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When you think of all the nifty things Donald Trump has done to improve U.S. relations with Russia—all those back channel meetings by his henchmen with Russian ambassadors and black-bag operatives, all the towel-snapping good times with Vladimir Putin—it’s a shame to think that the Evil Empire could be responsible for bringing down his presidency. But that’s the way it is with Russia: in the end—just ask FDR and his pal Uncle Joe at Yalta—it breaks your heart.
The only American politician ever to figure out the Russians was William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s and Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State. He paid them $7.2 million for Alaska, which celebrated the transaction by sending the secretary enough local hardwood to panel his staircase in Auburn, New York.
As for the rest, up to and including his excellency, the Fakir of Twitter, Russia has remained an enigma wrapped inside a photo op or a soundbite, there to convince the American people that the president is bringing his A game to some reelection campaign.
The reality in Russia has never mattered. What does is how it can be positioned to poison the opposition’s well in American politics—which is why Russian relations are a variation on presidential blind man’s bluff.
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Remember when W gazed into Putin’s eyes? (“I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy – I was able to get a sense of his soul.”) Too bad he failed to notice, while leaning in, that Putin can get by without much soul food.
Nor to be forgotten is that Richard Nixon gave Russian strongman Leonid Brezhnev a 1972 Eldorado Cadillac (not the Fleetwood station wagon that looked like a hearse) just in time for the gas lines of the 1970s. No wonder Brezhnev said thank you a few years later by invading Afghanistan.
John F. Kennedy tried to charm his way through a June 1961 Vienna summit with Nikita Khrushchev only for the Russian shoe pounder to wall off East Berlin and send nuclear weapons to Cuba. (“Nasdrovia, Jack.”)
Not that JFK’s predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, the five-star general, had any better insight into Russian intentions. During the war, Stalin rolled Ike by saying he wasn’t interested in taking Berlin, which explains why Eisenhower’s men were liberating Meissen’s porcelain factories on the Elbe River while the Russians were raping their way along the Unter den Linden.
As president, Eisenhower—well, his frontman John Foster Dulles—talked about rolling back the Iron Curtain, but that only brought Russian tanks into Budapest.
World War II is thought of as the glory days of Russian-American cooperation—with Liberty ships bringing the armaments of democracy to Murmansk and Archangel.
But FDR was never able to square Stalin’s Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler with Russia’s allied status, and at Yalta he failed to notice that retired bank robber Iosif Dzhugashvili’s idea of the Four Freedoms was to have his way in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Even the messianic Woodrow Wilson, who fought for the world to “be made safe for democracy,” could not divine the Russians. In 1918, he sent American troops to Siberia in support of tsarist pretenders who were themselves trying to make the world safe for the autocracy of a Romanov restoration.
All Barack Obama saw when he looked at Russia was himself in a mirror—a society of law professors and community organizers with aspirations to have a summer house on Martha’s Vineyard.
It never occurred to him that Putin’s book club would spend more time with Lenin’s What Is To Be Done or Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question than, say, with the short stories of Barbara Kingsolver, which may explain why the president’s 333 rounds of White House golf did not keep the Russians out of Crimea or Donetsk.
* * *
In trying to assess why his Russian dealings might bring down the House of Trump, it’s useful to summarize how the president got into this mess, where now both the FBI and Congress are eager to ask all the president’s men, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Putinist party?”
The reason for the Un-American questions is that for Trump, personally and politically, Russia is the mother of all conflicts-of-interest.
Before Trump saw Russia as a convenient hacker of Democratic emails, he could well have “turned east” in the 1990s and 2000s when many of his companies were bankrupt and he was frantic for flight capital to roost along Fifth Avenue and the boardwalk in Atlantic City.
Keep in mind that Trump’s current business model is to front deals and have them funded with other people’s money. The owners get to fly the Trump flag over their investment properties, and he keeps 30 percent of the take—in the words of Caddyshack’s Carl Spackler, “a little something, you know, for the effort.”
