COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN
by Luke Harding
Vintage Books, 354 pages
reviewed by Susan Sheu
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.
— from an unclassified report by the CIA, FBI, and NSA, January 2017, in Collusion by Luke Harding
To live in the current political environment and try to make sense of it—and to have hope for a democratic future—requires stamina, a focused mind, and a stomach for weeding through fake news and whataboutism to settle on the most pertinent, verifiable facts. This is complicated by the fact that the journalists we rely on are both reporting news and defending themselves online against rhetorical and sometimes physical threats from Donald Trump and his supporters, some who are real people and some who are bots and trolls deployed from other countries.
Following the news has come to feel like the classic sci-fi book Ender’s Game, where players in warlike videogame discover they are actually soldiers fighting a real war, remotely. Both Rachel Maddow, Rhodes Scholar and now MSNBC network commentator, and veteran progressive writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, use the phrase “build a wall chart” to describe the complex web of Russian post-Soviet spies, oligarchs, criminals, and the network of shell corporations and money that link them to key American business people and, now that Trump is president, government workers.
If these two keen political observers need a wall chart to keep the players straight, the rest of us need a wall chart, an appendix, and a Virgil-like guide to remind us who’s who and redirect us when our attention flags or our minds get lost in the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, banks, corporations, and the jumble of Russian and former Eastern bloc names. Fortunately, Luke Harding, a British journalist, has written an expertly researched book to lead us through the labyrinth.
Reading Harding’s new book Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, published in mid-November by Vintage Books, gives the sense that we are living in a John Le Carre novel where we are not certain that the West won the Cold War or that the Cold War ever ended. Collusion is a deep dive into the coverage of the administration and the crisscrossing lines of Russian money and influence. Harding is an award-winning journalist who lived in Russia from 2007 to 2011 as The Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief, until the Kremlin ordered him to leave the country, the first such expulsion of a Western journalist since the Cold War. His recent articles in The Guardian are largely responsible for the average political news junkie’s knowledge about Trump campaign and administration ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin. His meetings with Christopher Steele, the British former spy, Russia expert, and now freelance intelligence agent who wrote the Steele Dossier, also inform the narrative. Steele, Harding tells us, believes the dossier he researched and wrote from 2014 to 2016 on Trump’s Russian ties is “70 to 90 percent accurate.”
If these two keen political observers need a wall chart to keep the players straight, the rest of us need a wall chart, an appendix, and a Virgil-like guide to remind us who’s who and redirect us when our attention flags or our minds get lost in the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, banks, corporations, and the jumble of Russian and former Eastern bloc names.
Using Steele’s work and his own investigation, Harding is tackling a subject that is at least one order of magnitude more complex than the Watergate corruption scandal in Richard Nixon’s campaign and administration. His subject and style recall Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All the President’s Men, or the 1976 film adaptation, which was seminal to a generation’s understanding the depth of lies, corruption, resentment, and revenge, that were ultimately responsible for Nixon’s rise to the presidency, as well as the leaks and law enforcement that led to Nixon’s fall. Harding seems to have a similar goal in Collusion. While our media era seems to be dominated by hot takes, shallow analysis, opinions, and trolling, Harding’s work is thorough, engaging, and one would hope a benchmark for a higher standard for journalism than what Americans consumed in the election cycle of 2015 and 2016.
In October, just before Harding’s book went to press, the FBI indicted Paul Manafort, formerly Trump campaign manager, and his business partner Rick Gates. They are now awaiting trial under house arrest. Earlier this summer FBI arrested former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos, who is now cooperating with the investigation.
I have updated this essay every day for the last two weeks, trying to stay ahead of the quicksand of breaking news about Russia’s ties to Donald Trump and the Republican Party, and I am pretty certain that it will be out of date by the time you read it. In the time since I’ve finished reading Harding’s book and begun writing this essay, Michael Flynn, who served for three weeks as Trump’s National Security Advisor, has pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI and has agreed to cooperate with its investigation. Most intelligence and legal experts believe the light charge against Flynn is evidence of Mueller’s strategy to get him to cooperate in the case against other Trump administration officials, including Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, Jr. Writing in the Atlantic in mid-November, Julia Ioffe revealed a leaked email correspondence in 2016 between Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Donald Trump, Jr., discussing the possibility of collaborating to share espionage for political favors. Robert Mueller, who leads the special investigation, has subpoenaed Donald Trump and Kushner’s financial transactions with Deutsche Bank.
