Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win’
New York, 2017, $16.95
Luke Harding begins his year-long investigation of the 2016 Trump victory with a trip he and an U.K. Guardian colleague took to the London firm, Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. in December 2016. Orbis describes itself as “a leading corporate intelligence consultancy” providing “senior decision makers with strategic insight, intelligence and investigative services.”
I’m glad The Berkshire Edge asked me to review “Collusion” because Luke Harding’s “Collusion” adds critical context and perspective to my less polished musings on these subjects, my Smoke Signals from The Swamp. You can find them here: https://theberkshireedge.com/author/dsnyder/
Harding explains that Orbis: “Spies for commercial clients – delving into the secrets of individuals and institutions, governments, and international organizations.” And the payoff: “The man who runs Orbis is Christopher Steele.” And this is but one reason you should care about “Collusion” and Christopher Steele. Because if we somehow find ourselves without Donald Trump – either because of a resignation prompted by the fear of prosecution, or impeachment by Congress, a good deal of the credit will belong to Christopher Steele and his now infamous Dossier.
As befitting spies, Harding tells us: “Steele’s office gives few clues as to the nature of his undercover work. There’s only one hint: Lined up near the director’s desk are nesting Russian dolls or matryoshki. A symbol from Moscow. They feature Russia’s great nineteenth-century writers: Tolstoy, Gogol, Lermontov, Pushkin …”
Much like the best mystery writers, by page 5 Harding had me hooked. But even better he offered me a greater insight into what was going on. Like many of you, I’ve been consistently puzzled watching this odd drama of Trump and The Trumpettes, this rag-tag team of Flynns and Manaforts, of Carter Page and Papadopoulos, of Spicer and Huckabee Sanders, the stuff of Saturday Night Live versus the shrewd, nasty, cut-your-heart-out and kill your critics, send tanks to take Crimea KGB operatives. Of course, the actions of the Trump Team made a certain kind of sense in the traditional crude American mobster way of doing things – the New York City construction world of greed and graft, accompanied by great helpings of unsophisticated stupidity.
But Luke Harding helps us appreciate the other side of this story: our adversaries and their uniquely Russian way of complex manipulation, their dark dedication to the long game. They who endured unimaginable casualties luring the arrogant Nazis deeper and deeper into frigid Mother Russia. Who better to help Christopher Steele illuminate – and document in his Dossier – what is really going on than the great Russian writers who had to learn how to survive the Cossacks and the Czar while offering an acute appreciation for irony and satire and the cruelties of power.
Harding explains: “In the tumultuous days of 2016, the dolls were as good a metaphor as any for the astonishing secret investigation Steele had recently been asked to do. It was an explosive assignment – to uncover the Kremlin’s innermost secrets with relation to one Donald J. Trump, to unnest them one by one, like so many dolls, until the truth was finally revealed. Its conclusions would shake the intelligence community and cause a political earthquake not seen since the dark days of President Richard Nixon and Watergate.
“Steele’s findings were sensational, and the resulting dossier would in effect accuse President-elect Trump of the gravest of crimes: collusion with a foreign power. That power was Russia. The alleged crime – vehemently denied, contested, and in certain key respects unprovable – was treason. The new U.S. president designate was, it was whispered, a traitor.”
In these two short but finely wrought paragraphs, Harding bests several weeks-worth of MSNBC and CNN.
Like just about every other journalist working on this, the Watergate-like story of a lifetime, Harding searches first for motive. If Trump colluded with Putin, why? “Sure, there were ideological similarities: a contempt for international bodies such as the UN and a dislike of the European Union. And, you might argue, Christian-inflected white nationalism. But this wasn’t enough. It was as if there was a strange fealty at work, an unexplained factor, an invisible hand, a missing piece of the puzzle. Trump didn’t praise any other foreign leader in quite the same way. Or as often. His obeisance to Putin would continue even as he ascended to office.
“These two issues” Harding explains, “the promotion of Russia’s hacked emails and the praise of Putin – raised a remarkable question. Had Putin somehow been blackmailing the candidate? If not how to explain Trump’s infatuation? If yes, blackmailing how exactly?”
Harding is the perfect person to lead us through these mysteries: “From 2007 to 2011, I spent four years in Russia as the Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief until I was put in an airport cell and deported from the country. This, I am sure, was a result of some of my less flattering reports on Vladimir Putin.”
