The turning of young Donnie

That interview Terry Gross did with Luke Harding about his book on Trump and Russia.

The new book “Collusion” is about what the author, my guest Luke Harding, says appears to be an emerging pattern of collusion between Russia, Donald Trump and his campaign. Harding also writes about how Russia appears to have started cultivating Trump back in 1987. The book is based on original reporting as well as on the Trump-Russia dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Harding met with Steele twice, once before and once after the dossier became public. Harding had a lot of good contacts to draw on for this book because he spent four years as the Moscow bureau chief for the British newspaper The Guardian. During that time, the Kremlin didn’t like some of the stories Harding was investigating, and in 2011, he was expelled. In Moscow, he learned a lot about Russian espionage partly through his own experience of being spied on and harassed.

The Russians were paying attention to Trump in the 1970s when he married Ivana, on account of how she’s from Czechoslovakia which was then a satellite of the Soviet Union.

But I think what’s kind of interesting about this story, if you understand the kind of Russian espionage background, is Trump’s first visit to Soviet Moscow in 1987. He went with Ivana. He writes about it in “The Art Of The Deal,” his best-selling memoir. He talks about getting an invitation from the Soviet government to go over there. And he makes it seem kind of rather casual. But what I discovered from my research is that there was actually a concerted effort by the Soviet government via the ambassador at the time, who was newly arrived, a guy called Yuri Dubinin, to kind of charm Trump, to flatter him, to woo him almost. And Dubinin’s daughter, sort of who was part of this process, said that the ambassador rushed up to the top of Trump Tower, basically kind of breezed into Trump’s office and he melted. That’s the verb she used. He melted.

GROSS: That Trump melted when he was flattered.

HARDING: Yeah. That Trump melted with this kind of flattery. And several months later, he gets an invitation to go on an all-expenses-paid trip behind the Iron Curtain to Soviet Moscow. Now, a couple of things which were important here. One of them is that his trip was arranged by Intourist, which is the Soviet travel agency. Now, I’ve talked to defectors and others who say – this is actually fairly well-known – that Intourist is basically the KGB. It was the organization which monitored foreigners going into the Soviet Union and kept an eye on them when they were there. So kind of he went with KGB travel. Now, according to “The Art Of The Deal,” he met various Soviet officials there. Who they were, we don’t know. But what we can say with certainty is that his hotel, just off Red Square, the National Hotel, would have been bugged, that there was already a kind of dossier on Trump. And this would have been supplemented with whatever was picked up from encounters with him, from intercept, from his hotel room.

He was in their file system. He was just a rich punk then, but you never know. Strange things can happen with rich punks.

You know, we can’t say that Trump was recruited in 1987. But what we can say with absolute certainty is there was a very determined effort by the Soviets to bring him over, and that moreover, his personality was the kind of thing they were looking for. They were looking for narcissists. They were looking for people who were kind of – dare I say it – corruptible, interested in money, people who were not necessarily faithful in their marriages and also sort of opportunists who were not very strong analysts or principle people. And if you work your way down the list through these sort of – the KGB’s personality questionnaire, Donald Trump ticks every single box.

Bing, bing, bing, bing. Narcissistic; corrupt; pussygrabber; morally empty. That’s our guy!

And there’s a kind of curious coda to this, which is, two months after his trip – actually, less than two months, he comes back from Moscow and, having previously shown very little interest in foreign policy, he takes out these full-page advertisements in The Washington Post and a couple of other U.S. newspapers basically criticizing Ronald Reagan and criticizing Reagan’s foreign policy.

In 1987. I did not know that.

When Trump started up with the birther crap, the Russians started cultivating him again.

