the steps we have already taken. The cavern might go just a little farther, we presume, but probably not much farther. And since trying to discern the size and shape of the scandal is an exercise in uncertainty, we focus our attention on the most likely outcome, which is that the story goes a little deeper than what we have already discovered. Say, that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort told their candidate about the meeting they held at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer after they were promised dirt on Hillary Clinton; and that Trump and Kushner have some shady Russian investments; and that some of Trump’s advisers made some promises about lifting sanctions.
But what if that’s wrong? What if we’re still standing closer to the mouth of the cave than the end?
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The media has treated the notion that Russia has personally compromised the president of the United States as something close to a kook theory. A minority of analysts, mostly but not exclusively on the right, have promoted aggressively exculpatory interpretations of the known facts, in which every suspicious piece of evidence turns out to have a surprisingly innocent explanation. And it is possible, though unlikely, that every trail between Trump Tower and the Kremlin extends no farther than its point of current visibility.
What is missing from our imagination is the unlikely but possible outcome on the other end: that this is all much worse than we suspect. After all, treating a small probability as if it were nonexistent is the very error much of the news media made in covering the presidential horse race. And while the body of publicly available information about the Russia scandal is already extensive, the way it has been delivered — scoop after scoop of discrete nuggets of information — has been disorienting and difficult to follow. What would it look like if it were reassembled into a single narrative, one that distinguished between fact and speculation but didn’t myopically focus on the most certain conclusions?
A case like this presents an easy temptation for conspiracy theorists, but we can responsibly speculate as to what lies at the end of this scandal without falling prey to their fallacies. Conspiracy theories tend to attract people far from the corridors of power, and they often hypothesize vast connections within or between governments and especially intelligence agencies. One of the oddities of the Russia scandal is that many of the most exotic and sinister theories have come from people within government and especially within the intelligence field.
The first intimations that Trump might harbor a dark secret originated among America’s European allies, which, being situated closer to Russia, have had more experience fending off its nefarious encroachments. In 2015, Western European intelligence agencies began picking up evidence of communications between the Russian government and people in Donald Trump’s orbit. In April 2016, one of the Baltic states shared with then–CIA director John Brennan an audio recording of Russians discussing funneling money to the Trump campaign. In the summer of 2016, Robert Hannigan, head of the U.K. intelligence agency GCHQ, flew to Washington to brief Brennan on intercepted communications between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The contents of these communications have not been disclosed, but what Brennan learned obviously unsettled him profoundly. In congressional testimony on Russian election interference last year, Brennan hinted that some Americans might have betrayed their country. “Individuals who go along a treasonous path,” he warned, “do not even realize they’re along that path until it gets to be a bit too late.” In an interview this year, he put it more bluntly: “I think [Trump] is afraid of the president of Russia. The Russians may have something on him personally that they could always roll out and make his life more difficult.”
While the fact that the former CIA director has espoused this theory hardly proves it, perhaps we should give more credence to the possibility that Brennan is making these extraordinary charges of treason and blackmail at the highest levels of government because he knows something we don’t.
Suppose we are currently making the same mistake we made at the outset of this drama — suppose the dark crevices of the Russia scandal run not just a little deeper but a lot deeper. If that’s true, we are in the midst of a scandal unprecedented in American history, a subversion of the integrity of the presidency. It would mean the Cold War that Americans had long considered won has dissolved into the bizarre spectacle of Reagan’s party’s abetting the hijacking of American government by a former KGB agent. It would mean that when Special Counsel Robert Mueller closes in on the president and his inner circle, possibly beginning this summer, Trump may not merely rail on Twitter but provoke a constitutional crisis.
And it would mean the Russia scandal began far earlier than conventionally understood and ended later — indeed, is still happening. As Trump arranges to meet face-to-face and privately with Vladimir Putin later this month, the collusion between the two men metastasizing from a dark accusation into an open alliance, it would be dangerous not to consider the possibility that the summit is less a negotiation between two heads of state than a meeting between a Russian-intelligence asset and his handler.
A crazy quilt of connections. (Click or tap to zoom in.) Photo: Getty Images
It is often said that Donald Trump has had the same nationalistic, zero-sum worldview forever. But that isn’t exactly true. Yes, his racism and mendacity have been evident since his youth, but those who have traced the evolution of his hypernationalism all settle on one year in particular: 1987. Trump “came onto the political stage in 1987 with a full-page ad in the New York Times attacking the Japanese for relying on the United States to defend it militarily,” reported Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The president has believed for 30 years that these alliance commitments are a drain on our finite national treasure,” a White House official told the Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin. Tom Wright, another scholar who has delved into Trump’s history, reached the same conclusion. “1987 is Trump’s breakout year. There are only a couple of examples of him commenting on world politics before then.”
