After five years of the Trump-Russia conversation, what do we really know? The Mueller report, congressional investigations, the Steele dossier, the odd connections of all of Trump’s original and early appointees to Russia, the scene in Helsinki, Trump Tower awash with Russians — and still we have no definitive answers.  

Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, investigative journalist Craig Unger, goes deep in his new book, American Kompromat, to lay out a comprehensive theory to connect all the dots.

He asserts that former US intelligence officials John Brennan, James Clapper, and Dan Coats were convinced that Trump was a Russian asset (although their own credibility has been questioned by other experts).

Based on his interviews with former KGB officials, Unger argues that the Trump-Russia link began as far back as the 1980s. Among the early clues: the purchase of TV sets from a small Russian merchant for Trump’s first hotel project in New York and the KGB connections of Trump’s first wife, Ivana, and her family in her native Czechoslovakia.

One of his KGB sources reveals damning details about Trump’s first trip to the then-Soviet Union in 1987, why Trump was a perfect target for recruitment in spite of his incompetence, and his tendency to say the quiet parts out loud.

To place this accusation in context, Unger links it to what he calls a Russian “kompromat factory,” whose workings involve, among others, Jeffrey Epstein, Robert Maxwell, Ghislaine Maxwell, Israeli intelligence, and many of Rudy Giuliani’s “friends” inside the FBI.  

Although proof of all of these secret connections remains buried in the Kremlin, Unger claims to have FBI files to back up some of his assertions.

He argues that based on the available evidence Trump’s indebtedness to Moscow can no longer be doubted. With implications for large-scale global money laundering and national security, Unger concludes that even out of office Trump is a security risk. 

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Churchill said of Russia that it was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma. Perhaps even more so is the nature of Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia and Vladimir Putin. For five years, stories about it have blared from the headlines of every news outlet in the world, the Mueller report, congressional investigation, the Steele dossier, the odd ties of all of Trump’s original and early appointees to Russia, the scene in Helsinki, and even the relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, all overlaid by Trump’s refusal to ever criticize Putin. It seems like it should be easy to say that it all fits into a neat little package. After all, there is so much, so consistent, and yet even now, after Trump is gone, it is still shrouded in mystery.

Jeff Schechtman: And now Craig Unger, the author of six previous books, including House of Trump, House of Putin, takes another swing at trying to find the unified field theory of Trump and Russia in his new book, American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery. He enjoys the benefit of hindsight in trying to figure out whether Trump still might be a security risk, or if it all has been, as Trump argues, a witch hunt. It is my pleasure to welcome Craig Unger, to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Craig, thanks so much for joining us.

Craig Unger: Thanks for having me.

Jeff Schechtman: Why has it been so difficult, given all of the circumstantial evidence that’s out there, to really understand the Trump-Russia connection?

Craig Unger: Right. Well, I think there are a lot of reasons. I mean, one thing that occurs to me too, is you’ve seen, again and again, the top intelligence people in the United States, John Brennan, James Clapper, and so forth, the top pre-Trump people saying again and again that Trump is an asset, he’s a Russian asset. But very few people go beyond that and see how and why that happened. And it’s happening again, and again, and again.

Craig Unger: If you look at the top intelligence officials in the country, the pre-Trump ones, the ones who actually have credibility, and they ranged from Republican to Democrat, it’s not an ideological thing, but from John Brennan to James Clapper and Dan Coats, they said again and again that Trump is a Russian asset. Yet no one has really explored what that means, how did it begin, and what was the sequence of events. And what I tried to do is write a detailed narrative about how and why that happened, going back to the beginning. It’s fascinating to me. And for the first time here, at least, I have interviewed key people in the KGB. I mean, who would be more knowledgeable about recruiting Donald Trump than KGB agents? And I think that’s what I bring to the picture that has never been there before.

Jeff Schechtman: How far back do we have to go to get to the beginning of this relationship?

Craig Unger: Well, at least 40 years, and I think there may have been stuff going on in the ’70s because Trump’s first wife, Ivana, was Czech and you had the Czech StB — that’s their secret service — who was then allied with the KGB. And they clearly were having an eye on Trump through his Czech father-in-law. But for me, the real story begins in 1980. And at the time, Trump had just finished his first major success as a real estate developer. It was the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York, next to Grand Central Station. And when it was finished, like any hotel, it needed to buy television sets. And it’s kind of unusual when you think about it. Hyatt is very much a blue-chip franchise operation, but with Trump there, where did they go to buy their TV sets? They went to a little store on Lower Fifth Avenue, near the Flatiron Building, where they bought hundreds of TV sets from a former Soviet émigré.

Craig Unger: And what I found out for the first time is that the Soviet émigré has ties to the KGB, and he was designated to be what is known as a spotter agent. A spotter agent is someone whose job is to find people that the KGB might recruit. And he reached out to Donald Trump. And as far as I can tell, that’s where the doors to the KGB opened for Donald Trump. And they began to cultivate them seriously in a sequence of events that led up to his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1987.

Jeff Schechtman: What did they see in him, in your view, back in 1980? I mean, here was a guy that was essentially a real estate developer from Queens. What did the KGB envision?

Craig Unger: Well, I asked that question of Yuri Shvets who was a major in the KGB at the time, and he started laughing. He said he was the perfect target to recruit. He was vain. He was narcissistic. He had a low IQ. He was exactly what you want to recruit, and all you have to do is flatter him. And it’s really fascinating because during those years in the mid-’80s Trump was very much a playboy. He admired Hugh Hefner. He became friends with Jeffrey Epstein in 1987. They went to parties where they had 28 girls and two guys, and you can just imagine what was going on. But during the same period, Trump is reaching out to the Washington Post, to the New York Times, to journalists all over saying that he’s brilliant on foreign policy, and on nuclear weapons and that he should be negotiating the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with Russia.

Craig Unger: So, he puts himself forward to that time, and as Yuri Shvets told me, the KGB agent told me, he said, “Look, this is when you go to the guy and you say, ‘Look, you are so brilliant with your unorthodox foreign policy, you should run for president. You should put all these ideas out there.’” And that’s exactly what we see happening. We see Trump being invited to the Soviet Union. And we know now, and I have sources telling me this, that it was initiated by the KGB. It was monitored by the KGB. And it’s almost certain he was pumped full of all these talking points when he was there. Because when he returns that fall, you’ve got to go from the summer to the fall of 1987, suddenly, Donald Trump, he’s not yet a national figure, mind you. He’s sort of becoming a real estate star in Manhattan, but he’s still 34 years old.

Craig Unger: That’s actually too young to run for president, I think. No, I’m sorry. This is a few years later. So, he’s just old enough. But he takes out advertisements in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and they put forth all these foreign policy prescriptions that are very much off the wall, and yet very much like what he was doing during his recent presidency. He calls for “We’re being taken to the cleaners over NATO. We should back off with NATO.” He says, “We should back off being so close to Japan. They’re taking us to the cleaners.” These are the foreign policies that Russia wants, the Soviet Union wants, the KGB wants. And suddenly, he is putting them forth as if he is Mr. Know-It-All.

Craig Unger: And the big revelation I came across when I went to interview Yuri Shvets, the major in the KGB, he said when he went back to Russia in the fall of 1987, he got a cable that was being distributed, an internal cable from the KGB, celebrating the acquisition of a new asset who would distribute active measures, propaganda, for the Soviet Union. And they gave him, to the cable there was a document attached which was essentially the full-page ad I was just talking about, and it was signed by Donald Trump. He was an asset to the Soviet Union and later to its successors in the Russian Federation.

Jeff Schechtman: Two things that we know about Trump, certainly from the past five years of experience, one is a tremendous level of incompetence in anything that he does, and number two is the constant need to say the quiet parts out loud. Given those two things, how was he able to operate that long without somehow screwing it up or saying too much?

Craig Unger: Well, that’s a good question. He always does say the quiet parts out loud, as you say. And sometimes I think he’s talking like a mobster; in many ways there are threats. And when Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein’s partner, was taken into custody, I remember him saying very much, saying aloud, “I wish her well. Look what happened to Jeffrey Epstein. I wish her well. I really wish her well. Epstein was killed. I wish her well.” And it’s an implicit threat in a way. He’s saying the opposite of what he means. On paper, it looks rather innocent, I wish her well. But I think that was a threat to say not to talk.

Craig Unger: And I think there’s a lot of answers to your question. I think there has been incompetence, both with the CIA and the FBI. I think a lot of them may be compromised as well. Certainly, a lot of Republican politicians are deeply, deeply compromised and they are acting as if they are also assets of Russian intelligence. I mean, the fact that so many Republicans haven’t broken with them, even now that he’s no longer president is just astonishing.

Jeff Schechtman: Why didn’t he pardon Ghislaine Maxwell?

Craig Unger: Well, I don’t know yet. I think if you look at the pardons, you can see various deals that have been made. We don’t know the full story of Ghislaine Maxwell. I think what I did discover is that it began way long ago, and if you look at her and Jeffrey Epstein, you can see that they potentially had ties to Russian intelligence as well. Jeffrey Epstein, according to one of my sources, was meeting regularly with Robert Maxwell, Ghislaine’s father, who was the British press lord who died a rather mysterious death when he fell off his yacht in 1991 and was probably murdered. A lot of people speculated that it was done by Israeli intelligence. Maxwell himself was a different kind of a Russian operative as well. He, like Trump, was known as a special unofficial contact who would do favors for the KGB.

Craig Unger: And you see this very complex overlapping loyalties with the KGB and its successors, with Israeli intelligence, with Jeffrey Epstein, with Ghislaine, and with Donald Trump. When people have looked at Epstein, they look at it as a sex trafficking operation, which it was, but it was also a kompromat factory of sorts in which they collected the dirty little secrets of the most powerful people in the world. And it’s very convoluted. We don’t know all the answers yet. But we know there was a kompromat on an awful lot of people. And I’m sure Ghislaine is aware of those threats and whether she will ever reveal all her secrets, we don’t know.

Jeff Schechtman: Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Trump to pardon her, given what she knows?

Craig Unger: It might, but it’s interesting. Who has the secrets? It’s one thing I tried to figure out and I don’t have all the answers yet. But one thing we do know is Russia seems to have a lot of them. I interviewed a fairly lowly former deputy sheriff from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. His name is John Mark Dougan. And he was there when they were investigating Epstein in 2005. And when they investigated him, 478 DVDs, he told me, that are apparently sex tapes, tapes of recordings of sexual activities that took place in the Epstein operation. And John Mark Dougan fled illegally. I mean, he got out of the country to Canada, then took a flight to Moscow. I tracked him down in Moscow and he told me he had this vault of DVDs. I saw one of them. He showed one of them to me.

Craig Unger: But you have to wonder about this treasure trove of compromise. These are sexual activities of a lot of rich and powerful people. We know the names on Jeffrey Epstein’s contact list, but we don’t know exactly who was taped having sexual activities. And it’s just astonishing how powerful that treasure trove might be.

Jeff Schechtman: What do we think that the CIA and the FBI know about all of this?

Craig Unger: Well, the FBI clearly knows much, much more than it’s led on. And I say that because I have a lot of FBI files and I have FBI files on Russian Mafia figures, and you can see their links. I mean, can the FBI google? If you just google the figures and you try to figure out who lived in Trump Tower, in a matter of an hour or so you can come up, I found 13 figures in the Russian mafia who lived in one or owned property in one of the Trump organization’s properties. That’s a lot of people. I don’t know how many Russian mafia people live in your world, but I don’t think there are any in my building here in Brooklyn. So, I believe those are not coincidences.

Craig Unger: And what you see is massive money laundering. You see Russian figures who were in a company called Bayrock that was located in Trump Tower, that made deals with Donald Trump, that developed buildings with his name on it, that he franchised his name to them, and they bailed him out after he went belly up in Atlantic City. So, that happened again and again. He’s deeply indebted to Russia. And maybe he didn’t go after Ghislaine, for example, because she has kompromat on him and can have it released. I did discover that at least one person who was close to Epstein told me that Epstein showed him a photo of Donald Trump with some halfway nude young girls. I don’t know their ages if they were girls or women, but they were not fully dressed. They were on their knees next to Donald Trump, and there was a rather embarrassing stain on his trousers in a location that was highly suggestive. So it’s quite possible Epstein and Maxwell had kompromat on Donald Trump. Maybe he’s afraid she will release it. That’s why he hasn’t pardoned her.

