According to reports last weekend, the FBI first began to suspect Trump was working for Russia when he fired FBI Director James Comey in May of 2017. “Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security,” The New York Times reported. “Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.”
Let’s stop right there and have a look at the operative words in the Times report, “working for Russia.” People who have been following the Trump-Russia story, now more than two years old, have considered a lot of possibilities with Trump and Russia, but it seems from the reaction the Times story produced, whether Trump was actually “working for Russia” hasn’t been one of them for many. The subject of this particular corner of the FBI investigation raises a couple of interesting questions. What did the “work” Trump may have been doing for Russia consist of? Why would an independently wealthy businessman like Trump “work” for a country which has opposed us around the world for so long?
From Trump’s reaction to the Times report over the weekend, he appeared to have been unaware that the FBI was exploring the question of whether he worked for Russia. But if you look back at what we might call Trump’s “Russia denials,” especially those he made during the campaign — which were often spontaneous and unprompted by allegations by Democrats or questions from the press — it seems that at least working with Russia was constantly on his mind.
As early as July 26, 2016, during his campaign for president, Trump woke up and tweeted, “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.” He wasn’t even the Republican nominee yet.
On October 10, 2016, during the second presidential debate, Clinton speculated that Trump was always praising Putin “maybe because he wants to do business in Moscow, I don’t know the reasons.” Trump quickly fired back: “I have no businesses there. I have no loans from Russia.” Clinton had not raised the question of “loans from Russia.” Trump did.
In the third debate on October 20, when Trump said Putin had “no respect” for her or President Obama, Clinton shot back, “Well, that's because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States.” Trump seemed threatened by the charge. “No puppet. No puppet," he cried defensively. "You're the puppet! No, you're the puppet!”
Just a few days later on October 25 at a rally in Tampa, Florida, Trump again denied connections to Russia: “You know, every time Russia is brought up, they say, oh, Trump! What do I have to do with it? She always likes to tie me in with Russia. I have nothing to do with Russia, folks. I’ll give you a written statement, I have nothing to do. But they tie me in with Russia, all the time, they tie me into Russia, and they say such bad things about Putin, and then they’re supposed to negotiate with him? Why would he do this?” Trump’s sympathy for Russian President Putin was entirely unprompted. No one was taking Putin’s side in any possible negotiation but Trump.
Russia stayed on his mind. On January 11, less than two weeks before he would take the oath of office, Trump woke up and tweeted at 7:31 a.m., seemingly out of the blue: “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”
Trump had won the election. No one was accusing him of having “deals” or “loans” with Russia. His tweet was entirely unprompted.
But having raised the subject in his tweet, Trump was asked at a press conference later the same day if Russia had “leverage” over him. His answer is worth quoting in full: “So I tweeted out that I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia. As a real estate developer, I have very, very little debt. I have assets that are — and now people have found out how big the company is, I have very little debt — I have very low debt. But I have no loans with Russia at all. And I thought that was important to put out. I certified that. So I have no deals, I have no loans and I have no dealings. We could make deals in Russia very easily if we wanted to, I just don’t want to because I think that would be a conflict. So I have no loans, no dealings, and no current pending deals.”
No one but Trump brought up “debt” the Trump Organization might hold. Again, his specific denials that he had “deals” and “loans” were unprompted.
When Trump was interviewed by Lester Holt on May 11, the day after he fired Comey, the coverage focused almost exclusively on his now-famous quote, “I said, this Russia thing, with Trump and Russia, is a made up story.”
But without being prompted by Holt, Trump continued with this lengthy denial: “I have nothing to do with Russia. I have no investments in Russia, none whatsoever. I don’t have property in Russia. A lot of people thought I owned office buildings in Moscow. I don’t have property in Russia … I built a great company, but I’m not involved with Russia. I have had dealings with them over the years where I sold a house to a very wealthy Russian many years ago. I had the Miss Universe pageant which I owned for quite a while. I had it in Moscow a long time ago, but other than that, I have nothing to do with Russia.”
The next day, Trump welcomed Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak into the Oval office. During the meeting, Trump revealed top secret information about ISIS operations in Syria that had been shared with the CIA by Israeli intelligence. Trump, who is known to be impatient with the daily intelligence briefing and often skips it in favor of getting his important intelligence from Fox News, apparently took the time to learn something of value from American intelligence that day. What did he do with it? He revealed his highly classified secrets to the Russians.
On July 7, 2017, Trump had a private meeting with Putin at the G20 Summit in Helsinki. Only Trump’s translator was present. It’s now known that on the same day, Trump demanded that his translator turn over to him the notes she took at his meeting with Putin.