When Trump was building properties and tying to flog the condos, he lost hundreds of millions of dollars, which could well have brought him into the arms of the Russian oligarchy.
At the time it was flush with billions in hot cash and desperate to find safe havens outside Russia for the easy money. What better match could there have been than one between Putin’s bagmen and Trump’s capital-starved monopoly with hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place.
Best of all, at the pinnacle of many Russian fortunes, there is often—of all things—a Delaware limited liability company, known in the trade by the letters LLC.
Everyone assumes that Russian fortunes are stashed away in Switzerland, Cyprus, the Cook Islands, or Jersey. The reality is that many Russians prefer the secrecy that “the first state” confers upon its beneficial owners.
Banking secrecy may be dead in Zurich and Singapore, but it is alive and well in Delaware, and of late, it would allow Trump to say (with a clear conscience) that he has “no business in Russia.” Of course not: if he is dealing with Russian capital, the booking center would likely be in Wilmington.
Even a cursory glance at Trump’s financial disclosure forms online shows that of the 564 organizations in which Trump has a financial interest—including the Jeddah Hotel Manager and Trump Drinks Israel—many of the listed companies are LLCs. So he knows how that political-economic animal leaves few footprints.
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The problem with the Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Form (OGE Form 278e) is that it only lists the asset side of the Trump balance sheet, and then without valuations.
To whom Trump owes money and why is buried—not in his non-disclosed tax returns, but deeper in the financial statements of his many privately held companies, few of which are required to publish their annual reports.
The magic of real estate partnership accounting, especially when it comes to Trump’s boardwalk empire, is that unraveling both the assets and liabilities would require more auditors than were needed to reconcile the malfeasance of Bernie Madoff.
Why? Because Trump’s liabilities are hidden not just in private companies but in a trust, while his investors (whoever they might be) will have structured their own affairs to mask their beneficiary under layers of front companies, not just in Delaware, but around the world in places like the Channel Islands, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Singapore, or maybe Nauru. Good luck untangling that knotted fishing line.
You want to find out if Putin has investments in Trump Inc.? First, try to unravel Putin’s financial empire of dummy corporations and cut-out trustees. Then try to marry its investments to Trump’s equally opaque empire.
In other words, it’s a job on par with finishing a 10,000-piece puzzle, for which all the pieces are white, maybe with a hammer-and-sickle in shadow on the front of a high-rise hotel.
Under the Constitution, Congress has the right and obligation to sort out Trump’s foreign engagements (to use the words of George Washington). If any time in the next four years Democrats obtain a majority in the House or Senate, you can be sure that a full audit of Trump Inc. will be on the agenda. With, however, some Republican support—“Hey, John McCain, this Bud’s for you”—the fun can start sooner.
* * *
Clearly Russia is the 800-pound gorilla loose on the grounds at Mar-a-Lago, and it explains the Trump meltdown over the decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself in any Russian investigations.
Trump had his temper tantrum last week in the Oval Office when he learned from his consiglieri, Messrs. Bannon and Priebus, that Sessions would not oversee any probe into the Russian connection.
The day before Trump had a field trip to the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford and had basked in the glow of having delivered, on March 1, a speech that, according to Press Secretary Spicer, ranked up there, among presidential addresses, with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and FDR’s remarks that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself.”
On the aircraft carrier, draft-dodger Trump was given a hero’s welcome. They even gave him a top-gun jacket and cap to wear on deck, although he still looked more like Hot Shots’ Admiral Benson (“Really? That’s my name too”) than Maverick or Iceman.
Back at the White House, Trump became furious with Bannon and Priebus and told them they could not ride on Air Force One that weekend down to Mar-a-Lago. In Trumpworld, such an injunction counts as cruel and unusual punishment.
