Democracy & Government

For America’s Sake, We Need Answers about Russia. Now.

Donald Trump's embrace of Russia and Vladimir Putin and that country's interference with our election could drag democracy to an early grave.

For America’s Sake, We Need Answers about Russia. Now.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a weekly meeting with ministers of the government at the Novo Ogaryovo state residence Oct. 29, 2014 in Moscow. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a weekly meeting with ministers of the government at the Novo Ogaryovo state residence Oct. 29, 2014, in Moscow. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

(Note: I hardly had finished writing the following piece when Michael Flynn resigned, requiring a small revision. With this new development, the plot thickens, and getting to the truth about Russia and the Trump White House becomes even more important. And it raises the famous questions that so bedeviled Richard Nixon: What did Donald Trump know and when did he know it? mw)

These first weeks of the Trump White House have felt like one of those tennis ball machines run amok, volley after volley shooting at us in such rapid fire that often the only reaction is to grimace and duck. Outrage after outrage, imperial pronouncement after pronouncement, lie after lie; it’s just one damned, fast and furious, flawed thing after another.

All of this is confusing and distracting and of course, that’s precisely what they want. As the old saying goes, if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. It easily distracts us from the real issues, diverting our eyes from those important things that have to be closely examined and resolved if we’re to continue trying, at least, to behave like a free nation.

Outrage after outrage, imperial pronouncement after pronouncement, lie after lie; it’s just one damned, fast and furious, flawed thing after another.

One of those burning issues is Russia, which largely seemed to go off the scope in the days immediately before and after Trump’s mini-inauguration, even though around the election and in the weeks after we heard a great deal about Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the release of emails aimed at defeating Hillary Clinton — allegations that were backed by the US intelligence community. With the FBI, those spy agencies also have been investigating intercepted communications from Russian intelligence. And then there’s that infamous “dossier,” compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele, filled with thus far unverified allegations about President Trump’s business dealings with Russia as well as certain salacious tales of his purported extracurricular activities there.

But with the resignation of Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn, in the wake of news reports about his December phone calls with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and word that US intelligence has confirmed some of the information in the Steele dossier, interest in Russia has rekindled, and a good thing, too.

On Thursday night, The Washington Post released the story that Flynn “privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.”

This was followed by Monday night’s breaking news from the Post: “The acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.” Within hours, Flynn was out.

What’s more, at week’s end, as the Flynn story was beginning to unfold,  CNN reported that investigators have now corroborated some of the less personal information in the Steele dossier, conversations among Russian officials: “The corroboration,” the network reported, “has given US intelligence and law enforcement ‘greater confidence’ in the credibility of some aspects of the dossier… Some of the individuals involved in the intercepted communications were known to the US intelligence community as ‘heavily involved’ in collecting information damaging to Hillary Clinton and helpful to Donald Trump, two of the officials tell CNN.”

And it raises the famous questions that so bedeviled Richard Nixon: What did Donald Trump know and when did he know it?

These latest developments came on the heels of Trump’s astonishing remarks to Bill O’Reilly, in an interview pre-taped for Super Bowl Sunday, when Trump said he respected Putin and O’Reilly noted that the Russian leader is a killer: “There are a lot of killers,” Trump replied, sounding more like a two-bit Al Capone than the leader of the free world. “We have a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?”

This is way beyond troubling, so it merits noting some of the other news about Russia that has transpired in the last few weeks, news that might have flown under your radar while Trump’s fusillade of executive orders and tantrums was bombarding your every waking moment.

All of it is serious business, specifically when it comes to figuring out just why Trump is so deeply enamored of Vladimir Putin and how much Russia interfered with our election, and more broadly for what it says about Trump and his chief strategist Stephen Bannon’s vision, God help us, of a world divided and dominated by white nationalists.

For one, and speaking of killers, there’s the matter of the missing Russian intelligence men, all of whom may be connected to the Trump affair. Amy Knight, former Woodrow Wilson Fellow and author of Orders From Above: The Putin Regime and Political Murder, writes in The New York Review of Books, “… Since the US election, there has been an unprecedented, and perhaps still continuing shakeup of top officials in Putin’s main security agency, the FSB, and that a top former intelligence official in Putin’s entourage died recently in suspicious circumstances.”

She’s worth quoting at length:

“It appears that the Kremlin has been conducting an intensive hunt for moles within its security apparatus who might have leaked information about Russian efforts to influence the US presidential election. In mid-December 2016, following public assertions by leading US intelligence officials that Russia had intervened in the election, two high-level FSB officers, Sergei Mikhailov, deputy chief of the FSB’s Center for Information Security, which oversees cyberintelligence, and his subordinate, Dmitry Dokuchayev, were arrested. (Russian authorities reportedly took Mikhailov away from a meeting of the FSB top brass after placing a black bag on his head.) The two men — along with Ruslan Stoyanov, who headed the Kaspersky Lab, a private company that assists the FSB in internet security — were charged with state treason. Russian independent media reported that the men had been responsible for leaks to Western sources, including US intelligence, about Russian cyber attacks against the US and also about Russian covert efforts to blackmail Donald Trump…

“Also, the authoritative independent Russian business daily Kommersant reported two weeks ago that Andrei Gerasimov, chief of the FSB’s cyberintelligence department, and Mikhailov’s boss, would be fired, although Gerasimov’s dismissal has yet to be officially confirmed. According to Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov, the upheaval in the FSB amounts to a purge of the entire Russian state security team dealing with cyberintelligence and cybersecurity.”

