On Jan. 28, 2017, a former KGB agent—Oleg Erovinkin—was found dead in the back of his black Lexus. Russian officials say he died of a heart attack, but most believe he was murdered for helping a former British MI6 agent—Christopher Steele—compile the now-infamous dossier on Donald Trump. Steele has gone underground in fear for his and his family’s lives.
For those unfamiliar with The Guardian, it is the UK’s equivalent to The New York Times: an established, reputable source for trustworthy, hard-news journalism. For four years, Luke Harding lived in Russia with his wife and children while serving as The Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief, giving him access to the Russian political scene and its leaders. He learned about Russian espionage techniques and investigated stories that Putin had declared off limits—the reason Harding was finally expelled from Russia. One of those stories was about Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who defected to England and then died in 2006 after drinking tea poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive compound developed only in Russia. Harding's new book, A Very Expensive Poison, discusses Putin’s connection to Livinenko’s murder.
Trump’s effusive praise of Putin—a leader who murders his political opponents, including Oleg Erovinkin and Alexander Litvinenko—should send shivers down every American spine. Trump has denied having a relationship with Putin, yet during an interview in 2013, Trump said, “I do have a relationship [with Putin], and I can tell you that [Putin] is very interested in what we are doing here today—he’s probably very interested in what you and I are saying today, and I’m sure he’s probably going to see it in some form—but I do have a relationship with him. . . . He’s done a very brilliant job in terms of what he represents and who he’s representing. If you look what he’s done with Syria . . . he’s done an amazing job.”
Why has Trump denigrated virtually all of our American politicians—both Democrat and Republican, including America’s war hero Senator John McCain—yet continued to applaud a criminal like Putin? Could the dossier that Steele delivered (via an intermediary) to Sen. McCain, who then turned it over to the F.B.I., contain damning financial and personal evidence against Trump, keeping America’s President under Putin’s thumb?
Sex scandal aside, the Russian dossier also points to collusion between Trump’s election team and Russian leadership. According to Luke Harding, Steele claims there were extensive contacts: “The Russians were trying for at least five years to cultivate Trump, and there were back channels: one in Prague involving Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohn, . . . and another involving Trump’s foreign policy aide, Carter Page, who visited Moscow in July of last year. This is damning stuff.”
“The Kremlin does do these kind of covert operations,” said Harding. “They seek to influence elections, both in Europe and America. . . . The Russians were out to get Hillary Clinton, they wanted to undermine her, they wanted to damage her candidacy; but they also thought that she would win the election, and in a way, they were trying to knee-cap her, chop her legs off before she became President of the United States.” *
No one thought Trump would win—not Russia, not even Trump. So their strategy was to create fake news, spreading stories that the election was fraudulent and fixed, that it was undemocratic, that Hillary was a “creature of Wall Street,” that she was “crooked” and should be in jail. By undermining Clinton’s character and her election, both Trump and Putin hoped to weaken her Presidency. But when Trump won, as Harding says, “The script had to be quickly torn up.” Trump is now doubling back to combat his own lies about the election, creating even more fake news—claiming he lost the popular vote because millions of illegal immigrants voted.
Trump’s election was a massive victory for Russia—the Russian Parliament celebrated with champagne—because Putin’s primary objective was to get rid of the sanctions that Obama had imposed in 2014 (due to Putin’s annexing the Crimea and covertly invading the eastern part of the country). The sanctions have crippled Russia and inconvenienced many of Putin’s billionaire friends. “I've heard that from one oligarch,” said Harding, “who's been complaining he can't get to Switzerland anymore where his wine is stored and he's very unhappy about that. He can't go skiing in the French Alps or take [his yacht] to Sardinia. This is insulting. These are very rich people who can no longer play in some of the world's most beautiful spaces. So this is the key geopolitical goal.” The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has condemned Russia for its occupation of the Crimea; but we have heard nothing from Donald Trump. So we must ask, again and again: Why does Trump frequently praise Putin, and why did he promise to drop the sanctions?
Trump’s go-to strategy is obvious—using lies and fake news to manipulate the public—which also happens to be “one of Putin's tactics,” says Harding. When Putin was a junior spy in the KGB, he learned that there was nothing wrong with lying. “It's simply a kind of tactic. It's a kind of operational strategy. And what we've seen, essentially, is that the Kremlin has perfected these postmodern techniques, first of all, by squashing domestic criticism and taking over TV inside Russia. . . . The goal is essentially to persuade some people that the Kremlin's view of events is true, but also to kind of confuse and bamboozle everybody else by floating conspiracy theories, so there are 10 different explanations for an event, by doing fake news, by hiring armies of trolls. . . . And so it's clever, it's clever because it allows, actually, the Russian regime to get away with all sorts of things, and increasingly, I guess, exploiting the openness of Western societies and America in particular.”
