Decoding Trump and the Russians

On Tuesday, General Michael Flynn tendered his resignation as Donald Trump’s national security adviser after a mere 25 days of service.

The reason can be stated simply. On December 29, former president Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian officials in response to proven Russian hacking of the emails of the Democratic National Committee. On the same day, Flynn engaged in several phone conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak. Shortly after these conversations, Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly announced that no Americans would be expelled from Russia. President-elect Donald Trump tweeted his approval. He always knew Putin was a “smart guy”.

In the following weeks, Flynn absolutely denied to both the media and Vice-President Mike Pence that he had discussed sanctions in his conversations with Kislyak. Unhappily for Flynn, US intelligence had records of these conversations. In his denials, Flynn proved that he was not only a liar but also a fool. As a former director of the Defence Intelligence Agency under Obama, he ought to have been aware that US intelligence routinely intercepted the Russian ambassador’s phone conversations.

At first, US intelligence informed Trump that Flynn had not told the truth about discussions on sanctions with Kislyak. Nothing happened.

In apparent frustration, no fewer than nine current or former members of American intelligence agencies provided the relevant information to The Washington Post.

President Trump now had no alternative to asking for Flynn’s resignation. Apparently he hoped US citizens would believe that when Flynn discussed the question of sanctions with Kislyak, he did so without Trump’s knowledge or authority. The President was furious about the leak. He tweeted: “The real scandal is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”

The incident was not, however, without its amusing aspect. Trump’s media spokesman Sean Spicer claimed that one of the reasons Flynn phoned Kislyak was to convey his warm Christmas greetings. Spicer was apparently unaware that Russians celebrate Christmas on January 6, not ­December 25.

Flynn’s resignation will soon fade in political memory. What will not fade is the question of the relations between Trump and the Putin regime during the 2016 presidential election campaign. As further details emerge, this question is likely to be raised periodically throughout the first year of the Trump administration. It could possibly lead to the impeachment of the President.

One matter is already accepted even by Trump. During the course of the campaign the Putin regime was involved in a rather successful plan to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and to assist the candidacy of Trump. The most effective method was Russian hacking of the emails of the Democratic Party.

In the early northern summer of 2016, Russian intelligence turned to WikiLeaks, chosen as the vehicle for publication most likely because of its reputation as a politically non-aligned source of significant leaked material.

Between July and November last year, WikiLeaks published 58,000 Democratic Party emails. The most damaging leaks demonstrated that the Democratic leadership had secretly worked to help Hillary ­Clinton and to harm Bernie Sanders, and that Clinton had admitted, in confidential speeches to Goldman Sachs, that she had led a life of privilege somewhat divorced from the experience of the American middle class and that her private and public views were sometimes rather different.

Following the presidential election, all US intelligence agencies released an unclassified report that argued with “high ­confi­dence” that Russia was responsible for hacking the DNC emails. At the same time, evidence emerged suggesting, potentially at least, a far more sinister connection between Trump and Russia.

In September 2015, Republican opponents commissioned a report on Trump from the US firm Fusion GPS. Once Trump won the party’s nomination, the commission was maintained by a Democratic Party supporter. Fusion GPS employed a British firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, one of whose principals was former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, who had worked in Moscow in the late 1980s and the early 90s and then headed the MI6 Russian desk in London before going into ­private business. Steele was so alarmed by what his Russian informants revealed that he con­tinued his research even after his contract with Fusion ended and passed his dossier on to old FBI contacts.

After the election, Republican senator John McCain was told about the dossier by a former British ambassador to Russia, Andrew Wood. McCain sent an emissary to London and passed the dossier, this time formally, to the FBI. In turn, US intelligence agencies passed a two-page summary to Obama and Trump. CNN reported that this summary had been shown to both. Almost immediately, as was well reported, BuzzFeed published the full dossier.

Because the claims in the Steele dossier were at that time unsubstantiated, in general the media chastised BuzzFeed and did not ­report the dossier’s contents.

For his part, Trump tweeted: “Totally made up facts by sleazebag pol­itical operatives … FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists.” And later: “Are we living in Nazi ­Germany?” In the past fortnight, however, as new information has accumulated and intelligence leaks have mushroomed, media assessments of parts of the Steele dossier have at last begun to appear. For citizens to grasp the meaning of these assessments, some knowledge of its content is required.

The dossier comprises 15 separate memos varying in length from one to three pages, ranging in date between June 20 and December 13, 2016. As Steele has not visited Russia for 20 years, he relied on several Russian collaborators. They spoke to between 15 and 20 anonymous sources — “a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure”; “a former Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin”, and so on. One source is “a Russian emigre figure close to the Republican US presidential candidate”. We now know who he is, the Belarus-born US-based businessman Sergei Millian.