The Frankfurt-based financial institution has been implicated since the 2008 financial crisis in international money laundering, including for the Russian government and its oligarchs. News broke a couple of days ago that K.T. MacFarland, Flynn’s former Deputy National Security Advisor, now says she has no recollection of her boss’s contacts with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, despite having sent emails arranging the two men’s correspondence. Paul Manafort violated the terms of his bail by ghostwriting an op-ed with a member of Russian intelligence, in an attempt to influence public opinion about his political work on behalf of Russia in Ukraine. Manafort’s previous agreement with the FBI is now void. A Republican Party delegate from Texas confirmed that Trump’s only contribution to the GOP Convention platform in 2016 was to demand that the United States scale back its assistance to Ukraine against Russian military aggression and political interference. In what seems almost like an aside, in the last couple of days there have been news reports of a conservative operative reaching out to Trump campaign member Rick Dearborn and now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to arrange back-channel meetings between Trump’s and Putin’s advisors at the National Rifle Association’s meeting in 2016. And this morning, as I write this draft, news is breaking that Flynn was texting on Trump’s inauguration day in January 2017 to broker deals to “rip up” American sanctions against Russia and to build Russian-backed nuclear plants in the Middle East. On many days, the “drip drip drip” that political watchers write to describe the ubiquity of leaks that expose the corruption in the Trump administration seems more like a broken water main.
The phrase other than “drip drip drip” and “build a wall chart” that writers tend to use when writing about the Trump-Russia ties as well as the hidden power structure of all politics is “follow the money,” borrowed from Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation into Nixon’s Watergate crisis. Following the trail of money to Trump, his family, and his associates, according to Harding and other journalists such as David Fahenthold at the Washington Post and many others, leads us to troubling conclusions. How he has used the office of the presidency to enrich himself by promoting his golf courses, chain of Trump hotels, including lucrative new Trump and Kushner family deals in China, and his private club in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, journalists and legal experts argue, almost certainly violates the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution. While Trump might have lied during the campaign about being a billionaire, perhaps after his bankruptcies and uneven record in business being only a multimillionaire, the presidency has given Trump new business opportunities and the promise of greater future wealth.
Others who are opposed to the administration and suspicious of the election take other routes to question its legitimacy. Legal experts opine on whether Trump or his associates might also be guilty of the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating with a foreign country over a dispute with the United States, which seems to have occurred during the election and prior to the transfer of power at the Trump’s inauguration. Impeachment seems unlikely as long as Republicans control the U.S. Congress. Political analysts question whether members of the Trump administration are guilty of violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits all but the highest members of the executive branch from engaging in some forms of political activity and advocacy, as Kellyanne Conway and Nikki Haley appear to have done recently by supporting conservative candidates through tweets and press statements. Pundits and political observers have watched Trump’s erratic, reactive Twitter feed and press appearances and discussed the likelihood of his cabinet members invoking the 25th Amendment, which designates the procedure for replacing a president in the event of death, resignation, resignation, or removal, presumably due to incompetence or other reasons.
But Harding and others investigating Trump’s long history of Russia clients and associates are following a different but related trail. As Harding points out, the three-decade-long kompromat file on Trump that likely exists in a KGB vault in Moscow, the long trail of suspicious and illogical real estate transactions between Russian tycoons and the Trump Organization, the vast Deutsche Bank loans to Trump in 2008, and the undisclosed financial dealings that Trump’s missing tax returns are hiding, all point to a file cabinet of potential blackmail material on Trump:
Together, these factors appeared to place Trump under some sort of obligation. One possible manifestation of this was the president’s courting of Putin in Hamburg. Another was the composition of his campaign team and government, especially in its first iteration. Wherever you looked there was a Russian trace. Trump’s pick for secretary of state? Rex Tillerson, a figure known and trusted in Moscow, and recipient of the Order of Friendship. National security adviser? Michael Flynn, Putin’s dinner companion and a beneficiary of undeclared Russian fees. Campaign manager? Paul Manafort, longtime confidant to ex-Soviet oligarchs. Foreign policy adviser? Carter Page, an alleged Moscow asset who gave documents to Putin’s spies. Commerce secretary? Wilbur Ross, an entrepreneur with Russia-connected investments. Personal lawyer? Michael Cohen, who sent emails to Putin’s press secretary. Business partner? Felix Sater, son of a Russian American mafia boss. And other personalities too. It was almost as if Putin had played a role in naming Trump’s cabinet.
Who Trump is financially beholden to abroad, whether in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, or Russia, matters because it affects the security and sovereignty of the United States. As detailed in early November leaks of international financial documents, called “the Paradise Papers,” the links connecting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s family to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other members of Trump’s team may explain some of the Mafioso-style opacity and quid pro quo demands between the United States and Russia.
