During one of my media appearances for the release of Trump/Russia: A Definitive History, someone asked me an interesting question: What’s wrong with a Russian backdoor?
As we know, there were numerous attempts by Russia to gain a backdoor into the Trump campaign. These include contacts between Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos (the so-called “coffee boy”) and a shadowy professor in Europe who told him that the Russians had “thousands” of Hillary Clinton emails.
Then there’s Don Jr.’s June 9, 2016 “I love it” meeting in Trump Tower with a woman described to him as “Russian government attorney” who had dirt on Clinton. Don’t forget the Russian politician and suspected “Godfather” who tried to use the NRA to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin and did meet with Don Jr. in Louisville.
The Moscow Project has counted more than 75 contacts between Trump advisors and Russian operatives during the campaign. Trump still refuses to provide a coherent explanation for these contacts, opting instead for his “witch hunt” defense.
So what, a Republican strategist asked me? Don’t we want to be talking to Russians? What’s wrong with hearing from different voices who can give us insight into the Kremlin?
This a surprisingly good question and the answer is pretty interesting as well.
During the Kennedy administration, there was a Russian backdoor to the White House. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother, met every two weeks with Georgi Bolshakov, the head of the Washington bureau of the Tass news service.
Bolshakov convinced Bobby Kennedy that they could avoid the formal diplomatic channels and “speak straightly and frankly without resorting to politickers’ stock-in-trade propaganda stunts.” A genuine friendship developed between Bolshakov and the Kennedys, who used the Russian to convey messages to the Kremlin and Premier Krushchev. (1)
The problem was that Bolshakov was not what he appeared to be: He was in fact a Russian spy, a colonel in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service.
In the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Bolshakov assured Kennedy that the Kremlin would never put nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Russian spy assured the president that Krushchev was telling the truth when he said the Soviet Union would only put defensive weapons in Cuba.
Fortunately, U.S. intelligence had its own source in the GRU. Colonel Oleg Penkovsky was secretly spying for the Americans. (“I ask you to consider me your soldier,” Penkovsky wrote in a 1960 letter to the U.S. president). Penkovsky provided critical technical intelligence that altered the course of the Cold War. He helped the United State understand that yes, the Soviet Union was building missile bases a few hundred miles from Miami.
The Bolshakov backdoor was exposed for what it was. According to speechwriter and advisor Ted Sorenson, “President Kennedy had come to rely on the Bolshakov channel for direct private information. from Krushchev, and he felt personally deceived. He was personally deceived.”
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be talking to Russians or using backdoors. Nixon’s opening to China was run entirely through a back channel to Chinese diplomats that was opened by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.
And Kissinger and Soviet Ambassador Anatoli Dobrynin set up a confidential backchannel with Henry Kissinger during Nixon’s first term. In one astonishing 1972 meeting, Kissinger colluded with Dobrynin to keep Secretary of State William Rogers in the dark about secret discussions between the Soviets and the White House.
The difference between Bolshakov the spy and Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin is only one of them was exactly what he claimed to be: a representative of the Kremlin leadership. Presidents and policy makers need to know with whom they are dealing
Now imagine if Donald Trump had his own Georgi Bolshakov. Unlike Kennedy, Trump appears inclined to distrust his own intelligence community, whom he has likened to Nazis in the past. He also is an avid fan of conspiracy theories, which he peddles regularly to the American people. He appears to be completely ignorant of history.
And then, there is the very real possibility that Russia holds some sort of leverage over the president. This, after all, is a man who, as I document in my book, has spent decades chasing after Russian criminal money in Trump Tower, in his casino in Atlantic City, and in his many building projects right up until his run for the White House. If the Stormy Daniels episode shows us anything, it’s that Trump can be blackmailed.
The possibility that Russia have (has?) a backdoor to Trump likely what kept many U.S. intelligence officers up at night during the 2016 campaign.
And it should worry us all.
(1) Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword at the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, Basic Books, 2000.