The Donald and Vlad might not be holding hands, but they’re clearly friends with benefits.
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
That blinding flash of light you saw this weekend? That was the byproduct of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the American media’s two greatest obsessions, fusing into a single intoxicating storyline after the Democratic National Committee’s internal emails were hacked and made public with the apparent assistance of Russian hackers, and to the apparent glee of the Republican nominee. The conventional wisdom, after sifting through all the evidence, has reached a verdict, and it’s that Trump is Putin’s stooge, a veritable plant through which Putin plans to take over the United States.
Okay, I exaggerate. But not by much.
First, there was the Saturday piece by Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo, alleging the following:
“At a minimum, Trump appears to have a deep financial dependence on Russian money from persons close to Putin. And this is matched to a conspicuous solicitousness to Russian foreign policy interests where they come into conflict with US policies which go back decades through administrations of both parties. There is also something between a non-trivial and a substantial amount of evidence suggesting Putin-backed financial support for Trump or a non-tacit alliance between the two men.”
Then, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook did the Sunday morning talk show circuit, telling everyone that the DNC hack n’ dump was done by the Russians to hurt Hillary and help Trump. “I think when you put all this together, it’s a disturbing picture, and voters need to reflect on that,” he told Jake Tapper.
Soon, even seasoned political reporters were hyperventilating. “What do you think of Trump as a Putin plant?” one of them wrote to me.
Here’s what I think: we don’t know yet, really.
Let’s look at what we know, or what we think we know:
Trump has been desperately trying to do business in Moscow since 1987. He tried to open luxury real estate properties there then, then again nine years later in 1996, then again in 2005, then again in 2013.
Sketchy? Not really. In 1987, Russia — then the Soviet Union — started opening up in much the same way that Cuba is opening up now: cautiously, slowly, trying to balance the Communist Party’s primacy with a much-needed injection of capitalism because, for one reason or another, the command economy wasn’t giving the country’s people enough to eat. Trump was just one of many, many Western businessmen who smelled opportunity and tried to cash in on it, much the same way people are now eyeing development opportunities in Cuba. When a country is in such a state of disrepair and so underdeveloped, and has such a mythical status in the American imagination, there is so much to be done and, by extension, tons of money to be made.
In 1996, when Trump tried to build high-end condominiums in Moscow with financing help from U.S. tobacco companies, Russia was the wild, wild, capitalist West. The Soviet economy was still being dismantled; factories, mines, and the like were being sold for a song to anyone who could give cash to the perennially broke Yeltsin government. It is hard to overstate exactly how much easy money there was to be made. American and British businessmen rushed to Russia — Bill Browder, Boris Jordan — and became billionaires almost overnight.
(By the way, 1996 was the year Paul Tatum, an American businessman from Oklahoma, was gunned down in the street in a contract killing so that his local partner and the Moscow government could take over his business. What was that business? A luxury hotel. When did Tatum first start coming to Russia to explore the local market? 1985.)
Those good times came to an abrupt end in 1998, after a massive financial crisis and government default nearly wiped out the entire Russian economy. So what was Trump doing trying to build in Trump Tower in Moscow in 2005? Let’s just say he wasn’t alone. Beginning in 2000, oil and commodity prices began skyrocketing and Russian GDP began climbing by 4.7 percent in a bad year and 8 to 10 percent when times were good. Moscow became the world’s newest, glitziest boomtown. There were constant news stories about the excesses of Russian nightclubs and restaurants and hotels and fashion and decor. Russians couldn’t get enough Maseratis and Apple products and Gucci and Prada and anything else the West wanted to sell them. With all that new oil money sloshing around, Western businesses were again trying to get in on the bonanza. Trump’s decorating sense is perfectly in line with what the Russian nouveaux riches thought of as luxury at the time. Not trying to build a hotel in a place like that, so in love with the gaudy and the bling-y, and so flush with cash, would have been criminally stupid.
Let me suggest something: The fact that Trump, after so many attempts and with such warm intentions toward the country, was not able to build anything in Russia– when Ritz Carlton and Kempinski and Radisson and Hilton and any number of Western hotel chains were able to — speaks to his abysmal lack of connections to influential Russians. Since his first foray into Russia in 1987, the head of state changed four times — Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, Medvedev, Putin — but one thing stayed constant: In such a deeply personalized system of patronage, nothing could’ve been built without the right people inside the Kremlin helping you maneuver in the complicated web of whose palm to grease. The fact that pretty much every major hotel chain in the world was able to build something in Moscow but Trump wasn’t speaks to his inability to navigate this shadowy world, and to his weakness as a businessman. If Trump truly was in bed with Putin, there would be a Trump Tower in Moscow by now, if not several.
Trump did business with shady people from the former Soviet Union. How, exactly, is it surprising that someone in the real estate business in New York and Florida gets buyers from the former Soviet Union? There’s a lot of money washing around the elites of this resource-rich space, and many of them, like their Persian Gulf and Chinese counterparts, are parking their money outside their volatile and unpredictable home countries in places like the London and New York real estate markets. Much of the time, it’s done in a fairly non-transparent fashion, through shell companies that own shell companies that own shell companies, mostly because nobody wants to be overtly doing business with a shady Kazakh or Russian oligarch — who also want privacy. See, for example, this New York Times investigation of the luxury residences in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. Guess who owns, but doesn’t live in, many of the units?