What changed that year? One possible explanation is that Trump published The Art of the Deal, which sped up his transformation from an aggressive, publicity-seeking New York developer to a national symbol of capitalism. But the timing for this account does not line up perfectly — the book came out on November 1, and Trump had begun opining loudly on trade and international politics two months earlier. The other important event from that year is that Trump visited Moscow.
During the Soviet era, Russian intelligence cast a wide net to gain leverage over influential figures abroad. (The practice continues to this day.) The Russians would lure or entrap not only prominent politicians and cultural leaders, but also people whom they saw as having the potential for gaining prominence in the future. In 1986, Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin met Trump in New York, 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 certainly would have been bugged. There is not much else in the public record to describe his visit, except Trump’s own recollection in The Art of the Deal that Soviet officials were eager for him to build a hotel there. (It never happened.)
Trump returned from Moscow fired up with political ambition. He began the first of a long series of presidential flirtations, which included a flashy trip to New Hampshire. Two months after his Moscow visit, Trump spent almost $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 labeled it, launched angry populist charges against the allies that benefited from the umbrella of American military protection. “Why are these nations not paying the United States for the human lives and billions of dollars we are losing to protect their interests?”
Trump’s letter avoided the question of whom the U.S. was protecting those countries from. The primary answer, of course, was the Soviet Union. After World War II, the U.S. had created a liberal international order and underwritten its safety by maintaining the world’s strongest military. A central goal of Soviet, and later Russian, foreign policy was to split the U.S. from its allies.
The safest assumption is that it’s entirely coincidental that Trump launched a national campaign, with himself as spokesman, built around themes that dovetailed closely with Soviet foreign-policy goals shortly after his Moscow stay. Indeed, it seems slightly insane to contemplate the possibility that a secret relationship between Trump and Russia dates back this far. But it can’t be dismissed completely. How do you even think about the small but real chance — 10 percent? 20 percent? — that the president of the United States has been covertly influenced or personally compromised by a hostile foreign power for decades?
1987: Donald and Ivana Trump visiting Palace Square in Saint Petersburg after their trip to Moscow. Photo: Maxim Blokhin/TASS via Getty Images
Russian intelligence gains influence in foreign countries by operating subtly and patiently. It exerts different gradations of leverage over different kinds of people, and uses a basic tool kit of blackmail that involves the exploitation of greed, stupidity, ego, and sexual appetite. All of which are traits Trump has in abundance.
Throughout his career, Trump has always felt comfortable operating at or beyond the ethical boundaries that constrain typical businesses. In the 1980s, he worked with La Cosa Nostra, which controlled the New York cement trade, and later employed Michael Cohen and Felix Sater, both of whom have links to the Russian Mafia. Trump habitually refused to pay his counterparties, and if the people he burned (or any journalists) got in his way, he bullied them with threats. Trump also reportedly circulated at parties for wealthy men featuring cocaine and underage girls.
One might think this notoriety immunizes Trump from blackmail. Curiously, however, Trump’s tolerance for risk has always been matched by careful control over information. He maintains a fanatical secrecy about his finances and has paid out numerous settlements to silence women. The combination of a penchant for compromising behavior, a willingness to work closely with criminals, and a desire to protect aspects of his privacy makes him the ideal blackmail target.
It is not difficult to imagine that Russia quickly had something on Trump, from either exploits during his 1987 visit or any subsequent embarrassing behavior KGB assets might have uncovered. But the other leverage Russia enjoyed over Trump for at least 15 years is indisputable — in fact, his family has admitted to it multiple times. After a series of financial reversals and his brazen abuse of bankruptcy laws, Trump found it impossible to borrow from American banks and grew heavily reliant on unconventional sources of capital. Russian cash proved his salvation. From 2003 to 2017, people from the former USSR made 86 all-cash purchases — a red flag of potential money laundering — of Trump properties, totaling $109 million. In 2010, the private-wealth division of Deutsche Bank also loaned him hundreds of millions of dollars during the same period it was laundering billions in Russian money. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” said Donald Jr. in 2008. “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia,” boasted Eric Trump in 2014.
Since Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, rose to power in 1999, money has become a key source of Russian political leverage. The Russian state (and hence Putin) controls the most lucrative sectors of its economy, and Russian investment is not designed solely to maximize return. Shady business transactions offer the perfect cover for covert payments, since just about the entire Russian economy is shady. Trump’s adamant refusal to disclose his tax returns has many possible explanations, but none is more obvious than the prospect that he is hiding what are effectively bribes.
