Among the many mysteries of Donald Trump — in some ways the central foreign policy question — is the new president’s consistently uncritical view of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, a stance that never wavered throughout the long campaign or since the election. Every major politician, Democrat or Republican, would like to see better relations with Russia. But for all except the new president there are major obstacles to a new detente with Moscow that Trump has consistently ignored or dismissed: Among them are Russia’s military seizure of Crimea and its proxy war in Eastern Ukraine, for which the U.S. and its European allies have imposed economic sanctions; Putin’s brutal attack on Aleppo; and Kremlin interference in U.S. and European elections.
Rather than criticizing Russia for undermining the legitimacy of his election, Trump has disparaged the U.S. intelligence agencies that discovered Moscow’s meddling. His repeated denigration of NATO as “obsolete” and his encouragement of a populist breakup of the European Union correspond with Russia’s strategic aims of fracturing western military and economic alliances. What’s the explanation?
Fascination with one-man authoritarian power? A narcissistic belief that he alone can make “deals” with America’s adversaries? Collusion with Moscow for personal self-interest? All of the above, or none?
A long-standing collaboration between Trump and the Kremlin is the core allegation of a controversial 35-page dossier prepared by Christopher Steele, a respected former Russia expert at MI6, Britain’s CIA. Trump dismissed the dossier at his news conference on Jan. 11 as “all fake news … It’s phony stuff. It didn’t happen,” while Putin himself, a KGB veteran, weighed in on Trump’s side a week later, calling it “clearly fake.”
Media have uniformly labeled the dossier as “unsubstantiated.” Yet key parts of it have been corroborated, including Steele’s assertion in a June 20 memo of Putin’s personal control of the election interference operation — six months before the U.S. intelligence community reached the same conclusion.
The dossier’s 17 terse memos, from June to December, cite multiple high-level sources in Russia and at least one “Russian emigre close to the Trump campaign,” presumably in New York, that Steele indicates he tapped through intermediaries.
The dossier’s claims of sexual improprieties on the new president’s part and his alleged vulnerability to blackmail have attracted the most media attention but comprise only a small part of the dossier. Citing two sources, its most consequential assertion — in the same June 20 memo that identified Putin as directing Russia’s election operation — is that “Russian authorities had been cultivating and supporting U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for at least 5 years” in an operation “both supported and directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
A July 30 memo, citing a third source “close to the Trump campaign,” contends that two-way intelligence operations had actually been running between Moscow and the Trump organization for at least eight years. This implies a beginning around 2008, when Trump was toying with running for president and Donald Trump, Jr. told a real estate conference, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. ... We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Putin’s primary information requirement from the Trump organization, the July 30 memo claims, was “intelligence on the activities, business and otherwise, in the U.S. of leading Russian oligarchs and their families.”
“Trump and his associates duly had obtained and supplied the Kremlin with this information,” the memo says.
In return, a senior Russian foreign ministry official was said to have confided to a “trusted compatriot” in contact with Steele that Russian authorities had been “feeding Trump and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents, including … Clinton, for several years.” A “close associate” of Trump’s was said to have called the Russian information “very helpful.”
No media, and no public statements by the U.S. or foreign governments, have corroborated these specific allegations.
If any collaboration existed, it had to have U.S. intermediaries. Steele’s sources in July pointed to two: then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, with deep pro-Russian political and business ties in Ukraine, and Carter Page, an obscure former staffer at Merrill Lynch in Moscow whom Trump listed in March as one of his foreign affairs advisers. In October, Steele added a third: Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen. At Trump’s news conference on Jan. 11, spokesman Sean Spicer indignantly denied any such role by Manafort or Cohen, but he bluntly threw Page under the bus: “Carter Page,” Spicer said of the former Trump adviser, “is an individual who the president-elect does not know and was put on notice months ago by the campaign.”
On Jan. 20, The New York Times reported that the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and the Treasury Department were engaged in a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of the then-president elect. The Times named Manafort, Page and Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, as targets of the counterintelligence investigation. What did the Russians expect to accomplish by meddling in the U.S. election? With the sole exception of Ivan Sechin, Russia’s de facto energy czar and a close Putin ally said to have met with Carter Page last July, Russian officials in Steele’s reporting did not seem confident that Trump would win.
Explaining Russia’s support, a senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Steele cited on Oct. 12, pointed to long-term strategic goals: “Russia needed to upset the liberal international status quo, including Ukraine-related sanctions, which (were) seriously disadvantaging
the country,” Steele paraphrases the official as saying.
Trump, the official continued, “was viewed as divisive in disrupting the whole U.S. political system; anti-establishment; and a pragmatist with whom they could do business.”
The source added: “He would continue as a divisive political force even if he lost the presidency and may run for and be elected to another public office.”
Robert Gillette is a former science and medical reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a news writer for the U.S. research journal Science. He lives in the Mount Washington Valley.