Trump and Russia: a guide for the bewildered
A fuller story of relations between the Russian government and the Trump campaign is only now coming to light
By the time Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States, two studies – one conducted by US intelligence agencies, one conducted by a private firm – had arrived at an identical conclusion: a complex Russian intelligence operation under the direction of President Vladimir Putin had worked for the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the election of Trump.
The story of the US intelligence agencies’ discovery of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and how the Obama administration handled or, really, mishandled its response, was told for the first time on 23 June 2017 in a Washington Post article. In gradually uncovering the story of the relations between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, American investigative journalism has entered a new golden age. Of all the reports, however, this one is perhaps the most remarkable. The Post relied on information supplied, for the most part under guarantees of anonymity, by almost 40 present or former government “officials”. The story they revealed goes like this.
In early August 2016 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hand-delivered a sealed report on Russian election interference that it demanded only US president Barack Obama and three of his aides should see. The report informed the president of the CIA’s conclusion that Putin was personally directing Russia’s attempt to influence the outcome of the presidential election. It now believed that Putin’s objective was, in the words of the Post, “to disrupt and discredit the US presidential race” and to “defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump”. Presumably because the intelligence was based in part on a human source or human sources inside the Kremlin, its distribution in the White House was so secret that protocols developed while the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout was being planned were followed. Not all intelligence agencies at first accepted the CIA’s conclusion. By September they did.
What then was done? In September, at a meeting of the G20 in China, Obama told Putin, according to an aide, that his administration “knew what he was doing and [he] better stop or else”. On 7 October the heads of the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) issued a brief public statement about Russian government responsibility for the hacking of Democratic Party emails. It was overshadowed by the publication of the video where Donald Trump bragged that because of his fame he was able to grab women by “the pussy” and by WikiLeaks’ publication of the first batch of the emails of John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which would be drip-fed to the public until the presidential election. As the Post learned, the idea of a commission into Russian meddling in the election, of the kind that had investigated September 11, was considered but abandoned.
Before the election, little else occurred. One insider thought that Obama had “choked”. Obama believed that Clinton would most likely win the election. He discovered that leading Republicans in Congress were unwilling to co-operate. To go public about Putin’s clandestine pro-Trump activities would therefore be interpreted as politically partisan. Accordingly, President Obama concentrated almost exclusively on damage limitation, especially on trying to safeguard the states’ often antiquated electronic election systems from a Russian cyber-attack – the Obama administration’s greatest fear.
More decisive action took place only after the shock of the Trump election victory had sunk in. On 29 December, the Obama administration announced the imposition of relatively mild sanctions: the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats suspected of involvement in espionage, and the seizure of two properties on US soil that the Russians were believed to be using for spying. On 6 January 2017, the combined US intelligence agencies published a report into Russian election meddling and its pro-Trump purpose. As the Post discovered, however, the most important retaliation Obama ordered was a cyber-weapon planted in critical Russian networks that could be triggered remotely in the case of future Russian aggression.
The private enterprise study into Trump and Russia (which I analysed in detail in January) was conducted by a highly respected former MI6 officer, Christopher Steele, with long experience of Russia. His company, Orbis Business Intelligence, had been contracted by an American firm, Fusion GPS, originally working on behalf of Jeb Bush and then for Clinton supporters, to find damaging information on Trump. Steele’s study was based primarily on information gained through conversations conducted by his employees with between 15 and 20 strategically placed Russians in Moscow and St Petersburg. His informants claimed more than the CIA – a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence, working under the direction of President Putin, in pursuit of a common goal: the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the election of Donald Trump.
According to Steele’s sources, the plan was conducted on the American side by Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort; by one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, the notoriously pro-Russian businessman Carter Page; and then by Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Steele was told Cohen took over after Manafort was compelled to resign as campaign manager; the New York Times had revealed on 14 August 2016 that Manafort received millions of dollars in “kickbacks” from the political party of a pro-Putin former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Steele was also told by one of his informants that Russian hackers who had stolen Hillary Clinton–related emails that were passed to WikiLeaks for publication were paid by both the Kremlin and by the Trump campaign. If that claim is ever proved to be true, it is difficult to imagine how Trump could escape impeachment even by a Republican Party–dominated Congress.
