For your
eyes only

As the former head of the KGB, Vladimir Putin is no stranger to dirty tricks. Is that why he seems to have a hold over Trump, asks Guardian journalist Luke Harding in his new book

Hero image

The Steele dossier had it all: 35 pages about Donald Trump’s financial dealings in Russia, lurid claims about his sexual behaviour, evidence that Vladimir Putin was trying to sow chaos in western politics – and the possibility that it didn’t exist.

Although it was being discussed among journalists and on Capitol Hill, former MI6 intelligence officer Christopher Steele’s dossier, with its explosive allegations about collusion between Trump and the Kremlin and his vulnerability to blackmail, remained the stuff only of rumour outside those circles, a shadowy document whose pursuit would make a strong plotline in the best spy novel.

And then, in January this year, Buzzfeed decided to publish it – without being able to confirm any of the allegations and knowing it contained errors.

“Buzzfeed did the right thing to publish, the reason being a lot of people knew about this stuff,” says Luke Harding, Guardian journalist and author of Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House.

“Steele says, via friends, that he thinks the dossier is 70-90 per cent correct.”

“Some of the rumours had reached me. I hadn’t seen the full dossier late last year but I knew about it. There were Republican and Democrat senators who had been briefed by the intelligence community. The dossier was informing the conversation but most people were in the dark so it was right to publish.”

Two weeks ago Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating the Russian government’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election and the Trump campaign’s links with Moscow. Flynn has pleaded guilty to making false statements about his links with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, making him the fourth Trump staffer to be indicted by Mueller.

The Steele dossier, commissioned initially by one of Trump’s Republican opponents for the presidential campaign and then by Democrats backing Hillary Clinton, was rubbished in many quarters when Buzzfeed released it. Too lurid to be true, they said. Some of its claims were demonstrably false. But Harding, the Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief from 2007 until the Kremlin expelled him in 2011, says the Mueller indictments vindicate Steele.

“We can’t say completely, and certainly Steele would acknowledge that the dossier isn’t perfect and is raw intelligence. But he says, via friends, that he thinks the dossier is 70-90 per cent correct and his thesis that there was a collusional relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2015-16 I think is right.

“We now have four of Trump’s aides who have been indicted. This is clearly worrisome for Trump because Flynn has flipped and is now co-operating with Robert Mueller.”

Harding’s book, which has just gone to number one in the New York Times bestseller list, begins with him meeting Steele in London last December, looking for information for the Guardian’s own investigation into Trump. Steele, in his early fifties, had been a Russian expert for MI6 until 2009, when he moved into the non-state spying sector, setting up Orbis, which was paid by private clients to do much the same job he had been doing for the government.

Ever the spy, he doesn’t give much away to Harding but his nods, implications and steers are valuable for an investigative journalist. Two days later his dossier lands on President Obama’s desk.

Steele was told by his sources that Trump associates had met Russian spies in various countries and that the Trump team had partly paid for the Russian hacking operation

Steele reported that Trump had accepted intelligence material from the Kremlin and that, as Harding writes, “Russia’s leading spy agency had expended considerable effort in getting close to Trump”. Trump’s sexual behaviour, according to Steele, took place in a suite in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Moscow, where he was said to have deliberately “defiled” a bed that Obama had previously stayed in, with sex workers present.

Steele was told by his sources that Trump associates had met Russian spies in various countries and that the Trump team had partly paid for the Russian hacking operation that led to Hillary Clinton’s private emails being published by WikiLeaks. The publication was a critical factor in Trump winning the election as it prompted FBI director Jack Comey to re-open an investigation into her.

Steele, says Harding, had felt there was sufficient public interest to show his as yet unpublished findings to the US authorities and was frustrated that they seemed keener to pursue Clinton than the more serious allegations about Trump. He and his associate Glenn Simpson had been discreetly briefing journalists and figures on Capitol Hill about the contents of the dossier but by the time it reached Obama it was too late.

Shouldn’t Obama have raised concerns earlier? “I had a pretty good source within his administration, on the National Security Council, who said there was a lot of wistfulness and soul searching and probably they recognise now that they should have done more than they did. But of course they assumed that Hillary would win.”

Harding’s book builds up a fascinating picture of some of the key players on both sides of the collusion, the benefit of his years on the Moscow beat. In 2008 he interviewed Paul Manafort in Ukraine. Manafort is a lobbyist and political consultant who was Trump’s campaign manager in summer 2016 before he was forced to resign over his Russian connections. In October Mueller indicted him for conspiracy against the US, laundering money, keeping secret overseas bank accounts and other charges, mainly relating to his work supporting the candidacy of Viktor Yanukovych for Ukrainian president.

“He was smart,” recalls Harding of their meeting in 2008. “He was clearly a heavyweight. He was someone who was seen by the Yanukovych team as some sort of a miracle worker who would transform their candidate into a plausible western politician from what he was, which was a kind of dummy and a crook. And I also thought he was highly amoral.

“What I thought weird at the time was why, if you are a heavyweight Republican fixture, would you be hanging out in the St Sofia square in Kiev, and the answer we know from the indictment in October was that he was paid in the region of $75 million. So that’s why he was doing it.

