Skeptics of the widely accepted view that Russia conducted a multi-faceted propaganda and cyber-warfare campaign to influence last year’s elections often argue that there’s no evidence to support the claims. The fallacy they’re deploying here is straightforward: They’re conflating “evidence” with “proof.”
Many criminal convictions are obtained without video or DNA evidence, or some other slam-dunk proof. Prosecutors offer a theory of the case, and then support it with multiple pieces of evidence that would not themselves prove a defendant’s guilt when viewed in isolation. Individual pieces of evidence may speak to motive, means, or opportunity, or may be used to undermine the defense. They’re often the bricks with which prosecutors build a larger structure.
It’s true that we don’t yet have, and may never discover, a smoking gun that proves definitively that Russia ran a multi-pronged “active measures” campaign to help Trump get elected, or that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives in doing so. Espionage operations are covert, often conducted through cutouts, and specifically designed to provide plausible deniability. Similarly, our own counter-intelligence agencies may never reveal everything they know because doing so would compromise classified sources and methods of obtaining information. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a mountain of evidence suggesting that the Kremlin expended significant resources to influence the outcome of last year’s elections, that Trump’s people were communicating with Russian agents during the campaign, and that those involved have since worked very hard to cover their trail.
The skeptics are correct that the findings of the intelligence community don’t constitute proof, but it would be odd to discount them as evidence. The conclusions of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and several allied intelligence agencies are the equivalent of experts testifying in a court of law. Their findings should carry greater weight given that the skeptics’ own experts have proven to be unqualified and uninformed. Trump’s decision to fire James Comey, and then explain on nationwide TV that he did so because of the Russia investigation, is evidence of a cover-up, as are the dozens of undisclosed contacts between members of Trump’s inner circles and Russian officials, and other characters who are close to the regime. E-mails from middlemen connected to Russian oligarchs offering help from the Russian government for Trump’s campaign, multiple attempts to set up covert back-channel communications between the Kremlin and Trump Tower, multiple indictments or guilty pleas for lying to investigators—all of these are solid pieces of evidence of something nefarious involving Russians and the 2016 campaign.
Luke Harding’s new book, Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, doesn’t claim to have definitive proof that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to win the election. Still, Harding, who served as The Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief for four years before being thrown out of the country for his critical reporting on Vladimir Putin’s government, presents a powerful case for Russian interference, and Trump campaign collusion, by collecting years of reporting on Trump’s connections to Russia and putting it all together in a coherent narrative. It’s the sheer breadth of connections, many of them dating back 20 years or more, between Trump and his associates and Russians with close ties to the Kremlin that put the lie to Trump’s repeated claims that he has no ties to Russia. If all of these dealings were on the up-and-up, Trump and his crew wouldn’t have gone to such great lengths to obscure them. Couple that with the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russia’s active-measures campaign, and the fact that, as both a candidate and as president, Trump has consistently staked out positions that perfectly align with Moscow’s, and it’s clear that this is all far from a partisan “witch hunt.”
In an interview with The Nation, Harding was quick to acknowledge that there’s a lot that we don’t know. “I think when it comes to following the money, we only have maybe 10 or 15 percent of the story,” he said. “I think 85 percent of that story is still submerged.”
Nonetheless, he says that what we do know so far is significant.
I think this is a huge story. Without wanting to come across as hyperbolic, I think it’s bigger than Watergate because this isn’t one set of Americans doing dirty tricks to another set of Americans, as was the case back in the ’70s. This is one set of Americans basically contracting with a powerful foreign power to help it cripple an opponent, Hillary Clinton. The stakes are much larger.
I think [Vladimir] Putin has kind of done this quite cleverly. He’s not some kind of evil villain in a cave flipping red switches. He’s essentially an opportunist who has very adroitly taken advantage of problems in the West, and divisions in American society—whether they’re cultural or racial or political—and he’s sought to exploit and instrumentalize them for his own purposes.