During the Obama administration, Russia grew more estranged from the United States as its aggressive behavior toward its neighbors triggered hostile responses from NATO. Putin grew increasingly enamored of reactionary social theories portraying traditional, conservative, Christian Europe as pitted in a civilizational struggle against both decadent liberalism and radical Islam. Also during this time, Trump carved out a brand as a populist hero of the right by publicly questioning Obama’s birthplace and legitimacy.
In July 2013, Trump visited Moscow again. If the Russians did not have a back-channel relationship or compromising file on Trump 30 years ago, they very likely obtained one then. Former FBI director James Comey recounts in his book that Trump was obsessed with reports that he had been recorded in a hotel room watching prostitutes urinate on a bed that Barack Obama had once slept in. Trump, Comey wrote, “argued that it could not be true because he had not stayed overnight in Moscow but had only used the hotel room to change his clothes.” The journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reconstructed Trump’s trip to Moscow and established that he did in fact stay overnight.
This was not the only allegation Trump forcefully and implausibly denied in his early meetings with Comey. He also denied that he had offered a pornographic-film star money to come to his room, grabbed a woman sitting next to him on an airplane, and mocked a disabled reporter at a rally. The other denials have gained no credence in the media. (Indeed, the last incident was broadcast on national television.) But Trump’s dismissal of the Moscow-hotel-room allegation has been given the benefit of the doubt by most reporters, who typically describe the charge as “salacious” and “unverified,” which it most certainly is, and treat that to mean “absurd,” which it is not. There is growing reason to think the pee tape might indeed exist.
There has never been much doubt about Russia’s motive to engineer a caper like this. Russian intelligence has a documented and long-standing practice of gathering compromising intelligence on visiting dignitaries. The use of prostitutes and the bugging of hotel rooms are standard. The skepticism has instead focused on both the source of the allegations, former British-intelligence official turned private investigator Christopher Steele, and Trump himself.
Steele’s dossier burst into public view in January 2017, introducing so many astonishing claims into the public domain that it read like politicized fiction, a modern-day Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “There has been no public corroboration of the salacious allegations against Mr. Trump, nor of the specific claims about coordination between his associates and the Russians,” the Times stated authoritatively last fall. “In fact, some of those claims have been challenged with supporting evidence. For instance, Mr. Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, produced his passport to rebut the dossier’s claim that he had secret meetings in Prague with a Russian official last year.”
The truth is that much of the reporting of the Russia scandal over the past 18 months has followed the contours of what Steele’s sources told him. Steele reported that “the Kremlin had been feeding Trump and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents, including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,” in June 2016, days after the Trump Tower meeting occurred but a year before it would be publicly confirmed. Steele obtained early news of the Kremlin’s strategy to exploit divides within the Democratic Party through social media; the role of Carter Page, a member of Trump’s foreign-policy team whom Russia had been trying to cultivate as a spy since at least 2013; and other now-familiar elements of the story.
Even the accusations in the dossier that have purportedly been refuted have gained support from law enforcement. Mueller has reportedly obtained evidence that Cohen actually did visit Prague during the 2016 campaign, contrary to his denials. The FBI has learned that Cohen “was in frequent contact with foreign individuals” who “had knowledge of or played a role in 2016 election meddling,” according to BuzzFeed News.
Then there is Trump himself. While the president’s character has never been exactly deemed above reproach, some doubts have lingered about whether he would really hire prostitutes to defile a bed merely because Obama had slept there and whether a tape of such a thing would truly shame him.
These questions have been answered in the affirmative. Trump’s payment of hush money to Stormy Daniels and other women proves that he holds his sexual privacy dear. And the obsessive hatred of Obama that grew out of Trump’s humiliation at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner has blossomed into a perverse and often self-destructive mania. People both inside and outside the administration report that Trump will ultimately pick whatever option he believes is the negation of Obama’s legacy. “He will ask: ‘Did Obama approve this?’ And if the answer is affirmative, he will say: ‘We don’t,’ ” a European diplomat told BuzzFeed News.
Isikoff and Corn reported that Trump and many of the people who accompanied him on the 2013 trip to Moscow had, earlier that year, visited a club in Las Vegas that regularly performed “simulated sex acts of bestiality and grotesque sadomasochism,” including shows in which strippers simulated urinating. Isikoff and Corn do not establish what kind of performance was on display the night Trump visited. It may or may not have involved bodily fluids. But the notion that a display of exotic sex acts lies totally outside the range of behavior Trump would enjoy is quaint and unfounded.
2013: Trump attending the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Photo: Irina Bujor/AP
It’s not necessary to believe that Putin always knew he might install Trump in the Oval Office to find the following situation highly plausible: Sometime in 2015, the Russian president recognized that he had, in one of his unknown number of intelligence files, an inroad into American presidential politics. The Republican nominees from 2008 and 2012 had both run on a hawkish position against Russia (Mitt Romney had called the country America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe”). Now, on the fringes of the GOP primaries, there was a candidate opening up what was, from Putin’s standpoint, a much-needed flank against not just Obama but his former secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her aggressive position against Russia.
