In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, MSNBC counterterrorism analyst and bestselling author Malcolm Nance talks in detail about how Donald Trump has, in his view, betrayed the nation as an asset in a Russian plot to place a Kremlin-friendly US president in power.
Nance argues that the effort to seduce Trump began as far back as the late 1970s. He explains why Trump began, even then, to develop a worldview that was Russia-centric and how he became beholden to Putin.
According to Nance, Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was a key figure and an even more vital link between Trump and Russia than previously thought.
Nance details how Putin made the turn from being a hardcore Communist believer in the old Soviet Union to an even stronger practitioner of fascism and financial manipulation, and how this proved to be the ideal combination for ensnaring Trump.
In this conversation with Jeff Schechtman, Nance talks about what he sees as an emerging international alliance of autocrats of which Trump seeks to be a member — an alliance whose goals are the destruction of NATO, the dissolution of the European Union, and the abandoning of American allies in Syria and the wider Middle East.
In this far-ranging conversation, Nance reveals how Putin’s’ intelligence skills were honed in East Germany and how the Russian leader would have used years of KGB surveillance on Trump to manipulate the US president into an easily recruitable asset.
Malcolm Nance’s most recent book is The Plot to Betray America: How Team Trump Embraced Our Enemies, Compromised Our Security, and How We Can Fix It (Hachette Books, November 2019).
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.
Perhaps our greatest spy novelist of the cold war, John le Carré, talks today about what he sees as the appetite for superpower, that still exists in the U.S. and Russia. Today though, he says what’s shared is the desire for oligarchy, the dismissal of truth, the contempt actually for the electorate, and for the democratic system. That’s common to both of them. While the U.S. has certainly made mistakes, and not always been pure in its motives and actions, today under Donald Trump something is different. What is it, and how did we get here, and to what extent is the Trump-Russia connection part of what’s changed? Is Putin as Machiavellian as we’ve been led to believe, and have we now gone too far down the rabbit hole for any of this to change?
|Jeff Schechtman:||Few understand this better than my guest, Malcolm Nance, who back in 2014 was prescient about some of the issues that we’re facing in litigating, on this very day. Malcolm Nance is a former U.S. Navy officer specializing in cryptology. He’s the author of the previous New York Times bestsellers, The Plot to Hack America and The Plot to Destroy Democracy. He’s an internationally recognized intelligence, a foreign policy commentator, and a counter terrorism analyst for NBC news and MSNBC. It is my pleasure to welcome Malcolm Nance to talk about his newest work, The Plot to Betray America: How Team Trump Embraced Our Enemies, Compromised Our Security and How We Can Fix It.
Malcolm Nance, thanks for joining us on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
|Malcolm Nance:||Good morning. I’m very glad to be here. And If I could make a quick comment, your reference to John le Carré. Just imagine if in these George Smiley novels, that Karla, his Soviet counterpart whom we helped defect, would become the leader of Russia, and then would work to destroy democracy around the world. That’s where we are.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||In fact, as we sit here today, these hearings are taking place, these impeachment hearings about Trump asking a foreign government for a personal political favor. In many ways, your current book begins with Trump asking Russia for Hillary Clinton’s emails. Talk about the essential threads that tie these things together.|
|Malcolm Nance:||Well, the entire process that we’re going through today, certainly with the impeachment of Donald Trump and his involvement in Ukraine, are deeply tied to the initial narrative that Russia attacked the United States and did so with the intent to break our democracy. In fact, they are doing a relatively good job of helping Donald Trump establish what I call a constitutional autocracy. All of these things have, you know, a nodal point, where all of the players seem to come through at one time. And that is Donald Trump, and Paul Manafort. These two people, and you recall Paul Manafort was Donald Trump’s campaign manager. Manafort had a history of dirty tricks, working with pro-Moscow Ukrainian government. After the fall of the Soviet Union, when Ukraine became independent, Moscow had been working feverously to get them back into the new modern Russia sphere. Ukraine didn’t want that. They wanted to be independent. They wanted to be Western oriented. They wanted to have ties with the European Union. They wanted to be part of NATO, and not the old Soviet world, which would become Vladimir Putin’s ex-KGB officer-led Russia.|
