Review of Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House, by Luke Harding
When I returned from a teaching assignment in Moscow recently, I found Luke Harding’s book waiting for me. My visit had taken place as relations between the UK and Russia were at a low ebb. With hindsight, I am rather glad I had not travelled with Collusion as my reading material.
The author has established himself as a leading investigative journalist. His success might be measured by two movies made from his earlier books, one on Julian Assange and other on Edward Snowden, two of the great whistle-blowers of our times. His credibility as an informed source is strengthened though his expulsion by the Kremlin for his efforts during his time as foreign correspondent and Moscow bureau chief with The Guardian newspaper.
An unfinished drama
Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House, deals with an unfinished story, the rise and potential fall of the 45th President of the United States. Nearly a year after publication, the broad analysis remains fresh, and a useful piece of reporting of a drama still awaiting its denouement.
In real-life, a ‘did he or didn’t he‘ thriller, is morphing into a ‘will he or won’t get impeached‘ one, as the indefatigable investigator Robert Muller picks off individuals closer and closer to the President who are reluctantly seeking plea bargains to reduce criminal charges. Parallels with Nixon’s Watergate affair are obvious.
The book opens with a visit by Harding to a secretive organisation in the intelligence gathering business, aka private spying services. It was gaining unwanted notoriety for what became known as The Steele Dossier. Harding was there to meet its author, Christopher Steele. The dossier was at the time allegedly circulating in Russia’s security agency the FSB, a post-Gorbachev mutation of the venerable KGB, as well among Western intelligence groups, and the leaky world of international journalism.
The Steele DossierThe dossier, according to Harding ‘would in effect accuse President-elect Trump of ..collusion with a foreign power. That power was Russia. The alleged crime – vehemently denied, contested, and in certain key aspects unprovable – was treason.’
The information collected by Steele attracted wealthy clients, seeking it as possibly damaging to Trump’s campaign. Then the unverified material was published on-line with only minor redactions, days before the new President’s inauguration. The genie was out of the bottle. The dossier assessed the evidence as pointing strongly to a acceptance by Trump’s closest associates of a flow of intelligence from Russian sources. Furthermore the Russians were believed to have compromising materials including the sexual frolics which become one of the lascivious shorthands for the possible blackmail.
Trump’s reaction introduced a pattern repeated through his presidency. The use of twitter as his communication medium of choice. The rejection of adverse reporting as fake news (or, in its emphatic capitalized form, FAKE NEWS!).
The episode sets the scene for the book. Much of the subsequent material will be familiar for those who have followed the daily docudrama. Familiar, although bewildering in the the large and shifting cast, although the story-line is comfortingly unchanging.
The two narratives
Throughout the book, I found myself disentangling two narratives. The first is the story assembled from the facts as recorded by the author. It tells of a President increasingly mired in controversies and attempts to defend the indefensible. The broad thrust of this narrative mostly fleshes out the explosive Steele dossier.
It portrays a blustering and impulsive President, concealing his financial status and dubious personal and commercial activities, quick to dismiss staff, and railing against his enemies.
One of the more egregious firings was of FBI chief James Comey. He was abruptly fired at a distance. Hearing the news in public, Comey believed it to be a joke at first. Ironically Comey’s firing was a factor in the arrival of special investigator Robert Mueller, who had been Comey’s predecessor at the FBI. Mueller has become Trump’s nemesis, In this narrative, a year after the book was published, he is patiently collecting evidence against a range of Trump’s close associates and family.
The second narrative is a near mirror-image of the first. It is mostly reactions to developing adverse news stories. The rebuttals come from President Trump and spokespersons. It draws on claims that enemies of the state, are engaged in a malevolent conspiracy to besmirch the President, through the so-called ‘deep state’.
The enemies are led by Crooked Hillary, the Mainstream Media with the exception of Fox News, and the despicable Special Investigator.
It is tempting but simplistic to conclude that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Or, as some commentators have noted, we may have increasingly to accept relativism rather than certainties in a post-truth world.
With the benefits of hindsight
One of the problems of an account of a contemporary political issue, is that events can quickly render conclusions failing to anticipate the twists in the dramatic arc of the story.
Nearly a year on, Harding’s conclusions have stood the test of time.
Mueller has succeeded in gaining convictions for key aides mentioned as targets in Collusion. Significantly, most tof them have been ‘flipped, (seeking modest sentences in exchange for collaboration with the justice system.) The book ends with criminal charges against Paul Manafort, the most knowledgable of Trump’s aides about the impeachable activities of the President.
I found Collusion a well-researched account, drawing on a wealth of personal investigations by the author.
The drama continues. My suspicion is we will have to await a few important and unexpected twists to this fascinating tale of leadership. Maybe, as Harding comments about the Steele dossier, the alleged crime of collusion is in certain key aspects unprovable.