INTERVIEW WITH LUKE HARDING, 11/8/17
How was writing a book while it was happening?
I tried to avoid being overtaken by events. My strategy was to write character-themed chapters. We start with Steele, move on to Carter Page, and then meet Flynn, Manafort and very many Russian spies. Inevitably, events kept intruding. Trump fired Comey, who then needed his own chapter. We are living in a golden age for non-fiction. The best stories are true and this is one of them.
How did your own experience with Russian intelligence while living in Russia give insight into their methods?
I spent four years in Moscow as the Guardian’s Russia correspondent. Fairly early on—I arrived in 2007—something I wrote offended someone powerful. The FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, began a campaign of on-off harassment which lasted until 2011, when I was eventually kicked out of the country. This was unpleasant. And sometimes funny too. Putin’s spies followed me around (more comical than sinister), listened to my phone calls and hacked my emails. They broke into the apartment where I lived with my family. Once they even left a sex manual—bookmarked to a page on orgasms—by the side of our marital bed. The British embassy in Moscow advised us that our apartment was bugged. And that there were video cameras too. I know from personal experience that the FSB takes a prurient interest in anyone they consider a target. Everyone now understands the meaning of kompromat. Certainly they filmed Trump in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in 2013. The question isn’t whether they spied on him; that’s a given. It’s what he did—or didn’t do—during the Miss Universe Pageant trip.
When did you meet Christopher Steele; do you consider him a reliable source?
Yes. I spoke extensively to his friends. His view—as communicated by them—is that the dossier was a thoroughly professional piece of work that will in time be fully vindicated. He assesses its accuracy at 70-90%. No raw intelligence report is ever 100% correct. Moreover, the secret sources behind the dossier were the same sources used in a series of more than 100 reports written by Steele’s firm Orbis after the 2014 war in Ukraine at the behest of a private client. These were widely circulated in the U.S. State Department and read by, among others, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Victoria Nuland. The reports were accurate. So, Steele’s sources have a good track record, already proven in other areas.
What’s your opinion of collusion?
If you look at Trump’s administration—especially in its first stages—there are Russian connections everywhere. Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Felix Sater, Michael Cohen, Rex Tillerson, Wilbur Ross … all have links to Moscow. Sources in Washington and London talk of a pattern of collusion that goes beyond coincidence. One of the mysteries of Trump the candidate and Trump the president is why he refuses to criticize Putin when he is so rude about practically everyone else. It appears Trump is beholden to Putin and may even be being blackmailed by him. It is for Robert Mueller to establish the truth of what happened during the U.S. 2016 presidential election. But what we already know suggests a high degree of coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
Has Steele’s dossier held up?
Yes. Much of what he reported has turned out to be accurate. The recent indictment of George Papadopoulos suggests that there were multiple interactions between known or suspected Russian intelligence assets and Trump campaign officials. This is Steele’s chief thesis. He also identified Paul Manafort as the go-between in the Trump-Moscow channel. So far Manafort’s only been charged with money laundering but it seems highly likely other charges will follow. Other aspects of the dossier—on Rosneft; on the Republican program on Ukraine; on the lead role played by the FSB in hacking—have been substantiated.
You interviewed Paul Manafort when he was working in Ukraine, what were your early impressions?
Clever, smooth, formidable—and amoral. I met him in 2008 in Kiev when he was working for Viktor Yanukovych, at that point a prime ministerial candidate. Manafort refashioned Yanukovych’s crude image and succeeded in making him president in 2010. Manafort told me that Yanukovych was a reformed character, pro-Western, moderate, and a Democrat. All of this was a lie, as Manafort must probably have known. He bears some responsibility for what followed: the squashing of democracy during Yanukovych’s rule, and Putin’s 2014 invasion following anti-government protests and annexation of Crimea.
How has Robert Mueller’s charges against Manafort align with what’s in your book?