Following the international money highlights several facts. First, while it is widely understood that among all of the Russian oligarchs, the most powerful and likely the richest is Putin, who was a KGB Lieutenant Colonel and FSB chief prior to becoming the Russian president and prime minister. Like Trump, who runs some of his business holdings through his children and son-in-law Jared Kushner, it appears that Putin’s wealth may hide behind his son-in-law, who controls Sibur, a Russian gas and petrochemical company. Sibur is a client of Navigator Holdings, a shipping company partly owned by Wilbur Ross. Both are part of the network of real and shell corporations that run through the Bank of Cyprus, which also has deep connections to Wilbur Ross and Deutsche Bank, and is known by intelligence and law enforcement agencies as an effective money laundering institution for Russian billionaires and others with shared financial interests.
The class and money structure Putin has put in place since assuming the presidency in 2000 recollects the court of Louis XIV of France, where concentric circles of wealthy and powerful nobility live in varying degrees of opulence around one man who is the strongest and richest of them all. As with Louis XIV’s famous dictum, “l’etat, c’est moi,” Putin is the law. The oligarchs and the upper classes are content provided their wealth remains intact. But Russia’s finances are insecure, perhaps because mafia-like corruption and opaque accounting is the ubiquitous dark matter of their economy. If the economy falters, Harding argues, the wealthy will become disloyal. Their abandonment could lead to a popular uprising that would threaten Putin’s power. As Harding writes:
What terrified Russian leadership was that a depressed economy could lead to hunger and discontent. This might spread among Putin’s conservative base and spark into something bigger and less containable. The specter was mass revolt.
The second financial and legal fact is the Magnitsky Act, passed in a bipartisan effort by the United States Congress in 2012. By design, it harms Russia’s economy and angers Putin because it imposes sanctions in retaliation for the imprisonment and death of a Russian accountant. Here is where it becomes obvious that we need a wall chart, or at least a very clear head. It is easy to lose the thread of why the death of a tax accountant in Russian should matter to a farmer in Iowa or a student in California. Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009 under suspicious circumstances, likely torture and lack of medical care, after he was imprisoned for investigating Russian officials for tax fraud. Under President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the United States sought to enforce norms of democracy on a country that wasn’t acting as though it wanted to be recognized as such. The law and its extension in 2016 is designed to penalize global human rights abuses by denying 18 of the wealthiest Russian oligarchs access to the American banking system. Following the sanctions, Putin banned Americans from adopting Russian children, which has provided the Trump’s administration with code words to discuss “Russian adoptions” as a convenient cover to America turning a blind eye to human rights violations and financial malfeasance.
The third financial event to consider is that President Trump was forced to renew Russian sanctions in 2017 after a nearly unanimous Congressional vote cut off Russian access to the lucrative American credit market. However, despite the Congressional vote in August, as of October the Trump administration is delaying enforcing the sanctions, trying to render them moot despite bipartisan pressure from Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin. As of last month, the United States owed China $1.2 trillion, or 30 percent of the debt the United States owed to foreign countries. Provided the Russian sanctions remain in place, America will be borrowing more from China rather than Russia. If we believe that Russians helped engineer Trump’s success in the Republican primary and then manipulated social media to suppress votes, leaked Democratic emails including Hillary Clinton’s, and possibly tampered with votes, all in order to secure an ideal Manchurian Candidate to enrich Russia while also enriching himself in the model of a tin pot dictator, then we would conclude that Putin is not getting a good return on his investment:
For Vladimir Putin, this was a profound setback. The Kremlin’s campaign to help Trump win the White House had a primary goal. That was to bring about an end to America’s economic embargo. (The secondary aim was to shove a finger in the United States’ preexisting social and ideological wounds. This had succeeded well enough.)
Observing who will benefit from these unlikely alliances and following the money is key to understanding why so many conservative American tribalists like Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and Devin Nunes of California and Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin are choosing party over country and joining forces with a Russian-backed president and advisors. While extremist social and religious conservatives like Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Roy Moore have stated their admiration for Vladimir Putin because of his repression of homosexuality and gay marriage in Russia, for many Republican politicians it comes down to how they supplement their civil servant salaries. Money from their donors, familiar conservative American kingmakers such as the Koch Brothers and Robert and Rebekah Mercer, will cease to flow into the Republican lawmakers reelection funds if the American judiciary is not packed with conservative Constitutional originalist judges, if taxes are not slashed and the size of government isn’t reduced to almost nothing, if spending on education, health care, and public services isn’t dwarfed, and legal protections for minorities eliminated. Money, and the power it confers, have put us into this situation.