The DNC WikiLeaks hack n’ dump, however, is the real smoking gun. As much as the Clinton campaign is trying to blame this on Russian intervention in order to deflect criticism of the unseemly anti-Sanders slant the emails revealed, the campaign has a point. Let’s look at the facts. A month ago, it was discovered that “Fancy Bear” and “Cozy Bear” had hacked the DNC’s servers, and that the Bears were associated with the GRU, Russian military intelligence and one of the most secretive branches of the Russian security apparatus. A month later, the DNC emails appear in the hands of WikiLeaks, bearing metadata that show they had passed through Russian computers.
This is not surprising. WikiLeaks has a long history with the Russian government. Founder Julian Assange — painted as an example of Western hypocrisy – became a hero of Russian propaganda when he became trapped at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He was even given a show on RT, the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda channel. Edward Snowden didn’t end up in Russia by accident. While on the lam and in purgatory in a Moscow airport, Snowden was accompanied by Sarah Harrison, editor of WikiLeaks. According to the WikiLeaks website, “Miss Harrison has courageously assisted Mr. Snowden with his lawful departure from Hong Kong and is accompanying Mr. Snowden in his passage to safety.”
It seems almost indisputable that this is what happened: The Russian government hacked the DNC’s computers, then passed the embarrassing info to WikiLeaks so they could cheer a leftist hero and take down Hillary Clinton, whom the Kremlin doesn’t want to see in the White House.
Also indisputable is the fact that the Kremlin clearly, overtly wants Trump to win. As I laid out in this piece in Politico last month: Kremlin-controlled television portrays Hillary Clinton as a hater of Russia and a reckless warmonger. One TV report stated that the “role of the Clinton family and of Hillary in particular in the American wars of the last couple decades is hard to overstate.” Trump is presented as a pragmatist who understands that America is over-extended and needs to pull back. “Trump’s ideology is one of rejecting the destructive globalism of the last few years in favor of a healthy American isolationism,” one prominent pro-Kremlin commentator declared on prime-time TV, adding that Trump’s declaration of intent to work with Putin infuriates American “globalists.”
The Kremlin is clearly happy to see a Republican candidate who preaches disbanding NATO (or throwing it into debtors prison) and advocates an American retreat from the world stage. If America retreats, Russia advances, nipping at its heels. See, for example, Syria. If America’s role in the world shrinks, Russia’s role in the world grows. This is how Putin sees it. Russia will get stronger because America will get weaker. This is why he is overtly throwing in for Trump, who has also lavishly complimented him.
This is exactly the kind of thing the Kremlin does. In the age of what Russia calls “asymmetric warfare,” this is exactly the kind of soft meddling its government has engaged in all over its near abroad and Europe, from the founding of RT, its international propaganda channel, in 2005 to the cyberattack on Estonia 2007, to the financing of Marine Le Pen’s party. There is also speculation that Putin has helped bankroll UKIP in England and Golden Dawn in Greece, among others.
Putin has long raged against the West meddling in the government of Russia and the former Soviet republics, which he sees as his sphere of influence. He blames both Orange Revolutions in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan on the U.S. government. He also blames the anti-Putin, pro-democracy protests that broke out in 2011 and 2012 in Moscow on the State Department. So in Putin’s mind, he is just answering in kind.
We don’t know for sure if Trump is really a Putin plant. Regardless, Putin wins. We do not have nearly enough evidence that Trump has really reached some sort of arrangement with Putin, regardless of his real estate deals and the role of gray cardinal Paul Manafort, who has worked for Viktor Yanukovych, pro-Russian leader of the Ukraine deposed in 2014. Pending that evidence — say, campaign donations through shell companies or super PACs or the various naturalized American children of Putin’s cronies, or through a salary for Manafort, who is volunteering on Trump’s campaign — we can only speculate. Which is what we’re doing.
That said, the speculation is, in and of itself, a major win for Putin. He has been obsessed with balancing out American power, with making sure that Russia isn’t perceived as weak. In his view, since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Washington has been alone in calling the shots in the world, instead of wrangling over the shots with Moscow as it had before. Most importantly, he has been trying to keep America from having a say in the way Russia is governed as it did in the early 1990s, when American policy wonks helped write the Russian constitution, or when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections fraudulent. For the first time in 25 years, Putin has flipped the script. Not only is America not intervening in Russian politics, Russia is intervening in American politics — or, at the very least, giving a distinct impression of doing this.
The very fact that we are discussing this and believing that Putin has the skill, inside knowledge, and wherewithal to field a candidate in an American presidential election and get him through the primaries to the nomination means we are imbuing him with the very power and importance he so craves. All he wants is for America to see him as a worthy adversary. This week, we’re giving that to him, and then some.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration