By: Tim Weiner
, Russian spies have undermined America for nearly a century. Their goals during and after the cold war were the same: Subvert the United States, sabotage its power, poison the body politic. They used the weapons of political warfare: deception, disinformation, espionage.
Their American agents held positions of power and authority. They infiltrated the Justice Department, the State Department, and all of America’s national-security agencies. Turncoats at the FBI and the CIA gave the Russians keys to the kingdom of American intelligence. Their treason went undetected for many years. A Nazi-hunting congressman, Samuel Dickstein of New York, became a Kremlin spy in 1937. His work stayed secret for six decades.
Four years ago, the KGB veteran Vladimir Putin pulled off the greatest coup of political warfare since the Trojan Horse: He helped put Donald Trump in the White House. Ever since, Trump has been a priceless asset for the Russians, a point man for their war on American democracy. It’s no secret that Trump echoes Russia’s political propaganda, stands with Putin against American spies and soldiers, and undermines the pillars of American national security. No secret that he tried to erase the evidence of Russia’s attacks on the last presidential election. Now he’s trying to drown out warnings that they’ll attack the next one.
The mystery is why.
I’m not saying Putin pays him. No one has a grainy photo of Trump pocketing Kremlin gold. But there are many kinds of secret agents in the annals of political warfare. Some were compromised by money troubles or blackmailed over sex. Some served their cause without comprehending Russia’s goals—they were poleznyye duraki, useful idiots. Some were in thrall to Russia’s authoritarian ideology. And most served Russia without ever being recruited. They volunteered.
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Trump serves Putin in a very specific way. He’s an agent of influence.
That’s someone in a position of authority who’s under the sway of a hostile government. Someone who can use their power to influence public opinion or make political decisions that benefit whoever manipulates them. That’s how American intelligence defines it. The Russians, who first perfected the concept, see it a little differently. To them, an agent of influence doesn’t have to be controlled, recruited, or paid. They just have to be useful.
Leon Panetta, who ran the CIA and the Pentagon under President Obama, has no doubt about it. He told me that, by any definition, “Trump, for all intents and purposes, acts as an agent of influence of Russia.”
I’ve interviewed veteran American spies, spymasters, and spy-catchers all summer for a podcast called Whirlwind, based on my new book, The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia, and Political Warfare: 1945-2020. Almost all concur with Panetta. But they have other theories as well. There’s the useful idiot scenario. Or maybe it’s money: the Russians might have kompromat—compromising information—about Trump’s finances. And some think it might be worse than that.
All agreed with Fiona Hill, who served under Trump as the National Security Council’s director for Russia, that Moscow sized him up as a mark long ago.
Putin’s KGB experience made him an expert at “manipulating people, blackmailing people, extorting people,” she told the impeachment inquiry last year. “That’s exactly what a case officer does. They get a weakness, and they blackmail their assets.” She concluded: “I firmly believe he was also targeting President Trump.”
Trump had almost all the traits Russian intelligence officers love to exploit: his transactional sex life, his greed, his corruption, his ego. He first visited Moscow in 1987, a vainglorious businessman seeking to build a luxury hotel across Red Square from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government. Then he started dropping hints about running for president, and he took out full-page ads in The New York Times and the Washington Post arguing for dismantling America’s strategic alliances in Asia and the Middle East. Soon shady Russians were sidling up to him at his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. And a generation later, he was still running for president—and still trying to build that hotel in Moscow, though he denied it.
“I have no doubt that Donald Trump was a target” from his days as a businessman, said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA station chief in Moscow. He sees Trump’s increasingly authoritarian ideology as a key factor in his adherence to Putin. “The most disturbing thing I've learned about Donald Trump is the level to which he identifies with Putin,” he told me. “I'm saying this as a CIA officer who's trained to look for this as the most important element of a sure-fire recruitment case—where you can get someone who's on your ideological side. And Donald Trump exhibits a shocking degree of ideological solidarity with Vladimir Putin, doesn't he?”
Is the president of the United States really a Russian asset—witting or unwitting? The CIA veteran John Sipher, who served in Moscow and ran spy operations against the Russians for more than 20 years, said that Trump “is certainly being used and manipulated, and is witting and willing to a certain extent. The question is whether the Russian success is because Trump is simply so easy to read and manipulate—or is he complicit over some fear of kompromat? Is he an asset, in the English language sense of the term, to the Russians? Yes, he is. He's essentially following their playbook. He is essentially mouthing their talking points. Somehow people are getting Russian talking points in front of him. And he's doing them.”
We don’t know how much Trump’s casinos and his real estate empire and his resurrection from bankruptcy depended on KGB capitalists or Kremlin-connected oligarchs—or whether his financial connections with Russians gave them kompromat to use against him. We won’t know until criminal investigators take a deep look at his finances. And one day soon, they likely will.