From these 15 memos an extraordinary narrative of events emerges. In outlining this narrative I am not passing any judgment either about the general accuracy of the narrative or about the truthfulness of any particular claim.

On June 20, 2016, Steele reported that he had learned from his informants that Trump had been “cultivated” for a period of five years. The principal reason was that he was known to be an opponent of NATO. Trump had recently been fed information on Clinton and offered lucrative real estate deals that, for unknown reasons, he had declined. Because of Trump’s sexual behaviour, which had allegedly been recorded by the Russian domestic intelligence service, the FSB — and which included asking prostitutes in 2013 to perform “golden ­shower” acts on the bed in the Hotel Ritz-Carlton in Moscow where the Obamas had once slept — Trump “had provided the authorities there with enough embarrassing material on the now presidential candidate to be able to blackmail him if they so wished”.

Independent evidence about Trump as a potential victim of sexual blackmail emerged soon after the publication of the dossier. On January 13, Paul Wood, a Washington correspondent for the BBC, wrote “a retired spy” had told him that he had been informed by “the head of an east European intelligence agency” that Moscow had “kompromat” material on Trump, and that he had learned indirectly from a CIA officer that “there was ‘more than one tape’, ‘audio and video’, on ‘more than one date’, in ‘more than one place’ — in the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow and also in St Petersburg — and that the material was ‘of a sexual nature’.”

On July 19, Steele reported that his informants had told him of a secret meeting in July between one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, Carter Page, and Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, the vast Russian oil company, where the possibility of a lucrative energy deal was discussed in return for the lifting of “Ukraine-related Western sanctions against Russia”. “Page had reacted positively”, the memo claimed, although he was “generally noncommittal”.

In mid-­October, Steele sent a more detailed report of Page’s secret meeting with Sechin, which had been provided by one of Sechin’s close associates. The meeting took place on July 7 or 8. It was claimed that Sechin offered a 19 per cent stake in Rosneft to Trump’s people in return for the end of sanctions. “Page expressed interest and confirmed that were Trump elected US president, then sanctions would be lifted.”

Once more, subsequent evidence concerning this supposed meeting has appeared. We know that Page was indeed in Moscow on July 7 and 8. Even more intriguingly, Reuters reported on January 25 this year that 19.5 per cent of Rosneft had been privatised, with details of the purchasers shrouded in mystery. The informant for the Steele dossier reported that Sechin had offered members of the Trump team a 19 per cent share in Rosneft. This seems entirely implausible: 19 per cent of Rosneft is worth several billion dollars. What, however, does seem plausible is that Sechin offered the Trump team a share in the 19 per cent of Rosneft that was being privatised in return for Trump’s willingness to lift sanctions.

That the figure of 19 or 19.5 per cent should have appeared both in the Steele dossier and in the actual privatisation six months later seems more than a coincidence.

Circumstantial evidence has subsequently emerged about the possible identity of the dossier’s ­informant regarding the Sechin-Page meeting. On January 27, London’s Daily Telegraph reported that on December 26 an ex-KGB general, Oleg Erovinkin, was found dead in Moscow in the back seat of his car. Erovinkin worked as a “key aide” to Sechin, and was thought to be the link man between him and Putin. Erovinkin is rumoured to be the source of the details of the July 2016 conversation between Sechin and Page. Speculation has mounted that he was murdered in reprisal, on the orders of another ex-KGB man, the President of Russia.

In late July, Steele reported in his dossier that his American-based Russian emigre source (Millian) “admitted that there was a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between (the Trump team) and the Russian leadership”. On the Trump side, relations were under the control of his campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

The emigre claimed that Russia was indeed the source for the recently published DNC email leaks. He explained that WikiLeaks had been used for reasons of “plausible deniability”. According to him, “the operation had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of Trump and senior members of his campaign team. In return Trump’s team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue”.

On August 22, the Steele dossier reported that someone described as “a well-placed Russian figure” had spoken about a recent meeting between Putin and the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, following Manafort’s resignation as Trump’s campaign manager. Yanukovych had admitted that he had indeed paid substantial “kickbacks” to Manafort, as the Western media had reported. He had assured Putin, however, that there was no paper trail. Putin was not convinced.

Once again, there is evidence suggesting the plausibility of some, but by no means all, of these claims. All American intelligence agencies have concluded with high confidence that Russia was the source of the emails WikiLeaks published. Manafort remained Trump’s campaign manager from April until August. He resigned when The Washington Post revealed, with impeccable evidence, that he had received $12.7 million in kickbacks from Yanukovych. As the Post reported on July 18, before Manafort’s resignation, at the ­Republican Party convention Trump supporters were responsible for changing the wording of a motion concerning Russian aggression in Ukraine — from “providing lethal defensive weapons” to “provide appropriate assistance” to the government of Ukraine against the pro-Russian separatists. On July 27, 2016, Trump himself spoke about lifting Russian sanctions and recognising Crimea as Russian territory.

