Trump/Russia From 30,000 Feet

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Essence of the Trump/Russia Story

Luke Harding, Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and how Russia Helped Donald Trump Win
Adapted for WhoWhatWhy from Maja Kucova (Flickr - CC 2.0) and Vintage.

Every day, efforts are being made to take us down the proverbial rabbit hole of the Trump/Russia connection. The media digs deep into the lies told by each inhabitant of Planet Trump, and we are regaled with the backstory of every Russian who ever made contact.

Certainly, to make the legal case for conspiracy, treason, or obstruction, this kind of in-depth focus is needed. It’s not by accident that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly amassed almost half-a-million documents on Paul Manafort alone.

However, if we pull back and widen the focus, the real Trump-Russia story comes into plain sight. This is the story that Guardian foreign correspondent Luke Harding writes about in his book Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win — and that he spells out for Jeff Schechtman in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Some 40 years ago, back in the days of the Soviet Union and the KGB, Trump went and married Ivana Zelnickova — and the KGB noticed.

Harding, a former Moscow bureau chief, tells us that, at the time, the Soviets were looking for Americans they could “work” with. According to a memo from a KGB operative, Soviet intelligence wanted people who were corruptible, vain, narcissistic, or unfaithful. Trump checked off all of their boxes. So it’s hardly surprising that Trump’s first trip to the Soviet Union, in 1987, was fully paid for by the Soviet government.

When Trump — only a real estate developer at the time — returned from that first trip to Moscow, he took out a full page ad in the New York Times, criticizing President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.

While it seems the original “Project Trump” was mothballed as the Soviet Union collapsed, the facts show that, when Trump got into his most serious financial trouble in 2008, he once again turned to Russia.

Harding is careful to point out that this was not necessarily some grand plan by Putin. Just two very transactional and cynical guys, engaged in a corrupt and mutually beneficial relationship.

When Trump took his Miss Universe pageant to Russia in 2013, Putin saw new ways that the American entrepreneur could be of use.