The early sections of Steele’s dossier were brought to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), for whom Steele had provided reliable material in the past on other matters. In October 2016, Steele was interviewed by his FBI contact in Rome. On 9 December, Republican senator John McCain passed the complete version of the Steele dossier to the director of the FBI, James Comey. In January 2017 BuzzFeed published the entire dossier. The Steele report has remained fixed in public consciousness, primarily because of the compromising salacious sexual material that Steele’s sources claimed Russian intelligence had secretly recorded during Trump’s many Russian visits, which included his trip to Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe beauty pageant he owned and helped organise.
Since the publication of the Steele dossier, a great deal more has been learnt about relations between the Trump campaign and the Putin regime. Some of what has been learnt has come from a steady succession of leaks to the media, in particular to the New York Times and the Washington Post but also to Reuters, CNN, the Associated Press, the BBC, Politico and the Wall Street Journal, primarily but not exclusively from intelligence sources. Some of what has been learnt comes from the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the peculiar behaviour of President Trump and some of his close associates.
According to the Steele dossier, the collusion between the Putin government and the Trump campaign began in June 2016. We have since learned, as the New York Times revealed on 11 July this year, that on 3 June Donald Trump’s elder son, Donald junior, received a rather startling email from Rob Goldstone, a Moscow-based British music publicist and acquaintance of the Trump family. The email began with these words:
Emin [Agalarov, a Russian pop star Goldstone represents] just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting.
The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with [Emin’s] father Aras [a Russian oligarch and friend of Donald senior] this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.
This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump …
Donald junior replied 17 minutes later: “Thanks Rob I appreciate that … [I]f it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
A few days later, a meeting was arranged in Trump Tower. The Russians were represented by a lawyer and friend of the Putin-appointed Russian prosecutor-general, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and by at least two other lobbyists. The Trump campaign was represented by three of its most influential leaders: Donald junior, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and the campaign manager Paul Manafort. All by now possessed the Goldstone–Trump junior email chain.
What happened at that meeting is disputed.
Before he realised that the Times had been given the relevant emails, Donald junior claimed it was about Russian child adoption by American citizens. (Russia had banned the practice after the US Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which froze assets that had been deposited in the West by Russians suspected of human rights abuses.) After details from the emails were published, the Trump campaign leaders still described it as a waste of their time and inconsequential.
Rather differently, one of the Russians present, Rinat Akhmetshin, claimed that Veselnitskaya had presented the Americans, in the words of the Associated Press, “with a plastic folder with printed-out documents that detailed what she believed was the flow of illicit funds to the Democrats”. On 21 August the New York Times revealed that Akhmetshin had close connections with Russian intelligence agencies. Intriguingly, in recent days it has been reported that Manafort’s phone notes of the meeting exist and that donations to the Republican National Committee were discussed.
When the Times story first broke in July this year, Trump senior claimed that he was not told about the meeting at the time and then, shortly after, that “maybe it was mentioned at some point”. He also flatly denied that he had played a role in crafting his son’s initial misleading statement about the meeting’s subject matter. As Trump senior’s attorney, Jay Sekulow, put it to NBC on 16 July, “I do want to be clear – the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement.” On 31 July, however, the Washington Post had learned from another leak that Trump had “personally dictated” his son’s statement. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, now helpfully explained that Trump had “weighed in as any father would”.
The meaning of the Trump Tower meeting is beyond dispute. By the first week of June 2016, the Trump campaign leadership not only knew that the Russian government wanted to help Trump become the next US president but were eager to accept the Kremlin’s assistance. However, when he appeared on CNN six weeks after his enthusiastic attendance at a meeting where he had been promised Russian government dirt on Hillary Clinton, Donald junior described the very suggestion that Putin was trying to assist in the election of his father as “disgusting” and “phony”. “The Clinton camp … will lie and do anything to win,” he said. For his part, a few days later, referring to WikiLeaks’ first dump of 20,000 Clinton-related emails, Donald senior tweeted: “[T]he Dems said maybe it is Russia dealing with Trump. Crazy!”
