Book review: Russian Roulette, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn
Political investigative journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn (the former the chief investigative correspondent at Yahoo News and the latter the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones) write a thoroughly researched, detail-driven, and rage-inducing account of relations between Trump family, campaign, and administration with Russia, as well as the impact of Russian cybercrime on the election outcome.
Out of necessity, some of this book covers similar ground as Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s Collusion from November. But where that book laid a lot of groundwork for understanding both the Trump campaign’s key figures and their Russian ties (I’m thinking of Harding’s detailed narratives about campaign manager Paul Manafort and his Ukraine election connections, and Carter Page’s and Michael Flynn’s histories of suspicious involvements and visits to Russia) and MI6 agent Christopher Steele’s background and credentials, this focuses more on hacking and trolling and how the United States was wholly unprepared for this extent of cybercrime.
The attacks – of the DNC, allegedly of the RNC, of Podesta’s private email, and of voting apparatuses in multiple states, plus the Russian troll infiltration of American social media – are the big story covered in-depth. This makes it very much worth reading in addition to Collusion.
Russian Roulette also covers Trump’s failed attempts to do real estate business in Moscow, as recently as during his presidential campaign. According to the history of those attempts presented here, in his heart of hearts, all Trump really wants vis-a-vis Russia is to change the Moscow skyline with a building that has his name on it. His flattery and obsequiousness to Putin comes down, at its core, to that burning desire he’s harbored for so long. He’s sucked up to Putin, and continues to do so, in the hopes of his sweet little dream coming true. And he was so upset when Putin didn’t have time to meet him while Miss Universe was in Moscow. These dealings, or attempts at them, involve the Agalarov family, father Aras, an Azerbaijani oligarch and son Emin, a pop star. They’ve long been connected to Trump in Russia – the real estate, Miss Universe, the whole mess.
Shortly after the Miss Universe event, Agalarov’s daughter showed up at the Miss Universe office in New York City bearing a gift for Trump from Putin. It was a black lacquered box. Inside was a sealed letter from the Russian autocrat. What the letter said has never been revealed.
I’m not sure if there’s more to it in terms of the infamous kompromat or other darker, dirtier dealings. Or maybe the answer is in that black lacquered box letter. We must wait a little longer still, I guess. According to Steele, the scandalous dossier compiler, there’s a fifty-fifty chance the kompromat details are true.
The authors wondered about Trump’s motivations in potentially tying his new political role to his long-held Moscow dream: Was he trying to leverage his status as the Republican front-runner to finally score a Moscow deal? Did he assume there was no way he would win the presidency and cared more about achieving a decades-old ambition?
There’s more indication here that Trump didn’t expect to win, as we’ve seen before from other sources. Trump tells Jeh Johnson, then Homeland Security Secretary, on a briefing phone call during the campaign that “when this is over” he should come to Trump Tower (in New York) for lunch. Johnson, surprised, reminds him that maybe they’ll need to have lunch in Washington. “Oh, yeah,” Trump replied, as though he had not considered the possibility.”
But back to the hacking, because the incontrovertible evidence of this and the weak American response is the book’s big topic. The Obama administration, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and the DNC staff are fingered as the culprits in not responding efficiently and effectively when warned of various breaches, intrusions, and security issues. It’s hard to take in, but this is a big reason why what happened was allowed to. Warnings weren’t heeded or followed up as they should’ve been and in general, agencies and organizations were unprepared for the methods and scale of the attacks launched.
Then there’s the Internet Research Agency, the now-infamous den of hired trolls in St. Petersburg, working in shifts to post manipulative comments, blog posts and tweets on social media, some to inflame Russians against America and others targeting American politics and hot button issues. Always with pro-Putin leanings.
“We had a goal to set up the Americans against their own government,” an IRA troll who went by the pseudonym Maksim explained in a Russian television interview after the election. “To cause unrest [and] cause discontent.” To better understand American politics and how to craft messages, Maksim said, he and his colleagues were given an important homework assignment: Watch the Netflix series House of Cards.