|Malcolm Nance:||Putin did not accept that at all, and in fact, because there were ethnic Russian swaths of the country, he worked very hard to undermine that nation’s new democracy. One of the people who was brought in to do that by the pro-Moscow government was Paul Manafort, who was a member of Manafort, Stone, and Black, the dirty tricks lobbyist company in Washington DC. They paid him millions upon millions of dollars, under the table, to essentially destabilize the country, and including orchestrating attacks on U.S. Marines, that had been visiting Crimea. So, Manafort is a node here. How he got into the Trump sphere is not a mystery, but it’s certainly unusual that Donald Trump was deeply beholden to Russia, as anyone who watches television can see. He has almost a slavish devotion to Vladimir Putin, to find that the number one dirty trickster for Putin, who would like to see Ukraine back under his control, would become his campaign manager.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And Manafort was doing this for the Russians before Donald Trump really entered the political equation, before anybody thought he had a chance to be president?|
|Malcolm Nance:||Absolutely. The word on the street for a very long time was that Manafort, since he was getting paid black money, under the table money, by the government of Ukraine… I have to always emphasize this. There are two Ukraines here, we are talking about. There is the pro-Moscow Ukraine, which is a minority, which wants to stay in Putin’s sphere and then there’s the pro- Western, modern Ukraine that wants to break away from that, and be part of NATO. That’s why they had a revolution, a popular uprising, in 2013 and 2014, which led to the ouster of the pro-Moscow president that Manafort was working for.|
|Malcolm Nance:||Then they found the black book with all of the cash payments in there, which identified that Manafort may have made somewhere between $20 and $70 million of black money that he was money laundering into the United States. The very fact that he would come back again as Donald Trump’s campaign manager, shows a level of George Smiley-John le Carré level coordination, that those of us in the intelligence community just would have to chase down. Because as I like to say, “Coincidence takes a lot of planning.” That’s an old intelligence community dictum.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What’s interesting though, with respect to Trump, is that the motivation for him has nothing to do with the political equation, which certainly it does for Putin and others, but it’s strictly the way in which the money equation plays out for Trump.|
|Malcolm Nance:||It’s key to everything here. I wrote, in Plot to Betray, that Donald Trump has been long on the Russians’ radar. As far back as 1977, when he was married to Ivana Trump, there was great reporting done by the Guardian, the German magazine Bild, and a Czech TV channel, Czech 24. They actually acquired all of the intelligence surveillance records from the former Czech intelligence agency, the StB, and found all the surveillance reports on Donald Trump. For almost ten years he was under surveillance by a subordinate agency of the KGB. Then, in 1987 when he wanted to go do Trump Tower Moscow 1.0, the Russians knew quite a bit about him. They knew that he wanted to run for president before anyone in the United States knew about this. So, fast forward to the fall of the Soviet Union, Donald Trump becomes a very useful person to all of the rich Russian kleptocrats, who had liquidated the Soviet Union, who had sold apartment buildings and airports and submarine bases for billions and billions and billions of dollars to investors, and then needed to money launder all of that illicit dirty cash.|
|Malcolm Nance:||The way that they did it was they started buying up every empty apartment and condominium and villa in Europe, and when that started to get filled, they moved to the United States, by going to the New York and Florida real estate markets. And that’s where Donald Trump excelled. But you have to remember, Russia is run by an ex-KGB officer, a person who grew up making his bones by blackmailing people to become spies for the Soviet Union. So, when he starts to see a very, very popular American, who had a TV show, by the way, that was tops in Russia, The Apprentice, same as in the United States, he saw that money motivated Trump more than anything. It also motivated every person around him. For a spy master, this would be irresistible. You could make that person dance to any tune that you want, if the money and circumstances are right.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||But certainly it’s a long stretch to think that the guy that might be the ideal for laundering money for Russian oligarchs was going to become president to the United States.|
|Malcolm Nance:||Well, you would think it’s a stretch, but it actually happened. You have to understand how… The funny thing is I’ve written three books on this now, and my middle one, The Plot to Destroy Democracy, shows that Putin may not be a brilliant, brilliant person, but he is a very highly intelligent, very street savvy man. He uses all of his academia, he uses all of his intelligence agencies, business intelligence, to form really good solid plans, unlike Donald Trump who listens to no one. So, now when you have this dichotomy going on, you have a strong smart man seeing a weak man who is narcissistic, and you get psychological evaluations of him. You get human intelligence evaluations of him, you get business evaluations that determine that he actually owes oligarchs in Russia, perhaps, as much as $400 million, then you start wondering how you can craft that person. Because technically, you own him.|