While Putin and other powerful Russians are motivated by money, the sense from Harding’s book is that they are also motivated by cultural pride. Harding notes that, all of the Russian strongmen who have ruled since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, regardless of their stated politics, have revered Russian culture perhaps above ideology. Christopher Steele, one of the first Westerners to visit formerly forbidden sites after the fall of communism, found in Stalin’s secret bunker not homages to Lenin or Marx but instead an imperial portrait of Peter the Great. According to a Guardian interview in 2014 with a hacker from the secretive Russian mercenary group Shaltai-Boltai (also known as Humpty Dumpty), “Putin is a genuine patriot who believed that his rule was in Russia’s best interests” and “really is like a tsar.” As a KGB spy under Communism who served in East Germany, Putin viewed the dissolution of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century.” It makes sense, then, that in Putin’s incursions into Ukraine as well as Georgia and his actions to weaken NATO, the European Union, and the United States, he seeks to rebuild a Russian empire.
While Putin and other powerful Russians are motivated by money, the sense from Harding’s book is that they are also motivated by cultural pride. Harding notes that, all of the Russian strongmen who have ruled since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, regardless of their stated politics, have revered Russian culture perhaps above ideology.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not only threatened his country’s position and stability, but also humiliated Putin by pointing out that Russia is an autocracy where the rule of law means little. It makes sense then that the damage Putin would seek to inflict would not be limited to money but also to expose the underlying hypocrisy of an imperfect but stable Western democracy trying to impose its value system on an ancient culture. Russians influencing the election through social media demonstrated that their strategists knew us better than we knew ourselves. Harding writes that borderless hackers like Wikileaks and Shaltai-Boltai, were like “privateers” in a “cyber world [that] looked like the high seas of long ago,” selling their services to the highest bidder while proclaiming their “authenticity” and commitment higher principles of transparency. The US joint intelligence agencies’ report on January 6, 2017, note that Wikileaks moved its hosting to Moscow in September 2016 and “suggests that Wikileaks had become, in effect, a subbranch of Russian intelligence and its in-house publishing wing” for disseminating hacked data.
That Russian strategists pushing “crooked Hillary” memes and messages on Facebook and Twitter in states like Wisconsin and Michigan could influence voters showed that they had a deep understanding of the resentments that divide urban from rural and educated from less educated voters. General Mike Hayden, a former CIA and NSA director, says the Russians used “weaponized data” and “shoved it into U.S. space.” The military targets our loyalties and our sentiments, making the attacks more insidious. Russian troll farms pumped out nonstop tweets and posts and created Facebook groups that purported to be Black Lives Matter groups, or anti-Black Lives Matter groups, or Muslim activist groups, or nativist Texans who wanted Muslims out. It was as though the antagonists knew exactly what recipe was needed to recreate a divisive, Tower of Babel environment that would confuse low-information voters and inhibit any rational thought or discourse.
This recipe to deepen existing social divides seemed to be a natural extension of the outrage pedaled by rightwing strategists, beginning with Nixon’s “dirty trickster” Roger Stone and Fox News founder Roger Ailes. The propaganda packaged by Fox News and its descendants as journalism—such as Breitbart, InfoWars, and Project Veritas not only draws viewers with free time and a penchant for resentment and conspiracy theories—but also increasingly serves as a rightwing Greek chorus of outrage and a source of policy ideas. Now that Trump is president, Fox and Breitbart’s chief Steve Bannon are increasingly playing the role of official state media. Stone still works as a lobbyist and general force of chaos in Washington. He and his longtime lobbyist partner Paul Manafort came up with the hardball negative presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
After Washington, D.C., Manafort took his talents to the former Soviet Union. Beginning in the 1990s, Manafort worked for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch whose mafia ties prohibit him from obtaining an American visa. Deripaska supported Ukrainian candidate and former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, who won the presidency in 2010 after a humiliating defeat and attempt to steal the election in 2004. Manafort’s job was to rehabilitate Yanukovych’s image among Ukrainians and encourage their trust, ending in a victory. Upon winning, Yanukovych promptly began to reverse fledgling democratic gains, crushing the press, courts, parliament, and other institutions under his thuggish control. He and his family quickly amassed a fortune from Russian loans. He began persecuting the more urbane and educated Ukrainians, and jailed his more progressive female political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Working to polish Yanukovych’s image and manage his campaign in Ukraine earned Manafort $12.7 million, recorded in mafia-like secret ledgers and discovered in August 2016. Yanukovych was deposed in 2014 and fled Ukraine, stealing vast sums of money. The social uprising that helped to depose Yanukovych was followed by Russian military incursions. Manafort appears to have taken his payment and moved his operations back to the United States, where he soon would serve a similar candidate’s campaign. Like the campaign in Ukraine and his previous American work, he would seek to sow division and confusion among rival cultural factions as a political strategy and hope for the same victory.
