Three months ago, The Washington Post reported that even as Donald Trump ran for president, he pursued plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
The next day, The New York Times published excerpts from emails between Felix Sater, a felon with ties to Russian organized crime, and Michael Cohen, one of Donald Trump’s lawyers and Sater’s childhood friend, about the project.
Sater was apparently an intermediary between Trump and Russia, and in a Nov. 3, 2015, email to Cohen, he made the strange argument that a successful deal would lead to Trump’s becoming president. Boasting that he was close enough to Vladimir Putin to let Ivanka Trump sit in the Russian president’s desk chair, Sater wrote, “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.”
These stories were, at the time, bombshells. At a minimum, they showed that Trump was lying when he said, repeatedly, that he had “nothing to do with Russia.” Further, Sater’s logic — that Putin’s buy-in on a real estate deal would result in Trump’s election — was bizarre, suggesting that some part of the proposed collaboration was left unsaid.
But three months feels like three decades in Trump years, and I mostly forgot about these reports until I read Luke Harding’s new book, “Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win.” One uncanny aspect of the investigations into Trump’s Russia connections is that instead of too little evidence, there’s too much. It’s impossible to keep it straight without the kind of chaotic wall charts that Carrie Mathison of “Homeland” assembled during her manic episodes. Incidents that would be major scandals in a normal administration — like the mere fact of Trump’s connection to Sater — become minor subplots in this one.
That’s why “Collusion” is so essential, and why I wish everyone who is skeptical that Russia has leverage over Trump would read it. This country — at least the parts not wholly under the sway of right-wing propaganda — needs to come to terms with substantial evidence that the president is in thrall to a foreign power.
Harding, the former Moscow bureau chief of The Guardian, has been reporting on shady characters like Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who was indicted last month, long before Trump announced his candidacy.
He was able to interview Christopher Steele, the former British spy who wrote the dossier attempting to detail Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin, and who describes the conspiracy between the American president and the Russians as “massive — absolutely massive.”
“Collusion” doesn’t purport to solve all the mysteries of this alleged conspiracy. There’s no longer any serious question that there was cooperation between Trump’s campaign and Russia, but the extent of the cooperation, and the precise nature of it, remains opaque. Harding makes a strong case for Steele’s credibility, but Steele reportedly said that the raw intelligence in his dossier is only 70 percent to 90 percent accurate, so it’s hard to know which parts of it to believe.
But Harding’s book is invaluable in collating the overwhelming evidence of a web of relationships between the Kremlin, Trump and members of Trump’s circle. He suggests, convincingly, that Russia may have been cultivating Trump since the 1980s. At that time, Harding writes, the KGB was working to draw “prominent figures in the West” — as the KGB described them — into collaboration. According to Harding, a form for evaluating targets asked, “Are pride, arrogance, egoism, ambition or vanity among subject’s natural characteristics?”
Last week, The Times reported that many Russian critics of Putin deplore America’s fixation on Moscow’s role in the election, since it reinforces Putin’s image of himself as an “ever-victorious master strategist” controlling world affairs. The article quoted Ivan Kurilla, a Russian historian and America expert: “American liberals are so upset about Trump that they cannot believe he is a real product of American life. They try to portray him as something created by Russia.”
As one of those American liberals, I don’t think this is quite right. Trump, the gaudy huckster who treats closing a sale as the height of human endeavor, is a quintessentially American figure. His campaign of racial and religious grievance drew on the darkest currents of American history. At most, Putin appears to have recognized an opportunity that American political dysfunction created.
It’s a sign of how deep that dysfunction goes that the substantial evidence that the president is not a patriot hasn’t caused more of a political earthquake. America, stunned and divided, appears incapable of metabolizing all we’re learning about the man in the White House. Yes, we have investigations, but the business of government plods on; right now the Senate is working on the Roy Moore of tax bills, a piece of legislation that magnifies right-wing pathologies into a cartoonish grotesque.
It wasn’t Putin who fashioned a Republican Party willing to tolerate something close to treason if it’s the price of corporate tax cuts. Even if all the Republicans in Congress read Harding’s book, they probably wouldn’t act. But at least they’d know what they’re abetting.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.