COLLUSION

Reviewed 3/11/2018

Collusion, by Luke Harding

COLLUSION
Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win
Luke Harding
New York: Vintage Books, November 2017

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN-13 978-0-525-56251-1
ISBN 0-525-56251-6 354pp. SC/BWI $16.95

The story told in this book describes a world where major nations are at odds. A powerful man in one secretly supports the interests of a rival nation, for reasons that those in his and allied nations who know of this hidden support cannot comprehend. Government agencies in the powerful man's nation, informed by a spy in its foremost ally, are reluctant to act; they say it would be wrong to make this information public. But shortly they do release damaging information to the public — about a rival to the powerful man.

The spy is gravely concerned for the welfare of the nation allied to his. The failure of its intelligence agencies to act more decisively astounds him, and he resolves to make what he knows about the powerful man public on his own. He moves discretely to inform respected news outlets. But soon his name is revealed, and his reputation is attacked by supporters of the powerful man, while the allied government continues to move cautiously for months, beset by factional disputes. Finally the powerful man wins to the head of government, despite being widely known to be both corrupt and unqualified for the position.

You may wonder what the name of this story might be. Could it be Game of Thrones? Perhaps a fantasy saga by Tolkien or LeGuin, or something from Zelazny's multi-volume Chronicles of Amber? Maybe a mystery by Graham Greene or John LeCarre, Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie? An episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone? A film like Seven Days in May?

No, it is none of those. Despite my deceptively cursory description, it is not a work of fiction at all, but solid reality. The powerful man is Donald J. Trump, the spy is Christopher Steele, a Britisher, and the government mired in factional infighting is that of these United States. And the information comes largely from interviews with Steele conducted by Luke Harding, also a Britisher.

Both Steele and Harding have extensive experience with Russian intelligence agencies. Covering Russia for the Guardian, Harding lived in Moscow for several years and suffered the harassment every Western reporter or diplomat endures: being shadowed by police, having home or apartment broken into, and more. In 2011, investigating the poisoning of Alexandr Litvinenko, he was refused entry after a trip home and deported as persona non grata. He has written books and articles critical of Russian government.

Working for Britain's MI6, Steele spent even more time in Russia. He acquired a number of confidential sources who served him well when the possibility that Russia and Trump had a secret relationship came to his attention. It seems likely that some of those sources paid for their service to Steele with their lives. Putin's Russia is not kind to Russian critics of Putin.1 Still, some had thought that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Cold-War hostility of the Kremlin and its spies toward Western journalists and diplomats would pass away or at least moderate. Steele knew better.

The coup failed, and a weakened Gorbachev survived. The putschists—the leading group in all the main Soviet state and party institutions—were arrested. In the West, and in the United States in particular, many concluded that Washington had won the Cold War. And that, after decades of ideological struggle, liberal democracy had triumphed.

Steele knew better. Three days after the coup, surveillance on him resumed. Steele's colleagues in Hungary and Czechoslovakia reported that after revolutions there the secret police vanished, never to come back. But here were the same KGB guys, with the same familiar faces. They went back to their old routines of bugging, apartment break-ins, and harassing.

The regime changed. The system didn't.

– pages 18-19

It is relatively easy for American supporters of Trump to sully the reputation of Steele, a spy living in another country who, because of his work and the very real risks that flow from it, keeps a low profile.2 But what they, and all other Americans, need to do is to forget the personality who currently stands at the head of their tribe and focus on the facts of the case.3

Many of those facts remain hidden; we are far from having a complete picture. But, largely thanks to James Comey, Robert Mueller, and the Democrats in Congress, we know quite a bit. We know that Trump and his family had extensive business interests around the world, including in Russia. We know that, unlike officials in previous federal governments, they have not fully divested themselves of those interests. We know that Trump chose campaign staff with ties to Russian interests — most notably Paul Manafort — and that some of his cabinet officials (Tillerson, Ross) do as well. We know there is evidence (though not conclusive proof) that Trump and members of his immediate family took part in laundering money from Russia. We know that Trump consistently refuses to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has not moved to enforce the new sanctions in a bill passed overwhelmingly by Congress that he was forced to sign on 2 August 2017 (we don't know why, but speculation runs rampant.) And we know that these actions by Trump, along with belittling NATO and important allies like Germany as well as his own intelligence agencies, can only work to Putin's benefit.

Luke Harding lays out the case for collusion as far it is publicly known today in these 338 pages. Like the veteran Russia hand he is, he provides a deeply detailed account. Indeed, it is almost too detailed; the count of Russian names probably exceeds that in a roster of the Moscow Circus (roustabouts included.) I found myself with a feeling of mental whiplash by the time I finished. But there is an excellent index of names, which helps. Also, the book is very readable; once I got to Chapter 3, I could hardly put it down. If you read it — and you should — remember two things:

  1. Both Steele and Harding are experienced professionals with excellent, well-earned reputations.
  2. The evidence compiled here concerns only one facet of the case for Trump's removal. It doesn't touch his economic policy, his muddled foreign policy, his wanton repeal of beneficial regulations, his character flaws, or his overall incoherence.

Here's the bottom line: This book is a vital part of the solution to the worst problem America has faced in my lifetime. I give it full marks.

1 No one who reveals information that reflects badly on Vladimir Putin gets favorable treatment from the Kremlin. But, so far, only citizens of the Russian Federation get the "terminate with extreme prejudice" treatment.
2 There is the Steele Dossier, a now-public document compiled from the 16 memos that Steele sent to our FBI. But its contents are not fully verified, and that gives Trump supporters latitude to claim, however misleadingly, that it is "discredited."
3 The fact that facts get tossed aside so easily by so many is the central tragedy of our time.
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This page was last modified on 11 March 2018.