Trump praised Putin’s toughness and called for a thaw in relations between the two countries. At first, Putin likely considered him simply a way to goad his American foes. Then Trump captured the nomination and his value increased exponentially.
At that point, it would have been strange if Russia didn’t help Trump. After all, Russians covertly support allied politicians abroad all the time. Putin naturally sees intelligence work as central to foreign policy, and his foreign policy is fundamentally threatened by democratic, socially progressive Western Europe. During his tenure, Russia has formed overt or covert ties to right-wing parties in France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Greece, and Bulgaria. France’s right-wing party received an $11 million loan from Russia; its counterparts in Bulgaria and Greece were alleged (but not proved) to have taken funding under the table, too. More often, Russians intermingle financial dealings with political subterfuge in a complex web that appears superficially legitimate.
The closest model for how Russia covertly operates may be the Brexit campaign in the U.K., which took place months before the 2016 American election. Driving Britain out of the European Union advanced the decades-long Russian goal of splitting Western nations apart, and Russia found willing allies on the British far right. Not only did Russia use social media to covertly promote Brexit, but Russian officials also met secretly several times with Arron Banks, the millionaire British businessman who supported the Brexit campaign, with the largest political donation in British history. Leaked documents reveal that the Russians discussed letting Banks in on a gold-mining deal that could have produced several billion dollars in easy profit. It might seem preposterous that a national vote that changed the course of British history was determined by a secret Russian operation. British conservatives long dismissed suspicions of covert Russian involvement as a “conspiracy theory.” Yet the conspiracy appears to have been very real.
Another useful model can be found in Ukraine, where a Russian oligarch backed the 2010 political campaign of the pro-Russian apparatchik Viktor Yanukovych. The effort to install Yanukovych prefigured many elements of Trump’s campaign. His campaign exploited ethnic divisions and portrayed his opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, as corrupt and the election as rigged. Yanukovych called for closer ties with Russia while obscuring the depth of his own furtive Russian connections. Most significant, the consultant brought in to manage Yanukovych’s campaign was the same one who managed Trump’s six years later: Paul Manafort.
For all the ambiguous, suspicious facts surrounding Trump’s ties to Russia, Manafort’s role is the most straightforward. He is an utterly amoral consultant and spent at least a decade directly advancing Russian foreign-policy interests while engaging in systemic corruption.
The story begins in 2005, when Manafort proposed to work for billionaire Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska. Manafort, a Republican operative who had hired himself out to a variety of global villains, promised he would “influence politics, business dealings, and news coverage inside the United States, Europe, and former Soviet Republics to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government” in a memo described by the Associated Press.
Russia’s oligarchs put their wealth and power at Putin’s disposal, or they don’t remain oligarchs for long. This requirement is not lost on Deripaska. “I don’t separate myself from the state,” Deripaska told the Financial Times in 2007. “I have no other interests.” A 2006 U.S. diplomatic cable described him as “among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis.” Working for Deripaska meant working for Putin.
There’s no doubt Manafort’s offer was taken up. Deripaska hired Manafort for $10 million a year, and Manafort worked to advance Russian interests in Ukraine, Georgia, and Montenegro. Manafort brought on as his business partner in these endeavors Konstantin Kilimnik, a former member of Russia’s foreign military-intelligence agency who — according to an indictment by Mueller — still has ties to Russian intelligence.
The mystery is exactly when, or whether, Manafort’s service to Deripaska — which is to say, to Putin — ended. He has hidden many of his proceeds and indeed now faces charges of money laundering. In 2010, Manafort received a $10 million loan from Deripaska, which he funneled through his shell company. (Manafort had used the same shell company to buy an apartment in Trump Tower, for cash, in 2006.)
Spending lavishly and deep in debt, Manafort went underground in 2014. Deripaska, seeking to recover funds he believed Manafort owed him, went to court, where one of his lawyers stated, “It appears that Paul Manafort and Rick Gates” — Manafort’s longtime associate — “have simply disappeared.” Two years later, Manafort resurfaced as Trump’s campaign manager, with Gates as his deputy, and set out to use his position to regain favor with his estranged patron. In leaked emails to Kilimnik, Manafort referred to his new standing and asked, “How do we use to get whole?” Kilimnik assured Manafort, “We will get back to the original relationship.” That is, Manafort was asking about, and Kilimnik was confirming, the possibility of trading his position as Trump’s campaign manager for debt forgiveness from Deripaska.