He returns to his meeting with Steele: “Steele’s reticence was a matter of professional custom. First, he was a former spy. Second, he was bound by the rules of commercial confidentiality. He wasn’t going to say anything about his clients. There was no hint he had been involved in what was the single most important investigation in decades. Besides, those who investigated, criticized or betrayed Putin often met with disastrous ends …”
At his point Harding was looking at two strands of the story: “One was intriguing and at this point speculative, that Russia had covertly financed Trump’s campaign. We had much of the alleged details. There was no proof. We had no primary source. If proof did exist, it was well hidden.
“The other lead was more solid. We had documentary evidence that high-ranking Russian bureaucrats and well-connected insiders had laundered $20 billion … its trails involving British lawyers, Moldavian judges, a Latvian bank, and limited companies registered in London. The cash had gone everywhere, some of it through U.S. accounts with banks like JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Most of the beneficiaries remained a mystery.
“Cash had been hidden offshore. The scheme had been partly used for political operations abroad. It illustrated the porousness of the U.S. banking system, its pores open to Russian money. And if you could laundry money into New York, you could, presumably, spend it on covert hacking. On anything you wished for.”
Harding continues: “Steele … wouldn’t confirm that our stories were correct, though he implied we were on the right track. He offered parallel lines of inquiry. ‘You need to look at the contracts for the hotel deals that Trump did. Check their values against the money Trump secured via loans.’
“This, it seemed, was a reference to Trump’s former home in Florida. Trump had bought the mansion in 2004 for $41 million. Four years later, he sold it to a Russian oligarch for $95 million. Even allowing for inflation … this seemed an extraordinary profit. ‘The difference is what’s important.’ Steele said.
“Another theme of the election campaign was Trump’s relations with women. This had come to the fore after the emergence of a 2005 recording. On it Trump bragged about the privileges of being ‘a star.’ One perk: when he met beautiful women he could simply ‘grab them by the pussy.’ Trump apologized for this. He insisted the women who alleged sexual harassment were liars – jezebels motivated not by justice but by politics.
“To our surprise, Steele implied that Trump and sex was an interesting line of inquiry. He gave no details …After forty-five minutes it was time for Steele to go …” The amazing thing about Harding’s meeting with Christopher Steele was that it happened before Harding even knew about the Dossier.
“Two days later,” Harding tells us, “Steele’s work would land on President Obama’s desk, but its beginnings were decades in the making.”
But now, at least, Luke Harding knew his mission was clear: “Follow the sex and the money.”
A lot of words have crossed my desk over the years, countless reports, detailed analyses, and news reports. Many of them scarcely worth my time. But I enjoyed and appreciated every minute I spent with “Collusion.” Most of all I appreciated the insight that Harding and Steele – one a Guardian correspondent and the other an accomplished British operative – had gained from their years of work in Russia. So much of what we read and hear, almost non-stop these days, about Trump and the transition and the campaign and how this his first year is quintessentially American. From our vantage point: we, the interfered with; we the hacked; we whose eyes had the wool pulled over them.
Let’s go back in time about a year ago to when most of the press began to pay attention. Harding reminds us that it was CNN who broke the news that U.S. intelligence had briefed Obama and Trump that they believed “that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” Including, of course, the potentially humiliating Trump Moscow sex tape. Only BuzzFeed chose to put the full dossier online.
Harding reminds us: “The reaction from the president-elect was thunderous. It was delivered via his usual route, above the heads of the detested liberal media, and direct to the fervent millions who had voted for him. At 1:19 a.m. on January 11 Trump tweeted: ‘FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!’
“Trump would go on to discuss Steele as a peddler of ‘phony allegations’ and a ‘failed spy afraid of being sued.’ The people who commissioned him were ‘sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans. FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists.” …
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press spokesman, seconded Trump’s denials, insisting the Kremlin “does not engage in collecting compromising material.”
Like those nesting dolls, each hidden by the other, Harding reveals one aspect of Vladimir Putin’s multi-faceted espionage efforts after another. This exercise, we learn, is far from academic for Harding: “Anyone familiar with Russian espionage could only crack a wry smile at Peskov’s solemn denials. True, nobody outside of the FSB could know if the spy agency did indeed have a Trump video but there was a long history of the FSB, and its KGB predecessor, collecting compromising material. And on many occasions filming targets when they engaged in sexual activity even if this was with a wife or husband.
