|Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House by Luke Harding – review|
Secret meetings and dirty money in a compelling investigation of the US president’s 30-year relationship with Russia
Donald Trump with Vladimir Putin at a meeting of world leaders in Vietnam. Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images
Thu 14 Dec ‘17 02.30 EST Last modified on Tue 19 Dec ‘17 13.00 EST
The subtitle of Guardian investigative reporter Luke Harding’s comprehensive and compelling volume hints at the scope here. Trump’s interactions with Russia go back more than 30 years – Vladimir Putin is perhaps the only person in the world who will never have to worry about being attacked on the president’s Twitter feed.
Many of the incriminating facts reported in Collusion won’t be new to serious students of this saga, but the experience of reading them all in one place can be almost overwhelming. When, less than halfway through the book, ex-MI6 spy Christopher Steele describes the Trump-Russia conspiracy as “absolutely massive”, it sounds like classic British understatement.
What you need to know about the Trump-Russia inquiry
As a former Moscow correspondent and the author of A Very Expensive Poison, about the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin’s war with the west, Harding has the perfect background to write this book. He never forgets that Putin has the soul of an assassin. When Harding wrote an article in 2007 displeasing the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), he was summonsed to Lefortovo, the FSB’s notorious pretrial and detention centre in Moscow, where Litvinenko had been held before he was murdered. Harding’s description of the prison makes the book feel like a thriller.
In the same year, Harding met Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, in Ukraine. He was told: “If you have a dead horse and you need to sell it, you call him” – and that all of Manafort’s election campaigns for dictators around the world targeted the “big unwashed”. In an ironic foreshadowing, Manafort told Harding that the candidate he was trying to re‑elect, Viktor Yanukovych, was his own man, stating: “There is no Russian influence in this campaign.” Manafort insisted Yanukovych was merely the “candidate of a system that was tied to Russia”. But a few years later, Harding concluded that he couldn’t rely on anything the lobbyist had told him. Moreover Trump informed reporters after the FBI raided Manfort’s home in August that he had only worked on Trump’s campaign “for a very short period of time”. However Harding points out that the president first met Manfort almost 40 years ago, and hired him soon after “to look after gambling and real estate issues”.
Trump and Putin chat at Apec summit - video
Russian efforts to form ties with Trump go back to the 1980s, when the new Russian ambassador to the United Nations began to cultivate him. Almost immediately Trump set about plans to build a large luxury hotel in Moscow, in partnership with the Soviet government. He wrote that his first visit to Moscow in 1987 was “an extraordinary experience”; just two months later, he was hinting for the first time that he might run for office and bought newspaper advertisements that said: “Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.”
Trump has repeatedly tweeted that he has no financial connections to Russia. But in 2008 Donald Trump Jr said in Moscow: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” A Reuters investigation revealed that individuals with Russian passports or addresses had bought property worth $98.4m in seven Trump-branded towers in Florida. And as late as January 2016, Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, was begging Putin’s press secretary for help to resuscitate a “Trump-Moscow project in Moscow City”.
Then there is former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s relationship with Russians when he was leading Republicans in a chant of “lock her up” at the Republican national convention. Given the depth of Flynn’s connections with the Russians, his recent agreement to cooperate with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, was an especially significant development for nervous politicians at the White House.
But what may be even more dangerous to Trump’s future is the recent report that Mueller has subpoenaed records of Trump’s dealings with Deutsche Bank. The last part of Harding’s book is devoted to Trump’s incredibly convoluted relationship with the German bank, which included defaulting on a $330m loan from its real estate division – and then settling that default by borrowing hundreds of millions more from the bank’s private equity division. Asked if “it was normal to give more money to a customer who was a bad credit risk ... a former senior Deutsche bank staff member said: ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’” At the same time as the bank was engaging in these bizarre dealings with Trump, it was also laundering tens of billions of dollars for its Russian customers. The hundred billion dollar question for Mueller is, then, whether there was a connection between Trump’s loans and the Russians’ laundry.
The book leaves the strong impression that there has been so much unsavoury activity between Trump, the Russians and the German bank, that a talented lawyer such as Mueller (who has hired a dozen of the toughest prosecutors in the US) is almost certain to make a federal case out of it. As to the question of whether there was direct collusion between Trump and the Russians to get him elected, the last word should go to Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, and the public official who probably has the deepest and widest understanding of this scandal. On CNN Schiff recently declared: “We do know this. The Russians offered help. The campaign accepted help. The Russians gave help, and the president made full use of that help. And that is pretty damning whether it is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a conspiracy or not.
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