Russia: the spectre that loomed over Trump's presidency

Luke Harding
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP</span>
Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP

When historians look back at Donald Trump’s presidency they are likely to pick out two defining themes. One is the coronavirus pandemic. It dominated his last year in office, and saw the president become the virus’s most celebrated victim cum White House super-spreader.

The other is Russia, a subject that consumed American public life for four long years. The question first came up when Trump was a long-shot candidate for president. In a Republican party that had once regarded Vladimir Putin as a cold-eyed KGB killer, why was Trump’s behaviour towards Russia’s leader so ingratiating?

There were Trump’s flattering public statements about Putin on the campaign trail. And his blatant appeal in July 2016 for Moscow to locate emails that he claimed Hillary Clinton had deleted. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in Florida.

As it turned out Russia was indeed listening. That evening a group of hackers working for GRU military intelligence returned after-hours to their office in central Moscow. They tried to break into the accounts of senior Clinton aides, unsuccessfully. A rival spy agency once headed by Putin, the FSB, launched its own electronic attacks.

On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump called on Russia to find 30,000 emails belonging to Hilary Clinton.
On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump called on Russia to find 30,000 emails he claimed Hilary Clinton had deleted. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Across 2016 the Russians ran an aggressive and multifaceted operation to help Donald Trump win. In spring the GRU stole tens of thousands of Democratic party emails, including from Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta. These were fed to WikiLeaks and given to reporters via a GRU persona, Guccifer 2.0.

Meanwhile trolls working out of St Petersburg launched an unprecedented anti-Clinton social media operation. The Russians – employed by Putin’s ally Yevgeny Prigozhin – impersonated Americans, organised pro-Trump rallies, and even hired an actor to dress up as Clinton and sit in a cage.

Moscow rumours

During the 2016 campaign there were swirling rumours concerning Trump and Moscow. No media outlet could quite stand them up, but the topic burst into the public domain in January 2017 when BuzzFeed published a dossier by the former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, commissioned by the Democratic party. It would torment Trump for the rest of his presidency.

Related: Trump in Moscow: what happened at Miss Universe in 2013

The dossier alleged the Kremlin had been cultivating Trump for five years at least. It claimed Putin’s spies had collected kompromat, secretly filming Trump and two sex workers inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel during his 2013 visit to Moscow for the Miss Universe beauty pageant.

Trump vehemently denied the seedy allegations. He and his Republican supporters on Capitol Hill and within the Justice Department sought to discredit its British author and to out his sources. Steele was a “failed spy” and “lowlife”, and collusion allegations a “witch-hunt” and a “hoax”, Trump insisted.

‘Russia thing’

Hoax or not, Trump’s efforts to make the “Russia thing” go away backfired. In May 2017 he sacked James Comey as FBI director. This resulted in the appointment of the former FBI chief Robert Mueller as special prosecutor. Mueller’s brief was to investigate whether Trump and his inner circle had conspired with Moscow during the election. To answer yes, a criminal standard of proof was necessary.

For almost two years the workings of Mueller’s team stayed secret. The prosecutor was both Washington’s most present personality – endlessly discussed – and a ghost. From time to time his office issued indictments. These were against 26 Russians including GRU hackers. And against Americans: Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, national security adviser Michael Flynn, attorney Michael Cohen, and others.

When it arrived in spring 2019, Mueller’s report was a disappointment to liberal Americans who hoped it might sweep Trump from power. It identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign but did not find a criminal-level conspiracy. Nor did it rule on whether the president had obstructed justice. Mueller said he had not considered collusion, which was not a “legal term”.

Trump, we learned, had been secretly negotiating in 2015-16 to build a Trump Tower in Moscow while simultaneously praising Putin. Cohen had even written an email asking Putin’s press spokesman Dmitry Peskov for help and spoke to Peskov’s assistant. When asked about this by Congress, Cohen lied. The cover-up led to a feud with Trump – and, for Cohen, to federal jail.

