How to explain Trump’s consistent praise of Putin? In the febrile months leading up to the November 8, 2016 vote, Trump had lambasted not only Clinton and Obama but also his Republican Party rivals, Saturday Night Live, the “failing” New York Times, the U.S. media in general—his favorite enemy—and Meryl Streep. And others.
It was a long list.
Russia’s president, by contrast, was lauded as “very smart.” Putin was practically the only person on the planet to escape Trump’s sweeping invective, delivered in semiliterate exclamatory style via Twitter, at a time when most sane people were in bed. Trump was willing to verbally assault anyone who queried his behavior—anyone but his friend Putin.
I was curious about this book when I heard it was published, mainly because I wondered if it was necessary. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s Russia connections and who knew what when and how much is still ongoing, even if we get tantalizing news drops of grand juries, emails, meetings, indictments and whatever else. So how could there be a book out now about Trump’s connection to Russia and the hacking, when a lot of information is missing and the rest we already know? What else is there to say?
A lot, as it turns out. Trump’s dealings, business and personal, with Russia go way back. British journalist and Guardian foreign correspondent Luke Harding (ejected from Russia himself, likely for writing unflatteringly about Putin) researched, interviewed, traveled, and tracked down associates, bankers, lawyers, agents, businesspeople, government workers – basically anyone involved in specific incidents or who could talk openly, or whisper anonymously, about the major players.
It opens with the career and work of Christopher Steele, the onetime MI6 agent who compiled the now infamous dossier detailing Kompromat Russia may have on Trump. Steele is a fascinating character, a former spy and expert on Russia with some mighty connections. This whole book makes a good case for where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The dossier that Steele delivered was decades in the making, and he encouraged Harding’s pursuit of this convoluted trail with some tacit encouragement: “Our mission was now clear: follow the sex and the money.”
It was Steele’s dossier that offered a compelling explanation for Trump’s unusual constancy vis-à-vis Russia. First, there was Moscow’s kompromat operation against Trump going back three decades, to the Kryuchkov [former KGB head] era. If Trump had indulged in compromising behavior, Putin knew of it.
Second, there was the money: the cash from Russia that had gone into Trump’s real estate ventures. The prospect of a lucrative deal in Moscow to build a hotel and tower, a project that was still being negotiated as candidate Trump addressed adoring crowds.
And then there were the loans. These had helped rescue Trump after 2008. They had come from a bank that was simultaneously laundering billions of dollars of Russian money.
That summarizes much of what’s covered here, in detail and mapping out the connections and evidence. Fascinatingly, it all seems to have started with Ivana – Czech surveillance had eyes on her, allowed her to both immigrate abroad and visit home during a tightly controlled time, and then she met Trump. Interest was sparked.
I’m not sure how interesting Collusion would be for someone who follows the news intensely – I like to think I keep up pretty well, I follow the headline stories on major news sites and shows, but I haven’t too read in-depth on much of this. It might already be common knowledge for others. What I found most interesting in addition to Steele’s story were Harding’s profiles on figures like former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and the multitude of oligarchs and political connections that loop Trump, his family, and close advisors again and again into the upper levels of society and politics in Russia.
The writing is strong, and chapters end with a cliffhanger leading on to the next suspicious person or deal, so it’s compelling and fast to read. Unfortunately I did get a little lost here and there, because you really have to pay attention to all the people and trails and connections and meetings. It gets complicated. Or maybe having a better background in some of the politicking or money trails would be helpful.
But it’s generally readable and accessible, and seems comprehensive for the information that’s currently available. What it also does very well is put the importance and impact of certain events into context. The news cycle is so frantic, with pundits and talking heads screaming over each other, that we often don’t get measured, thoughtful analysis of how and why something is deeply significant unless we seek it out after the dust has settled. But that’s all here for the events covered, including the colorful opinions of the experts left to clean up the messes Trump’s been making.
Take, for example, when he blabbed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak, at the White House, information from an Israeli undercover source in Syria that was “code word” classified; that is, higher even than Hillary’s emails that he couldn’t stop shrieking about:
Now the Russians knew about this source. Probably Bashar al-Assad—Syria’s president and Russia’s close ally—would soon learn of it, too. It was an astonishing breach. One former intelligence officer said that it wasn’t sharing the information per se that was significant: it was the relaying of material obtained from a partner. “You don’t even reveal the color of a carpet without consulting the ally first,” the officer told me. Another called it “fucking unbelievable.”
I would say everything detailed in this book is “fucking unbelievable.”
Knowing the back stories, commentary, and connections is deeply uncomfortable and unsettling, but obviously important. Despite whatever is uncovered or revealed next, through official investigation or otherwise, I think much of what’s written here will still stand since most of it deals with long-term business relationships dating into the past, how information was collected, and what implications it has. If even half of what’s alleged or insisted here is true, it’s bad. Real bad.
Also a great pre-Christmas read if you need to shore up some arguing points!
My rating: 3.5/5
Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win
by Luke Harding
published November 16, 2017 by Vintage (Random House)