I wrote the Manafort chapter before the indictment. When I read the charge sheet I realized I didn’t have to change anything. I merely added a few details to the epilogue.
What revelations do think may come from Papadopoulos?
The rumour is that Papadopoulos was wearing a wire. There are clearly people who met with him from Trump’s campaign who are now extremely nervous. I’m intrigued by Papadopoulos’s trip to Athens, Greece. Putin was there at the same time. Did they meet?
Who’s the next Papadopoulos?
We don’t know but my suspicion is there are other minor characters, who have gone largely unnoticed in the story so far, but who may end up being indicted/flipped/implicated. There is also the question of Michael Flynn. Charges against him seem inevitable. It’s also possible Mueller will indict Flynn’s son too. The pressure on Flynn to cut a deal with the special prosecutor and tell everything he knows is growing.
How did Trump’s visit to Moscow in the 1980s influence his campaign?
This is a fascinating story. Trump visited Soviet Moscow in summer 1987 with his wife Ivana. The Soviet government invited him after, I discovered, a concerted charm offensive by the then Soviet Ambassador. The trip was arranged by the Soviet travel agency Intourist. This was, in effect, the KGB. It would have bugged Trump’s Moscow hotel room. Secret KGB memos, leaked later by a defector, showed that the KGB was desperate to recruit more Americans during this mid-1980s period of the late Cold War. That doesn’t mean Trump is a Soviet or Russian agent. It does mean that Moscow targeted him, for its own reasons.
Do you believe that Russia has blackmail intel on Trump?
Yes. Trump’s alleged behavior during the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant is unknowable. But the KGB and FSB will have put together an extensive Trump file, stretching back to his first Moscow visit in 1987, and possibly before that. It will include video material, intercepts, and numerous other pieces of intelligence including from his visits to St. Petersburg. Steele says that Moscow has been cultivating and supporting Trump for at least five years. Putin will know the details.
What are the most damaging evidence for collusion?
Undoubtedly the Papadopoulos indictment and Natalia Veselnitskaya’s summer 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with Manafort, Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner. Trump Jr. took the meeting on the understanding that she was a Russian government official, delivering damaging material on Hillary Clinton. The Papadopoulos testimony suggests that the Trump campaign discovered in late April 2016 that Moscow had hacked thousands of Democratic Party emails. And possibly even earlier. This was before the Democrats had any inkling their system had been breached. Accepting hacked material from a hostile foreign power isn’t standard opposition research. It is redolent of treasonous behavior. In the end, Veselnitskaya handed over a briefing note rather than hacked goods. Trump Jr. vehemently denied meeting with Russians and it was a year before we had proof that his claim was untrue.
Do you think the revelations are impeachable?
This is a matter for Congress, ultimately. There is much discussion in Washington currently as to how long Trump will last as president. One version: that Trump will fire Mueller if he moves against any member of the “Imperial Family”—in other words Jared, Trump Jr. or Ivanka. Trump fires Mueller; Sessions is recused; Rosenstein resigns; Rosenstein’s assistant resigns; Trump eventually prevails. But then there is a political and constitutional crisis of Nixon-like proportions. Republicans are currently in no mood to impeach Trump. Trump’s base is still loyal. But recent election defeats—in Virginia and elsewhere—may change this calculus, which has little to do with principle and everything to do with power.
What should reporters focus on now?
Following the money and the sex. This is the biggest story of our age, bigger than Watergate. It’s far from over.
What else is coming?
Possible indictments against Flynn and others, a possible Mueller-Trump showdown, and an increasing coolness from Moscow towards Trump. Putting was both surprised and delighted when Trump won. Russia’s goal: to get rid of American sanctions. This hasn’t happened, largely because of the collusion scandal, but also because of Trump’s incompetence and unsuitability for high office. You can imagine a scenario in which the Kremlin begins to leak selected embarrassing details against Donald. Moscow is in a position to turn the pressure up and down.