Back-channels

The most significant back-channel to Moscow involved Manafort and his one-time Russian aide Konstantin Kilimnik. In a series of clandestine meetings Manafort gave Kilimnik internal polling data, including from the rustbelt states that proved crucial to Trump’s 2016 victory. The two men used burner phones, encrypted chats, and a secret email account, with messages shared in drafts.

In December, Trump pardoned his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort (C), who was convictied of unregistered lobbying, tax fraud, bank fraud and money laundering.
In December, Trump pardoned his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort (C), who was convictied of unregistered lobbying, tax fraud, bank fraud and money laundering. Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP

Mueller identified Kiliminik as a career Russian intelligence officer. His employer was the GRU. What Kilimink did with the information he got from Manafort is unknown. He refused to cooperate with the FBI and fled to Moscow.

Critics said the Mueller investigation was hobbled by an excess of legal caution and a failure to meet face to face with Trump. Its biggest shortcoming, arguably, was a lack of Russian witnesses.

Much of the Trump-Russia story is still unknown. For example, does the Trump Organization have financial ties with Moscow? After a series of bankruptcies in the 1990s Trump was only able to borrow cash from one lender: Germany’s Deutsche Bank, which gave him lavish credit. At the same time its Moscow division was facilitating a $10bn money-laundering scam for the benefit of Kremlin VIPs.

The US public never found out when Putin ordered the DNC hacking operation and why. Nor did it discover what the Russian and American presidents discussed in their private meetings, including during a notorious 2018 encounter in Helsinki. A good guess is that Putin flattered rather than threatened Trump. He fed Trump’s ego and stoked his resentment of the US “deep state” and other “enemies”.

Trump and Putin held private meetings in Helsinki in 2018
Trump and Putin held private meetings in Helsinki in 2018. Photograph: Anatoly Maltsev/EPA

‘Grave counter-intelligence threat’

In August 2020 the Senate intelligence committee published its own Trump-Russia report. It said Manafort’s willingness to pass confidential material to Kilimnik was a “grave counter-intelligence threat”. And it gave some credence to Steele’s Moscow allegations, noting that an FSB officer was stationed inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Putin’s spy had a live video feed from guests’ bedrooms, the report said.

In the end Russia did not interfere in the 2020 election in the same sweeping and systematic way. But Moscow was busy in other ways. Beginning in spring it carried out a massive cyber-raid against US federal government institutions. Russian state hackers inserted malicious code into a software update made by a Texas-based company, SolarWinds.

At least six US government departments were affected, as well as the Department of Defence’s sprawling communications network, and the body that manages the US nuclear weapons stockpile. The hackers worked for Russian SVR foreign intelligence, and possibly the FSB. It was the same Cozy Bear outfit that previously hacked the DNC and the US state department.

Did Trump condemn Moscow? Nope. He blamed China, in one of his final tweet’s before Twitter kicked him off its platform after the 6 January Capitol attack. The cyber-raid was a reminder of Putin viewing the US as an eternal adversary in a never-ending quasi-war. The National Security Agency has spent billions on cyber-defence and yet on Trump’s watch it was unable to deter intruders from Moscow.

Related: How Joe Biden’s cold war experience will shape his approach to Russia

Russia would have preferred it if Trump had won the election. Despite Joe Biden’s clearcut victory, though, the Russian leader has much to celebrate. Over four polarising years Trump accomplished many of the KGB’s longstanding goals. These included estranging the US from its western allies and Nato; deepening domestic strife; and waging a Putin-style disinformation campaign against the 2020 result.

Manchurian candidate or not, Trump did more than any previous president to discredit US democracy and suck up to the Kremlin. Back in the 1980s the Soviet government invited Trump to Moscow. Seemingly it identified him early as a person without scruples, one perhaps capable given time and opportunity of bringing down the republic.

The invasion of the Capitol was the culmination of this cold war fantasy; a perfect series finale.

Luke Harding’s latest book Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West is available from the Guardian Bookshop