The Russians and Trump — a spectacular coup or self-goal? (Book Review)

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By Vikas Datta,

Title: Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House; Author: Luke Harding; Publisher: Guardian Books/Faber & Faber; Pages: 346; Price: Rs 599

Soon after being made Russian Prime Minister in 1999, Vladimir Putin reportedly told his former secret service colleagues that undercover spies, dispatched to infiltrate the US government, had “fulfilled their first objective”. Did he, in November 2016, make a similar quip about a pliable “agent” now heading an (increasingly) adversarial superpower?

He could well have, though the impact didn’t persist too long, as we learn here.

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The issue of US President Donald Trump’s Russian connections and the role Russian interests purportedly played in his victory has been dogging him since that divisive election. While hacked Democratic Party’s emails hurt his rival Hillary Clinton — and raised suspicion why the Republicans’ emails, also hacked, weren’t released — his public appeal to “Russia” to keep on going seemed more than poll rhetoric.

The matter heated up with the turbulence in Trump’s White House, sacking of FBI chief James Comey, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe picking up pace.

But what are actually the allegations against Trump? What is the provenance of the dossier on his supposed Russian links that purportedly influenced the top election in the world’s most powerful democracy? And what did Russia hope to get out of it?

This is what award-winning journalist Luke Harding seeks to answer in this engrossing, eloquently-crafted expose, which seems more like a fantastic satire of the electoral process in the most powerful democracy, and would have been derided as a highly speculative and imaginative polemic if rendered as fiction.

And having more than a good idea of the reach, processes and capabilities of the Russian state and its agencies as Moscow bureau chief of the Guardian from 2007 till being deported in 2011, he is well suited to the task.

Harding, however, structures his account like a seasoned lawyer’s argument, setting the course with an evocative prologue, gives the story of the dossier with the dirt on Trump, explores various strands dealing with the principal protagonists, and goes into the telling backstory of Trump’s first contacts with the Soviets in the late 1980s when the Cold War was still on.

He then gives a fascinating overview of Soviet/Russian espionage methods, and finally delivers the activities of President Trump ripped from the headlines (the meeting with Putin at the G-20 meet in Hamburg) on which he rests his case.

Two more cases of evidence follow.

Beginning after Trump’s victory, when rumours that the Russians had helped and financed his campaign were engaging the attention of both American and British investigative journalists, we learn Harding’s paper also had two leads. In December 2016, he and a colleague met former British spy Jonathan Steele, who ran a “corporate intelligence agency”, or rather a non-state spy network, to discuss them.

They had no idea that the man they met was author of a rather damning dossier on Trump and his Russian links, commissioned by Republican rivals earlier that year. He also didn’t tell them whether they were on the right track, but suggested they follow two key trails — money and sex.

And soon the dossier would become public, adding to the troubles of Trump — and many around him: Short-lived foreign policy advisor Carter Page, campaign manager Paul Manafort, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, son-in-law Jared Kushner and more.

Drawing on this dossier’s findings, supplemented by his own research and both British and Russian sources, including from the intelligence community, Harding spins the fantastic tale spanning “offshore money, sketchy real-estate deals, a Miss Universe Pageant, mobsters, money laundering, hacking and Kremlin espionage”.

It is also about greed, ambition, manipulation, long-term planning, subversion, subversion, sleaze and more.

Harding also enlivens his account with delightful descriptions — especially that of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov; and humour — we learn that during the Trump’s visit to the violence-scarred Hamburg for G-20, there was one place he could have rowed over from his residence for a warm welcome: Opposite was the Russian consulate.

While the argument is cogent, convincing and verging on clinching, he also makes a good case that that it was only a tactical victory for the Russians.

What do we make of it? Simply put, there are too many connections for all to be coincidences. How will it play out? Only time can tell.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

—IANS

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