By the early northern summer of 2016, as Trump closed in on the Republican nomination, a number of close observers of American politics were already aware of something highly peculiar in the relationship between Trump and Russia.
On 15 June 2016, according to the recording of a private conversation on Capitol Hill that was leaked to the Washington Post in May 2017, a conservative Republican, Kevin McCarthy, told fellow members of the party’s leadership group, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Republican representative Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump.” When some of the group laughed at the suggestion, McCarthy added, “Swear to God.” At least the speaker of the House of the Representatives, Paul Ryan, appears to have taken the intelligence seriously. According to the Post, “Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation quiet: ‘No leaks … This is how we know we’re a real family here.’”
On 4 July 2016, Slate contributing editor Franklin Foer published an astonishingly prescient article that outlined its theme in the opening line: “Vladimir Putin has a plan for destroying the West – and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump.” Foer noted that Trump applauded Brexit, denounced NATO, and lavished high praise on Putin. Among conservative Republicans, Russophiles are not easy to find. But already, as Foer noted, three such unusual characters were prominent members of the Trump campaign. Foer described Paul Manafort as “a wizened operative [who had] dedicated himself to working on behalf of clients close to the Kremlin”; Carter Page as an investment banker who had advised Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom and “defended Russia with relish”; and Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as someone who had “journeyed to Moscow and sat two chairs away from Putin at the 10th anniversary gala celebrating Russia Today”.
A fortnight later, Josh Rogin of the Washington Post reported that at the Republican Party’s national security committee platform meeting members of Trump’s campaign team had, curiously enough, intervened successfully to soften a motion concerning Russian-backed aggression in Ukraine. Instead of “lethal defensive weapons” the Ukrainians fighting the pro-Russian separatists were promised only “appropriate assistance”.
On 22 July 2016, WikiLeaks published its first tranche of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee. Already, on 14 June 2016, the Washington Post had reported on the operations of two groups of Russian hackers, known as Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, whose product had been published by two entities: Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks. It was by now very widely assumed – by Christopher Steele’s informants, by US intelligence agencies, by informed public opinion – that Russian intelligence has chosen WikiLeaks as the principal publisher of the hacked emails because of its reputation for political independence and for publishing only authentic documents. For his part, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange swore that his source was not Russia or a “state’s party”. Offering a $20,000 reward for information relating to the death of Seth Rich, Assange seemed to hint that the Democratic Party staffer, murdered in Washington on 10 July, was his source. Among the alt-right and on Fox News, to the despair of Rich’s grieving family, a conspiracy theory was now concocted, with Rich cast in the role of a martyr and the Clintons as his murderers. The most influential article was one Fox News published on 16 May 2017: ‘Seth Rich, slain DNC staffer, had contact with WikiLeaks’.
On 1 August 2017, David Folkenflik of National Public Radio reported on a lawsuit that claims the Trump campaign itself actively promoted the alt-right’s Seth Rich conspiracy theory. A detective and occasional contributor to Fox News, Rod Wheeler, has issued a writ against Fox and one of its contributors, Ed Butowsky. The writ claims that the decisive quotes attributed to Wheeler in the Fox News article of 16 May, namely that he had discovered Rich been in contact with WikiLeaks shortly before he was murdered, were complete fabrications. A month before the publication of the article, Butowsky and Wheeler met with Trump’s then press secretary, Sean Spicer. The writ alleges that Butowsky had told Wheeler in a phone conversation that “the statements were falsely attributed to Mr. Wheeler because that is the way the President wanted the article” (emphasis in the writ).
Recently we learned that the notoriously pro-Russian Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher spent three hours in early August 2017 in talks with Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London. According to Rohrabacher, Assange provided him with “earth-shattering” information that would prove the WikiLeaks emails came from a source inside the Democratic Party. Rohrabacher told Fox News and radio presenter Sean Hannity, “If the information comes out, there will be an outrage among the American people that their time has been wasted. They’ve had this story over and over … again shoved down their throats as if the Russians colluded with Donald Trump …” Rohrabacher claimed that he would soon meet Trump. He floated the idea of a presidential pardon for Assange in exchange for this information.