“He’s clearly very good at what he does but his strategy is highly cynical – galvanise the discontent masses to make them vote for a political project, in this case Trump.”

Harding also discovered that Kislyak is the son of a former top-ranking KGB spy. The younger Kislyak is “probably not” a spy, believes Harding, but would have been aware of KGB activities in the US dating back to the 1980s and the Kremlin’s efforts to help Trump in 2016.

Should such a figure have been treated with more suspicion in Washington?

“I’ve met Obama people who quite liked him. They didn’t like his ideology because he represented hardline Putinism but they quite liked him personally. But it’s clear Kislyak was following instructions from the centre.

“But there’s also another interesting note from the dossier which is that Kislyak disagreed with Putin’s hyper-aggressive strategy and feared it might backfire. I think Kislayk was right in that respect. He’s been recalled and is back in Moscow. I would love to read his memoirs but I suspect he won’t write them.”

“There will be a Trump tape. What it shows we can’t know but Vladimir Putin will know and Trump will know.”

Putin, who last week said he would run again for president, was of course himself a spy and no stranger to dirty tricks. In a chapter on entrapment Harding reveals the Russian’s deployment of swallows – “very attractive young women sent to seduce and beguile diplomats and foreigners” with a view to blackmailing them.

“This is the oldest trick in the book. We don’t know what happened in the Ritz-Carlton hotel but what we do know – and I know from my personal experience, as I wrote about in [previous book] Mafia State – is that the FSB have a technical division that do this. There will be a Trump tape. What it shows we can’t know but Vladimir Putin will know and Trump will know. I think that affects how politics is playing out and in part explains why Trump refuses to criticise Vladimir Putin.”

Trump has however criticised Mueller and Republicans have tried to undermine his inquiry. Trump has not yet tried to repeat Richard Nixon – who called for the head of special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate inquiry – in trying to fire him but Harding says Mueller’s position has not been made more secure by achieving four indictments.

“Mueller’s position is increasingly precarious because the trail is moving inexorably into the White House and the person who now seems very much in the frame is Jared Kushner, who seems to be the senior official that Manafort spoke to at Mar-a-Lago in the indictment.

“As and when he does indict Jared Kushner, someone in Trump’s immediate family, that’s when Trump may well act, but if he does fire Mueller then we’ll have a massive political and constitutional crisis and also a situation where the president becomes above the law. We’re not there yet but that’s the direction of travel – where Trump says: ‘I’m the president I can do whatever I like.’”

We are not far from political crisis in the UK. Facebook and other social media sites have been quiet about who posted pro-Leave ads and comments during the EU referendum, there are links between Trump advisers and British politicians, and the Electoral Commission is looking at the “true source” of donations to Leave campaigners from Arron Banks, co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign and one-time backer of Nigel Farage.

“Clearly Putin was delighted by Brexit,” says Harding. “The question is, did he shape Brexit? We know that there were massive numbers of Russian trolls who influenced the US election, paid bloggers sitting in St Petersburg pretending to be Texans. We also know that they were active in the Brexit campaign as well, on the Leave side. To what degree it’s not clear – I think we deserve to find out.

“But I also think I would love Arron Banks to disclose his offshore accounts in Gibraltar and Belize and shed light on the money he donated to the Leave campaign.”

Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House by Luke Harding is published by Guardian Faber (£14.99 paperback, £9.99 ebook)



If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to For your eyes only

  • Jamie J
    17 Jan 2018 20:37
    Such a disappointing article. You've uncritically interviewed somebody who is making money out of producing information that is clearly misleading the public and creating an utterly pointless and potentially dangerous Russophobia within the UK. The so-called Steele Doctrine has been widely ridiculed due to its utter lack of documentary evidence and you also fail to question Harding about the hearsay, rumour and supposition that forms the basis behind his “blame Russia” for Trump’s success argument. Just because this is the narrative that is constantly being produced by most mainstream media outlets does not make it right. Harding should also have been asked to provide some justification for the claims that the Russians hacked the Democratic Party’s e-mails. The evidence now seems to suggest that they were hacked from within the Democratic party itself and then leaked. The supposedly Russian-sponsored Facebook and Twitter content argument also appears to be falling apart under investigation. And anyway, despite evidence of massive voter suppression, Clinton won the popular vote, maybe people should be directing their ire at the US electoral college and its voting laws instead! Okay, so Paul Manafort is seemingly bang to rights on money-laundering, failing to report foreign bank accounts and not reporting his work for the Ukrainian (not Russian) government to US officials (this is the dastardly sounding “conspiring” bit) but none of the charges against him relate directly to the Trump campaign! And wouldn’t it also have been more honest to point out that Michael Flynn has only been indicted by the "Mueller Probe" because he neglected to mention one of his meetings, with the Russian Ambassador, to the FBI and that the only evidence of collusion that has been revealed within the Trump administration is with Israel! Another minor point, I looked this up after reading the article, Harding wasn’t expelled from Russia by the Kremlin in 2011 (although he managed to write another best-selling book about that too!). He was initially denied an entry visa when he was returning to work in Moscow after two months in London, and was then granted his visa a few weeks later!

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.