The news and political landscape changes so rapidly and the ground underneath us seems to shift with every news alert about the latest unhinged presidential tweet threatening the press or North Korea or judicial decision to overrule a ban or uphold an executive order. News about Russia and Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump’s financial is shuffled in with reports of ICE raiding Latino neighborhoods, New York Times profiles of ordinary white supremacists, protests about Confederate statues, the dismantling of the State Department and national parks, sexual predators in politics and media, threats to remove legal protections for LGBTQ people, the disastrous attacks on American healthcare and system of taxation, it is hard to see what if any connection exists between all of these reports of destruction. Our attention spans are worn thin by our social media feeds, the breaking news alerts on our phones, and the shock and awe pace of this administration’s attempt to overturn any remains of Enlightenment liberalism and the Obama legacy.
It is hard not to contemplate the array of news about Russia, the long, secretive relationships Trump, Rex Tillerson, Wilbur Ross, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and even the ridiculous Cater Page have enjoyed with Putin and major Russian oligarchs and government officials, and wonder why these men as well as many elected leaders of the American conservative party would be in such thralldom to a foreign country that many Westerners including our allies in Europe view as a hostile dictatorship, that was long our arch-enemy. In the last two years, it was also hard to watch despairing and anxious members of American society, the much written-about “white working class” as well as those who might identify as working class but are in fact earning high median incomes, choose a furious, flashy millionaire as their spokesman. Now that we are on the brink of passing a ruinous Republican tax bill that will only benefit the richest members of society and penalize everyone else, it is hard to watch the unraveling of election-year populism into a permanent redistribution of money to the oligarchs—not just the American oligarchs but also the Russian oligarchs and those whose nationality defines them less than their investment portfolios and their preferred vacation spots. It is as though we were watching the last chapter of George Orwell’s 1946 classic novel Animal Farm unfold, when Napoleon and the other pigs joined with the animals’ former enemies, the human farmers, and complimented one another on how well they starved their citizens to enrich themselves:
“If you have your lower animals to contend with,” [Mr. Pilkington] said, ‘we have our lower classes!” This bon mot set the table in a roar; and Mr. Pilkington once again congratulated the pigs on the low rations, the long working hours, and the general absence of pampering which he had observed on Animal Farm.
It is easy to see why Trump admires leaders such as Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines. One of these strongmen is the kind of leader that the United States could end up with next time, if we are not willing to heal our democracy at a root level—a much smarter Trump with greater self-control, with the same dictator’s primal instinct to suppress all opposition, consolidate all wealth and power, and guard his rule until he passes leadership on to a chosen successor or family member.
It is hard not to contemplate the array of news about Russia, the long, secretive relationships Trump, Rex Tillerson, Wilbur Ross, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and even the ridiculous Cater Page have enjoyed with Putin and major Russian oligarchs and government officials, and wonder why these men as well as many elected leaders of the American conservative party would be in such thralldom to a foreign country that many Westerners including our allies in Europe view as a hostile dictatorship, that was long our arch-enemy.
In describing the web of money, corporations, and millionaires and billionaires, Harding writes that beginning in the 1980s with Trump Tower’s popularity among wealthy Russian immigrants, including criminals, the Trump Organization has effectively served as a means of Russian money laundering for the last four decades. So, the overall question of the American election of 2016—examining the ties between Russian and American billionaires and millionaires including Trump and many of his associates—requires us to ask: is this just a case of many mutual common interests coinciding, or part of a more nefarious scheme using both money and cultural pride to undermine America’s closely held myth of an egalitarian democracy and realign world power? Is this Putin taking advantage of Trump’s ignorance, amorality, and lack of national and personal allegiance beyond family to plunder American money, ego, and reputation to settle a score? Or is this the convergence of two authoritarian, nationalistic gangsters’ interests, to enrich themselves and their closest loyalists at the expense of everyone else?
Keep following the money, Harding strongly advises.
Susan Sheu lives in Los Angeles and received the 2017 Bennington Prize in Nonfiction for her memoir-in-progress, The Rag and Bone Man.