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In 2018, I got either famous or notorious – depending on my point of view – for writing a story speculating that Russia was secretly influencing Trump (which turned out to be correct). The most controversial suggestion in history was that it was plausible, if hardly certain, that Russia’s influence on Trump could go back as far as 1987.
Here is what I wrote in this controversial section:
During the Soviet era, the Russian secret service threw a wide network in order to gain influence on influential figures abroad. (The practice continues to this day.) The Russians not only attract prominent politicians and cultural workers, but also people who, in their opinion, have the potential to become more important in the future. In 1986, the Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin met Trump in New York, praised him for his construction work 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 in the public record to describe his visit other than Trump’s own memory The art of the deal that Soviet officials were eager for him to build a hotel there. (It never happened.)
Trump returned from Moscow full of political ambition. He began the first of a long line of presidential flirtations, which included a noticeable trip to New Hampshire. Two months after visiting 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 put it, brought angry populist charges against the allies who benefited from American military protection. “Why don’t these nations pay 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 began discussing issues that happened to be closely aligned with Russia’s geopolitical goal of separating the United States from its allies. But there was a reasonable chance – I easily put it at 10 or 20 percent – that the Soviets had implanted some of those thoughts in his head that he had never voiced before the trip.
If I had to guess today, I would put the probability higher, maybe over 50 percent. Part of the reason I am more confident is that Trump has further fueled suspicions by taking abnormally pro-Russian positions. He met with Putin in Helsinki, appeared strangely submissive, and spread Putin’s propaganda on a number of topics, including the ridiculous possibility of a joint Russian-American cybersecurity unit. (Russia, of course, committed the worst cyber hack in American history not long ago, which in retrospect made Trump’s idea even more self-destructive than it was then.) He seemed to be doing anything to alienate American allies, every time they meet met during his tenure, the collaboration blow up.
He would either refuse to admit Russian wrongdoing – Trump even refused to admit that the regime poisoned Alexei Navalny – or repeat bizarre snippets of Russian propaganda: NATO was bad business for America because Montenegro could launch an attack on Russia; the Soviets had to invade Afghanistan in the 1970s to defend against terrorism. These weren’t things to talk about in his normal routine of watching Fox News and calling out Republican flatterers.
A second reason is that reporter Craig Unger had a former KGB spy put on record that Russian intelligence had worked with Trump for decades. In his new book, American Kompromat, Unger interviewed Yuri Shvets, who told him that the KGB had manipulated Trump with simple flattery. “In terms of personality, the guy is not a complicated cookie,” he said, “his most important traits are a low intellect paired with excessive vanity. That makes him a dream for an experienced recruiter. “
This is pretty similar to what I suggested in my story:
Russian intelligence is gaining influence abroad by being subtle and patient. It exerts varying degrees of influence on different types of people and uses a basic blackmail tool that involves the exploitation of greed, stupidity, ego, and sexual appetite. All of these are qualities that Trump has in abundance.
That is what intelligence experts mean when they call Trump a Russian “asset”. It’s not the same as being one agent. An asset is someone who can be manipulated as opposed to someone who knowingly and covertly works for you.
Shvets told Unger that the KGB cultivated Trump as an American leader and persuaded him to run his ad against American alliances. “The ad was rated by the Directorate of Active Actions as one of the most successful KGB operations at the time,” he said. “It was a big deal – to have three major American newspapers publishing KGB soundbites.”
To be clear, while Shvets is a credible source, what he is saying is inconclusive. There are many possible motives for a former Soviet spy who became a critic of the Russian regime for fabricating an indictment against Trump. But the story he tells is almost exactly the possibility that I have outlined. And it pretty much fits the well-known facts about how Russian intelligence works and what Trump did.
One thing that I’ve changed my mind about since my story was published is the effect it would have on the American public, even if it were proven.
There is an attraction to the mysterious that makes certain unknown facts superimposed. Uncovering the secret identity of “Deep Throat” was considered one of journalism’s greatest awards until FBI Assistant Director Mark Felt admitted it was. If Jimmy Hoffa’s body had appeared shortly after his disappearance, its location would have been forgotten almost instantly, rather than being the subject of decades of speculation and exploration.
The nature and origin of Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia likely fall into this category. The whole story will probably never be known for certain. Robert Mueller was believed to be pursuing this but avoided counterintelligence investigations to focus more closely on criminal violations; The Senate Intelligence Committee provided tantalizing evidence of the collusion in the 2016 election campaign, but had no access to Trump’s closest circle. In theory, Trump lieutenants Paul Manafort and Roger Stone or their Russian contacts, such as Manafort partner Konstantin Kilimnik, could at some point make some kind of deathbed confession, but even that would not be conclusive due to the fundamental unreliability of its source.
If something like the darkest plausible story turns out to be true, how important would it be? Probably not that much. Don’t get me wrong: Russia has no secret means of influencing an American president Well. It just got me to think that even if we could have confirmed the worst, to the point that even Trump’s supporters could no longer deny it, not much would have changed. Trump would not have been forced to resign, and his Republican supporters shouldn’t have turned him down. The controversy would have simply receded into the wide landscape of partisan talking points – another thing Liberals ridicule Trump and Conservatives complain about the media covering it instead of Nancy Pelosi’s Freezer or Antifa or the latest campus outrage.
I think that’s also because a lot of incriminating information has been confirmed and very little has changed as a result. In 2018, Buzzfeed reported, and in the next year, Robert Mueller confirmed explosive details from a Russian Compromate Operation. During the campaign, Russia had contemplated a Moscow construction contract that would safely bring Trump hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. Not only did he win this stroke of luck, but he also lied in public about his dealings with Russia at the time, which gave Vladimir Putin additional influence over him. (Russia could expose Trump’s lies anytime he displeased Moscow.)
Mueller even testified that the deal gave Russia an influence over Trump. But when these facts passed from the realm of the mysterious to the confirmed, they became uninteresting.
We do not know what other sources of influence Russia had or how far back it went. Ultimately, the value Trump offered Russia has been compromised by his incompetence and limited ability to tightly control even his own administration’s foreign policy. It wasn’t just the fabled “deep state” that undermined Trump. Even his own handpicked agents constantly undermined him, especially with regard to Russia. Whatever the influence of Putin was limited to a single person, which meant Trump couldn’t find anyone to run the State Department, National Security Agency, etc. who shared his peculiar Russophilia.
The truth, I suspect, was about as bad as I suspected and, paradoxically, anti-climactic at the same time. Trump was surrounded by all kinds of hideous characters who manipulated him into saying and doing things that were against the national interest. One of these characters was Putin. In the end, their influence reached the limit, that the character they influenced was a weak, failed president.