There’s no question that the Kremlin played a critical role edging Donald Trump across the finish line in the 2106 election.  Virtually all US intelligence agencies agree that after hackers working for GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, had succeeded into breaking into the US Democratic Party’s computer servers, they managed to steal tens of thousands of Democrat emails and turn them over to WikiLeaks, which had already established a reputation as an anti-establishment, internet platform. The rest is history.

Recruiting WikiLeaks to do the actual dirty work was relatively easy. The site had already leaked thousands of sensitive US documents to the general public. Furthermore, the Kremlin had already groomed the internet platform’s iconoclastic cofounder, Julian Assange, by granting him his own regularly scheduled TV show, World Tomorrow, on RT,  the slick replacement of Radio Moscow, the less effective predecessor of Russia’s state propaganda apparatus. 

By strategically leaking Democrats’ emails at precise moments, WikiLeaks was able to cast just enough doubt on the intentions and qualifications of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, to tip the balance in his favour. Just to make sure, the Russians followed up the massive e-mail dump with strategically placed ads on both Facebook Book and Twitter. It then then flooded social media outlets with inflammatory messages disguised to look as though they were spontaneous comments coming from irate American bloggers. 

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The strategy worked. Trump lost the popular vote by three million ballots. Nevertheless, thanks to the eccentricities of America’s Electoral College system, which gives added weight to votes from smaller states, the former real estate dealer and TV entertainment host managed to win the presidency.

US President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin reach to shake hands before a meeting in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The Trump-Putin relationship

All that is common knowledge. What is less known is what influenced Donald Trump to ally himself so closely to Vladimir Putin, a despot leading a country that until recently had opposed the US in a deadly Cold War arms race and which continued to be a ferocious competitor on the global political stage.  It is that question which Craig Unger, whose previous investigations have rattled everyone from Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency to the Bush family’s relations with its royal Saudi counterparts, seeks to answer in his latest book, American Kompromat meaning compromising or blackmail worthy materials (See book extract HERE)

Even to a casual observer, Trump’s actions, especially in the early days of his administration, often seemed inexplicable.  When outgoing president, Barack Obama, sought to punish Russia for interfering in the US election process, Trump had his candidate for national security advisor, Michael Flynn, secretly pass messages to the Russians, telling Putin not to worry about the American protests. When Trump was finally inaugurated, all would be fine.

To avoid the attention of US intelligence agencies, Flynn, a former director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, secretly telephoned Russia’s ambassador to Washington while on vacation in the Dominican Republic. Apparently, he thought that he was bypassing US intelligence intercepts, not realizing that the FBI would be likely to monitor the Washington end of the calls. When Flynn was subsequently indicted for lying about his actions to the FBI, Trump tried unsuccessfully to intercede on his behalf.

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner suggested to the Russian ambassador that the new Trump administration needed to set up a “rear channel” of communications between Trump and Moscow.  Again, the intention was apparently to bypass monitoring by US intelligence agencies.  While the Trump transition group signaled that it wanted a direct connection to the Kremlin, the Russians, far more sophisticated than the new US president’s campaign, hesitated over openly dealing with amateurs. The message that Trump was ready and willing to be of service, however, had been clearly transmitted. From the perspective of an intelligence recruitment, it was the equivalent of a presidential walk-in.

Trump: a Russian intelligence asset

Once inaugurated as president, Trump made his obvious ‘bromance’ with Putin embarrassingly obvious.  When Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, visited the White House, Trump exposed Lavrov and aides to sensitive classified information entrusted to the US by a friendly ally.  In Trump’s first meeting-in-person with Putin, Trump insisted that no aides or other witnesses be present to overhear what was said.

In the view of a number of US intelligence chiefs, whether Trump had been formally recruited or not, he had begun acting as if he actually were a Russian asset.

In Moscow, Trump was generally seen as the “useful idiot”. For Vladimir Putin, who began his career as an intelligence officer and had risen to the rank of colonel in the former KGB, it must have been obvious that Trump showed unusual promise as the perfect tool for dismembering the ‘Leader of the Free World.’  

By the time Trump finished, the US would very likely resemble a corrupted shadow of its former self hopelessly locked in permanent decline. More specifically, after a few years with Trump, the US would no longer be in any position to dictate terms to Russia or anyone else.  Trump in short was the potential “loose cannon”, a reference to the fact that on the old sailing ships of the time, when a cannon broke loose from its moorings, it would careen across the deck, destroying everything in its path. 