According to Spicer, Trump’s anger stemmed from the Sessions headlines over his hookups with Russians and how they stole thunder from the president’s Gettysburg Address. But my feeling is that the Sessions recusal is no small matter and that it gets to the heart of Trump’s coming Siberian exile.
* * *
The only reason any president appoints an attorney general is to keep the impeachment wolves from the doors of the Oval Office.
Trump may have appreciated Sessions’ opposition to the Voting Rights Act, if not his air kisses to the Klan, but the reason that the Alabaman got the top job in the Justice Department was to watch Trump’s back, and that meant keeping a lid on any Russian investigations.
Already when Sessions was appointed to the job of attorney general, Trump had worries on the Russian front. He knew that the FBI was investigating possible conversations between his campaign and Russian operatives about lifting sanctions and the release Hillary’s emails to influence the election.
Then there was the kompromat report written by a former British intelligence agent, Christopher Steele, that placed Trump on the receiving end of some isolated showers in a Russian hotel suite that President Obama had rented for more statesman-like purposes.
When Trump picked Sessions, he knew well that if the Democrats were going to gin up impeachment charges, they would probably start in the Russian rain.
No wonder Sessions chose to lie to the Senate when asked, in his confirmation hearings, if he had any contacts with the Russians. In the cabinet, his mission impossible was to wash Trump clean of Russian escorts (broadly defined).
Hence Trump’s foaming rage at Bannon and Priebus for agreeing when Sessions decided (while Trump was at general quarters on the Ford) that he would recuse himself from any witch hunting in Russia.
Now the investigation could end up in the hands of a runaway Congress or some jarhead civil servant in the Justice Department who grew up reading Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels.
* * *
Is it an impeachable offense for the campaign of a presidential candidate to speak to foreign countries? Hardly. The presence of foreign interference in presidential elections goes back to George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, who fought bitterly over whether the English or the French ought to be the best friend of the young republic.
A great insult of the time was the word “Jacobin,” which implied a politician was in the pay of revolutionary France. In his history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, Henry Adams quotes one prominent Federalist grand dame, who said: “There was no exclusiveness, but I should as soon have expected to see a cow in a drawing-room as a Jacobin.”
All through the 19th and 20th centuries, most elections had denunciations of foreign tampering—for example, with William McKinley in 1896 running against Spanish perfidy or Dwight Eisenhower campaigning in 1952 against communist subversion (Richard Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee were his running mates).
Trump’s Russian problems, however, go deeper than simple influence peddling for the Reds in exchange for some Kremlin condos. It’s that he lied or that his minions lied about the nature of the complicated relationship.
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One of the non-sequiturs of the 2016 electoral campaign was the deference Trump and his surrogates paid to the Russians. They wanted to build walls to keep out Mexicans and Canadians, saber-rattled against the Chinese in the Spratly Islands, talked trash to the European Union over Brexit, and threatened Iran and other Middle Eastern states with nuclear winter. But with Russia the tone was that of a lullaby.
Putin was treated as if he were some high roller in Atlantic City, down for the weekend with his mistress and entourage. Trump’s campaign surrogates (Sessions, Flynn, and others) were sent around—as if floor men at the old Trump Taj Mahal—to greet limos, hold doors, fetch drinks, cash chips, and otherwise cater to someone that the house clearly valued as a whale.
On the campaign trail, Trump spoke of doing “a deal” with Putin, about having good relations with Russia. The rest of the world—at least the European Union, China, and the Middle East (save Israel)—could piss up a rope.
Russia was romanticized as a tropical paradise, a nation of temperate men and climate, open to reason and persuasion, a possible partner in the coming battles against ISIS.
During the campaign Trump was all in on Russia, especially if it could leak more John Podesta messages or track down Hillary’s purloined wedding letters (“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing, I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press…”).
He even spoke warmly about Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange. And we know his surrogates were whispering to Russian moles that Trump might do away with the Obama sanctions against Putin’s merry men.