Then there’s a former KGB and FSB general, Oleg Erovinkin, found dead in the back of his car in Moscow on Dec. 26, officially from a heart attack, but as Agatha Christie would say, foul play is suspected. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports:

“Erovinkin was a key aide to Igor Sechin, a former deputy prime minister. He has been described as a key liaison between Sechin and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now head of the state-owned oil company Rosneft, Sechin is repeatedly named in the so-called Trump dossier… [Christopher] Steele wrote in the dossier, which was dated July 19, 2016, that much of the information it contained was provided by a source close to Sechin. That source was Erovinkin, according to Russia expert Christo Grozev of Risk Management Lab, a think-tank based in Bulgaria.”

Through their mutual love of petrochemicals and profits, Igor Sechin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil are pals, and in fact Sechin complained that US sanctions against Russia kept him from coming to America to “ride the roads…on motorcycles with Tillerson.”

In December, Russia announced the sale of a 19.5 percent share of Rosneft, that massive government oil company run by Igor Sechin. He and Putin appeared on television to announce the deal, and Reuters reported that Putin “called it a sign of international faith in Russia, despite US and EU financial sanctions on Russian firms including Rosneft.”

Supposedly the transaction is a fairly straightforward joint venture between Qatar and Glencore, a Swiss firm, but as Reuters noted,

“Like many large deals, the Rosneft privatization uses a structure of shell companies owning shell companies, commonly referred to in Russia as a ‘matryoshka’, after the wooden nesting dolls that open to reveal a smaller doll inside. Following the trail of ownership leads to a Glencore UK subsidiary and a company that shares addresses with the Qatari Investment Authority, but also to a firm registered in the Cayman Islands, which does not require companies to record publicly who owns them.”

So who’s really behind the deal? Its convolutions may have the potential for a John Le Carre novel or Bourne movie. Some have even noted, as Amy Knight does, that coincidentally, “The Steele dossier… mentions that Carter Page, a member of Trump’s foreign policy team during his campaign, had a secret meeting with Sechin in Moscow in July 2016, in which the two reportedly discussed the possible lifting [of] US sanctions against Russia, in exchange for a 19 percent stake in Rosneft (It is not clear from the memo who would get the stake, but apparently it would have been the Trump campaign)” [Italics mine. mw]. She speculates that this, too, may have been another leak by the now-deceased Oleg Erovinkin.

A 19 percent stake in Rosneft, versus a 19.5 percent stake… admittedly, it’s a stretch, and probably nothing more than an odd coincidence, yet stranger things have happened, especially given the Bizarro World we now inhabit. But what’s not a stretch is that beyond the particulars, beyond whatever reasons, blackmail or otherwise, that Trump is so under Vladimir Putin’s spell, there is a global agenda both men share that’s the real danger.

Urged on by his American Rasputin, the ineffable Bannon, for all intents and purposes Trump is promoting white nationalism and what many call “traditionalism,” a worldview shared by Putin. It’s no coincidence that the Russian kleptocrat and his government also are supporting and being embraced by far-right political parties and leaders throughout Europe, including Marine LePen’s National Front in France, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), Golden Dawn in Greece, the Ataka Party in Bulgaria and Hungary’s Jobbik Party.

In a 2013 speech at the Valdai conference in Russia, Putin warned, “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”

And here’s Trump consigliere Steve Bannon on the dangers of what he calls “jihadist Islamic fascism.” In 2014 he told a conference at the Vatican: “I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis… There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global… Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.”

Asked about support for Putin and Russia from France’s National Front and Britain’s United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP), Bannon replied, “One of the reasons is that they believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism — and I think that people, particularly in certain countries, want to see the sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country. They don’t believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States.”

Putin’s motives are pragmatic as well as ideological; distracting his people as he cracks down dissent at home while seeking destabilization in the West and hoping to prevent further expansion of the European Union and NATO. Bannon’s motives seem more messianic and, the greater the influence he exerts on Trump’s thinking (such as it is), dangerous.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, journalist Franklin Foer concludes:

“There is little empirical basis for the charge of civilizational rot. It speaks to an emotional state, one we should do our best to understand and even empathize with. But we know from history that premonitions of imminent barbarism serve to justify extreme countermeasures. These are the anxieties from which dictators rise. Admiring strongmen from a distance is the window-shopping that can end in the purchase of authoritarianism.”

And so it may go here in America. From a window-shopping distance, Trump admires Putin and his authoritarianism. This blind love, plus the lust that drove Trump to want the White House — and yes, perhaps extortion as well — may have allowed Russia not only to subvert our election but also to infiltrate Trump’s administration and erode if not destroy American democracy.

John R. Schindler at the Observer (the newspaper until recently owned by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner) writes, “Our Intelligence Community is so worried by the unprecedented problems of the Trump administration — not only do senior officials possess troubling ties to the Kremlin, there are nagging questions about basic competence regarding Team Trump — that it is beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust.” Democrats and even some Republicans are demanding answers, several congressional committees have announced probes, individual members like New York’s Jerry Nadler are searching for various maneuvers that will force Trump and the evidence of Russian intrusions into our government and politics out into the open.  But the crisis still cries out for a bipartisan independent investigation.

The bottom line is that Putin is far shrewder than Trump and capable of playing him like a balalaika. And despite the departure of security risk Michael Flynn, with the likes of foolhardy Bannon, dangerous professional twerp and presidential advisor Stephen Miller and others still egging Trump on — obsessed with a nightmarish hallucination about America and the world’s future — we live at one of the most dangerous moment in our republic’s history.

Unlike those days 50 years ago when Russia posed a different kind of ideological threat, one that had us building fallout shelters and teaching kids to duck and cover, this is not a drill.

Michael Winship

Senior Writer

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.