The Russia Scandal Prequel: How Donald Trump Became Ensnared In Putin’s Web
THE TRIP MAY HAVE BEEN SECRETLY UNDERWRITTEN BY THE KGB
The reasons for Donald Trump’s fawning embrace of Vladimir Putin and willingness to be played by a succession of Russian government officials, oligarchs and mobsters are by now well known and copiously documented. Less understood is what motivated Putin to ensnare Trump, when that happened and under what circumstances, and why it turned out to be such an easy a task for the Russian leader.
The answers to those intriguingly important questions require some context: While Trump was as willfully naïve as Putin was wily in the course of the Kremlin’s eventually successful efforts to recruit he and his associates in its successful cybersabotage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the Russian leader also got lucky.
The former Soviet Union had been looking for American patsies to co-opt.
As Putin rose from KGB spy to director of the FSB, its successor agency, to the leader of a reborn Russia determined to return the motherland to its status as a global superpower at the expense of America’s standing, the perfect patsy in the form of a New York developer, celebrity reality show star and billionaire — at least on paper — made himself available.
Conveniently for the Kremlin, Trump unknowingly became snared in the KGB’s web and then was further drawn in by sleazy investors whose ties to Soviet and then Russian government agencies he overlooked because he was desperate for their money. His ensnarement grew ever deeper, culminating in 2016 as the electoral adversary of Clinton, whom Putin openly loathed and feared would build on Obama era economic sanctions and further freeze out Russia.
It all revolved around Trump’s insatiable need for cash and his narcissistic craving for recognition and power.
The latter trait has dominated Trump’s disastrous White House tenure, which may eventually be undone by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as he closes in on Trump’s associates, family and perhaps the man himself — if it can be proven that he became a kind of Manchurian Candidate for America’s greatest foe in his against-the-odds quest to become president.
THE PREQUEL TO THE SCANDAL BEGINS IN 1982, nine years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when future Communist Party general secretary and then KGB Chairman and spy chief Yuri Andropov instructed his intelligence officers to use so-called active measures to discredit adversaries and influence public opinion in a covert effort to prevent the reelection of Ronald Reagan. The effort failed spectacularly, and two years later Reagan won in a landslide.
In 1984, General Vladimir Alexandrovich Kryuchov, an Andropov acolyte, was head of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, the KGB branch responsible for gathering foreign intelligence. Putin, who had joined the KGB in 1975, was in his last year in the Second Chief Directorate, the branch responsible for counter-intelligence. He would be transferred to the First Chief Directorate the following year and begin his steady rise to power.
Putin’s first documented contact with Trump would not come until 2013, but in the meantime — with the hawkish Reagan still in power and Mikhail Gorbachev soon to take the reins of power — Kryuchov had a big problem.
Gorbachev, who would be the last Soviet president, advocated a policy of detente with the West, which meant that the First Chief Directorate’s overseas intelligence work would be more important than ever. But the KGB had precious few American intelligence assets and many of its agents were phoning it in by pretending to be obtaining intelligence from secret sources who in reality were “paper agents” and not providing real intelligence.
As British journalist Luke Harding relates events in his recent book, Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, this parlous situation prompted Kryuchov to issue a memo on February 1, 1984 ordering KGB station chiefs to be on the lookout for Americans who might be sympathetic to the Soviet cause and perhaps be cultivated as intelligence assets through the liberal use of money and flattery.
The most revealing section of the memo, according to Harding, concerned kompromat — “Compromising information about subject, including illegal acts in financial and commercial affairs, intrigues, speculation, bribes, graft . . . and exploitation of his position to enrich himself” that could be exploited by the KGB by threatening “disclosure.”
When did the KGB open a file on Trump?
Eastern Bloc security service records suggest it may have been as early as 1977 when Trump married Ivana Zelnickova, a 28-year-old Czech model who spoke Russian and as a citizen of a Communist country was of interest to the StB, the Czech intelligence service, as well as the FBI and CIA, says Harding.
StB spies kept a close eye on the couple in Manhattan, according to Harding. They opened letters Ivana sent home to her father and surveilled Trump and wife when they visited Czechoslovakia. And they shared their information with the KGB.
As Trump tells it in The Art of the Deal, his 1987 bestseller, the idea for his first trip to Moscow came after he was seated next to Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin at a luncheon in the fall of 1986 hosted by Leonard Lauder, the businessman son of Estée Lauder, and they discussed building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government.
Not surprisingly, Harding says Trump’s version of events is incomplete.
The actual story is that the Soviet government sought out Trump as a potential KGB recruit under the guise of the hotel deal after Dubinin arrived in the U.S. in March 1986. As Dubinin’s daughter Natalia relates it, her father — “fluent in English and a brilliant master of negotiations” — charmed Trump at their first meeting at Trump Tower.
“Trump melted at once,” she says in trenchantly profiling the future American president. “He is an emotional person, somewhat impulsive. He needs recognition. And, of course, when he gets it he likes it. My father’s visit worked on him like honey to a bee.”
