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Photoillustration with public domain White House photo

U.S. President Donald J. Trump shakes hands with Vladimir Putin, president of Russia.

Voices / Viewpoint

Russian asset

The pieces of the puzzle make it clear: Our president serves the interests of the Russian state and its president, Vladimir Putin

MacLean Gander has taught English and journalism at Landmark College in Putney for more than 30 years, but the views expressed are entirely his own. (By way of transparency, we note that he is serving on the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, publisher of this newspaper, where he is temporarily lending his considerable educational and administrative talents. In between these roles, he has been our investigative journalist in The Commons’ newsroom.)

West Brattleboro

The president of the United States is a Russian asset — which, as the dictionary describes it, is “a useful or valuable thing, person, or quality.”

I’ve followed Donald Trump since my reporting days in 1980s Manhattan. One of my first scoops came when I was digging into the Marcos dictatorship and found that six condos in the Trump Tower had been bought by a shell corporation linked to Imelda Marcos for about $25 million.

Now, after three years of following the news intensively, including a deep dive into what can be found on the internet and studies of the Mueller report and the Steele dossier, I can come to no other conclusion than that Trump is working on behalf of the Russian state.

It is a complicated story, with a lot of moving pieces. House Democrats have done well to keep the story simple and stick to the facts of the Ukraine “quid pro quo” and Trump’s abuse of office in this specific instance. The Ukraine matter is a small piece of the larger story that would be too complicated — and, perhaps, also darker than anything that we are ready to face.

After weeks of testimony and days of public hearings, the facts of the Ukraine story are clear: Trump abused his power to run a rogue foreign-policy operation focused on having the Ukrainian government dig up nonexistent dirt about Joe Biden, his leading Democratic political opponent, as well as Biden’s son, Hunter, who took $50,000 a month to sit on the board of Burisma, a Ukraine energy company.

Trump ordered that defense aid to Ukraine be withheld, and he used the aid in an attempt to bribe the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to publicly announce investigations: one into the Biden family, and another into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, launched disinformation attacks designed to tip the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. That fiction was put to rest by Fiona Hill, Trump’s own former National Security Council advisor on Russia, in her recent public testimony.

Despite these past weeks of testimony and a confirmation of the basic lines of the story, Trump will likely be acquitted in the Senate after being impeached by the House. His future claim of exoneration — coupled with his massive lead in fundraising and with divisions within the Democratic Party — might result in his re-election a year from now with a minority of the popular vote.

If that scenario unfolds, then Vladimir Putin will have his man in Washington for another four years.

And the real story — the full story of how Moscow gained such power in United States affairs and is gradually destroying our democracy — might remain untold.

* * *

To be an asset, Trump did not necessarily have to join in a conscious, willing agreement with the Russian state, nor does he necessarily have to believe that, in serving the interests of Putin and the Russian oligarchy, he is doing anything wrong.

Some have suggested that the Russians have kompromat on Trump — secret information to compromise him, a strategy at which Russian intelligence is expert. Among them include Hill, who made the suggestion in her testimony and is one of the foremost experts on Russia in the United States.

It may be that a full accounting of Trump’s business dealings would reveal how deeply indebted his fortune is to Russian money. Given Moscow’s well-documented skill at kompromat, it is possible (though it remains unproven) that Putin is holding personal, humiliating evidence against him.

Still, it seems also possible that in Trump’s worldview, which is essentially a New York City gangster perspective from the 1970s and 1980s, he’s just doing business with the Russians — they’ve done him some favors, and he’s done some in return.

Maybe it’s not personal, in that old line from The Godfather. Maybe it’s strictly business.

* * *

Is Trump a dupe, or a willing actor? It’s hard to know.

What, for example, is one to make of the president’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky?

Trump was at least as interested in the conspiracy-theory part of the “favor” he was asking of the Ukraine president as he was in the activities of Hunter Biden.

That angle — involving a cybersecurity firm called CrowdStrike and a supposed server in Ukraine — has not received the same attention as the Biden element, partly because we are in a political season. But it’s also because this conspiracy theory — which ultimately claims that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for interfering in the 2016 election — has been entirely discredited by U.S. intelligence and national security.

In her testimony, Hill made this point directly to Devin Nunes, the minority leader on the House Intelliegence Committee and one of the strongest purveryors of the CrowdStrike myth. The interchange was the headline in the home-pages of The Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN on Thursday last week.

In a long telephone interview with Fox News on Friday, Trump again lied about the theory, saying that it was true.