|Malcolm Nance:||Anyone who has ever talked to a bookie knows that a person in debt never insults the person that they owe money to. So, by bringing this up, and making Donald Trump… Using his natural populous traits. When he used to do worldwide wrestling, he came on as the evil guy with a big check, and then by the end of the wrestling match he would be embracing the guy who was the hero, the good guy. Putin, I’m sure, and his psychologist, and his scholars, saw that he had a draw for the base level American, the Wal-Mart shopping American. Even though he was a brash, supposedly rich guy, he had a way of touching them. I am absolutely certain that this was the calculation that they made, that he was not only popular in Russia, he was the kind of authoritarian Putin would like to fund, because Putin had been funding authoritarian governments all over Europe. To get the United States, and put this guy in as an ally, would just be monumental.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the things that you point out in The Plot to Betray America is that Trump’s Russian point of view, seeing things from a Russian perspective, is something that evolved a long time ago, and it goes back to the ’80s.|
|Malcolm Nance:||I’m often asked this question, and it’s interesting because my critics are so incredulous that a person could have their worldview shaped by information from a foreign government, or from a source that is not credible. Well, just take a look at the followers who watch Fox news. They will believe nothing unless it comes from Fox news. Literally, to the point where they will see things with their own eyes, and will not believe that unless it has been cleared. So, with Donald Trump, you have to understand that the ultimate intelligence activity is to make a person comply with what you need. Okay? By making them not ideologically the same as you, not to a certain extent buy into all of your philosophies, but to make them believe that they believe that they are doing something for you, which benefits themselves, which benefits the world.|
|Malcolm Nance:||Donald Trump, early in 1987, had taken out newspaper ads asking the George Herbert W. Bush administration to make him a nuclear weapons negotiator, for what was about to be an incredible treaty. The SALT treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, which were going to reduce the world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons. For those of you who are people of a certain age like myself, you might recall that era, where Gorbachov was talking about Perestroika coming in and lessening tensions with the West, Sting had a song called Do Russians Love Their Children Too, which talked about denuclearizing because of the mutual threat of destroying each other’s countries. The movie ‘The Day After’, where it was about a nuclear winter in the United States. All of these things were in the populous sphere, and in popular media, and Trump wanted to be part of that. He took out this ad saying, “Make me the nuclear negotiator.” Now, of course the Bush administration laughed it off, as a joke, but the Russians didn’t.|
|Malcolm Nance:||This is another one of those things where they would have gone back, and going through all their surveillance of Donald Trump, and determined, “Hey, could this guy be brought to our point of view? To where he assists us.” Because, right now, putting out that ad made him a useful idiot, but now you want to see whether you can turn him into an asset. An asset is a person who works in your interest, and you don’t, most of the times, when you want to get to an asset, you buy them. You just put money on the table, but with Donald Trump, he would have to be handled carefully. So, what they appear to do, from the moment he went to Russia in 1987, was they gave him this belief that Russia was a fair country, a country with beautiful women, that it had assets, and resources. That was all true, until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then, when the collapse of the Soviet Union happened, and Vladimir Putin became the director of Russian intelligence, FSB, none of those things changed.|
|Malcolm Nance:||You have to remember something. The Russians collect people, and they don’t let them go. So, as Donald Trump rose in prominence in the United States, calling out the Central Park Five, and running The Apprentice, he became a figure that any decent human intelligence officer would have made sure that there was at least an annual review of his package, and putting information in there. But when Donald Trump started buying, or started making money off of Russian apartments, and condominiums, and real estate sales, he started to have a financial view of Russia, that now jived with his old worldview of the Soviet Union. He started thinking, “Wow, perhaps I could get Trump Tower 2.0 built.” By 2014, when he did Miss Universe pageant, Donald Trump was surrounded by Russian assets who were assigned to him by the Russian Federation, whose job it was to make sure Donald Trump was very comfortable in coming to Russia, to think about his plans, and do Miss Universe.|