There are also really interesting questions about how far back Russia’s relationship with Donald Trump goes. One thing my book makes clear, or seeks to make clear, is that the Russians play a very long game. They’ve been interested in Donald Trump for a very long time.
You can listen to our entire conversation in the player above, or read an edited transcript below.
Joshua Holland: There were some things in the book that I didn’t know, but for the most part, I was surprised by how many of these stories I’d read about at the time but had since forgotten—because there has been just one revelation after another for over a year. It’s hard to keep it all together in your head. The book is powerful in part because it puts a couple of years of reporting together into one coherent narrative.
Luke Harding: I think people are very familiar with the American heroes of the story—or antiheroes if you like—whether it’s Paul Manafort or Carter Page or Donald Trump Jr. But they are less familiar with the Russians. And what we’re talking about here is an alleged conspiracy with two halves.
What I wanted to try and illuminate was what the Russians were doing. And I wanted it to be contextual, to explain that if you really want to interpret what happened last year in America, you need to go backwards almost through a kind of wormhole toward Cold War times and you need to be a sort of student of espionage, and in particular of the KGB method. I wanted to marry some of the contemporaneous stuff that we’ve seen in the news with my own reporting from Moscow. I feel that I understand Russian spydom having suffered from it to an extent when I was the bureau chief there for The Guardian. My flat was broken into and I was bugged and followed around and all the rest of it.
It’s also important to look at how the KGB used to do things in order to to understand Vladimir Putin and his methods. Putin operates in the manner of a classic KGB-trained spy. He uses strategies of subterranean influence that were tried and tested during the ’60s and ’70s under [then–Soviet Secretary General] Leonid Brezhnev and so on. I wanted to pull that together.
JH: I think it’s important to make that point about Putin not being a superhuman person. There have been some concerns among Russian reformers that the way that we portray this story helps bolster Putin’s image at home as this mastermind manipulator. In some ways, he lucked out. A lot of these methods were low rent—sending out phishing e-mails to hack into the DNC, for example, isn’t the most sophisticated form of hacking.
You write in the book that there’s a fuzzy line between the Russian government and these shady groups of quasi-criminal cyber-warriors. How does that relationship work?
LH: I rely to a degree on some very good Russian reporting here, particularly that of Andrei Soldatov, who’s written a fantastic book called The Red Web. I discussed this extensively with him when I was writing my hacking chapter. Essentially there are hackers who are basically criminals. They do this stuff for money, but they quite often get co-opted by the FSB, the Russian spy agency. They have to do certain things because the state is pulling the strings. And it has plausible deniability.
They will hack material and someone in the government will make a strategic decision about how and when to release it. They often do this through cutouts. In this case, of course, WikiLeaks published Democratic e-mails, including John Podesta’s e-mails, at a time designed to cause maximum damage to Hillary Clinton.
If you think about the Russian state, it’s not like the American government or, let’s say, the German government. I wrote a previous book about [the Russian government] called Mafia State. There is a bureaucracy, and superficially it looks like a government with a parliament and elections and so on, but actually that’s largely decorative. The government not only has a very close relationship with organized crime, it is also kind of criminal in nature. And there are really two projects going on at the moment in contemporary Russia.
One of them is this nationalist movement to project Russian power and to reassert what Moscow would call bipolarity. In other words, a world in which Russia is the equal of the US, even though it isn’t.
The other project is to steal stuff. By stuff, I mean billions of dollars from state enterprises, like Gasprom, or Rosneft, the oil producer. The people who sit at the top of these organizations are some of the richest people on the planet. Criminality is kind of hardwired into the system, but that doesn’t mean that the state can’t do “patriotic” things like hacking the American election.
JH: There’s a temptation to see Trump as some kind of Manchurian candidate, given how long the Russians have been… I don’t know if grooming him is the right word, but he’s been doing business with them since the 1990s, a fact that he denies, and US intelligence flagged what they saw as suspicious contacts between members of his inner circle and Russian operatives months before he even declared he was running. But you write that, in reality, the relationship was likely much more transactional than that. Can you unpack that?
