The Four Seasons of Kremlingate
The summer of scandal is over, but the autumn is just getting started.
There were a lot of major political stories this past summer amid the continuing disintegration of Donald Trump’s presidency. The defeat of the Senate health care bill. The end of the DACA program for early childhood arrivals. The pardon for disgraced former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The deadly chaos in Charlottesville, Virginia, and its dismal aftermath. The North Korea crisis. The Afghanistan policy decision. The arrival of John Kelly in the White House. The departure of Stephen Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, and, after just 10 days on the job, the foul-mouthed Anthony Scaramucci. But amid these consequential events, let’s not lose sight of the Kremlingate scandal, which could conceivably dwarf all of them in significance.
The evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin — and of Trump’s attempts to cover up that fact — grows more damning by the week. The summer began, you may recall, with the news on July 11 that when the Trump campaign had been approached by Russian representatives offering to provide dirt on Hillary Clinton, the senior-most campaign honchos had been eager to take a meeting. “I love it,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote in a now infamous email. As usually happens, the attempt to cover up these incriminating facts has opened the president to fresh legal jeopardy, especially since it has emerged that he personally crafted a mendacious statement claiming that the Trump Tower meeting had been only about “adoption.”
And how did the summer end? With the news that while running for president, in October 2015, Trump had signed a letter of intent to build a tower in Moscow — a combination of condominiums, a hotel, and office space that was even supposed to include a spa named after his daughter Ivanka. This latest twist in the scandal has produced an email almost as damning as Trump Jr.’s “I love it.” This is what Felix Sater, a Russian-American associate of Trump’s with a long criminal record, wrote to Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, in selling the deal: “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.” Sater even said he had lined up financing from VTB Bank, a financial institution that has close ties to the Kremlin and is under American sanctions, though VTB Bank denies Sater’s claims. (Not to be confused with VEB, another sanctioned Russian bank, whose CEO met with Jared Kushner after the election.)
The fact that the Moscow project was subsequently abandoned in no way diminishes the importance of this revelation, which shows that Trump was hoping to benefit financially as well as politically from his sycophancy toward Vladimir Putin. This information also further exposes one of Trump’s most persistent lies: the claim that he has “nothing to do with Russia.” As he tweeted on Jan. 11, “NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”
In fact, Trump has a history dating back to 1987 of chasing deals in Russia. The most prominent outcome of his zeal for rubles was his hosting of the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013 — arranged by the very same Russian developers, the Agalarovs, who steered the Kremlin’s emissaries to the Trump campaign in 2016. But there is also cause to suspect that Trump received significant financing from wealthy Russians linked to the Kremlin. At the very least, they have been major buyers of his properties and quite possibly more than that. In 2008, Trump Jr. said: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.… We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
That brings us to the infamous Steele dossier, which purports to show that the Kremlin had compromised Trump and was compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. When the 35-page memo was published by BuzzFeed in January, including the headline-grabbing allegation that Trump had hired Russian hookers to pee on a hotel bed where President Barack Obama had stayed in Moscow, it was widely denounced by Trump and his defenders as “fake news.” Even the veteran investigative reporter Bob Woodward called it “garbage.” But given what we now know, some smart espionage experts are taking another look at the dossier’s findings — and are discovering that at least some of the allegations are pretty credible.
The veteran British intelligence writer Ben Macintyre, in a New York Times conversation with John le Carré, offered this take: “I can tell you what the veterans of the S.I.S. [the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6] think, which is yes, kompromat was done on [Trump]. Of course, kompromat is done on everyone. So they end up, the theory goes, with this compromising bit of material and then they begin to release parts of it. They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong. Which means that Trump can then stand up and deny it, while knowing that the essence of it is true. And then he has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration. It’s important to remember that Putin is a K.G.B.-trained officer, and he thinks in the traditional K.G.B. way.”
Le Carré, who was a spook before he became a novelist, chimed in: “As far as Trump, I would suspect they have it, because they’ve denied it. If they have it and they’ve set Trump up, they’d say, ‘Oh no, we haven’t got anything.’ But to Trump they’re saying, ‘Aren’t we being kind to you?’”
John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, also thinks the Steele dossier, produced on behalf of the London-based Orbis Business Intelligence, is “generally credible” despite some “factual inaccuracies” of the kind that you would expect to see in any raw intelligence product. “Well before any public knowledge of these events,” Sipher writes on the Just Security blog, “the Orbis report identified multiple elements of the Russian operation including a cyber campaign, leaked documents related to Hillary Clinton, and meetings with Paul Manafort and other Trump affiliates to discuss the receipt of stolen documents. Mr. Steele could not have known that the Russians stole information on Hillary Clinton, or that they were considering means to weaponize them in the U.S. election, all of which turned out to be stunningly accurate.”
If Macintyre, le Carré, and Sipher are right, it would certainly help explain Trump’s otherwise inexplicable failure to say one negative word about Putin, even when doing so would be politically advantageous to him.
Of course, it will ultimately be up to special counsel Robert Mueller and his Untouchables to decide whether there is real evidence of wrongdoing here or just the appearance thereof. But even if Mueller can’t prove collusion directly between Trump and Putin, he still has a good shot to nail the president for obstruction of justice because of the firing of FBI Director James Comey — an act that Bannon has rightly described as one of the worst mistakes in “modern political history.” All signs are that Mueller’s investigation is headed in precisely that direction, given his requests to question current and former White House aides who were involved in the Comey dismissal and his acquisition of an impolitic letter Trump and a top aide drafted to explain this calamitous decision.
Potentially even more worrisome for Trump is the knowledge that Mueller is digging into his business history with the assistance of the IRS’s elite criminal investigations unit, experts in financial crimes who of course have access to the president’s top-secret tax returns. The information that is already public is damning enough. Just imagine what else Mueller must now know or will soon learn. The summer of Kremlingate is likely to turn into the fall of Kremlingate, then into the winter, the spring, and so on.
This scandal won’t end until Trump leaves the presidency and maybe not even then.
Update: This article has been updated to include comment from VTB Bank.
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images