Jeff Schechtman: Is there a difference or any kind of distinction between the money part of this, the money laundering part, and things that Trump may have been involved in for all these years, and compromises that may have been made with respect to national security?

Craig Unger: Well, it’s quite possible. I think there are all sorts of ways kompromat infected Donald Trump. I mean, one just is sort of obvious on its face. If you look at all of Trump’s conversations with Vladimir Putin, we have virtually no knowledge of them. We know that he tore up a translator’s notes after one of them. We know that one meeting, he didn’t allow an American translator so the only translator was a Russian translator who has those notes. We know there are lots of conversations that went to a secret server in the White House, and we know, you can bet your bottom dollar or ruble, whatever it is, that Vladimir Putin does have those conversations. And they could be deeply, deeply incriminating as we know from the Zelensky conversation, which did surface.

Craig Unger: So, I think there’s an awful lot more that hasn’t been revealed there and it can easily be used as kompromat, not to mention the obvious possibilities of sexual kompromat. There’s no question Trump’s room was bugged when he was in the Soviet Union and in Moscow. He wrote Vladimir Putin a letter in which he signed it “P.S. I’m looking forward to all the pretty girls in Moscow.” I mean, that’s very weird if you think about it. I don’t know if you’ve ever written letters to Vladimir Putin–

Jeff Schechtman: I don’t think so.

Craig Unger: … but it’s an odd way to sign a letter to a head of state, don’t you think? I mean, some of this is sort of so obvious that you dare not believe it. You know what I mean?

Jeff Schechtman: Given the national security danger that this would pose if all of this were to come out, if all of this were to be found to be true, given the national security danger that the US would have been in during the time of Trump’s presidency and given what you say the CIA and the FBI knew, why weren’t more actions taken behind the scenes to try and somehow short-circuit this?

Craig Unger: You know, that’s another book and it’s a good one. But one thing I do include in this is, I think it’s back in 1973, Trump gave $1.3 million, Trump who’s unbelievably stingy and penurious when it comes to charities, he gave $1.3 million in 1973 dollars, that’s, what, four or five million dollars by now, to a charity favored by James Combach, who was head of the New York office of the FBI. Well, he made a very serious point of cultivating friends within the FBI, and he was known, a friend of mine, Jeff Stein reported this, that Trump was known within the FBI as a back pocket source. That meant he was not officially an FBI contact, but he did favors for them.

Craig Unger: So, you see certain parts of high-ranking officials in the FBI, certain parts of the Bureau were on his side. They were close to Rudy Giuliani, who at that time was a United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, which means you have a very, very close working relationship with the FBI. So, this was what I call the Giuliani wing of the FBI, and we all know about Giuliani’s ties to Trump now. So, that would have made it very hard and deeply political for honest FBI agents to go after Trump. And I suspect if we did a deep, deep dive in that direction, you’re going to find out some very unsettling material.

Jeff Schechtman: And finally, do you think that ultimately the confirmation of all of this will come from the US, or will it come from information that ultimately gets out of Russia?

Craig Unger: That’s a really tough call. I mean, one is, I think Putin is in a dicey situation. He’s much weaker than he was, partly because he lost Trump as an asset, partly because the whole country in Russia is in an uproar now that Navalny has been imprisoned again. And we saw demonstrations all across the country in Russia last week that are really deeply threatening to Vladimir Putin.

Craig Unger: There’s also been reports that Vladimir Putin is ill, reports that he has Parkinson’s disease and even more serious things like cancer, none of which has been confirmed. So, if Putin is gone, I think that would free up a number of people in Russian intelligence, both the FSB and the SVR, to release things that haven’t been released yet. I mean, in the United States, I would love to see it break open. The Republicans are still powerful. The Democrat majority is razor-thin. I think Biden has done a very, very good job so far, but he has to play it very, very carefully. And that means call for unity, but let the Democrats go full bore, I hope, against the Republicans and hope that someone like McConnell breaks, in which case there could be more Republicans breaking. I can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen.

Jeff Schechtman: Craig Unger, his book is American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery. Craig, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Craig Unger: I thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

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 Dutton.

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