This much was clear in March 2016: The person who managed the campaign of a pro-Russian candidate in Ukraine was now also managing the campaign of a pro-Russian candidate in the United States. And Trump’s campaign certainly looked like the same play Putin had run many times before: Trump inflamed internal ethnic division, assailed the corruption of the elite, attacked Western allies while calling for cooperation with Russia, and sowed distrust in the fairness of the vote count. And in addition to deploying social-media bots and trolls, Russia apparently spent directly to help elect Trump. The FBI is investigating Alexander Torshin, a Russian banker who built ties to Republicans and allegedly funneled campaign funds to the National Rifle Association, which spent three times as much to help Trump as it had on behalf of Romney four years earlier.
Trump surrounded himself with several staffers, in addition to Manafort, with unusually close ties to Russia. His national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, had traveled to Moscow in 2015 to fête Putin at a banquet; George Papadopoulos met with Russian officials during the campaign; Russia had marked Carter Page as a possible asset. Michael Cohen and Felix Sater, the two business associates of Trump’s with decades-long ties to Russian organized crime, engaged in a mix of diplomatic and commercial negotiations with Russia during the campaign.
Several Trump advisers knew Russia was working to help Trump. Papadopoulos let it slip that Russia had dirt on Clinton; Roger Stone, a former longtime business partner of Manafort’s who communicated regularly with Trump throughout the campaign, knew what material WikiLeaks had obtained, according to two associates. Stone also repeatedly boasted of his back-channel contacts to Julian Assange and flaunted advance knowledge of what dirt Assange had. Between a pair of phone conversations Donald Jr. had to set up his Trump Tower meeting, he spoke with someone with a blocked phone number. (His father has a blocked phone number.) John K. Mashburn, a former campaign and current White House staffer, testified in March that he recalled receiving an email in early 2016 that Russia had negative information on Clinton.
Russia’s hacking appears, in short, to have been common knowledge within the campaign. Despite that, Trump repeatedly denied that Russia had any involvement with the email hacking, suggesting China or a 400-pound man might be the true culprit. Trump and his advisers also made at least 20 false public denials that they had any contact with Russian officials during the campaign.
2017: Putin and Trump at the 25th APEC Summit in Vietnam. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/TASS via Getty Images
It is possible that the current list of known campaign contacts accounts for most, or even all, of the direct cooperation. But that is hardly a safe assumption. Very little of the information we have about connections between the Trump campaign and Russia was voluntarily disclosed. The pattern of anyone implicated is to lie about everything, construct the most plausible-sounding cover story for the known facts, and when their lies are exposed, retreat to a new story. The Trump Tower meeting alone required three different cover stories over the course of two days as the truth dribbled out. (There is circumstantial evidence that Putin himself helped shape one of the stories: Trump admitted to speaking with the Russian president about adoption policy at a G20 dinner and, the next morning, dictating his son’s misleading explanation that the meeting was about adoptions.) Stone testified to Congress that he had had no illicit contacts with Russians and repeated this defense fervently in public. When the Washington Post reported that he had been offered campaign dirt by a man with a heavy Russian accent, Stone insisted he had forgotten about the episode.
How much more evidence of collusion is yet to come out? Maybe a lot more.
One example of the kind Trump’s campaign may still be hiding came briefly to light two summers ago. In July 2016, a loose-knit community of computer scientists and cybersecurity experts discovered a strange pattern of online traffic between two computer servers. One of those servers belonged to Alfa Bank in Moscow and the other to the Trump Organization. Alfa Bank’s owners had “assumed an unforeseen level of prominence and influence in the economic and political affairs of their nation,” as a federal court once put it.
The analysts noted that the traffic between the two servers occurred during office hours in New York and Moscow and spiked in correspondence with major campaign events, suggesting it entailed human communication rather than bots. More suspiciously, after New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau asked Alfa Bank about it but before he brought it up with the Trump campaign, the server in Trump Tower shut down. The timing strongly implied Alfa Bank was communicating with Trump.
In October, Slate’s Franklin Foer broke the story of the servers and the computer scientists’ analysis about what it seemed to mean, which he called “a suggestive body of evidence that doesn’t absolutely preclude alternative explanations.” When Foer’s story landed, the political world treated it as insane. Vox, which had dismissed reports about Trump’s secret Russian ties as “poorly evidenced conspiracy theories,” savaged the server report. The Intercept called it “wacky.” Lichtblau reported that the FBI was investigating the server but that it “ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts.”
That story became famous primarily for its headline conclusion, “Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” And yet, CNN reported in March 2017 that the FBI’s investigation into the server remained open. Meanwhile, the biggest mystery of Foer’s story — why did Trump and Russia need a computer server to communicate? — now has a coherent answer.