* * *
Just as the Watergate break-in, during the 1972 election, was a misunderstood scandal (the cover up mattered more than the crime), so too are the contacts of Trump’s campaign with what on The Americans is called the Rezidentura (basically a nest of spies).
Who really cares if Senator Jeff Sessions went to a cocktail party or a conference with the Russian ambassador in Washington?
It has only become a story because the attorney general designate was willing to lie under oath to the Senate on the issue and because those lies now open up the possibility of a special prosecutor being appointed to investigate Trump’s Russian assets.
In any investigation, Trump would have to prove to Congress that none of the tentacles in his real estate empire reach into Russian holding companies or oligarchic trusts. Proving such a negative could, however, unravel his presidency.
* * *
Helping Trump in these patriot games is that he is up against a Democratic leadership in Congress that for the moment looks no more competent than Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, in tracking down the enemies of CONTROL. (KOAS agent: “I can drown the city that houses your finest minds, your most brilliant intellects.” Max to Agent 99: “Well at least Washington is safe.”)
Neither Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer nor Representative Nancy Pelosi looks capable of tangling with an angry, possibly unhinged Trump, wandering the halls of Mar-a-Lago as if King Lear with a Blackberry, in a rage at his treacherous footmen Bannon and Priebus. (Beware, fayre Ivanka, he is attended with a desperate train.)
Incompetent as the opposition seems (Schumer’s problem could be that Trump bankrolled many of his elections and must have the cancelled checks), it has been given what in football is called a weak schedule—and in a division where the Trump administration is suiting up amateurs.
For starters, it will not be hard to prove that Trump’s people had entangling alliances with the Russians during the campaign and after. A big deal? Only because everyone from the president on down has denied any connection.
Next, details about Russian hacking to influence the 2016 election can be played out in lurid detail, this time by an FBI intent on restoring the virtue it lost in bringing Hillary’s server problems to primetime.
When the FBI tires of defending the moral high ground, the CIA and NSA can weigh in with their own Russian revelations, especially if Trump sends gumshoes to indict intelligence agents who leaked the Flynn phone intercepts to the press.
On slow days for news, investigators can amuse themselves with Trump’s byzantine financial affairs—by searching for a dividend check from a foreign government or Putin’s fingerprints on a bank transfer.
Watergate was great reality television. Isn’t it time for a remake, with Bernie Sanders in the starring role of Senator Sam Ervin?
* * *
Whether any of these charges will be proven true is beside the point. The idea is bring down Trump.
Nor will anyone in Congress or elsewhere dig into the true nature of Russian foreign policy—the question of whether Putin’s Soviet Risorgimento is a threat to American interests or merely a dagger pointed at the heart of Moldova.
Sadly, in the great game of American politics, the reality in Russia—for better or for worse—has never dictated how the U.S. deals with Moscow, which is best understood as a distant sound-and-light show.
The Cold War—all those dragons on conference-room walls in Washington—spoke to the need for American defense spending and bureaucratic enlargement much more than it did to Russian threats to West Germany.
When Ronald Reagan exhorted, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he was speaking to an audience in the American heartland, not Red Square.
Even the accomplished John Quincy Adams, who first went to St. Petersburg on his own as a fourteen-year-old boy to represent his father on a diplomatic mission and who later served as an ambassador at the Romanov court, wrote about Russian life in his diary as a way to decode the riddle of America.
In compromising Trump, Russia again will become a straw man—an imagined nation of double agents, loan sharks, inside traders, hit men, and rounders looking for a friendly game in Atlantic City. Whether Russia has a historic claim to eastern Ukraine or Crimea will not be under discussion, nor will Putin’s aspirations in the Baltic or the Caucasus.
The only question on the table will be the presumed fallen innocence of American democracy and that of the compromised virgin republic, which, clearly, those lowlifes Trump and Putin will have taken for a joy ride in Brezhnev’s Cadillac.
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including, most recently, Reading the Rails.