In the immediate aftermath of his election, Trump maintained his position. On January 14, Trump proposed a deal with ­Russia, perhaps involving mutual nuclear weapons reduction, that “would include lifting of economic sanctions”. More recently, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, claimed that if relations were, as hoped, to improve, Russia needed to withdraw its troops from Crimea and end its ­renewed aggression in eastern Ukraine.

As with so much else in Trump’s foreign policy, the future of the Ukraine-related sanctions is presently clouded in complete confusion.

In his memo of August 10, ­Steele wrote of the details his informants had provided about the tensions inside the Kremlin over its intervention in the US election campaign. Because Russia was being widely blamed in the US for the hacking operation, the Putin government had decided that no new material would be released to WikiLeaks for the time being. By mid-October, however, according to the dossier, attitudes towards the release of hacked emails had apparently changed. Steele outlined the views of a “senior leadership figure” and of a Russian Foreign Ministry official who claimed that Putin and his colleagues were “surprised and disappointed” that the hacked emails published by WikiLeaks had not had greater impact. They had therefore decided “that the stream would continue through October and up to the election”.

This is precisely what happened. Between early October and November 8, WikiLeaks released by drip feed a stream of DNC emails obtained from the Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta. Three separate studies have shown their impact. Judd Legum on the independent progressive news site ThinkProgress learned that in the month before the election, Trump referred to WikiLeaks 164 times and showered it with the highest praise.

Harry Enten on statistics-­driven news site FiveThirtyEight found that in that month Google searches for WikiLeaks were ­double the number of searches for the FBI, which had announced a new investigation into Clinton’s misuse of her private email for State Department business.

Nick Fernandez and Rob Sav­illo on progressive research site Media Matters showed with convincing evidence that in the five weeks before the election of Trump, “evening cable and broadcast news, major newspapers, and the Sunday morning broadcast network political talk shows combined to flood the media landscape with the coverage of hacked emails released by WikiLeaks”. The Kremlin no longer had reason for disappointment.

On August 10, one of Steele’s informants provided details of a conversation with an official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who had explained Moscow’s strategic thinking in the cultivation of Trump. The Kremlin hoped Trump would “help upset the liberal international status quo”. Trump was regarded as “an anti-establishment figure” and as a “pragmatist” with whom one could do business.

Following Trump’s election, these hopes were not disappointed. In an interview with London’s The Times and Germany’s Bild, Trump described NATO as an “obsolete” alliance and praised the Brexit decision of the British people. Despite the Russian election hacking, which Trump first denied and then reluctantly conceded, the President described his close relations with Putin as an “asset”, not a “liability”.

In his interview with The Times and Bild, he placed his relations with Angela Merkel and Putin on an identical footing. “Well, I start off trusting both — but let’s see how long that lasts.” And in an interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, he countered the claim that Putin was a murderer and a thug with the assertion that such types were readily found among American leaders as well.

Even Trump’s most loyal conservative supporters, for whom American goodness is an article of faith, were startled.

Trump’s initial articulation of his Russia policy and his attitude towards Putin stands in starkest contrast with his policy towards China. Trump’s choice as Secretary of State was Rex Tillerson. He has been awarded Russia’s highest civilian honour, the Order of Friendship; has spoken of his “very close relationship with Putin”; and, as head of ExxonMobil, once struck a $US500 million deal with Rosneft.

In his ­confirmation hearing, Tillerson threatened US military action over Beijing’s South China Sea island policy.

In the early days of his administration, Trump himself raised the possibility of American recognition of Taiwanese independence, thereby challenging the most fundamental element underpinning relatively amicable Sino-American relations since 1979. On China, Trump is an extreme hawk and on Russia an extreme dove.

He has never even attempted to explain why.

The politically most explosive element of the Steele dossier, however, came in two memos towards its conclusion. Steele reported that, according to a “Kremlin insider”, Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, had replaced Manafort as the key figure in the joint Trump-Putin anti-Clinton campaign. Cohen was now ­“heavily engaged in a cover-up and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of Trump’s relations with Russia being exposed”.

Two memos reported a meeting in Prague between Cohen and unnamed Russians. The meeting is said to have taken place in late August or early September. Its purpose was “to sweep (the campaign) … under the carpet and make sure no connections could be fully established or proven”, to decide how deniable cash payments could best be made to the hackers, and how the links between the Putin regime and the Trump team, in the case of a Clinton electoral victory, could most effectively be covered up.

It was claimed that “the operatives involved had been paid by both Trump’s team and the Kremlin”. Were this claim eventually to be verified, it would almost certainly constitute grounds for the impeachment of the US President.