It was already apparent in 2016 that the highest-profile parts of Russia’s messaging machine, like RT and Sputnik, were biased toward Trump. But now we know that its social-media activity employed precise demographic and geographic targeting — far more precise than a foreign country would be expected to have and notably concentrated on “key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal,” CNN reported. That information is highly valuable: When a Republican staffer named Aaron Nevins received stolen Democratic Party voter-profile data from Guccifer 2.0, the Russian-backed hacker, that summer, he wrote to the hacker, “This is probably worth millions of dollars.” The Alfa Bank server connection might not have been put to the exact same kind of collaborative purpose, but Russia’s social-media operation needed some fine-grained expertise to direct its targeted messages. It likely got it from somebody connected to Trump and quite possibly used the server to transmit directly with Trump Tower. If that server was transmitting data to and from Moscow, who in Trump Tower was feeding it?
Since the election, Trump and his advisers have continued to act like people who have a great deal to hide. In January 2017, Cohen solicited consulting payments from a firm controlled by a Russian oligarch and, when Flynn became national-security adviser, delivered to him a “peace plan” that would have consolidated the gains from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In December 2016, Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador discussed setting up a back-channel communications line through the Russian embassy. Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and brother of Trump’s Education secretary, traveled to the Seychelles and met with a Putin ally in what European and Middle Eastern officials believe was another attempt to establish a back channel. Prince also appears to have lied to Congress about the meeting.
Of course, at that point, if Trump had legal diplomatic business to discuss with Russia, the president-elect could have held a normal meeting. It is possible to construct an innocent explanation for all the lying and skulduggery, but it is not the most obvious explanation. More likely, collusion between the Russians and the Trump administration has continued beyond the campaign.
The largest source of suspicion and curiosity is, again, Manafort. He left the campaign in August, when some of his ties to Deripaska were exposed and the campaign was floundering. But contrary to Trump’s recent efforts to depict his relationship with Manafort as distant and short-lived, the two continued to speak regularly even after the inauguration. We know this because U.S. investigators had convinced a FISA judge to wiretap Manafort’s phone.
Mueller has indicted Manafort on a series of white-collar crimes unrelated to the election itself. He has also convinced Rick Gates to cooperate with the investigation and plead guilty to conspiring against the United States. Trump has dangled the prospect of a presidential pardon to dissuade his former campaign manager from spilling his guts, but the pardon alone is not likely to spare Manafort a lengthy prison sentence. (Presidents can pardon only federal crimes, and Manafort is also facing prosecution for state-level crimes committed in Virginia and appears vulnerable to state charges in New York.) Manafort even allegedly took the reckless step of trying to coach a fellow witness to coordinate his story and was thrown in jail for it while he awaits trial.
Why would Manafort, who has a law degree from Georgetown and years of experience around white-collar crime, behave like this? Of all those in Trump’s camp, he is the furthest thing from a true believer, and he lacks any long-standing personal ties to the president or his family, so what incentive does he have to spend most or all of his remaining years in prison rather than betray Trump? One way to make sense of his behavior is the possibility that Manafort is keeping his mouth shut because he’s afraid of being killed.
That speculation might sound hyperbolic, but there is plenty of evidence to support it. In February, a video appeared on YouTube showing Manafort’s patron Deripaska on his yacht with a Belarusian escort named Anastasia Vashukevich. In the video, from August 2016, Deripaska could be seen speaking with a high-ranking Kremlin official. The video was such a source of embarrassment to Moscow that it fought to have it removed from YouTube. Vashukevich, who was then in a Thai jail after having been arrested there for prostitution, announced that she had heard Deripaska describe a plot to interfere in the election and that she has 16 hours’ worth of audio recordings from the yacht to support her charges. In a letter to America authorities, her associate wrote, “We risk our lives very much.”
Vashukevich’s name has disappeared from the news media. In all probability, either the FBI or Russian intelligence has gotten to her. Whatever has happened to her, her testimony suggests both that Russia is still hiding secrets about its role in Trump’s election and that someone who knows Deripaska well believes he would and could kill her for violating his confidence.
The latter fear is hardly paranoid. Russia murders people routinely, at home and abroad. In the nine months after Trump’s election, nine Russian officials were murdered or died mysteriously. At least one was suspected to have been a likely source for Steele. The attorney for the firm that hired Steele told the Senate last August, “Somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier.”
Here is another unresolved episode that might be weighing on Manafort’s decision. In the summer of 2016, veteran Republican activist Peter W. Smith set out to obtain hacked emails from Clinton and contacted Matt Tait, a cybersecurity expert, for help in the project. Smith represented himself as working for the Trump campaign, though he had formed a Delaware-based company, as Smith wrote to Tait, “to avoid campaign reporting.” Tait later said that he warned Smith that such a search would bring him into likely collusion with Russian hackers but that Smith “didn’t seem to care.”