Another story, potentially at least very damaging to Trump, was published by the Wall Street Journal on 29 June 2017. It claimed that during the 2016 campaign Peter Smith, a Trump supporter and Republican operative, commissioned a high-powered team of technical experts to find and authenticate the missing emails that Clinton did not hand over during an investigation into her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. Smith was convinced they were in the possession of Russian hackers. To those he approached, Smith suggested that he was working with the Flynn Intel Group, the private intelligence firm of one of Trump’s principal supporters, Lt Gen Mike Flynn. It is unclear whether or not Smith (who died recently) was working for the Trump campaign. What, however, is certain is that Trump was extremely sympathetic to Smith’s objective. On 27 July 2016 he issued the following, perhaps jocular, appeal: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing.”
Further leaks in the past three months, very many presumably from Trump’s enemies in the US intelligence agencies, have documented a surprisingly large number of connections between Russia and several key members of the Trump campaign.
Through such leaks we have learned that Paul Manafort was employed between 2005 and 2009 as a political adviser by a Russian aluminium oligarch and close associate of Putin, Oleg Deripaska, who paid him $10 million in one year, and then by the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, and his Party of Regions, which paid him at least $17 million over two years. Recently, CNN reported that investigators into Trump’s connections with Russia have “turned up intercepted communications that US intelligence agencies collected among suspected Russian operatives discussing their efforts to work with Manafort … The suspected operatives relayed what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians.”
On 26 July, the FBI raided Manafort’s home in a search for documents he had not voluntarily handed over. On 24 August McClatchy reported that Manafort had earned in total between $80 and $150 million from Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian clients and that there is speculation that he might co-operate with the current Department of Justice investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Trump and Russia in return for some form of immunity on the possible taxation or money-laundering charges that might send him to prison for several years. In Manafort’s defence, we recently learned that in May 2016 he rejected the idea of a meeting between Trump and the Russian political leaders, including President Putin, suggested by one of the campaign’s junior foreign policy advisers, George Papadopoulos.
Carter Page, who Trump appointed as one of his foreign policy advisers, is one of the key figures in the Steele dossier. On 4 April 2017, BuzzFeed News revealed that in 2013 Page fell under suspicion because of his relations with Victor Podobnyy, the leader of a Russian spy ring. Two of the ring’s members with diplomatic cover were deported. One was imprisoned. In 2016, because of suspicions over his connections with Russia, Page was placed under surveillance via a very rare FISA warrant, a fact first reported by BBC correspondent Paul Wood. In early July 2016, while a member of the Trump campaign team, Page gave a speech in Moscow where he argued, “Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratisation, inequality, corruption and regime change.”
The Steele dossier claims that during that visit Page met Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, the vast Russian oil company, and that the lifting of sanctions imposed after the Russian annexation of Crimea and aggression in Ukraine in return for Trump’s campaign leaders being offered a share of Rosneft was discussed. On 26 December 2016 the link man between Sechin and Putin, Oleg Erovinkin (formerly a senior officer of the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service), was found dead in his car. It was rumoured that he had been murdered because of suspicions that he was the source of the information in the Steele dossier on the Sechin–Page conversation. When asked by the Senate intelligence committee to provide information, Page wrote, rather memorably, “I suspect the physical reaction of the Clinton/Obama regime perpetrators will be more along the lines of extreme vomiting when all the facts are eventually exposed regarding the steps taken by the U.S. Government to influence the 2016 election.”
One of Trump’s first supporters in Congress, Senator Jeff Sessions, claimed in his confirmation hearings for the position of Trump’s attorney general that during the presidential campaign he had never talked with members of the Russian embassy. Intelligence leaks soon proved this to be untrue. Sessions overlooked the fact that the NSA routinely monitors communications of the Russian ambassador to the United States. Sessions now recused himself from the FBI investigation into Trump and Russia. Sessions then claimed that in these talks with the then Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, issues connected to the Trump campaign had never been discussed. This claim was soon undermined by another intelligence leak. As the Washington Post reported on 22 July, intercepts of the conversations between Sessions and Kislyak reveal that they discussed “Trump’s position on Russian-related issues and prospects for US-Russian relations in a Trump administration”. As the inquiries into the relations between Trump and Russia intensified, President Trump made it clear in his 19 July interview with the New York Times and in several morning tweets that if he had known Sessions was about to recuse himself from the FBI’s Russia–Trump inquiry he would never have appointed him attorney general.