It is a strange theory that can be traced back from Trump to his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, then to Manafort’s former political associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who is closely associated with Russian intelligence, according to numerous press reports. In 2017, Vladimir Putin publicly articulated the Ukraine election conspiracy theory, and around that time it began to be a driver of Trump’s approach to the Ukraine.

Would pushing this lie be part of an overall strategy on Trump’s part, or is he just a pawn in a much more complex game than he’s ever played before?

Perhaps Trump is just a useful idiot, in that old Cold War phrase. Perhaps he is an active agent.

Either way, it doesn’t matter. Trump’s presidency is a threat to U.S. national security.

* * *

To understand how Trump became a Russian asset, it is necessary to understand the nature of the Russian state and its motivations. It is important to know what the real stakes are.

Americans my age grew up during the Cold War. It infused every aspect of our lives in ways no one born in the past 40 years can easily understand, from the 1950s through the 1980s, from ducking under school desks in nuclear-war drills to watching The Day After in the Reagan years.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union were welcomed with great fervor and relief as symbols of the end of the Cold War. When Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, arguing that we had entered a new global period in which conflict between superpowers would no longer be the dominant force, it seemed that his argument might be true.

It wasn’t.

In the 20 years since Putin took power, Russia has steadily worked to regain the global standing that it lost in the 1990s, fighting vicious wars against separatists in Chechnya and another war with Georgia. Most recently, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, which had been a key Soviet naval port on the Black Sea.

This Russian revanchism has been obvious and sustained under Putin. So, too, has been the increasing absence of any pretense to democracy in the nation.

The Russia that was first re-established in the massive privatization of state-run enterprises in the late 1990s is now an oligarchy and a gangster state, with Putin as the godfather.

Putin was selected by oligarchs, who thought that the former KGB colonel could bring order to the Russian state and that they could control him.

This turned out not to be the case. Two oligarchs who did try to oppose Putin as he consolidated power were handled brutally and imprisoned. The rest of the oligarchy fell into line.

The Russian economy is essentially controlled by a group of oligarchs with Putin sitting at the head of the table and wielding nearly absolute power, including the authority granted in 2006 legislation to order extra-judicial killings with almost no oversight.

The primary interest of the Russian state is to destabilize the Western democracies — the same nations that had been arranged against Soviet power during the Cold War — and to regain influence with European nations like Hungary and Poland, once satellite states of the Soviet empire.

It’s a new sort of cold war now, but it has similarities to the old one. Wars are still fought in proxy states, but these are as likely to be political battles as they are military ones, waged with the tools of the internet age.

The Russian invasion of Georgia was accompanied by a massive cyberattack, just as the U.S. has used cyberattacks to interrupt development of nuclear capability in Iran and North Korea.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen the rise of populist, anti-democratic parties across Europe, stemming in part from the ways in which the disaster of the Arab Spring, especially in Syria and Libya, has created a flood of refugees into Europe and sparked a rise in racist and ethnocentric xenophobia.

All serve Russia’s interests, and the country’s role in seeking to shape the outcome in the 2016 presidential election must be seen in this context.

If Russia hoped to further the destabilization of U.S. democracy by supporting Trump in the race, it certainly got its wish.

Traditional political norms have been discarded. The United States is more divided than it has been since the 1850s. Pundits in the mainstream media routinely question whether our republic can survive.

Whether Trump is impeached by the House, whether he is convicted or is acquitted in the Senate, whether he wins or loses next November, the nation has been and will continue to be deeply weakened by the developments of the past three years.

Russia is our most dangerous and most difficult strategic opponent. Yet, starting from the beginning of his campaign and continuing through this very moment, Trump has treated the country as an ally, subverting a national security consensus that had been the norm between Democrats and Republicans since World War II.

This behavior might be the purest evidence to make the case that Trump is a Russian asset.

* * *

Why has Trump — a man with no stable convictions — done this? Nothing in the long arc of his public life points to him ever caring about politics and policy except as they might serve his own interests.

The answer may lie in that old line from All the President’s Men: “Follow the money.”

Trump was born with a gold spoon in his mouth, and he burst on the Manhattan scene in the 1980s, with his Trump Tower fitting lavishly into the narrative of greed that dominated the Reagan years.

But he was bad at business: The New York Times reported in May that tax records show how Trump lost nearly $1 billion between 1985 and 1994. This reporting offers one of the few documented pieces of evidence we have about Trump’s finances.

Trump tried to use highly leveraged financial positions to build a casino empire in the Northeast. He failed. His casinos went bankrupt. He managed to stem off total disaster by using bankruptcy laws, fleecing his creditors in the process. But by the end of the 1990s, he was essentially out of the real-estate business, and no U.S. bank would lend him money.