LH: I think what you can say is that Donald Trump is the kind of leader that Vladimir Putin likes to deal with. He doesn’t like people who are idealists. He doesn’t believe in international law. He doesn’t actually really believe that Western democracies are democracies. He thinks that they’re basically shinier versions of Russia, and proponents of democratic reforms are hypocritical. He hates being lectured, for example, by visiting Western leaders on human rights.
JH: Russia experts I’ve spoken with say that Putin sees the post–World World II international order—the UN, NATO, the human-rights courts, and even things like the Paris accord—he sees all of these things as kind of tools of Western hegemony, and he’s not entirely wrong about that.
LH: He likes leaders in the mold of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Gerhard Schröder in Germany or Donald Trump, people who don’t talk about abstract ideas or noble ends or civic values. You talk about deals, preferably deals over energy—bilateral deals which are to Russia’s advantage and maybe with a little sweetener on the side for your nephew or whoever. That’s the kind of world that Vladimir Putin operates in. He genuinely thinks that practically anything can be negotiated. If it can’t be negotiated, it’s a conspiracy.
Therefore, Donald Trump is a perfect interlocutor. What we know from publicly available evidence is whenever they meet, they seem to get on terrifically. Trump seems to be more attracted to Putin than any other leader. There’s almost this sort of magnetism going on, or a kind of strange allure.
JH: Let’s turn to the Steele dossier, a document compiled first for conservatives who opposed Trump in the primaries and then for Democrats after he became the nominee by Christopher Steele, a very well-regarded former spook in British intelligence. You write that he’s a conservative analyst who isn’t prone to including rumors in his reports. And the dossier sent shock waves through the intelligence community. But it was raw intelligence, and Steele himself thought that some of it might turn out to be wrong. Many of the things that Steele reported have since been verified by others, including yourself, but the most salacious bits—the golden showers, the prostitutes—have not. To what degree do you think Buzzfeed’s decision to publish the dossier in its entirety shaped the way it was received or the way that the media covered it?
LH: It was a bold decision by Buzzfeed. I think it was the right decision, because at that point some of the allegations were already swirling around. A lot of journalists, I would say from the late fall of 2016, were aware of it. I didn’t actually see it until Buzzfeed published, but I did get an e-mail summarizing some of it.
It was having an impact on the political conversation. Harry Reid, famously the senior Democrat, wrote to Jim Comey after getting a briefing on this stuff in late August and said, “You are sitting on explosive information concerning Donald Trump and yet you haven’t seen fit to inform the American public.” When everyone on Capitol Hill, or everyone in Washington knew about these rumors but ordinary Americans didn’t, I think Buzzfeed did the right thing by publishing.
As you said, Christopher Steele is not saying this dossier is 100 percent correct. He acknowledges that some of it may be wrong, but his assessment is that it’s somewhere between 70 and 90 percent right. In other words, it’s mostly right. Plan A, if you like, wasn’t to get Buzzfeed to publish it. In fact, I think Chris was less than thrilled by the fact that Buzzfeed did publish it. Plan A was to get the FBI to go full out to investigate these reports and use all of its resources to prove or disprove them.
He sent his memos to the FBI and he was increasingly disillusioned by their almost nonchalant response, or lack of response. They just really didn’t seem to be doing very much. The final straw for him was when Comey announced that he was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails 10 days before Election Day but still keeping silent about Trump and the far more incendiary claims that he was essentially in bed with Russia.
JH: This piece of the book made my blood boil because it’s extremely clear that members of the US intelligence community at the highest levels were looking very, very seriously at this dossier for a significant period of time—and then let the ball drop.
LH: Actually, they did more than that. I mean, the FBI mis-briefed The New York Times at one point and said there was nothing in it. That, to me, is the most astonishing aspect. It’s not just that they didn’t put the foot on the accelerator, there was some disinformation going on as well.
JH: And they said specifically that the reason that they were hesitant to go public with it was they didn’t want to intervene in the US election, and then Comey makes this announcement that he was reopening the case into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.
You were already looking at this story before you met with Steele and before you had gotten a look at the memos published by Buzzfeed. Steele steered you in the right direction. He said, “Follow the money.” In broad terms, what happens when you follow the money?
LH: What happens is, it gets complicated very quickly. It’s very hard to be definitive, but there is a kind of factual scaffold, if you like. We know that Russians have been buying properties in Trump Tower not since last week but since Trump Tower went up in the 1980s. Some of these Russians were mafia people who did time subsequently for various felonies. There is a recurring motif of Russians, often criminal-connected Russians, investing in Trump properties.
One thing that we were talking to Steele about was this Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev—very wealthy man, a multibillionaire—who bought Trump’s Florida house in 2008 for $95 million, leaving Trump, who bought the same property a couple of years earlier, with a $50 million profit. I spent time with Rybolovlev’s press guy, who said that the oligarch put on a pair of swimming trunks and paddled past the property, but he never actually set foot on it. He bought it, discovered it had mold, demolished it, and is now reselling it in chunks. This is someone who is very good with money, who made a fortune in the post–Soviet Union, and yet he effectively gifts Trump $50 million. Why would he do that? Well, he basically says, “Nothing to see here.”
Meanwhile, there’s another very curious story about Deutsche Bank—Germany’s biggest lender, a bank with a global pretensions—which lent huge sums of money to Donald Trump. And that same year, in 2008, Trump defaults on a major loan, $45 million, sued the bank, and then, for reasons which are still inexplicable, the bank continued to lend to him. He still owes Deutsche Bank about $300 million. And then while Deutsche Bank is doing this out of its New York division, the same German bank in Russia is running essentially a kind of VIP money-laundering scam where $10 billion from Moscow is sent out the country.
JH: As you know, there’s a fair degree of skepticism about the Russia story, including among some of my colleagues at The Nation. Some have long-held views that were shaped by their scholarship or their experiences with Russia. Others, a much larger group of skeptics on the left, are pretty clearly influenced by the idea that apportioning some blame to Russia for Trump’s election absolves Hillary Clinton from running a bad campaign or not focusing enough on her economic message or whatever.
This combination of Russian disinformation online, trolling, cyber warfare—the things that you describe as kind of standard operating procedure are not unique to our elections. This is seen as an issue across Europe. I’m wondering how the conversation differs in countries where people weren’t invested in this divisive primary. Do you see similar skepticism toward allegations of Russian interference in French or German elections or in Brexit?
LH: It’s an interesting question. I would just say, just to clarify my own position, is that it’s quite possible that Hillary ran a terrible campaign and that Russia interfered. These things are not mutually exclusive.
JH: That’s my position.
LH: But I’m not an American. That’s for you guys to figure all that out. I’ve got no doubts that Russia did interfere, and I think very successfully.
I think that in Europe, we kind of got the memo about this some years ago. I’m speaking to you from London, where in 2006, two Kremlin assassins sent by Vladimir Putin—we can say this because there’s been a public inquiry here—poisoned a guy called Alexander Litvinenko, who was a Russian dissident, an ex-FSB officer, with a radioactive cup of tea in really one of the most dramatic and astonishing murders since the Cold War. This was a huge case here. It was front-page news. There was a massive criminal inquiry by Scotland Yard, the police force in London. Thousands of pages of scientific evidence. And a retired judge concluded that this was a Kremlin plot. In other words, a decade before the US election hack, the Russia of Vladimir Putin felt sufficiently emboldened to bump off people the president personally didn’t like on the streets of a European capital.