HARDING: Yeah. And, Terry, what you also have to understand is that Putin has a kind of very clear goal here. He’s got a clear political goal, which is to get the United States to lift sanctions which were imposed by the Obama administration on Russia in 2014, after the war in Ukraine and after Putin basically stole Crimea using kind of military force. And the thing is, sort of sanctions play into the Russian domestic political conversation because despite what state TV says there they have had an overwhelmingly negative effect on the economy. People have felt them, they’re fantastically irritated. Putin’s kind of oligarchic inner circle, many of whom are now sanctioned. They can’t travel to the U.S., they can’t travel to the European Union. They can no longer access their yachts in the Mediterranean or their wine cellars in Switzerland. They see this as an affront and an indignity. And so Putin really wants to get rid of sanctions. And really, he viewed Trump as the best vehicle for doing that because Trump kept on saying let’s be friends with Russia. Meanwhile, we know that secretly his aides were emailing the Kremlin, asking for assistance with building a hotel in Trump Tower. And then of course, Trump wins, to Putin’s surprise. But the problem is that the Russia story becomes such a kind of billowing scandal that Trump is no longer kind of politically able to deliver an end to sanctions.

But what he can do is destroy everything within his reach here at home. Thanks, Putin.

And this is the thing with the kind of Trump-Russia story – that wherever you look, all of the people in Trump’s government, especially in its early stages, have a kind of Russia connection.

I mean, it’s – obviously, Trump did the picking, but it’s almost as if Putin had the kind of last word because we’ve got Wilbur Ross, who as well as the Bank of Cyprus, we now know was doing business of our shipping company with Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law. We have Michael Flynn, whose woes are well-known, but clearly, was taking money from Russia Today, the Kremlin propaganda channel, and other Russian interests and not declaring it. Then we have Rex Tillerson. I mean, he was a famous oil guy. I used to write about him in Moscow, and he got this Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin – sort of a sky blue ribbon pinned to his chest. And he pops up as U.S. secretary of state almost from nowhere.

And so we go down the list, whether it’s from policy aids like Carter Page or George Papadopoulos, who’s pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, or Trump associates like Felix Sater, longtime business pal, or Michael Cohen, the personal lawyer, who’s married to a Ukrainian. I mean, the sort of constellation of Russian connections circling around planet Trump is just quite extraordinary. And I think this, more than anything else, is what Mueller is now looking at.

And then there’s Manafort and Yanukovich.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that after Viktor Yanukovych won the presidency in Ukraine, and his campaign was managed by Paul Manafort, Yanukovych imprisoned his opponent, Tymoshenko. And that seems to be almost like an echo of the Trump campaign – people saying, lock her up, lock her up, about Hillary.

HARDING: Yeah. I mean, there are some astonishing parallels between what happened in Ukraine under Viktor Yanukovych between 2010, let’s say, and 2014, when the country kind of fell into war and what’s been happening into sort of 2016 and – first of all, this – the lock her up – Yanukovych actually really did lock up Yulia Tymoshenko.

She spent several years in jail. She was persecuted, harassed. And I think Yanukovych’s people would say, well, she did bad things. She stole money in the 1990s. Frankly, every Ukrainian politician from the ’90s, almost, has stolen money. So it looked very much like a case of selective justice and kind of political repression. And, of course, we had this kind of motif throughout 2016.

I remember vividly watching Michael Flynn addressing the Republican convention in Cleveland, looking really sober and serious, saying, you know, lock her up, lock her up; if I had done the tenth of the things that Hillary had done – well, of course, now we know that Flynn was secretly on Moscow’s payroll, hadn’t declared that, hadn’t declared much else. But first, the desire for vengeance to lock up your particular political opponents is very kind of former Soviet Union. And there are kind of other aspects, as well.

I mean, Yanukovych had a kind of family regime. His son became enormously rich after he became president, worth many hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, I’m not saying that Trump’s family have enriched themselves, but certainly, breaking with all precedent, that they play, politically, highly influential roles. Jared Kushner is a senior adviser. Ivanka is a senior adviser and has her father’s ear. And this is very much a kind of Eastern, almost Central Asian model of that kind that America has never seen before. It’s quite astonishing.

And corrupt, and anti-democratic, and incompetence-promoting, and generally horrible. We have these terrible, ignorant, unqualified, greedy, corrupt people running our government and our foreign policy. It’s a nightmare even without the Russia connection.

Short version: it’s even worse than we think.

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