At minimum, the episode is just another example of a person working for Trump who was eager to collude with Russia. It might indicate something more. In the spring of 2017, Wall Street Journal reporter Shane Harris found Smith and asked about this episode. Smith told Harris he had been acting independently of the Trump campaign. Within ten days of speaking with Harris, the 81-year-old Smith was found dead in a hotel room, with a bag over his head attached with rubber bands and two helium tanks. His suicide note claimed “no foul play whatsoever” and attributed his decision to a “recent bad turn in health since January, 2017” and the timing of his decision “to life insurance of $5 million expiring.” Asphyxiation is not unheard of as a method of suicide, and Smith had sold his condominium the previous year under a foreclosure threat, evidence in favor of the hypothesis that Smith did indeed kill himself for financial reasons.
Harris noted, however, that when they spoke, “I had no indication that he was ill or planning to take his own life.” Local police, who initially ruled the death a suicide, stopped taking questions shortly after his role in the campaign became widely known. Smith’s family has not publicly affirmed that he committed suicide or that they had an expiring life-insurance policy, nor has the FBI made any statement about his death.
Smith may well have killed himself for the reasons cited in the note. Alternatively, he might have killed himself out of fear of being questioned by the FBI, or potentially he was killed by somebody else for that same reason. If he was, or if Manafort merely suspected he was, it would explain his otherwise senseless refusal to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation.
In a Republican meeting a month before Trump clinched the 2016 nomination, the recording of which later leaked, House Speaker Paul Ryan mused about how Russia “hacked the DNC … and, like, delivered it to who?” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy replied, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” When others laughed, he added, “Swear to God.”
When the Washington Post published this exchange in May 2017, Ryan and McCarthy indignantly insisted they were joking — but if so, it was a “joke” akin to a workplace watercooler joke that the angry misfit downstairs might one day shoot up the office. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, has been known for years in Washington as “Putin’s favorite congressman” for his idiosyncratic attention to, and support for, a wide array of pro-Russian positions. (He has worked to weaken sanctions meant to punish Russia for human-rights violations, compared pro-Russian separatists who helped Russia seize Ukrainian territory to the American Founders, and denounced the “hypocrisy” of U.S. opposition to the Crimean invasion.) He is widely suspected of having an ulterior motive. That Republican leaders would either gossip or joke about Rohrabacher and Trump in the same breath indicated a deep concern about the man who — as none of them expected at the time — would go on to win the presidency.
The leaked conversation also revealed something else about the Republican Party: Putin had, by then, made very few American allies. Among elected officials, Trump and Rohrabacher stood alone in their sympathy for Russian positions. Trump had drawn a few anomalously pro-Russian advisers into his inner circle, but by early 2017, Manafort had been disgraced and Flynn forced to resign, and Page had no chance of being confirmed for any Cabinet position. Trump’s foreign-policy advisers mostly had traditionally hawkish views on Russia, with the partial exception of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon CEO who had won a Russian Order of Friendship award for his cooperation in the oil business. (Romney had been Trump’s initial choice for that position, The New Yorker reported, but Steele, in a separate dossier with a “senior Russian official” as its source, said that Russia used “unspecified channels” to influence the decision.)
Now that he’s in office, Trump’s ties to Russia have attracted close scrutiny, and he has found his room to maneuver with Putin sharply constrained by his party. In early 2017, Congress passed sanctions to retaliate against Russia’s election attack. Trump lobbied to weaken them, and when they passed by vetoproof supermajorities, he was reportedly “apoplectic” and took four days to agree to sign the bill even knowing he couldn’t block it. After their passage, Trump has failed to enforce the sanctions as directed.
Trump also moved to return to Russia a diplomatic compound that had been taken by the Obama administration; announced that he and Putin had “discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to jointly guard against “election hacking”; and congratulated the Russian strongman for winning reelection, despite being handed a card before the call warning: “Do not congratulate.”
More recently, as Trump has slipped the fetters that shackled him in his first year in office, his growing confidence and independence have been expressed in a series of notably Russophilic moves. He has defied efforts by the leaders of Germany, France, Britain, and Canada to placate him, opening a deep rift with American allies. He announced that Russia should be allowed back into the G7, from which it had been expelled after invading Ukraine and seizing Crimea. Trump later explained that Russia had been expelled because “President Obama didn’t like [Putin]” and also because “President Obama lost Crimea, just so you understand. It’s his fault — yeah, it’s his fault.”
