Few people realize that Vladimir Putin was once asked how his past experience as an officer in the KGB helped him as a politician. His answer related to his experience “working with people.” (работы с людьми)
For Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council and Russia expert who delivered powerful testimony last month before the House impeachment inquiry, “working with people” is not as innocent as it sounds.
It is a bit of what she calls “KGB jargon” that reveals a great deal about Putin’s nearly two-decades long hold on power. And it also sheds light on what has befallen our current political order here in the United States.
During Putin’s days as a spy in the 1970s and 1980s, the KGB was all about “working with people,” a euphemism for what might better be described as working on people. Rather than repressing, detaining, or killing critics and opponents of the Soviet regime, Yuri Andropov’s KGB decided it would try to win them over using guile, patience and, most importantly, leverage. “It means studying the minds of the targets, finding their vulnerabilities, and figuring out how to use them,” Hill writes in her insightful 2012 book, Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin.
Hill lays out how Putin has used this skill to great effect in winning over the Russian political elite as well as its citizens, nearly half of whom still approve of his performance as he approaches the 20th anniversary of his election as president. It’s also quite clear that one of the people with whom Putin has been diligently “working” is President Donald Trump.
The Russian leader has had ample opportunity to work with Trump over the course of more than a dozen phone calls and in-person meetings, including the two-hour private meeting in Helsinki that offered the relaxed, informal setting that Putin prefers. “To be able to work with people effectively,” Putin has said, “you have to be able to establish a dialogue, contact.”
While we know when the two leaders have spoken, including a phone call between Trump and Putin shortly after the Ukraine election is of particular interest to House investigators, we know little about what they have discussed. Even Trump’s former director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said he did not “fully understand” what the two leaders had discussed privately in Helsinki. But Trump has given us some clues about a frequent topic of conversation.
Putin has repeatedly told Trump that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “He just — every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters in 2017. The president went even further the following year in Helsinki when he said he didn’t “see any reason why” Russia would have interfered, citing the Russian president’s “strong and powerful” denial.
Putin has called working with people “the most complicated work on the face of the Earth,” but for an experienced KGB case officer Trump isn’t a tough study. The president’s deep insecurity about being perceived as an illegitimate leader is painfully obvious.
This insecurity is at the root of his false claims about the “millions and millions” of illegal ballots that cost him the popular vote in 2016 or his “massive landslide victory.” Trump cannot stomach the fact that he was elected by a minority of the people.
Nor is the president able to accept the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. A former aide, Hope Hicks, told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators that whether or not Russia had an impact on the election or not didn’t matter to the president because “people would think Russia helped him win.” Hicks astutely described the intelligence assessment as Trump’s “Achilles heel.”
Another leader might let the matter drop, but a former KGB case officer recognizes the issue of election interference – the very same one the U.S. intelligence community found Putin ordered — is a vulnerability he can skillfully exploit. It provides an opportunity for the Russian president to create the shared understanding necessary to “achieve results,” in working with people. “You need to make that person an ally,” Putin has said, “you have to make that person feel that you and he have something that unites you, that you have common goals.”
It’s not hard to see how destructive this shared understanding that Russia didn’t interfere in the election has been to Trump’s presidency. The July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky that is at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry was in part an attempt by Trump to cast doubt on Russian interference. Similarly, Trump’s potentially criminal efforts to obstruct his own Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference are the fruits of the poisoned seeds planted and carefully nurtured by Putin.
After the uproar over Trump’s comments in Helsinki, which he swiftly walked back, the president no longer publicly voices his doubts about Russian interference. He leaves it to surrogates like Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, who show loyalty to the president by voicing his feelings. Asked recently whether it was Russia or Ukraine that hacked the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee, Kennedy replied, “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any others.”
Likewise, Hill called out Republican members of the intelligence committee for suggesting that Russia did not attack the election but somehow Ukraine did. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian Security Services themselves,” she said.
Hill stopped short of accusing the Trump of serving the Kremlin’s interests for fear of creating more fodder that the Russians could use against American democracy in 2020.
At the same time, she made it perfectly clear that anyone who pushes the debunked theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election – as Trump did on Fox & Friends the day after Hill testified — is serving Russia’s interests.
Surely, not even Putin could have imagined the uproar that would flow from his shared understanding with the American president, but the upcoming impeachment vote in Congress is in no small measure a testament to the remarkable power of Putin’s skills at “working with people.”