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 24: Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in Washington, D.C. The former FBI director publicly addressed questions for the first time about his investigation of President Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Once this process was set in motion, Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, was supposed to investigate what had happened. His findings later emerged in what became known as the “Mueller Report”. Unger suggests that the public never really understood the difference between a counterintelligence and a criminal investigation. 

Counterintelligence is designed to identify potential security threats, not collect the kind of evidence required to prosecute a criminal case.  The difference has long been a source of conflict within the FBI, which is primarily a police operation conditioned to look for evidence that will stand up in court.  The solution has been to insulate the FBI’s counterintelligence operations from its criminal investigations’ side in order to avoid contaminating evidence that might need to be presented at a trial. 

When Mueller was selected to manage what amounted to a counterintelligence assessment of Russian election interference, it was assumed that the initial work would trigger criminal investigations.  Instead, Trump cut the whole process short and then diverted attention to a phony investigation on how he, himself, had been victimized by an alleged “witch hunt”.  Instead of a thorough report, what the public got was “Mueller Light”.

The Kremlin’s intelligence approach: a long-term proposition

It’s also worth noting, Unger points out, that the Kremlin’s approach to intelligence is nearly always a long-term proposition. When Russia begins recruiting an intelligence asset the process is often so subtle that a candidate may not realize that he is being recruited until years after the first contact is made.

In Donald Trump’s case the first serious assessment by Russian agents of the future president’s potential value may have come through early contacts in New York, when the businessman from Queens first began engaging in real estate deals. In the early 1980s, Trump bought the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York and equipped it with hundreds of TV sets, which he inexplicably purchased from an electronics store in lower Manhattan, run by Semyon Kislin, who emigrated to the US from Odessa in 1972. 

Kislin’s store, Joy-Lud, operated as a Russian version of the cut-rate but fraudulent and now defunct Crazy Eddy electronic stores. Its specialty was that it was the one of the only available outlets selling dual-use TVs. Joy-Lud’s unique electronic equipment was configured to work both in the US and with the different broadcast standards used in Russia.

Kislin’s main clients were Russian diplomats and businessmen returning home to Russia.  The KGB wanted to make sure that the US had not planted listening devices in the TVs, and so it kept a close watch on Kislin’s operation, which was considered safe.  According to Yuri Shvets, who had worked as a KGB handler in Washington DC, before defecting to the US, Kislin worked as a spotter for the Russian intelligence agency, identifying potential targets for recruitment.  Why Trump would buy TVs from Kislin’s relatively specialized operation has never been fully explained.  What is known is that Trump, who has had a reputation for not paying suppliers, always made sure to pay Kislin’s bills on time.

Trump’s greatest exposure to possible recruitment undoubtedly occurred during the period when Trump was organizing the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Trump, known to be usually ready for casual sex and with a known preference for Slavic women, would have then been particularly vulnerable to a classic Russian “honey trap”.  That part of the story is difficult to pin down, but it doesn’t really make any difference. Trump’s actions speak for themselves. Once he had won the 2016 election, it was clear that Trump’s interest and his greatest enthusiasm had focused both on Moscow and Putin himself.

Taking that into account, Trump’s ego and the amateurishness of his staff promised to offer Russian spy-masters access to an embarrassment of riches. In the early days of the administration, it must have been hard to tell who to recruit next.

What differentiated intelligence operations in the era of Vladimir Putin is that  ideology no longer mattered.  Under Putin, Communism is out. Oligarchy and a kind of modernized feudalism are in. If corporate CEOs are the barons of modern America, in Russia, it is the oligarchs, who live or go to prison depending on Putin’s whims. 

Putin could not care less if anyone has fascist ideas or is hard left. Even crime is in. Instead of trying to stamp out Russia’s gangster element, Putin incorporated it into the state apparatus.  All that mattered to Putin was access and power; volume also counted far more than quality.

For instance, in an obvious attempt at Kompromat that fell through, an attractive Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, offered the Trump campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton. If its targets hesitated to snap at the bait, it didn’t really matter.  In espionage, recruitment is like throwing mud against a wall. You want to see what sticks. 

With Republicans in power and an unquestioning love for guns evidently the flavour of the month, the Russians managed to insert an attractive redhead, Mariia Valeryevna Butina, into the National Rifle Association (NRA).  Not that the NRA necessarily has access to sensitive information, but the gamble was that fanatics in love with guns might also have access to classified information. They might also be ready to compromise themselves for an exotic, gun-toting Russian with red hair. 

Trump the loser: a happy solution even for Putin?