Trump did manage to gain backing from Deutsche Bank — since implicated in Russian money-laundering activity — on some deals, but in this period he essentially changed from being a real-estate developer to a brand.

He signed licensing agreements that lent his name to various enterprises, from golf courses to vodka and for-profit education.

He also created the role of himself on The Apprentice, a long-running reality television show that made him famous beyond the New York area. The show brought him in more than $200 million over 14 seasons — good money, but nothing like the billions that the president claims he is worth.

About 15 years ago, according to a number of press reports, Trump began to receive funds from individuals and entities in other nations.

Oligarchs and strongmen from various nations and drug cartels can launder their money by purchasing luxury real estate in stable places like London, Manhattan, and Miami.

Using shell companies, they buy up condos in luxury buildings or mansions in gated communities, leaving spaces that often stand virtually empty for years. They can also move money into real estate by being quiet partners in building developments. And in so doing, they render billions of dollars of wealth essentially invisible in the global economy.

Trump might have been one of the players. Close to bankruptcy in the early 2000s, his business fortunes changed suddenly in that time, in part through an association with the Bayrock Group, run by Tevfik Arif, a former Soviet official born in Kazakhstan, and Felix Sater, a Russian businessman convicted in the 1990s in a stock-fraud scheme involving the Russian mafia.

An article by Michael Hirsh in the Dec. 21, 2018 issue of Foreign Policy states things clearly:

“By the time he ran for president, Trump had been enmeshed in this mysterious overseas flow of capital—which various investigators believe could have included money launderers from Russia and former Soviet republics who bought up dozens of his condos—for a decade and a half.”

Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told an audience at a 2008 international real estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”

Six years later, Eric Trump said much the same thing in response to questions about how the Trump Organization could find the resources to buy so many golf courses.

Most of these sort of private-company business dealings are hidden, but at least one has been widely reported.

In 2008, Trump bought a Palm Beach oceanside property for about $42 million, and then four years later sold it for $95 million to Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian oligarch known as “the fertilizer king.”

* * *

Perhaps Trump’s business dealings wouldn’t matter so much if it were not so clear that his 2016 campaign was deeply entangled with Russian influences and, if as president, he has not been so transparent and relentless in siding with a U.S. adversary.

Since he took office, Trump’s actions have consistently undercut five decades of U.S. consensus on national security.

It took extraordinary effort on the part of Trump’s national security team at the time to produce even a statement that our nation would continue to honor its commitment to NATO, the 29-country intergovernmental military alliance.

Trump has kept secret his conversations with Putin at different international occasions, even having his interpreter’s notes confiscated. No one knows what the two leaders have talked about.

The president has openly discussed highly classified material in the White House with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, giving U.S. intelligence services reason to hurriedly pull one of its most highly placed assets within the Russian government.

Trump has continually argued that Russia should be re-admitted into the G-7 and have economic sanctions lifted, despite the country’s invasion of Ukraine in violation of international law — an act for which the country was removed from the group in 2014.

And on his own, the president withheld vital military aid to the Ukraine, including anti-tank missiles that might level the playing field in that ongoing war, in defiance of a national-security approach that both Republicans and Democrats agree on.

* * *

Russia has always played the hard game when it comes to espionage and politics.

We’ve seen that in stories about extra-judicial killings, often by poison, and in strange stories like the deaths of nine Russian diplomats in the nine months after Trump was elected, including the sudden deaths of a New York consular official and the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, neither of which was adequately explained.

In the Soviet era, we just took this sort of thing for granted.

One of the things I remember very well is a joke told during the last phase of the old Cold War in the 1980s, when I was a journalist at Newsweek.

Three diplomats — one British, one American, and one Russian — are set the task of getting a cat to eat hot mustard.

The British diplomat seeks to coax the kitty to eat the mustard, holding the plate in his hand and crooning, “Here, kitty; here, kitty.” The cat turns and stalks away.

The U.S. diplomat is more purposeful. He grabs the plate of mustard, strides toward the cat, and tries to force its face into the plate. The cat claws his arm and whirls away.

The Russian diplomat takes the plate and scoops a gob of mustard onto his thumb, then grabs the cat by the scruff of its neck and stabs the mustard against its backside. The cat races away, frantically licking the mustard from its butt.

That’s the Russian approach.

That’s Putin with the mustard on his thumb.

And Trump is the cat.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #538 (Wednesday, November 27, 2019). This story appeared on page F1.

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