Andrew Sullivan has written a nice review of Trump/Russia: A Definitive History in the Times Literary Supplement of London, “the world’s leading journal for literature and ideas.”
Unless, that is, you see all of this as some grand plan hatched in the halls of the Kremlin to unsettle the post-Cold War order, break up the EU and NATO, and legitimize the authoritarian pseudo-democracy in Russia. Seth Hettena, an investigative journalist with the Associated Press, lays out the entire labyrinth of ties Trump has long had with the Russian mafia in New York, and with the Russian government itself. His essential insight is that there is no clear distinction between the two. Putin’s Russia is a mafia state; its oligarchs deep in financial crime and close to mobsters. And Trump was ensnared early on, as his Trump Tower and Taj Mahal casino in New Jersey attracted all manner of Russian hoodlums, tycoons and hit men. But it deepened as Trump became bankrupt, saved only by bankers who were acting to protect themselves, and sought new financing when America’s banks refused to loan to this shiftiest of failed businessmen. His son, Eric, blurted out the truth to a friend: “We have all the funding we need out of Russia. We go there all the time”.
Hettena writes that Trump Tower was one of only two buildings in Manhattan to allow buyers to conceal their true identities. Money-launderers flocked to it. Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City was found to have “willfully violated” anti-money laundering rules of the Bank Secrecy Act, was subject to four separate investigations by the Internal Revenue Service for “repeated and significant” deviations from money-laundering laws, and was forced to pay what was then the largest ever money-laundering fine filed against a casino. The Trump World Tower, by the UN headquarters in New York, had a large number of investors connected to Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Trump’s consigliere, Michael Cohen, was found by a Congressional Committee to have “had a lot of connections to the former Soviet Union and . . . seemed to have associations with Russian organized crime figures in New York and Florida”. His campaign manager for a while – Paul Manafort – made a fortune channelling Kremlin propaganda in Ukraine. Trump’s new towers in Southern Florida were also humming with Russian buyers. Over a third of all the apartments in the seven Trump towers were connected either directly to Russian passports or to companies designed to conceal the owners. Hettena finds a prosecutor who spelled it out: “his towers were built specifically for the Russian middle class criminal”.
Trump’s unique refusal as a modern candidate to release his tax returns suddenly doesn’t seem so strange. And it is no surprise whatsoever that when the Trump campaign was told that the Kremlin had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails and offered them to the campaign – as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump” – they took the bait instantly. “If it’s what you say, I love it”, Donald Trump Jr emailed back to the Russian intermediary, “especially later in the summer”, clear proof of a conspiracy with a foreign power to corrupt the US elections. This led to the infamous Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and an emissary from Putin. In the autumn, the Clinton emails were duly unleashed, via WikiLeaks, and constantly touted by Trump himself. At one point, he even went on national television and directly asked the Kremlin to release more of them. Trump, in other words, was openly asking a hostile foreign government to help take down his opponent. But by then, his hourly outrages had lost the power to shock. As strong evidence emerged of a Russian campaign to influence the election in the summer and autumn of 2016, Obama proposed that a bipartisan group of senators release the information to warn the public. The Senate Majority leader, the Republican Mitch McConnell, refused. Much of the Republican Party would rather have the election rigged by Russians than see a Democrat win.
The quid pro quo appears to have been a promise to undo sanctions when Trump came to power – something his first National Security Counsel head, Mike Flynn, immediately started work on after the election victory….
So my Rolling Stone piece is up about the dangers of a one-on-one meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.
There’s an interesting bit of history I couldn’t fit into the story. It involves another Russian leader telling another U.S. president at a summit in Helsinki that he would help re-elect him.
And the fact that we know about this conversation is one more reason why Putin doesn’t want any notetakers around when he meets with Trump alone on July 16th. Continue reading
“Our freedoms are slowly but surely being taken away from us,” Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin declared on the Fourth of July. “The world would be a far better places if it were more free.”
It was no small irony that while he served up platitudes of democracy and freedom to his constituents, Senator Johnson himself was a world away in Moscow, appeasing a regime that attacked American democracy and wreaks havoc around the world.
Part I: The princess in the gilded cage
Oxana Fedorova was a tall, raven-haired beauty from Pskov, a old Russian city near Estonia. She was studying to be a police officer in St. Petersburg, Russia when she decided to try her luck in a local modeling contest. Fedorova entered the 1999 Miss St. Petersburg pageant and won. Two years later, the 23-year-old police lieutenant became Miss Russia, which awarded her a new Mercedes and a Cartier watch.