Lyudmila Savchuk became a whistleblower, exposing the troll factory a few years ago. (Here is a wonderful picture of this very brave lady.)
As much as it hurts, I also love anything that reveals more of Trump’s idiotic, racist, sexist behavior – I think because I hope it’ll be something like this that could be his downfall eventually. Just in case this whole “undermining American democracy” thing doesn’t pan out. We get plenty of new and disgusting examples here:
Another Miss Universe staffer recalled, “He often thought a woman was too ethnic or too dark-skinned. He had a particular type of woman he thought was a winner. Others were too ethnic. He liked a type. There was Olivia Culpo, Dayanara Torres [the 1993 winner], and, no surprise, East European women.” On occasion, according to this staffer, Trump would reject a woman “who had snubbed his advances.”
If he didn’t like a woman because she looked too ethnic, you could sometimes persuade him by telling him she was a princess and married to a football player,” a staffer later explained.
This pig person.
They showed Trump the transcript. He dismissed it. “It doesn’t sound like me,” he said. Then Hicks got an update…The Post had decided to send the campaign the video…Still, the candidate was unfazed. He didn’t dwell on the contents. “What are we gonna do about it?” he asked his aides.
By now, Ivanka Trump was in the room. Her eyes welled with tears, her face reddened. She urged her father to make a full-throated apology. Christie did the same. Trump didn’t want to do it. Instead, he, Bannon, Bossie, and Miller quickly drafted a statement for the Post. It was short and considerably less than what Ivanka was pleading for. Naturally, it took a shot at the Clintons: “This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course—not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.”
Let’s take a minute on Ivanka. She reacted like this to seeing his misogynistic behavior in action, yet had this prissy, illogical response to an interview question recently about whether she believes her father’s many sexual harassment accusers. Father/daughter has nothing to do with it! She’s inserted herself into this administration in a professional (questionable) capacity and therefore it’s relevant, you don’t get to say it’s personal, end of discussion. It’s nice to see that she’s moved beyond her tears at merely hearing her father talk about assaulting women into the realm of believing his denials just because he says them.
Other great quotes:
Later she [Hillary Clinton] would note, “When I sat with Putin in meetings, he looked more like one of those guys on the subway who imperiously spread their legs wide, encroaching on everyone else’s space, as if to say, ‘I take what I want.’” She also saw Putin as an autocrat with little respect for women.
OF COURSE he’s a subway spreader without even needing a subway.
The sixty-four-year-old [Roger] Stone was a self-professed practitioner of the dark arts of politics. A onetime Nixon aide—his back bore a tattoo of the thirty-seventh president…
I doubt he’s embarrassed about that, so I’ll feel the secondhand embarrassment for him. He’s now writing a book about the Russia probe too, titled The Fall of Trump.
“History zigs and zags,” [Obama told staff the day after the election]. “It is not a straight line. A lot of what we achieved can be sustained. Don’t be discouraged. There’s two months left and a lot to do.” One of his aides got the sense Obama was talking to himself, as well.
I’ve always felt sad for Obama, knowing that after all he did and the progress he represented, a racist bloviator whose previous biggest political contribution was his role in birtherism, an obvious attempt to delegitimize Obama’s presidency for racial reasons. But even in these lowest moments, he still shows his wisdom. I’ll be trying to remember that going forward: history zigs and zags. It’ll zag back.
The authors concede that it’s difficult to write about an ongoing investigation. But something they write in an afterword sums up why, regardless of what special counsel Robert Mueller ultimately concludes, Trump has already undermined democracy and the democratic process:
Whether or not the investigations would ever turn up hard evidence of direct collusion, Trump’s actions—his adamant and consistent denial of any Russian role—had provided Putin cover. In that sense, he had aided and abetted Moscow’s attack on American democracy.
This should be must-read material for every American. Unfortunately, like similar books already published, it’ll probably be ignored by those that need it most. Nevertheless, it’s revealing and disturbing for its implications about our democracy and leadership. Let’s hope it’s the tip of the iceberg that’ll wreck this ship.
The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump
by Michael Isikoff and David Corn
published March 13, 2018 by Twelve (Hachette)
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