The final irony is that in the end, even Putin may be happy to see Trump gone.  Sure, helping promote Trump into power dislodged the United States as a hegemon, but it also destabilized the world. Russia now risks looking like a leaf, tossed about in the turbulence that Trump unleashed.  Relations between the US and Russia are at their lowest point in decades.  While Moscow may have hurt the United States, it has boosted China, which from Russia’s perspective may be a far more threatening and less forgiving competitor on their border.

Russia’s intervention has at least answered one question that has long troubled most analysts: what would happen if the White House were suddenly infected by a “Manchurian Candidate”. Based on the novel by Richard Condon and then produced into two movies, one in 1962 and then again in 2004, the theme presents a traitor working behind the scenes for an enemy power. The principal character has managed to position himself as the US chief executive, suddenly placing him at the nerve centre with a mission to sabotage the system from inside. 

Whether conscious of his role or not, Trump fulfilled that function. For four long years, he has served as America’s real time Manchurian Candidate. What is surprising, even to the most hardened Washington cynic, is that the system held. 

Author Craig Unger.

Kremlim blackmail against Trump

What Craig Unger’s book makes clear is that from a national security point of view, Trump was at the very least the ultimate stress test.  He has pointed out both the weaknesses in our contemporary national security regime — even down to how to protect the Capitol from an angry mob incited to riot.  Arguably, the Capitol was breached because security forces were unable to act without authorization from the chain of command. And in this case, the Commander-in-Chief at the top of that chain was none other than Donald Trump. He not only pretended not to be paying attention but was clearly sympathetic to the rioters.

What drove Trump is another question.  After his experience with the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, the Russians may have had blackmail material to hold over him. Or he may have had financial incentives.  When his casinos crashed financially in Atlantic City, he faced a cash squeeze on the luxury high-rise that he was building near the United Nations.  Russians stepped in to save the day by buying several floors of condominiums under a complex financing scheme. 

Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager during the 2016 election had a long history of lobbying Russian interests in the Ukraine.  The Russians paid Manafort through Cyprus Bank, a money laundering operation that converted funds into hard currency for Putin’s friends.  When Cyprus Bank encountered problems, Trump friend Wilbur Ross put together a consortium that bailed the bank out. Ross then went on to become Trump’s commerce secretary. 

One of the Bank’s directors, a renowned Russian oligarch, known as Russia’s billionaire “fertilizer king”, was also involved in a Florida real-estate deal. Trump had bought a decaying estate for $40 million.  He subsequently sold it to the fertilizer oligarch for $100 million, collecting a cool $60 million profit on the deal. 

Residents of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva region are no doubt aware that luxury real estate is the platinum option when it comes to Kremlin money laundering. What better way to change rubles into hard currency than to buy expensive property and sell it when you need the cash? More than a few oligarchs regularly buy choice real estate simply based on a polaroid photograph and the recommendation of a trusted local go-between.  

With Trump now out of power, it is natural to ask what difference any of this actually makes. In fact, just as Russia’s attempts to reconquer the Ukraine provided a laboratory of sorts for Russia’s GRU to experiment with developing the uses of cyber hacking, disinformation and strategic military operations in overthrowing another country, the 2016 election appears to have served as a testing ground when it comes to developing social media tools to undermine western-style democracies. 

In writing American Kompromat, Unger has compiled a mountain of fascinating information, revealing how dark forces, working behind the scenes, attempted to use potentially compromising acts that threatened to drag potential targets down the rabbit hole of betrayal, all in an effort to control our politics. After the February 2021 impeachment trial of Donald Trump — the former president’s second such prosecution — Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell said that it would now be up to the criminal courts to decide what comes next. That could provide another chapter to an already fascinating book.

American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery (Penguin Publishing Group, Jan. 26, 2021) To read a sample extract of this book in Global Geneva, please see LINK.

To purchase American Kompromat, please see LINK

William Dowell, our Americas Editor based in Philadelphia, is a veteran foreign correspondent and author. From Vietnam to North Africa and Europe, he has reported across the globe for TIME, NBC News, ABC News and other major news media.

Craig Unger is an American journalist and writer. He has served as deputy editor of The New York Observer and was editor-in-chief of Boston Magazine. He was also co-editor of Paris Metro during the late 1970s in Paris which specialised in investigative reporting and new journalism. Unger has also written for The New Yorker, Esquire Magazine and Vanity Fair. Unger’s books include: Blue Blood (1989); House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties (2004); The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America’s Future (2007); American Armageddon (2008); When Women Win: EMILY’s List and the Rise of Women in American Politics (2016), with Ellen Malcolm; House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia (2018).

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