Vladimir Putin, newly installed as Russia’s president, was said to be a keen admirer of the reigning Miss Russia, a karate black belt and an excellent shot. A photo of Fedorova was on display near his office in the Kremlin. The Telegraph of London reported that the organizers of the Miss Russia pageant had crowned Fedorova “in a feudal display of loyalty to the head of state.” She was even rumored to be Putin’s secret lover. Not true, Fedorova said. “It’s just a coincidence that we are both from St. Petersburg, the work of fate. There are no links with the president.”
Fedorova’s real boyfriend wasn’t the president. He was a Russian mobster from St. Petersburg.
Vladimir Semenovich Golubev, aka “Barmeley,” got out of in prison and became a gangster in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Golubev was a silent partner in Adamant Holding, a real estate company founded in 1992 that today controls 29 shopping malls in St. Petersburg. (See Russian Forbes.)
The Russian press reported that Golubev had links to the Tambov gang, a criminal syndicate that dominated St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Back then, the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, a man named Vladimir Putin, was collaborating with the Tambov gang to launder money and gain control of the gambling business. (See Karen Dawisha’s excellent book Putin’s Kleptocracy.)
According to Russian press reports, Golubev had supported Fedorova since she she had won Miss St. Petersburg as a teenager. Fedorova reportedly traveled either in his company or with guards he sent to accompany her. Officials with Miss Universe noted that money never seemed to be a problem for the beauty queen. She was like a beautiful bird living in Golubev’s gilded cage.
Part II: Miss Universe
In 2002, Oxana Fedorova entered Miss Universe, the international beauty pageant then owned by Donald Trump.
The pageant was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Fedorova and other beauties from around the world competed for prizes that included a year’s salary and an apartment in one of Trump’s Manhattan buildings. (The apartment was more like a dormitory for Miss Universe shared it with Miss USA and Miss Teen USA.)
At the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan, Fedorova dominated the swimsuit competition and was crowned with the diamond-studded tiara.
Trump, who was in the audience watching, allegedly rigged the contest for Fedorova, according to Seth Abramson, an author and attorney. Abramson said he spoke to a source present that night in Puerto Rico who claimed that Trump told the celebrity judges — actors, fashion designers, and NFL star Marshall Faulk — whom to choose as winner.
Four months after she was crowned Miss Universe, Fedorova was fired. Federova had failed to show at numerous photo shoots and other high-profile functions, including a commitment to help crown Miss Teen USA. It was the first time that a winner had been forced to surrender her title.
Trump said the president of the Miss Universe organization, Paula Shugart, had asked Fedorova to resign. “When Oxana didn’t resign, Paula had no choice but to terminate her,” he said. Anonymous “insider” sources quoted by the New York Post went for Fedorova’s jugular. “An unbelievably spoiled bitch,” one called her. Another said she was overweight and pregnant, which Fedorova denied.
Over the years, Fedorova has given several reasons for her decision to give up the title of Miss Universe. She had to care for an ailing relative. She did not want to give up her studies. (She now holds a doctoral degree.) She was upset no one had warned her before her lewd interview with radio host Howard Stern.
Asked by Russian reporters whether pressure from her gangster boyfriend Golubev led her to abandon the Miss Universe crown, Fedorova replied, “This is my personal life, and I do not want to talk about it.”
The view from Russia was that Trump had been paid off to crown Fedorova. Nikolay Kostin, the organizer of the Miss Russia contest, suggested to a reporter for the respected Russian daily Kommersant that Trump had been bribed to hand the crown to Fedorova.
“Nikolay Kostin in response to such accusations only smiles and asks who then dared to offer a bribe to the owner of the Miss Universe contest Donald Trump, who presented the crown to Oxana Fedorova, and how much he was given.
Vitali Leiba, president of the model agency Red Stars, told the newspaper, “It is very difficult to determine the addressee of a possible bribe. We can say that Trump was given a bribe, or it is possible that the U.S., in the person of Trump, offered a bribe to Russia, encouraging her representative at the contest.”
Update: An astute reader points out that Vitali Leiba was a founding shareholder of Arigon Company Ltd., a Channel Islands company established in 1990 by the Brainy Don, Semion Mogilevich whose name keeps turning up in the Trump-Russia affair. An 1996 FBI report called Arigon “the center of the Mogilevich Organization’s financial operations.”