During the conference, Trump told Western leaders that Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia because most of its people speak Russian. In private remarks, he implored French president Emmanuel Macron to leave the European Union, promising a better deal. Trump also told fellow leaders “NATO is as bad as NAFTA” — reserving what for Trump counts as the most severe kind of insult to describe America’s closest military alliance. At a rally in North Dakota last month, he echoed this language: “Sometimes our worst enemies are our so-called friends or allies, right?”
Last summer, Putin suggested to Trump that the U.S. stop having joint military exercises with South Korea. Trump’s advisers, worried the concession would upset American allies, talked him out of the idea temporarily, but, without warning his aides, he offered it up in negotiations with Kim Jong-un. Again confounding his advisers, he has decided to arrange a one-on-one summit with Putin later this month, beginning with a meeting between the two heads of state during which no advisers will be present.
“There’s no stopping him,” a senior administration official complained to Susan Glasser at The New Yorker. “He’s going to do it. He wants to have a meeting with Putin, so he’s going to have a meeting with Putin.”
Even though the 2018 version of Trump is more independent and authentic, he still has advisers pushing for and designing the thrusts of Trumpian populism. Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross are steering him toward a trade war; Stephen Miller, John Kelly, and Jeff Sessions have encouraged his immigration restrictionism. But who is bending the president’s ear to split the Western alliance and placate Russia?
Trump’s determination to conciliate Putin can’t be dismissed as casual trolling or some idle attraction to a friendly face. It has a serious cost: He is raising suspicions among the public, and among probably some hawkish Republican senators, whose support he very much needs against Mueller. His motive for these foreign-policy moves is obviously strong enough in his mind to be worth prolonging an investigation he is desperate to terminate.
There is one other way in which Trump’s behavior has changed in recent months. As Mueller has plunged deeper into his murky dealings with Russia, the president has increasingly abandoned the patina of innocence. Trump used to claim he would be vindicated, and his advisers insisted his periodic fits sprang from an irrational resentment that Mueller was tarnishing his election and obscuring his achievements.
Trump barely puts much effort into predicting a clean bill of health anymore. He acts like a man with a great deal to hide: declining to testify, dangling pardons to keep witnesses from incriminating him, publicly chastising his attorney general for not quashing the whole investigation, and endorsing Russia’s preposterous claims that it had nothing to do with the election at all. (“Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” he tweeted last month, contradicting the conclusion of every U.S. intelligence agency.) Trump’s behavior toward Russia looks nothing like that of a leader of a country it attacked and exactly like that of an accessory after the fact.
“After” could be optimistic. The logic of Russia’s role in helping Trump has not changed since the election. If Trump’s campaign hired hackers to penetrate his opponent’s communications or voting machines, they would risk arrest. But Putin can hire hackers with impunity. Mueller can indict Russians, and he has, but he can’t arrest them unless they decide to leave Russia. Outsourcing Trump’s hacking work to Putin made perfect sense for both men in 2016, and still does.
And if you’re Putin, embarking upon a coveted summit with the most Russophilic president since World War II, who is taking a crowbar to the alliance of your enemies, why wouldn’t you help him in 2018 and 2020? Ever since the fall of 2016, when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately turned down an Obama-administration proposal for a bipartisan warning to Russia not to interfere in the election, the underlying dynamic has been set: Most Republicans would rather win an election with Putin’s help than lose one without it. The Democrats, brimming with rage, threaten to investigate Russian activity if they win a chamber of Congress this November. For Putin to redouble his attack — by hacking into voting machines or some other method — would be both strategic and in keeping with his personality. Why stop now?
Meanwhile, the White House has eliminated its top cybersecurity position. That might simply reflect a Republican bias against bureaucratic expertise. But it might also be just what it looks like: The cop on the beat is being fired because his boss is in cahoots with the crooks.
Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, according to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, Israeli intelligence officials gathered at CIA headquarters, where they were told something astonishing: Russia, the agency believed, had “leverages of pressure” over the incoming president. Therefore, the agency advised the Israelis to consider the possibility that Trump might pass their secrets on to Russia. The Israelis dismissed the warning as outlandish. Who could believe that the world’s most powerful country was about to hand its presidency to a Russian dupe? That the United States government had, essentially, fallen?
A few months later, Trump invited Russian diplomats into the Oval Office. He boasted to them that he had fired “nut job” James Comey. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” At the same meeting, Trump passed on to the Russians a highly sensitive intelligence secret Israel had captured from a valuable source inside ISIS. It was the precise danger Israel had been cautioned about.
Like many of the suspicious facts surrounding Trump’s relations with Russia, it was possible to construct a semi-innocent defense. Maybe he just likes to brag about what he knows. Maybe he’s just too doddering to remember what’s a secret. And as often happens, these unwieldy explanations gained general acceptance. It seemed just too crazy to consider the alternative: It was all exactly what it appeared to be.
*This article appears in the July 9, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
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