So I think there’s much more skepticism here towards Russia. There’s a widespread belief that Russia does act aggressive on the international stage. We’ve seen the war in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea. We’ve seen Europe’s borders change by force for the first time since 1945. I think there’s much less skepticism here [in England and Europe], regardless of whether Hillary was a good candidate or not, about what Russia does.
The nearer you get to the Russian Federation border—when you talk to the Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania—they are fearful. They are worried. They are fretting about who or what is going to be next after the United States last year.
JH: Another thing that skeptics in this country on both the left and the right claim frequently is that this whole story has been driven by a kind of obsession among Democratic partisans. What do you make of that claim?
LH: I find it slightly bizarre. I respect other people’s views. I think, given the cacophonous times we live in, it’s important to be polite towards other ideas and to accept that things are complicated, but a lot of the people who are very skeptical about this narrative actually know nothing about Russia. Most of them don’t read the Russian press, and are not familiar with Russian espionage.
JH: Let me just add my two cents onto that. It seems to me that investigative journalists like you have been driving the story, and kept it in the news—as well as Trump’s own actions. The story got new legs when Trump fired the FBI director and went on television to say that he did so because of the Trump-Russia investigation. This story blew up again when Trump told several Russian diplomats that he had fired Comey in order to stop the Russian investigation. It’s Donald Trump who’s obsessed with this story and who keeps it alive by constantly tweeting and talking about it.
Another common claim among Russian skeptics is that the story’s being promoted by unreformed Cold Warriors in the US “deep state.” You write that Vladimir Putin, former head of the KGB, is quite open in his nostalgia for the old Soviet Union. One of your chapter titles is a quote from Putin saying that the dissolution of the Soviet Union—and I’m paraphrasing—was a great tragedy of the 20th century.
Is there a certain irony in claiming that US intelligence officials are stuck in a Cold War mentality when Putin is so open about his own Cold War tendencies?
LH: You can call that irony, but let’s be clear: This is a not a neocon position. I’m a journalist—I describe reality first and foremost—but my civic position is progressive. I would describe myself as a person of the left. That means I care about things like human rights and what you might call universal values, if that doesn’t seem too old-fashioned.
If you look at the domestic situation in Russia, there are no free elections. The press and TV is pretty much under the Kremlin’s thumb. Dissidents, people who speak out or annoy the regime, suffer consequences ranging from minor harassment to being shot dead outside the Kremlin. I think we need to be mindful of that.
And in terms of the Cold War question, I don’t think Putin makes much of a secret about it. Really, his geopolitical sensibility is shaped by the Cold War. He regards the fact that the Soviet Union lost it as a profound humiliation. What he’s now seeking to do is to win the next Cold War—Cold War II if you like.
It’s being fought already. It’s being fought in a way that pays no heed to international law—whether it’s starting war in Ukraine, assassinating dissidents in London, or hacking an American election. He thinks the West is weak. He thinks the West is decadent. He thinks the West is hypocritical. Even though Russia is not a powerful country, it is exploiting traditional patterns and methods of KGB espionage. Sometimes it works well. Sometimes not so well. He is a Cold Warrior, but he’s a Cold War II warrior in the age of Facebook and Twitter. That’s all there is to it really.
JH: Luke Harding, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I really do appreciate it.
LH: Sir, thank you. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Editor’s Note: This article initially cited a Bloomberg story reporting that special counsel Robert Mueller subpoenaed Deutsche Bank to produce “documents on its relationship with Trump and his family.” That reference has now been removed. That Bloomberg story was later corrected with the news that Trump’s and his family’s records were not targeted.
Clarification: Luke Harding states that “two Kremlin assassins sent by Vladimir Putin…poisoned a guy called Alexander Litvinenko” and that “a retired judge concluded that this was a Kremlin plot.” The report released by the retired judge, Sir Robert Owen, concluded that it was probable that Putin had approved the operation. Harding also states that the annexation of Crimea represents the first time Europe’s borders have changed by force since 1945. Europe’s borders also changed by force when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.