Following the election of Donald Trump, one of his closest advisers, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had attended the 9 June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, agreed to meet with Kislyak. An intelligence leak has revealed that, strange to say, Kushner had inquired whether a back channel for discussions between Trump’s transition team and Russia might be established through the use of facilities inside the Russian embassy. The idea was politely declined. Soon after, Kushner met with Sergey Gorkov, the director of Russia’s Vnesheconombank, despite the fact that the Russian government-owned development bank was subject to sanctions imposed during the Obama administration on account of the Russian annexation of Crimea and its aggression in Ukraine. What Kushner and Gorkov discussed is not known. On 19 May 2017 the Washington Post reported that someone in the White House had become “a person of interest”” in the several inquiries into Trump and Russia. The New York magazine immediately tweeted that “the person of interest” was Jared Kushner.
An even more serious set of conversations between the man Trump selected as his national security adviser, Mike Flynn, and Ambassador Kislyak took place at the time of the sanctions the Obama administration announced on 29 December because of Russian interference in the presidential election. Flynn discussed these sanctions with Kislyak in five phone calls. Putin decided not to retaliate. Trump tweeted that once again Putin had proven himself to be a ‘‘smart guy”. It seems obvious that Flynn assured Kislyak that President Trump would lift the Obama sanctions. Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, however, was apparently not told that Flynn had discussed the Obama sanctions with Kislyak. When the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, read a transcript of the routinely intercepted Kislyak communication with Moscow, she realised that Flynn had misled Pence, who, in turn, had misled the American public. Because Flynn had placed himself in a position that made him vulnerable to Russian blackmail, Yates informed the White House. She was fired, supposedly because she regarded a presidential executive order on immigration as unlawful. Flynn remained in place as national security adviser. Seventeen days later, the Washington Post learned of this situation. President Trump now had no option but to ask Flynn to resign.
Of all the inquiries into Trump and Russia – which included those of the House intelligence and judiciary committees, and the Senate intelligence committee – President Trump appears to have been most concerned about the one being conducted by the FBI. We know this because of a revealing paper – based on memos the director of the FBI, James Comey, had written immediately after his several awkward meetings and phone calls with President-Elect and then President Trump – that was published on 8 June this year shortly before Comey gave evidence to the Senate intelligence committee.
From these encounters Comey reached three principal conclusions. First, President Trump was trying to establish an entirely inappropriate patronage relationship with him, based on personal “loyalty”. Comey offered only “honesty” or perhaps, as a conversational compromise, “honest loyalty”. Second, Trump wanted Comey to tell Americans that the president was not under investigation. Comey would not, in part because if the investigation ever turned to the president the public would need to be informed of that as well. (Leaks have revealed that, thwarted on the Comey front, Trump made a similar request to the directors of national intelligence and the NSA, Dan Coats and Mike Rogers, with a similarly disappointing result.) Finally, Comey believed that Trump was directing him to abandon the FBI’s investigation of the “good guy” Mike Flynn. It is likely that if Trump eventually faces an impeachment hearing he will be charged with obstruction of justice in large part because of this request. During the course of the mainstream media’s investigations into the relations of Trump and Russia we have learned that Flynn, having been fired by the Obama administration from his role as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, received more than $50,000 from sources connected to the Russian government and more than $500,000 from a businessman in Holland connected to Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdogan.