“As I myself knew. During my time as a correspondent, the FSB broke into our family apartment as part of a low-level campaign of harassment. Typically, as with the KGB in Steele’s day, they left demonstrative clues … Our apartment was now bugged, British diplomats said. Returning from a holiday in Berlin, I discovered the FSB had visited us again. During this latest break-in, they had left a book by the side of the marital bed. It was in Russian. It’s title: ‘Love, freedom, aloneness.’ It was a sex and relationship manual.”
Harding details a slew of prominent officials, both Russian and foreign, who fell victim to the prodigious film-making abilities of Russia intelligence: those who discovered themselves in photos and videos of them with gorgeous women.
But this was only one of many Russian efforts at kompromat, the fine art of compromising those you wished to bring down. Harding can’t help but admire the skill at work here: “From Moscow, Putin’s reaction to the Trump dossier was a master class in how to send several messages at once. Why, he asked, would Trump arrive in Moscow and immediately take up with the city’s prostitutes? Trump was a ‘grown man’ and moreover one used to spending time with beautiful women at pageants and competitions all over the world. Trump was, Putin implied, proofed against temptation.
“Putin continued: ‘You know, it’s hard for me to imagine that he went to a hotel to meet with women with a low level of social responsibility, although without a doubt they [Russian prostitutes] are the best in the world, without a doubt. But I doubt that Trump would have got hooked on that.’
“With his trademark sardonic humor, Putin may have been sending a second message, darkly visible beneath the choppy translucent waters of the first. It said: we’ve got the tape, Donald! If this was Putin’s submerged meaning, the president-elect would surely have noticed it. Moving from light to dark, Russia’s president said prostitution wasn’t the fault of the young women who engaged in it. They had few options. They were merely trying to earn income, he said. The real prostitutes were those who had ordered up ‘hoaxes’ against Trump. They were ‘worse than prostitutes.’ They had ‘no moral limitations,’ Putin added. He meant Steele. And Western spies generally.”
Thanks to Harding we’re able to see the present more clearly as we truly appreciate the past. Because there is nothing new about our 2016 version of Russian interference. Harding offers excerpts from Comrade Kryuchkov’s: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations 1975 – 1985. Suddenly, what seemed bizarre and unlikely, Carter Page’s journey to Moscow; George Papadapoulos’ London meetings with the mysterious Professor and ‘Putin’s niece;” Attorney General Session’s odd desire to confer with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak; Don Junior’s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya to simultaneously learn about adopting Russian babies while getting the dirt on Hillary; Kushner’s desire for a backchannel to Moscow to elude NSA eavesdropping; and on and on, well it clearly reflects the Russian playbook.
And would probably make Comrade Kryuchkov quite proud. Harding tells us Comrade Kryuchkov’s task: “The urgent subject: how to improve agent recruitment. The general urged his officers to be more ‘creative.’ Previously they had relied on identifying candidates who showed ideological sympathy toward the USSR: leftists, trade unionists, and so on. By the mid-1980s these were not so many.
“So KGB officers should ‘make bolder use of material incentives’: money. And use flattery, an important tool … the Political Intelligence Department stationed in KGB residencies abroad – was given explicit instructions to find ‘U.S targets to cultivate or, at the very least, official contacts … The main effort must be concentrated on acquiring valuable agents,’ Kryuchkov said.
“The memo – dated February 1, 1984 – was to be destroyed as soon as its contents had been read. It said that despite improvements in ‘information gathering’ the KGB ‘has not had great success in operation against the main adversary [America.]” … “Further improvement in operational work with agents calls for further and wider utilization of confidential and special unofficial contacts. These should be acquired chiefly among prominent figures in politics and society, and important representatives of business and science.” These should not only “supply valuable information” but also “actively influence” a country’s foreign policy: “in a direction of advantage to the USSR.” (emphasis added.)
There are nuggets galore in “Collusion” and I could go on and on offering example after example about what I learned about Putin and his friends, about Trump’s visit trip to Moscow, about Deutsche Bank and Cyprus and offshore money laundering and Russian hackers. But I’ll leave the rest to you.
Like the best teachers, Harding offers us an adventure. He is a skilled writer and even though we often imagine that, because we’re actually living through all this in real time, we know what’s coming, Harding manages to surprise us time and again. Because, like Christopher Steele and the best of spies, he really does know more than we do.
Do yourself a favor. Take some time to commune and collude with “Collusion.” Take the ride.