Harding, who met twice with Christopher Steele and has faith in the veracity of Steele’s famous “Trump dossier,” talks to Schechtman about the bonds Trump forged in Putin’s Russia, and how those connections impact everything that has happened since.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. There’s an old expression that’s long been part of the training of any medical student. It says that if you hear hooves in the distance, look for horses, not zebras. The idea is simple. Look first in the most obvious places. Often times the solution is in plain sight and doesn’t require some deep, expensive digging. The same might very well be said of Donald Trump in Russia. Sure, we all hear about the complex web but really there’s a kind of elemental simplicity to the story. Trump came to the attention of the Soviets as far back as 1987. The Russians seeking contacts or assets in the US, dangled in front of Trump the prospect of doing business in Russia.
They paraded before him oligarchs who he admired and was frankly jealous of. They kept an eye on him for years. He even married two wives from the former Soviet bloc who grew up behind the Iron Curtain. He went back to Russia in 2013 by which time Planet Trump was surrounded by people like Michael Cohen and Felix Sater and the Agalarovs and Paul Manafort and dozens of other Russians that bought property in Trump Tower or his other real estate holdings. When he fell in financial hard times, Russia and particularly Deutsche Bank in Moscow was there to help with laundered money. In 2016 when he finally ran for president, something he’d been talking about for decades, we know the Russians intervened to help. Paul Manafort with deep Russian and Ukrainian ties, would for a time manage the campaign when he won. Again so many that were circling the mothership Trump would lie about their contacts with Russia. His cabinet would be filled with people like Wilbur Ross and Rex Tillerson and the sister of Erik Prince, all with deep and abiding ties to Russia and all the while Trump would continue to praise Vladimir Putin.
It may very well be that the story of Trump and Russia is not a witch hunt but maybe the most important political story of our generation or of our time and we’re going to talk about it today with my guest Luke Harding. He’s a journalist, writer, and award-winning foreign correspondent for the Guardian. He was the Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief between 2007 and 2011 and the Kremlin expelled him from the country because he was asking some pretty tough questions. It is my pleasure to welcome Luke Harding to Radio WhoWhatWhy, to talk about collusion, secret meetings, dirty money, and how Russia helped Donald Trump win. Luke Harding, thanks so much for joining us.
Luke Harding: Jeff, it’s great to be with you.
Jeff Schechtman: When one looks at the totality of this story going back at the very least to 1987, there’s a kind of Manchurian candidate feel about it all, the degree to which the Russians have had their eye on Trump for so long. Talk about that first.
Luke Harding: I think that’s right, this hasn’t been continuous, I think it’s been in phases but what we can say is that Moscow has been interested in Trump for at least 30 years and probably longer. We have Ivana, a woman from Communist Czechoslovakia, whom he married in 1977 and we know from archives now held in Prague that Czechoslovak spies kept an eye on the Trumps in Manhattan, talked from time to time to Ivana’s dad, still living behind the Iron Curtain and they would have they sent this, in the trade it’s called the intelligence product, would have been sent back to the KGB in Moscow. There will have been a file in Moscow on Donald Trump for a very long time, initially I think probably quite small, but it got bigger and it got very much bigger after 1987 when, as you said, Donald Trump traveled to the Soviet Union for the first time with Ivana at the invitation of and on the dime of, or the ruble of, the Soviet government.
One of the things I discovered when I was researching my book was that the then Soviet ambassador, someone called Yuri Dubinin, went out of his way to woo Donald Trump. Literally got off a plane from Moscow, drove to Trump tower, took the elevator up, knocked on the door and said, “Donald Trump you have built the most beautiful skyscraper in America if not the world, it’s my great pleasure to meet you.” Flattered him and four or five months later he’s brought over to Moscow. Now, you have to ask yourself, why would the Soviets do that? Did they love his real estate design? No, of course not, they saw him as a target, as a kind of upwardly mobile American in business and possibly politics as well who might prove useful to them in the months and years ahead.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you point out is that all of the things that they were looking for in people that might be useful to them and potential assets, that he checked off all the boxes.
Luke Harding: Yeah, I mean the thing is, we know quite a lot about this because after the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of the KGB records leaked. Separately there was a defector who was secretly working as a double agent for British Intelligence called Oleg Gordievsky — he’s still alive, living in the south of England — and he handed over top secret KGB memos to the British and they revealed that during this period, Reagan is in the White House, there’s some détente with Mikhail Gorbachev who’s the Soviet premier. But nonetheless there’s deep suspicion from the KGB towards America as there was during all of the Cold War practically. But they were looking for Americans and the boss of the KGB, someone called Vladimir Kryuchkov, was sending out messages saying, “Find me more Americans, we need more American top level contacts.” There was a personality questionnaire, which did the rounds.
The kind of person they were looking for, they wanted people who were ambitious, vain, perhaps corruptible, narcissistic, unfaithful, and also people who were lousy analysts and were perhaps suggestible and you look at this questionnaire and you think, “Well that’s Donald Trump, he ticks every single box.” And the strange post script to his trip to the Soviet Union was that about six or seven weeks after he came back, he took out three full page adverts in a series of American newspapers including the New York Times, criticizing Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. Now why would a real estate guy do that?
Separately he let it be known that he was interested in going into politics and more over he was interested in becoming president. Of course, it didn’t happen for a long time but I think whatever happened in Moscow, he came back with a new sense of strategic direction.
Jeff Schechtman: What do we think might have happened in Moscow?
Luke Harding: Well, I mean I think he would have been flattered, he would have been bugged, we know he was staying at the National Hotel, just around the corner from Red Square and the famous tomb where Lenin is embalmed and the Kremlin, I think, so his conversations would have been recorded, all of that material would have gone into the KGB’s by this point much larger file on Donald Trump. I think they would have kind of evaluated him to see whether he might be useful, whether he could do things which were politically helpful to the Soviet Union. They have certain geo strategic goals at that point, they were very keen to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies for example to sow divisions among NATO countries.