It was clear to Trump by early May 2017 that he could not dissuade Comey from an uncompromising FBI investigation into what Comey had described to the Senate intelligence committee on 20 March as “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any co-ordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts”. As the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had recused himself from all matters Russian, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, was asked to draft a memo on the question of whether Comey should remain the FBI director. When Trump fired Comey, the White House released Rosenstein’s memo. It provides the only detailed explanation so far produced by the president for Comey’s sacking. In fact, as Trump made clear shortly after, to Lester Holt on NBC, the formal Department of Justice memo was irrelevant. The president had already decided to fire Comey over his Russia investigation, which, in speech after speech and in tweet after tweet, Trump told the world was the biggest witch-hunt in history.
On 1 September the New York Times reported that a letter Trump and his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, had drafted, justifying the firing of Comey, was so ill-judged that the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, convinced Trump not to send it. It was, however, shown to Rosenstein, who subsequently passed it on to Robert Mueller, who was appointed by the Department of Justice to investigate the relations between Trump and Russia. Shortly after firing Comey, Trump invited the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to a meeting in the Oval Office. On the basis of a leak, the New York Times reported on 19 May that, astonishingly, Trump had described the American FBI director to the Russian foreign minister as “a real nut job”. As a result of the sacking, Trump told Lavrov, the “great pressure” over Russia had been released.
This was a serious miscalculation. On 17 May, Rosenstein appointed Mueller, a former director of the FBI who is highly respected on both sides of the aisle, to the post of special counsel. He was charged with conducting an investigation into Trump and Russia. Over the past three months, Mueller has assembled a high-powered team of a dozen or more attorneys, many specialising in fraud investigations. He has also established at least two grand juries with subpoena powers: one in Virginia, another a stone’s throw from his office in Washington. As many of the issues raised by the investigation into Trump and Russia concern money, it is no surprise that Mueller is reported by the Daily Beast to be working closely with the criminal investigations unit of the Internal Revenue Service. One of Mueller’s deputies is Andrew Weissmann, who led the Department of Justice’s investigation of Enron. Apart from the president, the persons of greatest interest to Mueller and his team are Mike Flynn, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Carter Page and the alt-right confidante of President Trump, Roger Stone, who during 2016 boasted accurately on several occasions of his foreknowledge of the date, contents and authorship of anti-Clinton email dumps by WikiLeaks
Reports have suggested that President Trump and his supporters have been searching for material damaging to Mueller and his team. Former Republican speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, argued that the Mueller team was riven by “so many conflicts of interest, it’s almost an absurdity”.
Trump has also tweeted about the president’s unconditional capacity to pardon whomsoever he wishes, which supposedly might include family members, and perhaps even himself. In late August, Trump pardoned a former Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who has been found guilty of criminal contempt of court for refusing to end the profiling Latinos but has not yet been sentenced. Many commentators interpreted this as a forewarning about pardons Trump might issue over Russia. Others, however, quickly pointed out that while a president’s capacity to issue pardons over federal offences was “absolute”, they had no such power with regard to state offences. Mueller moreover was known to be working closely with the New York state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman.
Trump has also hinted about his power to remove a special counsel. As a consequence of this threat, two bills have recently been drafted, sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans, whose purpose is to constrain severely the president’s power to rid himself of Robert Mueller. Politico revealed on 23 August that Trump had phoned a sponsor of one of these bills, the Republican senator Thom Tillis, angrily complaining. According to a report in the New York Times, one of the reasons that relations between Trump and the Republican majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, have almost completely broken down is that Trump is furious that McConnell has not protected him from Mueller.
In late August, through the combined efforts of the Washington Post and the New York Times, we learned that between September 2015 and January 2016 negotiations were under way for the construction of a massive Trump Tower in Moscow. For the Trump side, the most active participant was Felix Sater, a Russian-born New York “businessman”. Sater was convicted in 1991 of driving a broken margarita glass into the face of someone who had displeased him during a bar brawl. In 1998 he was convicted of a very large stock fraud, only avoiding a lengthy prison sentence by acting as an informer to the FBI on Russian organised crime and the Italian mafia. Sater worked for a company called Bayrock that held offices in Trump Tower, and was a business associate and perhaps friend of Trump. Regarding the proposed Moscow Trump Tower, emails have surfaced between Sater and a key figure in the Steele dossier, Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen. In one, Sater enthused to Cohen, “Our boy can become President of the USA … I will get all of Putins (sic) team to buy in on this …” For his part, Cohen emailed Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov: “Over the past few months I have been working with a company based in Russia regarding the development of a Trump Tower … [T]he communication between our two sides has stalled. As this project is too important, I am hereby requesting your assistance …” Trump signed a letter of intent regarding Trump Tower in October 2015. Cohen says he discussed the project with Trump briefly on three occasions but it was abandoned in January 2016.
