In the summer of 2015, at a time when Hillary Clinton was widely expected to become the next president, I began writing a book in hopes of getting well-informed citizens to think more deeply about US relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War. The title I settled on – Because They Could: The Harvard Russia Scandal (and NATO Expansion) after Twenty-Five Years – signaled my dual purpose.
Harvard professor Lawrence Summers had been obtuse at every stage of the Harvard Russia scandal, as Treasury Secretary and as president of Harvard University. I sought to make it less likely that would return to a position of power in a Clinton administration. I hoped, too, to encourage a closer examination of origins of the war in Ukraine that had begun the year before, which, I argued, was the climax of NATO expansion intended to diminish Russian influence beyond its immediate borders. The book appeared in May 2017, four months after Donald J. Trump was inaugurated. Though I continued to write occasional columns about Russia, I put the book aside and turned to a project more important to me.
All that came back to mind Friday morning when The Washington Post published a landscape-altering story. The import of “Former White House officials say they feared Putin influenced the president’s views on Ukraine and 2016 campaign” will require weeks to sink in, as other news agencies seek to test and explore its significance.
According to the article, “senior aides” in the White House and administration suspected practically from the beginning that Russia had put the Ukraine theory bug in Trump’s year, especially after two private meetings with Putin, in Helsinki, in 2017, and Hamburg, in 2018. The American president apparently escalated his claims after each meeting that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind meddling in the 2016 election. US intelligence agencies kept telling him that Russia was behind the interference; White House officials and others surmised that the President’s preoccupation with Ukraine was responsible for his oft-expressed mistrust of their conclusions. “One former senior White House official said that Trump even stated so at one point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit ‘because Putin told me.’” wrote reporters Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey, and Carol Leonnig.
The article traced origin of the Ukraine theory to then-campaign manager Manafort, who told his deputy Rick Gates in the summer of 2016 that Ukraine had been behind the DNC hacks. The story was subsequently propagated by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney. Two weeks after Trump took office Putin asserted at a news conference in Budapest that the authorities in Kyiv had supported Hillary Clinton. The article describes the diffusion of the belief that the California computer security firm hired by the Democratic National Committee to investigate the theft of its email had removed the DNC server to Ukraine. CrowdStrike was indeed cofounded by Dimitri Alperovitch, a Russian-born US citizen, an expert in cybersecurity. Trump first mentioned CrowsdStrike publicly in April, 2017, describing it as “Ukrainian-based.” The theory was amplified on social media after each private meeting with Putin. And Trump again mentioned the firm in the course of his July 25 phone conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. After that became public, former Trump Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert told ABC news, “The DNC server and that conspiracy theory has got to go. If he continues to focus on that white whale, it’s going to bring him down.”
Why has Donald Trump been so sympathetic to Putin? As a former real estate developer, the president knew many Russians through dealings, some going back more than twenty years. Special Counsel Robert Mueller referred some of those matters to the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York for examination at a time when Trump is no longer president. But it is equally true, as Economic Principals has occasionally argued, that the president is intuitively in touch with the feelings of many Americans, and not just those who attend his rallies. Long before EP and others more prominent began making the argument in the present day that the US had bullied Russia in the course of NATO expansion. Trump had worked as much out for himself. More prominent like who? Keith Gessen, for instance, among those more familiar with the government of Russia; Stephen Walt, among those more familiar with the American foreign policy establishment. It is not hard to believe that many non-Trump voters might, in a broad-based political debate, share their views of American foreign policy during its twenty-five years as the world’s only superpower.
Confronted with expert evidence of attempted Russian tampering with the American election, Trump may have concluded that the argument that the former Soviet Union had some legitimate grievances against previous American administrations became difficult, probably impossible, to make. Or perhaps he didn’t even consider the matter. In any event, adopted the counter-story, apparently devised in Russia, and now thoroughly discredited, that Ukraine was to blame.
But what had happened to Putin? Up through his speech on the eve of the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the Russian president could pretty much be taken at his word. Since then he had frequently lied about matters large and small. Why? Here’s a surmise: Expecting Clinton to win, Putin authorized Russian interference as a means of expressing displeasure. When Trump won instead, Putin devised an old-fashioned Soviet-style disinformation campaign as defense. When the American president bought into his “friend” Putin’s story, Tump may very well have actually committed treason. If the WPost story holds up and gains altitude, it will make the Senate trial much more absorbing. We can only stay tuned.
New on the EP bookshelf:
The Economics Book: From Xenophon to Cryptocurrency, 250 Milestones in the History of Economics, by Steven Medema (Sterling, 2019)
1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler, by Tobias Straumann (Oxford, 2019
A Tale of Two Economies: Hong Kong, Cuba, and the Two Men Who Shaped Them, by Neil Monnery (Guliemus Ocamus & Co, 2019)