Cohen has strenuously denied ever visiting Prague. He has claimed (without anything that looks like evidence) that he has been confused with another Michael Cohen and, oddly, has provided journalists with a photo of the cover but not the inside pages of his passport. Even these pages might not be definitive proof that he was not in Prague. The Czech Republic is part of the EU’s Schengen Area. Visitors do not need a separate stamp in their passport in entering the Czech Republic. Accordingly, if Cohen wants to prove that the claims in the Steele dossier about his meeting in Prague are false, he will need to demonstrate that he did not visit any country inside the Schengen Area between mid-August and mid-September 2016.

There are two outlier cases that might be made about the reliability of the information contained in the Steele dossier. The first is that the information it contains is entirely or almost entirely accurate. This seems extremely unlikely.

The dossier relied on a series of unnamed people who were working for Steele and who, presumably, he had come to know and trust either during his time as an MI6 operative in Moscow or subsequently as the head of MI6’s Russia desk in London. In turn, these people spoke to 15 or 20 well-placed sources inside Russia and then reported back to Steele what they had been told.

How exactly these sources had learned what they told Steele’s people cannot be known on the basis of the dossier. Some of the information might have been acquired by first-hand experience. Some might merely be gossip or speculation. It is almost impossible to believe that everything they reported to Steele’s people occurred precisely as claimed.

Inaccuracy, exaggeration, misjudgment or even deliberate disinformation cannot be ruled out. Likewise, the chain of reporting — from the dossier’s sources to ­Steele’s people in Russia and from them to Steele in London — makes it likely that some trivial or even serious errors in transmission — “Chinese whispers”, as it were — occurred.

The second outlier suggestion — advanced by Trump, Putin, Julian Assange and their supporters, and also by several commentators, such as Bob Woodward of Watergate fame — is that the dossier is a malicious invention. This is an even less likely possibility.

After the dossier’s publication, several journalists spoke to former colleagues of Steele. Almost unanimously, all regarded him as a consummate professional of undoubted integrity. Wood, the former British ambassador to Russia, noted: “I do know Christopher Steele and in my view he is very professional and thorough in what he does.”

A former member of the British Foreign Office, who had known Steele for 25 years, told The Guardian: “Chris is an experienced and highly regarded professional … He could not have survived in the job he was in if he had been prone to flights of fancy or doing things in an ill-considered way.”

As we have seen, independent evidence or corresponding information exists for many of the claims contained in the dossier. Moreover, recently evidence has emerged that proves beyond reasonable doubt that the dossier is not a concoction. On February 10, Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez of CNN reported a matter of great significance. American intelligence officials had told them that US agencies had intercepted communications between Russians mentioned in the Steele dossier that confirmed that “some of the conversations described in the dossier took place between the same individuals on the same days and from the same locations as detailed in the dossier”. Unless several US intelligence officials are lying to CNN, the Steele dossier is not, as Trump, Putin and Assange have all claimed, a fake.

The officials did not reveal to CNN any conversations between these Russians and Americans. Shortly after the CNN report, however, four current or former US intelligence officials told The New York Times that there already existed extensive information, based on overseas communications interceptions, of “repeated contacts” between Trump associates, including Manafort, and Russian intelligence officers during the course of the 2016 presidential campaign. They did not reveal the contents of these commun­ications. With his characteristic eloquence, Spicer immediately denied any grounds for suspicion ­existed. “There’s nothing that would conclude me ... that anything has changed with respect to that time period.”

Such denials are now meaningless. As the resignation of Flynn and the recent CNN, New York Times and Washington Post reports have shown, some members of US intelligence are presently sufficiently alarmed about the relations between Trump and Putin that they are openly, under con­ditions of anonymity, willing to leak details of their domestic and overseas communications interceptions to the mainstream American media. To my knowledge, in the history of US intelligence such a situation is unprecedented.

At least three investigations into the Trump team’s relations with the Russians have been established. On October 15, 2016, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted a warrant sought by a number of US intelligence services that allows them to investigate the exchanges between two Russian banks and three American citizens involved in the Trump election campaign — Manafort, Page and the Republican activist Roger Stone.

The FBI is conducting a separate inquiry into the Steele dossier. In addition, an investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election has been established by a committee of the US Senate.

If, between them, these inquiries conclude that Trump’s team colluded with Russia in the hacking and the publication of the DNC emails and, even more, if it can be proved that it helped fund the operation, an impeachment hearing of the recently inaug­urated US President seems the only constitutional course.

This is a revised and updated version of an article that first appeared in The Monthly Online. Robert Manne is emeritus professor and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of The Petrov Affair: Politics and Espionage (Text Publishing). His most recent book is The Mind of the Islamic State (Black Inc).

This article first appeared in The Australian.