The next night on Air Force One returning from the G20, Trump dictated the statement about the Trump Tower meeting between his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman and six Russians. The statement denied the meeting had been about the campaign and said it was instead about “adoptions.” It was a lie Trump himself told less than a day after he met privately with Putin.
We have listened to Trump’s Russia denials for so long, we’re inured to them. When the investigation of Russian influence in the presidential campaign began, Trump started by denying that anyone on his campaign had ever had any contacts at all with Russians. When that proved to be untrue, he admitted there may have been a few contacts, but they didn’t amount to much. When the meeting with Russians at Trump Tower was revealed, he started denying that any of the meetings with Russians amounted to “collusion.”
But Trump’s Russia denials reached an apparent apex on Monday, when he stood on the White House lawn and said several times, "I never worked for Russia."
With Trump having denied Russian contacts and then backtracked from them so many times, the logical question is, what if all this Russia stuff is true? What if the Russians made a deal with Trump to help him get elected? What if all those meetings actually were about “collusion?” What if Trump actually does have the connections he went into such detail to deny — “deals” and “dealings,” and “current pending deals” and “loans?”
What if Trump really is working for Vladimir Putin?
If he is, that would certainly answer why was he so solicitous of Putin during the campaign, why has he consistently refused to say even one critical thing about Putin, why has he has accepted Putin’s word over that of his own government that the Russians didn’t interfere in the presidential election, and why he stood next to Putin at Helsinki and virtually surrendered his nation to the interests of Russia.
But it leaves the question, what hold could Putin possibly have over him?
Former United States ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul was on MSNBC on Monday night talking about Russia “giving money to Trump in 2008.” “That’s how Putin does business,” McFaul went on to explain. “He gives money to people for free, and then they collect.”
So if it’s money, that raises even more questions: How long has it been going on? How did it work? Why did it begin in the first place? Was Trump facing bankruptcy and Putin bailed him out, and now Trump owes him?
That’s what happened on a smaller scale with Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. He worked for Russian interests for at least a decade in the Ukraine and was lavishly paid for it. Court documents unsealed last summer show that when Manafort’s Russia-connected man Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, Manafort ran short on money, and Putin’s pal Oleg Deripaska loaned him $10 million. The affidavit also showed that it was Deripaska who backed Manafort’s political consulting work in Ukraine from the beginning, in 2005 and 2006.
As we now know, Deripaska went to Manafort to collect on his debt during the campaign, asking for “briefings” and eventually being given campaign polling data by the former campaign manager. Does this raise questions about why Trump is now moving to lift sanctions on companies controlled by Deripaska? You bet it does.
There are three big questions we don’t have answers for. First, what is Putin’s overall aim? It’s known that he believes the break up of the Soviet Union was “a major geopolitical disaster of the century,” as he told the Russian parliament in a kind of “state of the union” address in 2005. We know he has designs on Ukraine and has already annexed Crimea, which was Ukrainian territory. We know that like every Russian leader before him, he would like to see NATO weakened, if not broken up altogether, and he’d like to see the European Union come apart at the seams.
If Putin wants NATO weakened, the New York Times reported yesterday that Trump repeatedly told aides in 2018 that he would like the U.S. to withdraw from the 70-year Atlantic alliance. If he wants more influence in Syria, Trump gave it to him when he recently announced the pullout of American troops.
The second question is, what will happen if Trump stops giving Putin what he wants? What will they do to him?
Which immediately raises the third question: If Trump is actually working for Russia because Putin in effect owns him, how can he extricate himself? Better still, can he extricate himself? People who cross Vladimir Putin tend not to live long and healthy lives. Could Donald Trump be afraid not just for his fortune, but for the well-being of himself and his family if Putin turns on him?
When you start looking for the answers to questions like these, Trump’s lies about Russia appear in an entirely different light. Maybe all those lesser lies – nobody in my campaign ever met with a Russian, there is no collusion, I have nothing to do with Russia – have been in service of the biggest lie of them all, the lie we heard him utter on Monday afternoon on his way to address the farmers in New Orleans. “I never worked for Russia.”
Maybe this is what he’s been afraid of all along. After asking us to believe all those other lies he’s had to backtrack on, now he needs us to believe the big one to survive. Maybe he’s fighting hard to stay in office not because he wants to be president so badly, but because he’s afraid of what Vladimir Putin will do to him if he’s ousted. Given Putin’s track record, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. Would you?