Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House

September 21, 2018
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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 Dossier
The 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.
Fake News?
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.

Understanding Russia: Let’s not assume Medvedev is Putin’s Puppet

February 29, 2008

dmitry-medvedev.jpgRussia no longer makes headlines in the West. There are other evil empires to defeat. But this weekend we should be interested in Russia’s Presidential elections, and the intertwined fates of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev

President Putin is set to become Prime Minister Putin. (Yawn). He steps down as President at the end of his second term. The overwhelming favourite to replace him is Dmitry Medvedev, a Business leader (Chairman of Gazprom), who in the West has been dismissed as some sort of Putin puppet.

In the West, we are much more interested in whether America will go for that nice Mr Obama, or pick their first woman for President, or maybe seek another good old-fashioned warrior in Senator John MacCain.

A Ritual of Pretend Democracy?

Are the Russian leadership elections a sham? Russia Today is overtly state-sponsored, and directed outwards. Its blogger, Peter Lavelle, or to give him his official title, Political Commentator, takes the issue head-on.

Many in the media have dismissed Russia’s presidential election as a charade and a ritual of pretend democracy. This is a mistake. The presidential election is clearly not exciting and there is a predictable outcome. But this does not mean the voters don’t have a choice. They do have a choice and I fully expect the electorate to act out the following logic: “If is not broken, why fix it?”

Russians will go to the polls on Sunday to vote on their future. There are four candidates on the ballot. One is well known and supported by the very popular President Vladimir Putin. Two are old hands in politics and the fourth is a relative unknown. For the “commentariat” in the West and some in Russia this all means a non-election. However, I submit this election is not about voting for someone, but about what kind of Country Russia can, and needs to, become.

Lavelle goes on to argue that Democracy is emerging in Russia, and that Putin has earned his popularity through his political leadership over his two terms of Office.

What does the West have to say?

Not a lot, as I indicated. The Guardian reflects the libertarian position in the UK. Luke Harding from Moscow reports the Civil Rights issues highlighted by Amnesty International.

President Vladimir Putin has presided over a major “roll-back” of civil rights in Russia, which has seen freedom of expression, assembly and association seriously curtailed, Amnesty International warned yesterday. In a report ahead of Russia’s presidential elections this Sunday the human rights group said the Kremlin was using new laws to persecute non-governmental organisations, forcibly break up opposition demonstrations and wipe out dissent.

The Kremlin claims it is committed to human rights and democracy. It accuses western governments of using rights as a political weapon to try to thwart Russia’s resurgence on the international stage.

The BBC at home and abroad

The BBC has been disappointing in its reporting for a home audience, while retaining some of its traditional excellent coverage internationally. On the eve of the elections, on Friday 29th February 2008, the BBC’s home news page on its website had as lead story Price Harry who has been serving in Afghanistan for the last ten weeks. No mention of the Russian elections.

In contrast, The BBC World News page did have the elections as a lead story. The focus was taken from an interview with Vladimir Churov, the head of the electoral commission.

Mr Chirov had ‘admitted media coverage was unequal’, but was further quoted as saying the Campaign was “fair but not equal”.

“That’s a problem not only for our country but I can agree that not all candidates have an equal number of news items,” However, the election chief argued it was legitimate for news programmes to focus on the activities of Mr Medvedev in his current capacity as first deputy prime minister, [adding] that he had no regrets that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Europe’s main election monitoring body, had decided not to send an observer mission, and that the world would form its own opinion on the legitimacy of Sunday’s election.

More of the Same, Please

More interesting was a series of interviews with Russian citizens on their views of the elections.

The interviews suggested one view on the current situation in Russia. Unlike the United States, there is no momentum building up for yet more change. However contrived the elections appear to be in Western eyes, the Russians interviewed seemed to be welcoming the prospects of continuity.

I have no way of knowing how selective are the comments, or whether it would have been impossible to obtain stronger oppositional views expressed. I am more confident that the BBC had been unable to secure any such views, which would have made a rather more interesting story. No change wanted is not the headline of choice.