In 2018, I became either famous or notorious — depending on your point of view — for writing a story speculating that Russia had secret leverage over Trump (which turned out to be correct). The story’s most controversial suggestion was that it was plausible, though hardly certain, that Russia’s influence over Trump might even date back as far as 1987.
Here is what I wrote in that controversial section:
During the Soviet era, Russian intelligence cast a wide net to gain leverage over influential figures abroad. (The practice continues to this day.) The Russians would lure or entrap not only prominent politicians and cultural leaders, but also people whom they saw as having the potential for gaining prominence in the future. In 1986, Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin met Trump in New York, flattered him with praise for his building exploits, and invited him to discuss a building in Moscow. Trump visited Moscow in July 1987. He stayed at the National Hotel, in the Lenin Suite, which certainly would have been bugged. There is not much else in the public record to describe his visit, except Trump’s own recollection in The Art of the Deal that Soviet officials were eager for him to build a hotel there. (It never happened.)
Trump returned from Moscow fired up with political ambition. He began the first of a long series of presidential flirtations, which included a flashy trip to New Hampshire. Two months after his Moscow visit, Trump spent almost $100,000 on a series of full-page newspaper ads that published a political manifesto. “An open letter from Donald J. Trump on why America should stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves,” as Trump labeled it, launched angry populist charges against the allies that benefited from the umbrella of American military protection. “Why are these nations not paying the United States for the human lives and billions of dollars we are losing to protect their interests?”
I conceded it was probably just a coincidence that Trump came back from his trip to Russia and started spouting themes that happened to dovetail closely with Russia’s geopolitical goal of splitting the United States from its allies. But there was a reasonable chance — I loosely pegged it at 10 or 20 percent — that the Soviets had planted some of these thoughts, which he had never expressed before the trip, in his head.
If I had to guess today, I’d put the odds higher, perhaps over 50 percent. One reason for my higher confidence is that Trump has continued to fuel suspicion by taking anomalously pro-Russian positions. He met with Putin in Helsinki, appearing strangely submissive, and spouted Putin’s propaganda on a number of topics including the ridiculous possibility of a joint Russian-American cybersecurity unit. (Russia, of course, committed the gravest cyber-hack in American history not long ago, making Trump’s idea even more self-defeating in retrospect than it was at the time.) He seemed to go out of his way to alienate American allies and blow up cooperation every time they met during his tenure.
He would either refuse to admit Russian wrongdoing — Trump refused even to concede that the regime poisoned Alexei Navalny — or repeat bizarre snippets of Russian propaganda: NATO was a bad deal for America because Montenegro might launch an attack on Russia; the Soviets had to invade Afghanistan in the 1970s to defend against terrorism. These weren’t talking points he would pick up in his normal routine of watching Fox News and calling Republican sycophants.
A second reason is that reporter Craig Unger got a former KGB spy to confirm on the record that Russian intelligence had been working Trump for decades. In his new book, “American Kompromat,” Unger interviewed Yuri Shvets, who told him that the KGB manipulated Trump with simple flattery. “In terms of his personality, the guy is not a complicated cookie,” he said, “his most important characteristics being low intellect coupled with hyperinflated vanity. This makes him a dream for an experienced recruiter.”
That’s quite similar to what I suggested in my story:
Russian intelligence gains influence in foreign countries by operating subtly and patiently. It exerts different gradations of leverage over different kinds of people, and uses a basic tool kit of blackmail that involves the exploitation of greed, stupidity, ego, and sexual appetite. All of which are traits Trump has in abundance.
This is what intelligence experts mean when they describe Trump as a Russian “asset.” It’s not the same as being an agent. An asset is somebody who can be manipulated, as opposed to somebody who is consciously and secretly working on your behalf.
Shvets told Unger that the KGB cultivated Trump as an American leader, and persuaded him to run his ad attacking American alliances. “The ad was assessed by the active measures directorate as one of the most successful KGB operations at that time,” he said, “It was a big thing — to have three major American newspapers publish KGB soundbites.”
To be clear, while Shvets is a credible source, his testimony isn’t dispositive. There are any number of possible motives for a former Soviet spy turned critic of Russia’s regime to manufacture an indictment of Trump. But the story he tells is almost exactly the possibility I sketched out. And it fits the known facts about how Russian intelligence works and what Trump has done pretty tightly.
One thing I have changed my mind on since my story ran is the effect any this would have on the American public even if it were proven.
There is an allure to the mysterious that gives certain unknown facts outsize meaning. Uncovering the secret identity of “Deep Throat” was considered one of journalism’s greatest prizes, until Associate FBI Director Mark Felt admitted it was him, after which hardly anybody cared. If Jimmy Hoffa’s body had turned up shortly after his disappearance, its location would have been forgotten almost immediately, rather than becoming the subject of decades-long speculation and probing.
The nature and origins of Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia probably falls into this category. The full story will probably never be known for certain. Robert Mueller was thought to be pursuing it, but steered clear of the counterintelligence investigation to focus more narrowly on criminal violations; the Senate Intelligence Committee produced tantalizing evidence of 2016 campaign collusion, but did not have access to Trump’s inner circle. In theory, the Trump lieutenants who clammed up, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, or their Russian contacts, like Manafort partner Konstantin Kilimnik, could eventually furnish some kind of deathbed confession, but even that would be rendered inconclusive by its source’s fundamental lack of credibility.
If something like the most sinister plausible story turned out to be true, how much would it matter? Probably not that much. Don’t get me wrong: Russia having secret channels of leverage over an American president isn’t good. I have merely come to think that even if we could have confirmed the worst, to the point that even Trump’s supporters could no longer deny it, it wouldn’t have changed very much. Trump wouldn’t have been forced to resign, and his Republican supporters would not have had to repudiate him. The controversy would have simply receded into the vast landscape of partisan talking points — one more thing liberals mock Trump over, and conservatives complain about the media for covering instead of Nancy Pelosi’s freezer or antifa or the latest campus outrage.
One reason I think that is because a great deal of incriminating information was confirmed and very little in fact changed as a result. In 2018, Buzzfeed reported, and the next year Robert Mueller confirmed, explosive details of a Russian kompromat operation. During the campaign, Russia had been dangling a Moscow building deal that stood to give hundreds of millions of dollars in profit to Trump, at no risk. Not only did he stand to gain this windfall, but he was lying in public at the time about his dealings with Russia, which gave Vladimir Putin additional leverage over him. (Russia could expose Trump’s lies at any time if he did something to displease Moscow.)
Mueller even testified that this arrangement gave Russia blackmail leverage over Trump. But by the time these facts had passed from the realm of the mysterious to the confirmed, they had become uninteresting.
We don’t know what other sources of leverage Russia had, or how far back it went. Ultimately, whatever value Trump offered to Russia was compromised by his incompetence and limited ability to grasp firm control even of his own government’s foreign policy. It was not just the fabled “deep state” that undermined Trump. Even his own handpicked appointees constantly undermined him, especially on Russia. Whatever leverage Putin had was limited to a single individual, which meant there was nobody Trump could find to run the State Department, National Security Agency, and so on who shared his idiosyncratic Russophilia.
The truth, I suspect, was simultaneously about as bad as I suspected, and paradoxically anticlimactic. Trump was surrounded by all sorts of odious characters who manipulated him into saying and doing things that ran against the national interest. One of those characters was Putin. In the end, their influence ran up against the limits that the character over whom they had gained influence was a weak, failed president.