Luke Harding: How Russia helped Trump win the White House

From Saturday Morning, 8:10 am on 9 December 2017

According to President Donald Trump, the ongoing investigations into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 US presidential election are fake news.

In fact, the relationship between Donald Trump and Russia is a bigger political scandal than Watergate, says the former Moscow Bureau Chief for the Guardian.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump shake hands during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump shake hands during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Photo: AFP

Earlier this Trump sacked Federal Bureau of Information (FBI) director James Comey, who was leading investigations into possible collusion between Trump and Russia. 

Now the president’s former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kyslyak about US sanctions on Russia.

Yet President Trump insists that ongoing investigations by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and both the Senate and the House Intelligence Committees are fake news.

Investigative journalist Luke Harding delves into a world of offshore money and real estate deals, a Miss Universe pageant, mobsters, money laundering and espionage in the best-selling book Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House.

No surprise thriller writer John Le Carre describes it as a “superb piece of work.”

To really understand the Donald Trump-Russia story we need to go back to the Cold War, Harding says.

“He has a history of engagement with the Eastern Bloc, he married a woman from communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s – Ivanka – and we know from de-classified files that Czechoslovak spies took a very close interest in the Trumps.

“If you then fast-forward to 1987, you have Donald Trump travelling on an expenses-paid visit to Moscow, that much was known. What I discovered was that the Soviet ambassador at the time made a concerted effort to flatter and butter up Donald Trump.”         

Harding says the ambassador and his daughter visited Trump Tower and proceeded to tell Trump he was a “business genius” who'd built “the most beautiful building in America”. 

According to the ambassador’s daughter, Trump melted. It was like “honey to a bee”, she said.

Trump had the kind of profile the KGB found useful and became the target of a classic KGB “cultivation exercise”, Harding says.

“We know from leaked documents they are looking for people who are vain, ambitious, narcissistic, perhaps unfaithful to their wives, corruptible and lousy analysts. And Trump ticked every single box.”

What they didn’t know was that 30 years later this man would be president.

“I think they thought he might be useful to them in some way.”

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Luke Harding Photo: Supplied

Trump was most probably what the KGB called a “confidential contact", Harding says.

“What we can say factually is the Soviet state spent hard currency bringing him over [to Moscow]. They would have bugged his hotel room – this is back in '87 – where he was staying round the corner from Red Square.

“He met Soviet officials, he discussed building a hotel, nothing came of it, but what was interesting when he flew back to New York six weeks later he took out three full-page advertisements in the New York Times the Washington Post and the Boston Globe criticising Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.”

At that time Trump was making noises about a political tilt, Harding says.

“It didn’t happen, the Soviet Union collapsed … but then 5 or 6 years ago we see another concerted effort, this time by Vladimir Putin and his spy agencies, to get close to Donald Trump.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a dossier by a former British spy and expert on KGB espionage came to light and shone a light on the Trump’s Russian connections.  

Chris Steele was engaged to write the dossier by a wealthy Republican, and when Trump became the GOP presumptive nominee the Democrats picked up the contract.

“Chris Steele didn’t know who the client was. He was basically hired because he was the go-to-guy on Russia and acknowledged expert on Kremlin espionage. He sent out a query to his secret sources ‘What is the relationship between DT and Moscow?’ Steel says he got a series of hair-raising replies.”

Steele’s sources confirmed a “well-developed conspiracy” involving Trump and Russia went back at least 5 years, Harding says.

“It was transactional, with Trump supplying titbits of information about Russian oligarchs in America and the Kremlin funnelling useful political intelligence to Trump and to some extent shaping his political ambitions.”

Steele was so alarmed at what he discovered he passed his information on to the FBI, Harding says.

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Yet it was Hillary Clinton who received FBI scrutiny during the campaign.

“On the one hand, there was the Hillary Clinton email server, which was really a non-scandal and relatively trivial.

“On the other hand, there are allegations which senior people in Congress were privately being briefed about as early as September of 2016 that Trump was kind of in bed with the Russians and receiving information that was helping him, from a country that was traditionally an adversary of the United States.”

Steele expected the FBI to move expeditiously, Harding says, and he doesn’t fully understand why the Bureau didn’t. 

“The FBI is a Republican-leaning institution, but I was told that the New York division, in particular, hated Hillary Clinton with a white-hot passion. I think there may have been a degree of politicking there."

Senior sources in the Obama administration told Steele they also knew what was in the dossier, but decided to keep quiet, fearful that Trump would use it as a weapon against them.

They were also supremely confident their candidate would win.

“In the end, they didn’t say a huge amount, and I think they now recognise that was a pretty terrible mistake.”

The whole imbroglio has been compared to Watergate, but Harding believes it to be more serious.

“Watergate was one group of Americans screwing another group of Americans. Whereas this is one group of Americans cheating by enlisting the help of an unscrupulous foreign power which had its own agenda – the goal being to destroy Hillary Clinton.”

Harding says he asked himself a simple question when starting the book: “Why is Donald Trump so nice about Putin? He is so fantastically rude about practically everyone else on the planet.”

The logical answer is Putin has leverage, he says.

“There’s a long history of the KGB spying on people in their intimate moments, sending a tranche of young women to seduce westerners and diplomats and so on – they even had a name, they were called 'swallows'.”

There are also unanswered questions about flows of money from Russia to Trump, particularly after 2008 when “he was broke”, Harding says.

“Obviously Putin knows the full extent of this alleged conspiracy. He knows what money did or didn’t go from Moscow into Trump. He knows what Trump really did during these various Russian trips.

“The dossier alleges Trump has had a series of adventures, not just one.”

Robert Mueller, who is leading the United States Department of Justice investigation into links between the Russian government and Donald Trump's presidential campaign, is “almost padding towards the front door of the Oval Office", Harding says.

“He’s not there yet, but he’s slowly approaching. I think that explains Trump’s agitated state of mind.”

Harding says he attempted to untangle this tale to get to the truth.

“I actually believe there is a truth, rather than a million competing truths, because that way lies relativism and nihilism. I wanted to write a book that pulled all this together and made sense of our dark age.”

Vladimir Putin

Harding says Vladimir Putin probably has leverage over President Trump Photo: AFP