|Malcolm Nance:||When he went to Miss Universe, he had a secret meeting with the top 12 Russian oligarchs in the country, at the Nobu restaurant. When he came out of that meeting, he said two things occurred. He said, “Trump Tower Moscow is going to be built.” From that moment on, his entire worldview was Russian. When Crimea was invaded a few months later, he literally criticized Barack Obama, and not Vladimir Putin. He said Obama was a weak leader, and Putin is a strong leader, and then the Moscow party line, that Crimea was all ethnic Russian anyway, and they spoke Russian, and at some point someone, and we know who that someone is, he runs Russia, had his oligarchy, and his staff craft a set of Rose colored lenses for Donald Trump, and put them on his eyes, to where everything Donald Trump thinks about, when it comes to his personal benefit, and his opinion about foreign policy, comes from a Moscow centric point of view.|
|Malcolm Nance:||You know what? I have journalists who constantly say, “Well, can you prove that?” I say, “Look at every statement he has ever made, since 2014.” You will find very few statements about Russia or Ukraine or anything related to Russia, including abandoning all of US bases in Syria, to the Russians, all agreement? This man sees everything from Moscow’s point of view, because that point of view will bring him to a place that he could never ever dream of before. That’s to be part of this super oligarchy, around the world, that’s led by Russian oligarchs. Money he couldn’t dream of.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And to what extent is the nexus with white nationalism part of what motivates this?|
|Malcolm Nance:||Oh, that’s an excellent question. When I wrote my second book, Plot to Destroy Democracy, which was really, if you talk about spy thrillers and John le Carré novels, that is really about Putin’s strategic plan for the world, which is to dismantle liberal democracies, which were a problem in the Soviet Union. Let’s not forget Putin was a devout communist. A devout, lifelong Soviet, until it collapsed. Then he realized, “Hey, wait, money is really the central figure of the world, and authoritarianism.” Essentially what we would call fascism, which Putin admired. When he was in East Germany, he was a huge admirer of East German Stasi, and the way that the German Democratic Republic ran things like the Nazis, right? So, Putin showed that authoritarianism should supplant democracy, and that he would craft an Alliance of Autocrats, starting with Western European governments, like toppling the government of Hungary, and putting in a strong man there. Italy, France, Spain, all around, he has funded right wing extremist conservative groups, but they’ve also funded right wing extremists, anti-immigrant, anti- minority groups, and hate groups around Europe too.|
|Malcolm Nance:||Some of whom have come to power. The AFD, Alternative for Deutschland, in Germany, and their subgroup, their violent subgroup, Pegida. The reason I mention all of this is those groups had fingers out in the pie of the United States Alt Right. In fact, when the Charlottesville riots were being planned, the German group, Pegida, which is the most violent of the European anti-immigrant groups, which teeters on the edge of being a terrorist group as far as German intelligence is concerned, they were communicating and coordinating with the senior members of the Unite the Right coordinating committees there, using the computer game communication system, Discord. What was supposed to happen with the Alt Right at Charlottesville was the coming out of the American anti-immigrant sort of Brown Shirts, right? The street level foot troops, foot soldiers, and skinheads, and alliance of the clan, skinheads, Alt-Lighters, the people who are philosophers of white nationalist identity, and white nationalists of all stripes, in every group coordinated and came together at Charlottesville.|
|Malcolm Nance:||It was supposed to be the launch of Trump’s foot soldiers. So, the Alt Right has a very, very, very interesting history, in that the leaders of many of these groups not only have ties to Moscow, and go to conferences in Moscow, they own housing in Moscow. David Duke has an apartment in Moscow that he shares with the Nazi leader, Richard Spencer, whose wife is a pro-Moscow Ukrainian that is the English translator for Alexander Dugin, Putin’s philosopher of the global autocracy movement. It’s absolutely incestuous. All of this was going on under our noses for years, and until Charlottesville came up and they killed someone, no one had really taken a deep dive look at how they, too, along with the NRA, and American evangelicals, were being co-opted by Moscow’s charm offensive, and influence offensive. In some cases like the NRA, where they actually sent spies to the United States to make these influences.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||At what point is Trump no longer useful to Russia and to Putin?|
|Malcolm Nance:||Oh, well, a person like Donald Trump will always be useful to Moscow, unless he suddenly goes 180 degrees on everything that he stood for. If he were to come out and say, “Putin has betrayed me, I looked up to him,” and all of his rhetoric were to change, and he would have become suddenly a hard liner against Moscow, which means that the entirety of conservative movement, would suddenly… which now, by the way, is in love with Moscow. I literally bought a tee shirt at a political conference that said, “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat.” But if Trump were to turn on them, which will never happen. Again, you never insult your bookie. But if that were to happen, then Putin could drop whatever, or hints, that he has… or that the United States should really get in line before something bad happens to that country. But this is how mafiosos exist.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Not so much Trump turning on them, but Trump becoming almost more of an embarrassment. If impeachment somehow succeeds, if Trump screws it up even more, or says the wrong thing.|