In The Art of the Deal, Trump says that Dubinin invited him to the Soviet Union in a January 1987 letter, saying that “the leading state agency for international tourism, Goscomintourist, had expressed interest in pursuing a joint venture to construct and manage a hotel in Moscow.” Goscomintourust — or Intourist for short — functioned as a subsidiary KGB branch.
On July 4, 1987, Trump and Ivana, accompanied by Lisa Calandra, Mrs. Trump’s assistant, flew to Moscow, where they toured potential hotel sites and later visited Leningrad, where the couple posed on a grand staircase at the Winter Palace, he in a suit and she in a red polka dot dress with a string of pearls for a photograph distributed by Tass, the Soviet state news agency. They were treated lavishly everywhere, and while in Moscow stayed in Lenin’s suite at the National Hotel, which was connected to the Intourist complex next door.
“The hotel rooms . . . were under 24-hour control with security cameras and so on,” former spy Victor Suvarov told Harding. “The interest is only one. To collect some information and keep that information about him for the future.”
THE BEST THING EVER TO HAPPEN TO TRUMP the entrepreneur was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Although the 1987 hotel deal did not work out, as did several subsequent attempts through 2015 to build a Trump-branded project in the Russian capital, Trump has sworn innumerable times since the scandal reared its hydra head that he has no connection to Russia although he is, in fact, one big Russia connection.
As early as 1984, Trump began tapping into what would become an extensive network of contacts with corrupt businessmen, mobsters and money launderers from the former Soviet Union, Russia and their satellite states to make deals ranging from real-estate sales to beauty pageants sponsorships to bailing out his frequently ailing enterprises. It is tempting to say that Trump built that network himself as his business empire grew, but in reality members of the network more often used him as a convenient patsy. This has been especially true of money launderers.
In 1984, he personally helped émigré David Bogatin, a former Soviet Army pilot, cut red tape when he plunked down $6 million in cash for five luxury condos in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Bogatin was not wealthy and was a front for Russian mobsters. In 1987, he pleaded guilty in federal court to taking part in a massive gasoline bootlegging scheme with those mobsters, and the government seized the five condos.
An inordinate number of Russians have bought the priciest units in Trump’s condos over the years, while the entire 51st floor of Trump Tower was being used by a global sports betting ring overseen by Russian mob boss Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, who had been indicted for conspiring to fix the ice-skating competition at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, when federal agents broke the ring in April 2013.
WHEN THE SOVIET UNION FELL IN 1991, President Boris Yeltsin had ordered a dramatic shift from a centralized economy of state ownership to a market economy, enabling cash-rich mobsters and corrupt government officials to privatize and loot state-held assets. After Putin succeeded Yeltsin, the FSB and Russia’s other feared intelligence agencies joined forces with mobsters and oligarchs, and the fiercely authoritarian Putin gave them free hand so long as they added to his billions in personal fortune and strengthened his grip on the country.
Then in 1998, Russia defaulted on $40 billion in debt, which accelerated the exodus of money. By one estimate, some $1.3 trillion in illicit capital has poured out of Russia in the last 25 years, including many tens of millions of dollars that flowed into Trump Tower, Trump World Tower, Trump SoHo, his other luxury developments and Atlantic City casinos, all of which were used as convenient pass-throughs for laundering illicit riches.
It is not an exaggeration to say that dirty Russian money saved Trump, if only barely.
By the late 1990s, he owed $4 billion to more than 70 banks, with $800 million of it personally guaranteed. “But fortunately for Trump, his own economic crisis coincided with one in Russia,” writes Craig Unger in “Trump’s Russian Laundromat,” in the New Republic.
Only traces of Trump’s network can be found in his financial disclosure statements, and since his businesses are all privately held and he has refused to release his federal tax returns, his business relationships with Russians are not readily apparent.
Now, as president and commander in chief, Trump makes policy decisions that have the potential to positively affect his 565 Trump Organization holdings in the U.S. and abroad.
All of this begs a very big question.
Trump’s layering of lies upon lies in refusing to acknowledge his Russia ties and continued insistence that the Russia scandal is a “hoax” is a reflection of the frightening fantasy world in which he dwells. But it also may be a consequence of members of the network being able to leverage Trump’s literal and figurative debts to them — if not blackmail him outright.
Former MI6 spy turned investigator Christopher Steele writes in his by now infamous dossier that the Russians have been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Trump for years and have personal and financial kompromat on him. (Steele also writes that Clinton was bugged and her phone calls intercepted when she visited Russia, but unlike Trump Putin’s agents found “no embarrassing conduct.”)
“Without the Russian mafia,” says Unger, “it is fair to say Donald Trump would not be president of the United States.”
Indeed. And the list of people who have the goods on Trump surely includes the ruthless Putin. This is because of his biggest Russia connection of all — the cyber plot to sabotage Clinton and make him president.