Actually the kind of things that have now come to pass under Donald Trump as president. I think what happened after that of course is that Gorbachev lost control of the situation, the Soviet Union collapsed. If you can call it Project Trump kind of was mothballed and then was subsequently revived at different moments, Trump went back to Moscow in the 1990s but I think big time in 2013 and over the last five years.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that certainly was critical during this period, from certainly in the mid 90s and even more so as we got closer to 2013, is the financial ups and downs of Trump and always needing money from somewhere.
Luke Harding: That’s right and again this is factual but we know that Russian mobsters bought condominiums in Trump Tower soon after it was completed in the 1980s. A couple of them went to jail, were convicted of federal crimes such as money laundering and racketeering. There was a famous Soviet underworld boss called “Yaponchik” or Vyacheslav Ivankov who moved from Moscow to Brighton beach in 1992 and spent three years on the run from the FBI. They eventually caught up with him and discovered during this entire period he’d been living in Trump tower secretly and so there are long standing questions about links between Russian money and Trump real estate and branded properties. We know if you just take Trump out of the equation for a second, we know that real estate is kind of the best way of money laundering but we also know that in the post Soviet period in the 1990s, there was no law in Russia. It was impossible to make a legitimate fortune, there was massive corruption that almost, the Mafia and the government kind of fused to become this sort of single ruling group and this is continued under Putin. He has a most kleptocratic regime. And then there were further questions about what deals Donald Trump may or may not have made when Russian financial interests… after the financial crash of 2008 when he was so broke he could no longer repay a big loan of $45,000,000 to Deutsche Bank.
Jeff Schechtman: As one looks at the way this evolved in the time since 1987 in particular, that it didn’t necessarily involve a grand plan or a grand project Trump, but the degree to which they kept their eye on him, he also kept his eye on the Russians and there was just needs that they both had during this period.
Luke Harding: Yes, and I think it’s very important, Jeff, to be kind of clear that Vladimir Putin is not the master of the universe, he’s not sitting in a bat cave in Russia flipping glowing red switches making things happen here and there. What you have to understand is that he’s a classic opportunist, he’s a cynic, I would say a nihilist as well who just believes in his almost divine mission to rule Russia, to restore Russia to kind of greatness and meanwhile I would say to kind of plunder Russia so that he and the people around him are all multi billionaires, some of the most richest people on the planet. Obviously he wants to find partners in various countries who can perform useful tasks and who kind of see the world that he does and I think with Donald Trump he found the ultimate transactional guy. And if you believe the dossier of Christopher Steele, the former British Intelligence officer, that the Russians had been quite energetically cultivating Trump for at least five years, they have been providing him with intelligence, which might help his political ambitions. And he has been shipping them details of what Russian oligarchs have been getting up to in the United States.
This on-off relationship kind of was blossoming and obviously, when Trump entered the political fray as a presidential candidate, it went to an entirely new level.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about what happened in 2013, Trump’s trip to Russia at that point and the degree to which that, in many ways, is the beginning of so much that’s in the Christopher Steele Dossier.
Luke Harding: I think by that point there was clearly a very definite cultivation operation of Donald Trump. He was hosted by Aras Agalarov, who is a Russian property developer. I’ve met him. He’s rather charming, he speaks impeccable English. He showed me around a housing estate he’d built for people with $50,000,000 plus in greater Moscow. But the thing about being a Russian oligarch is it’s not like being an American entrepreneur. Basically, if the Kremlin calls you then you have to take the call and you have to more or less do what you are instructed to do. Agalarov hosted Trump, he was there for the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant, and what we know for sure is that the SSB, the successor agency to the KGB, would have taped and recorded Trump in his hotel suite and indeed everywhere else as well.
What we don’t know is what’s on the tape. Christopher Steele says that Trump watched this exotic show late at night, featuring prostitutes. We can’t verify that. What’s certain is that they will have audio material, have video material from that trip. Trump will know what happened and of course most importantly, Vladimir Putin will know what happened.
Jeff Schechtman: Is this, not to try and silo it, but is this a story about business corruption that has gone too far or is this a political and an espionage story?
Luke Harding: I think it’s both. You can’t separate money and espionage in Russia, it’s the same matrix. I wrote a previous book called Mafia State, in other words, the way to think about the Russian government, it is a government, it’s got its own kind of bureaucracy, which is deeply corrupt, that’s something that glues the system together, but it’s almost like a kind of crime syndicate. So they’re interested in making money but they’re also interested in advancing Russia’s geopolitical goals, if they can do both at the same time, even better. So, I think Trump was the perfect vehicle for this but I also think we need to bear in mind that Putin and his entourage didn’t think that Donald Trump was going to win, they thought that Trump would lose but was kind of the candidate of chaos, someone who would chop the legs off Hillary Clinton who they thought was going to become president, undermine her from the very beginning and weaken her both domestically and internationally, all of which was to Russia’s advantage.
Of course, Donald Trump won and for Putin in some respects this was what you might call one of the great espionage operations of all time. There’s no doubt that Russia tried to push him over the line, how much they pushed we will probably never know but they certainly helped. The problem is that this Russia story has become such a consuming drama in America, it’s become the number one political theme, that this has made it very hard for Trump to deliver the kind of things that Putin wants, specifically for America to lift sanctions against Russia, and Trump I think would like to do this but he simply cannot.
Jeff Schechtman: In that sense do we classify an aspect of this story as treason more than collusion?