|Malcolm Nance:||I don’t think so. I think Trump has done an enormous service for Moscow. That’s in the sense that they have created… I’m sorry, but I can only use these words, because they’re the only words that count. In the immortal words of Porky Pig, and one of those world war II war training films, they’re fifth columnists. It’s almost as if they don’t even know it. That’s the beauty of Russia’s asymmetric warfare on the United States. Their information warfare doctrine is known as The Gerasimov Doctrine, in which they were to use information, false news, propaganda, black propaganda, and money in order to corrupt the media environment within a certain target demographic, and get them to believe that a foreign invasion is in their interest.|
|Malcolm Nance:||To the point where you don’t have to send any troops, you already own their mindset. That’s why I’ve often said the Democratic National Committee wasn’t hacked in 2016. What was hacked was the mindset of 180 million Americans who saw Russian originated, Russian intelligence propaganda, propagated by the news media, and social media, and Donald Trump to the point where one third of this country refuses to believe anything that comes from the news media.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Which brings us back, finally, to the question I asked in the introduction. Are we too far down the rabbit hole to recover from any of this?|
|Malcolm Nance:||No. No. It’s so funny, because I spent my entire career… I grew up as a cold war intelligence officer, in the tail end of the cold war, starting in the early ’80s, but as a Middle East specialist. I often get asked, “How are you commenting on Russia?” Well, for those of us who were in the intelligence community in the cold war, we were constantly trained, and briefed, on how Russia did their operations. To us, and I’m talking about my peers who are over the age of 40, within the intelligence community. We know that they are a malicious entity in this world. They are what they were in the Soviet Union. It’s just that they don’t have the ideology of communism, and now they have the ideology of money, and autocracy, or technically fascism, which they found is a much more binding way of dominating political spheres.|
|Malcolm Nance:||Look at Erdogan, in Turkey. In 2015, 2016, they had shot down a Russian fighter jet, for entering their air space. Then, one visit by Lavrov, the foreign minister, Erdogan turns on a dime, in Russia’s favor. The coup happens, and then suddenly everybody inside of Turkey is now under Erdogan’s thumb, as a, essentially, a petty dictator, who is aligning himself with Moscow. Donald Trump is aligning himself with Erdogan. El-Sisi, in Egypt, has opened the country up to Russia. He’s backing Khalifa Haftar, in Libya, to essentially take over the oil fields, in alliance with the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. These autocracies are expanding everywhere. In Germany, the AFD is number two political party in the country, in Austria, the Alternative for Austria, which was a party started by two Nazi SS officers in 1952, took power with Moscow’s political and financial backing. Marine Le Pen was supposed to take power in France. Brexit, they’re finding out now was attacked in the same information warfare operation that the United States was hit with. The Scottish referendum, the referendum in Spain on Catalonia.|
|Malcolm Nance:||All of these things were operations carried out against the West, by Russia, in order to get rid of liberal democracies. To put a fine point on it, just a couple of days ago, Vladimir Putin gave a speech, where he said, “Liberalism and democracy are obsolete.” They just say it out loud. We have to identify it. So, how do you defeat that? We are the greatest democracy on this planet. We are the culmination of 244 years of an experiment which is unique within the world, and for the last 70 years we spent quite a bit of time spreading that, and now in one president, it is all being destroyed. We can do this again.|
|Malcolm Nance:||Whoever the next president is, if they want to win my vote, they are going to have to step up and say, “We’re going to confront Russia, and their information warfare operations, their asymmetric warfare operation, and we’re going to punish them financially, for attacking the American experiment, and we going to make sure that they are no longer going to be a near peer adversary. They’re going to go back to that trailer park with atomic bombs that they were 10 years ago.”|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Malcolm Nance. Malcolm, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.|
|Malcolm Nance:||It is my pleasure.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you, and thank you for listening, and for joining us here 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 help 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 by WhoWhatWhy from President of Russia (CC BY 3.0).