Part III: The Ugliness in Trump’s Beauty Contests
There is no proof that Trump was bribed or that he tipped the scale for Oxana Fedorova, but there were multiple claims that the pageants were rigged.
Michael Schwandt, a choreographer who worked on Miss Universe and Miss USA, told Guanabee.com that Trump would have all the contestants line up and he would walk past like a commander reviewing his troops with an assistant taking notes. “It’s just kind of common knowledge that he picks six of the top 15 single-handedly,” Schwandt said.
The choreographer said Trump told him he exercised the “Trump rule” so because some of the most beautiful women were not chosen as finalists in the past “and he was kind of upset by that.” Schwandt disavowed his comments but here is audio of Trump explaining the “Trump Rule” to Miss USA contestants.
A contestant in 2012 Miss USA told a judge that her contest had been rigged. Sheena Monnin wrote on her Facebook page that a fellow contestant had seen a sheet of paper listing the five finalists before the contest. (She reaffirmed the claim in her delcaration.)
…. I witnessed another contestant who said she saw the Top 5 BEFORE THE SHOW EVER STARTED proceed to call out in order who the Top 5 were before they were announced on stage. Apparently the morning on June 3rd she saw a folder lying open to a page that said ‘FINAL SHOW telecast, June 3, 2012’. After the Top 16 were called and we were standing backstage she hesitantly said to me and another contestant that she knew who the Top 5 were. I said ‘who do you think they will be? She said that she didn’t ‘think’ she ‘knew’ because she saw the list that morning. She relayed whose names were on the list. Then we agreed to wait and see if that was indeed the Top 5 called that night. ….
Trump was furious. He said Monnin had “loser’s remorse,” and said that if you “looked at her and compared her to the other people who were in the top 15, you would understand why she was not in the top 15.” His consigliere Michael Cohen called into TMZ Live and said that Monnin had 24 hours to retract her statement or that she could “bet [her] a** that [Miss Universe] will sue . . . seeking massive damages.” Consigliere Cohen was good to his word. Trump obtained a $5 million defamation award against Monnin in an uncontested arbitration proceeding, which was upheld by a federal judge.
A 2013 investigation by Jezebel found that a pageant recruiter in Trump’s Miss USA franchise allegedly demanded a blow job in exchange for magazine work that would allow a contestant to pay the $895 contest entrance fee.
Trump had acquired the Miss Universe franchise in 1996. He reportedly paid tens of millions of dollars (the exact figure was not disclosed) to buy it from ITT Corp., beating out beat two television networks and several South American media moguls. (The deal also included Miss USA and Miss Teen USA.) Trump ran Miss Universe as a 50-50 partnership with TV networks, first with CBS, and, after 2002, with NBC.
On the surface, it looked like a good business. It cost $20 million to bring the 2013 Miss Universe pageant to Moscow. Emin Agalarov whose family owns the arena that hosted the pageant broke down the costs for Russian Forbes. A third of that $20 million went to secure rights. Another third: organizational costs. And the final third goes to the production and broadcast costs. (Another report said overseas rights to Miss Universe were selling for $6 million in 2003.)
Very little of that money, however, was distributed to the general partners of Miss Universe. We know this because Trump had assigned his half of his interest in Miss Universe (25 percent of the company) to his publicly-traded corporation, Trump Entertainment Resorts, Inc. In 2002, the year Fedorova won in Puerto Rico, Trump Entertainment collected a mere $700,000 for it quarter share of the pageant. In 2003 and 2004, Trump Entertainment earned nothing from Miss Universe.
Where was all the money going?
Even if the business was a stinker, there was one attraction for Trump. It allowed him to indulge his Porky’s-style adolescent fantasy of seeing beautiful women naked when they were in no position to refuse.
“I’ll go backstage and everyone’s getting dressed, and everything else, and you know, no men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it,” Trump told Howard Stern in 2005.
Listen for yourself:
Asked whether he had ever slept with a contestant, Trump declined to say. “It could be a conflict of interest. … But, you know, it’s the kind of thing you worry about later, you tend to think about the conflict a little bit later on.”
Trump sold Miss Universe in 2015 to the talent agency WME | IMG for $28 million. The value of the franchise had been damaged by Trump’s description of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, which led NBC and Univision to drop coverage of Miss USA.