As a child during the Cold War, I felt sorry for the Russian people: We Americans knew that the Russians had no idea what was really happening in their country or around the world, because the Russian government controlled their “news.” Now, Americans face the same crisis. From the beginning of his campaign, Trump has undermined the news media, calling journalists “corrupt” and “dishonest.” Trump supporters shouted “Liegende Presse” at his rallies—a phrase the Nazi’s used, meaning “the lying press.” Trump disguises his fake news by calling everyone else liars—a coward's strategy: Blame the innocent kid for stealing cookies, while your own hand is in the cookie jar.
As Trump tries to intimidate and shut down the press and traditional journalism, Kellyanne Conway spins Trump’s lies and sells alternative reality. In an interview with Chris Matthews, Conway defended Trump’s travel ban by referencing two Iraqi refugees whom she described as the masterminds behind the “Bowling Green Massacre.” She then condemned the media for not reporting the massacre . . . even though it never happened!
Even worse is Steve Bannon, a man with no political experience, a man known for peddling fake news and white nationalist propaganda, a man whose only experience is heading Breitbart “News,” a right-wing nationalistic website, which Bannon declared is the platform for the Alt-right—a euphemism for misogynists and White Supremacists. Trump made Bannon his Chief Strategist and a member of the National Security Council’s principal committee: By all accounts, Bannon is now the second most powerful man in the United States (not the Vice President).
Bannon then brought on Julia Hahn, a Breitbart staffer who wrote about immigration, to serve as one of his aides. In another interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Sarah Posner, a reporter for Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, said, “Bringing on Breitbart staffers [to be White House staffers] . . . indicates an ongoing blurring of the lines between the White House and Breitbart. . . . The White House is going to employ the Breitbart strategy under Bannon. . . . Everything has to fit into their worldview and their narrative about the Left or about Muslims or about immigrants. . . . It’s about creating a narrative more than it is about breaking news. It’s about feeding this ongoing narrative about who America’s enemies are, or who is a threat to America, or why Trump is good for America. So bringing on Breitbart staffers who have been trained in this kind of narrative-making [story-telling, fake news] . . . indicates that the Trump White House is amenable to using this sort of strategy itself.”
We can trust the Trump White House to do one thing: Create attack ads and fake news to disorient the American people and distract them from Trump’s true agenda. “It’s meant to not only try to intimidate the media," said Posner, "but it’s also meant to cause people to question their trust in the media, question what they are seeing with their own eyes, and try to convince them that they should believe what Trump says, and not what their eyes tell them.” Trump is a Master Illusionist, who will manipulate Americans by using Russia’s disinformation strategy—a strategy that is already in play. It’s one of the many things that Trump admires about Putin.
“Putin wants to turn the clock back to an age of great powers,” said Harding, “to almost an Imperial era of the 19th century, where strong sovereign nations didn’t talk about values or human rights or anything like that; they cut deals, they had summits, . . . and they divvied up, they divided the world into spheres of influence.” It takes little imagination to envision Trump sitting with Putin, “striking some sort of grand bargain.”
“This is where there is overlap with Trump, who sees himself as dealmaker,” said Harding. “Putin wants to strike deals, and above all, he wants Russia to be treated as co-equal partner to the United States as it was during the glory days of the Soviet Union. So they sit at the table—there’s a U.S. flag, there’s a Russian flag—and they decide the fate of the world. That’s what he wants. He wants Russia to be an indispensable partner when it comes to major international questions, whether it’s the war in Syria, the settlement in Ukraine, Iran’s nuclear program, and so on. . . . [Putin] prefers doing bilateral deals with sovereign nations, preferably weaker sovereign nations, and preferably involving energy—oil and gas—which Russia has in abundance.” Appointing Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State—the ex-CEO of EXXON with close business ties to Russia; a man who, according to leaked documents, was the “long-time director of a US-Russian oil firm based in the tax haven of the Bahamas”; a man whom Putin awarded the Order of Friendship—signals that Trump is positioning himself at that table with Putin. But “as far as Putin and his team are concerned,” said Harding, “the Cold War never really ended, Russia didn’t lose it in the 1990s, the Cold War is still going on, but this time Russia intends to win.” Winning the Cold War would mean “an international system where liberal values are abandoned, where no one talks about human rights, where deals can be made.” A system mirroring Trump’s plan for America.
In the first two weeks of his presidency, Trump revived the Keystone Pipeline and fired off a volley of executive orders that will harm the environment and ignore human rights, adversely affecting millions of people. So we must ask: How will Trump’s and Putin’s empire building “Make America Great Again”? How will ignoring the popular vote—representing the desires of the majority of Americans—put “America First”? Trump will rule the United States not as a centrist, but as a tyrant. But only if we let him. We must continue to resist, to march, to protest, to stay informed, to call out Trump’s attack ads and fake news, and, above all, we must vote. Trump has already announced that he will run for re-election in 2020.
* Putin "believes that the U.S. conspired against him in 2011 and 2012, when tens of thousands of Russians protested on the streets of Moscow against Putin’s decision to come back for a third term as Russia’s president. He believes this was a CIA operation,” and that Hillary Clinton was behind it.