“I do believe that there is probably kompromat that the Russians were able to collect on Trump,” Steve Hall, who also served as a CIA station chief in Moscow, told me. “But really, in my mind, I think that probably the most important thing that Vladimir Putin has figured out, and he has over Trump, is that Trump so much values himself as a powerful self-made man.” He continued: “The ability of Vladimir Putin to call Trump up on the phone—in one of these many phone calls that we don't end up hearing much about—or perhaps private meetings where nobody else is there,” and saying, “‘Hey, Donald, let's not forget why it is that you're where you are.’”
“He had significant help and a lot of it came from the Kremlin,” Hall said. “That would really be a useful piece of compromising information over Donald Trump.”
Trump, of course, has insisted that his business empire has “nothing to do with Russia.” He’s said a thousand times that the idea that he has a nefarious connection with Russians is “a hoax.” We might know more about his ties to Russia if the FBI had ever conducted a serious counterintelligence investigation of the matter. But Trump’s Justice Department seems to have killed the case, fearing the repercussions of a mole hunt at the White House.
The CIA veteran Mowatt-Larssen spent years tracking down the CIA and FBI traitors who served the KGB in the ’80s and ‘90s. He put on counterintelligence hat when I asked him, “Given the flattery, the praise, the political support that Putin has lavished on Donald Trump—and given Trump's desire to be an autocrat in the style of Putin—when it comes to the president of the United States serving the interests of the Kremlin, Putin doesn't have to recruit Trump. Trump recruited himself. Right?”
He thought long and hard about this. “That’s true,” he said. “But then I have to ask the obvious question: Is that all it is? Is it only that Putin is such a master manipulator and that Trump is so vain that he loves it? Or is there a deeper explanation for this inexplicable behavior? Because I cannot, I could never have imagined that an American president could essentially, whether it's witting or unwitting, betray American interests so thoroughly to the Russians as has occurred in the last four years.”
Trump hammers away at America’s alliances. He smiles upon dictators and autocrats. When great throngs of people in Hong Kong and Prague and Minsk take to the streets demanding their right to liberty, the silence of the White House is deafening.
No less than Putin, Trump conducts political warfare against the American government. He attacks the rule of law, the freedom of the press, and the legitimacy of elections. He spews propaganda and hatred into political discourse. He denounces his political foes as criminals and threatens them with prison.
In Trump’s vision of America, all power resides in the president: Congress can’t control him, courts can’t judge him, and laws can’t constrain him. His insistence that his official acts are infallible requires Americans to reject the evidence of their eyes and ears. He works to erase the criminal record of the Kremlin’s political warfare, and to promote conspiracy theories absolving Russia of its attacks on the last election and the next, thus “abetting a Russian covert operation to keep him in office for Moscow’s interests, not America’s,” in the words of the former CIA chief John Brennan.
He undermines the architecture of American national security. He shuts his eyes to the CIA’s reporting when it clashes with his invincible ignorance, and he scorns his Pentagon chiefs on matters of life and death. He defames distinguished American ambassadors as “human scum,” trashes FBI agents as subversive traitors, and vilifies CIA officers as Nazis. He has now purged the national intelligence directorate, installed dishonest partisans, and cut off the flow of intelligence reporting to Congress and the American people, a smoke screen obscuring the threat of Russian attacks intended to help him win re-election.
The president, no less than Putin’s political warriors, infects the American body politic with falsehoods, inflaming anger, poisoning discourse. Trump’s billion-dollar reelection operation uses digital disinformation strategies adopted from the Russians. His response to the coronavirus is a torrent of lying and denying, evoking the Soviet reaction to Chernobyl. With the Kremlin backing Trump as the chaos candidate, there is no foretelling the lengths he will go to stay in power, how he will react if and when the people put an end to his presidency, whether he will surrender the White House peacefully if defeated, or rule as a despot if he prevails.
Almost 40 years ago, as the cold war raged, Ronald Reagan held his first news conference as president. He said that the Russians played by different rules than Americans: “They reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat,” he said. “We operate on a different set of standards.” But if those standards ever held true, they don’t anymore.
The tragedy is that Trump will lie, and he will cheat, to stay in power.
And in that way, he has made America more like Russia.
The terrible question at the heart of the matter remains: What is the influence that Putin has on Trump? And that mystery never has been fully investigated. Not by the FBI. Not by the CIA. Not by Robert Mueller. Not by Congress. I asked Mowatt-Larssen what he would do if he were in charge of American intelligence and the FBI came to him and said, "We have a national security nightmare on our hands. We are afraid that the president of the United States is, in some unknowable way, in the sway of Vladimir Putin."
He said he would tell the CIA and the FBI to create a small team of mole-hunters to see “if there is any merit to the possibility that the president is a Russian spy.” He continued: “I’d give them carte blanche to look at anything they need to do, over as long as they needed to do it, in total secrecy. So no one would be even aware of the existence of the unit.”
I asked, “And you do this knowing that that investigation could last for years and for decades?”
“You have to,” he said. “And the reason you have to is that's what history suggests we may have to be prepared for.”