The BBC’s Paul Wood, who has been responsible for some of the most important reports into Trump and Russia, recently wrote in the Spectator, “For several weeks there have been rumours that Sater is ready to rat again, agreeing to help Mueller. ‘He has told family and friends he knows he and POTUS are going to prison,’ someone talking to Mueller’s investigators told me.” During the period of the negotiations over Trump Tower in Moscow, at a time when Trump was emerging as a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump praised Putin as someone who was “running his country … a leader … unlike what we have in this country”, while, in return, Putin praised Trump as “a very colourful and talented man”.
Since assuming office, President Trump has rather fitfully and erratically attempted to conduct a foreign policy friendly to Russia. On several occasions, as recently as 6 July in Poland, he has expressed doubt about whether Russia was responsible for election hacking. On 25 May at a NATO summit, according to reports, he disappointed the more sober members of his cabinet, the secretary of state Rex Tillerson and the secretary of defence General James Mattis, by pointedly omitting reference in his major speech to Article 5, the mutual defence commitment. Most notably, at the July G20 in Hamburg, Trump spent two and a quarter hours with Putin in their formal meeting and, according to a 18 July report in the New York Times, a further unscheduled hour of pleasant chit chat. According to one observer, Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia group, Western leaders were “flummoxed”, “confused” and indeed “startled” by the atmosphere of Trump–Putin chumminess. After meeting Trump, Putin described the president as “a very straightforward person” who “quickly grasps what his interlocutor says” and “quickly analyses and responds”. The Russians also claimed that Trump had accepted Putin’s denial of election meddling. This claim was not contested by the United States.
This conspicuous display of Russian–American friendship was in vain. While Trump and Putin discussed the world’s problems amicably, a bill that extended the sanctions already imposed on Russia (as well as on Iran and North Korea), and severely restricted the president’s capacity to lift them without congressional approval, was making its way through Congress. Even though Trump and Tillerson argued that the bill was unconstitutional, it passed the House 419 votes to 3 and the Senate 98 votes to 2. Trump had no alternative but to sign.
President Putin’s patience was now exhausted. The tit-for-tat retaliatory sanctions he had declined to impose six months earlier, following the talks between Kislyak and Flynn, were now announced. Interestingly, the Russians made it clear that they recognised that responsibility for the breakdown in relations did not lie with the president. As Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev put it, “The American establishment has totally outplayed Trump.” Even more interestingly, Trump uttered no complaint about the Americans to be expelled from Russia. He even thanked Putin for saving American taxpayers’ money. As the astonished former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted, sarcasm is not a language in which foreign policy can be conducted. Trump’s anger was directed not at Putin but at his colleagues in Congress who had imposed a tight new sanction regime. “It’s very sad,” he tweeted “that Republicans … do very little to protect their President.” The United States has responded to the Russian sanctions by ordering the closure of two Russian trade annexes in Washington, DC, and New York and the Russian consulate in San Francisco. During the most ferocious heatwave in the history of San Francisco, where temperatures reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit, smoke billowed from the consulate’s chimney. As the saying goes, where there’s smoke there’s fire. The Russians were presumably burning documents they did not wish the Americans to read. For those following the mounting evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, this burn-off in San Francisco provided the perfect metaphor.
It seems clear by now that Trump’s Russian gambit has failed rather spectacularly. Russian–American relations are presently as tense as at any time since the end of the Cold War. Trump and his campaign team face an investigation into their dealings with Russia that as likely as not will end with a report providing detailed legal grounds for the impeachment of the president.
7 September 2017
Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book, The Mind of the Islamic State, will be published in the US this month by Prometheus Books.