Luke Harding: I think we’re not there yet. One thing I tried to be very careful about in writing this book is to say what we know and also admit what we don’t know and I think some things in this story will be unknowable. I think in terms of collusion we’re really across the line. We know now of these meetings between Donald Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya, this Moscow lawyer who had a meeting in Trump Tower and Trump Jr. took this on the understanding that he was going to receive material from the Russian government which would damage Hillary Clinton, that’s certainly collusion. I think in terms of treason, one big question for Robert Mueller, the special counsel is, is it true as the Steele dossier alleges that the Trump team knew about the email hacking of Democratic party emails and secretly co paid for it?
I think if that can be proven, the allegation is made against Michael Cohen that he knew all about this. Trump’s personal lawyer, Cohen, denies this but I think if Mueller gets any traction on that question then we’ll be heading in the direction that you suggest.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course one of the remarkable things about this story is how many people in the Trump orbit have some connection to and some contact with Russia in some form.
Luke Harding: As you said in your introduction, a lot of this is kind of in plain sight. It is baffling. I sort of write that it’s a bit like stars in the night sky on a clear evening. You just go down the list. Why is Rex Tillerson secretary of state? He knows about oil, he may be a decent guy but he doesn’t really know anything about international diplomacy. But what he does have is an order of friendship pinned to his chest three years ago by Vladimir Putin with a sky-blue ribbon.
This means that Tillerson is a known quantity in Russia, that he is an interlocked, with him they’re comfortable. You go down, you’ve got Michael Flynn, recently admitted lying to the FBI who I think was on the receiving end of another cultivation operation with trips to Moscow in 2013 and 2015, when he sat next to Putin, also already checked out. You have Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary who has been doing business with Putin’s son-in-law. We recently revealed that story in the Paradise Papers. Then you have a whole series of very curious foreign policy aides: Carter Page, a wannabe Russian oil guy; George Papadopoulos, a young Greek American running around my town London with Russian connected professors, and so the list goes on.
It’s an extraordinary constellation, there’s a Russian trace more or less everywhere and I write it’s almost as if Putin picked the government, he didn’t, Trump did, but how does one explain this?
Jeff Schechtman: What is your sense of the frustration that must exist for Putin and Russia at this point given the seeming success on the one hand of this mission and the abject failure to bring it home because of this story becoming what it’s become?
Luke Harding: I sort of say in my epilogue that Putin is a brilliant tactician and a weak strategist. In a way he decided he was going to bet everything on Trump and Trump won. Certainly to begin with for the first couple of months, the Russian press was ecstatic. I lived in Moscow and during the four years I was there until I was finally kicked out in 2011 I don’t think I ever read a single positive article about Obama, it was relentless skewed negativity and yet the state media fated Trump, said that unlike warmonger Hillary Clinton he was a partner for Russia, he was a good guy, he was a visionary et cetera. That coverage has subsequently cooled, I think because Trump hasn’t delivered on sanctions and that is a continuous disappointment and for the billionaires around Putin who are consistently bending his ear and complaining they can no longer travel to New York, they can’t go to Switzerland, they can’t go sailing in their yacht around the Mediterranean and so on.
On the other hand what Putin has got, he’s got a United States of America more divided than at any moment in its recent history with one group of Americans shouting at another group of Americans with these divisions. Racial, cultural, political, just kind of overshadowing everything. This chaos with America retreating from the international arena to the point where you sort of think “What is US foreign policy?,” serves Putin very well. I think he is in a pretty good place at the moment, and he knows it.
Jeff Schechtman: Will we ever know the full extent of the collusion, the full extent of this story?
Luke Harding: I think yes and no. I think Mueller will, unless he’s fired of course by Donald Trump, which may yet happen, I think Mueller will dive down very deep in this and I think he will get much, probably not all, but much of the American half. But what you have bear in mind is that Putin has a highly developed network of intelligence officers. He’s got more intelligence officers in the United States than any other country on the planet. This will have been a multi-level conspiracy and those who know about it in Moscow and elsewhere, it’s a state secret. If they talk about it, the punishment is very clear. You get murdered. It’s as simple as that.
If there’s a suspicion that you’re a Russian spy, that you talk to the Americans, the penalty is death. So on the Russian side, we’re going to have to wait to get the full story until the end of the Putin regime. A bit like we had to wait till the end of the Soviet Union to discover the full crimes of the Stalin era. So, Putin just announced last week he’s standing for reelection, he’s going to do another six years taking him up to 2024. Jeff, you and I could be in an old folks home before we get that but at some point if not us, we will learn that. It will come out, I’m sure of that, but we have to be patient.
Jeff Schechtman: It also begs the question whether or not there are other Trumps, where there are other Russian assets like Trump operating in the US.
Luke Harding: For sure there are, there’s no doubt about that and also, let’s be clear, the Russians didn’t turn and spot Trump 30 years ago and say, “This man is going to be president of the United States in 2016.” They spotted him and thought: “This man has the right psychological profile and maybe he can be of use to us going forward.” And what they do, firstly they play a very long game, secondly, they identify a whole bunch of people. So, there will be other people at lower levels that we don’t know about who are cooperating for their own reasons, generally it’s kind of greed, rather than ideology and who have yet to be exposed. I think that’s absolutely right. We will learn more but not yet.
Jeff Schechtman: Luke Harding, his book is Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and how Russia Helped Donald Trump Win. Luke, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Luke Harding: Jeff, my pleasure, thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, and thank you for listening and for joining us on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and find others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.Org/Donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted for use by WhoWhatWhy from President of Russia (CC BY 3.0)

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