On July 13, President Trump defended his son, Donald Trump Jr, who was accused of colluding with Russians after he tweeted out a stream of emails showing him colluding with Russians.
“[The meeting] went very, very quickly, very fast, two other people in the room. I guess one of them left almost immediately and the other was not really focused on the meeting,” said Trump.
Shortly after he spoke, it was revealed that the illicit meeting with publicist Rob Goldstone and Russian government lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was attended not only by his son Donald Jr, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his campaign manager turned Russian foreign agent Paul Manafort, but by Rinat Akhmetshin , a notorious Russian-American lobbyist with connections to Kremlin intelligence, a translator, a Russian-American money-launderer, and at least two other people who have yet to be named.
In other words, Trump was lying again, and the lies told by both the president and his son have made them the object of yet another inquiry revolving around questions of campaign finance law, security clearance violations, conspiracy, and treason.
Trump told another lie in that press conference that has been less examined: “I’ve only been in politics for two years,” he declared.
That’s not true. Not even close.
The new guy has over 30 years’ experience
Trump has, in fact, been involved in politics for over thirty years. But it has been crucial for Trump to position himself as a neophyte – initially, to gain an audience as he ran as a “political outsider” tapping into disillusionment with the two-party system; and now, to dodge prosecution, as he feigns ignorance to excuse his disregard for law. The GOP has embraced his facile excuses: “He’s just new to this,” said Paul Ryan in June to explain why it was okay for Trump to have possibly committed obstruction of justice by firing James Comey to end the investigation of Michael Flynn.
But Trump is not “new to this“ – not to conniving with GOP operatives, not to collaborating with Russian intelligence, and not to presidential politics
But Trump is not “new to this” – not to conniving with GOP operatives, not to collaborating with Russian intelligence, and not to presidential politics in general.
As the Trump family faces political pressure and criminal inquiries, it is important to debunk the neophyte myth and take a look back at how Trump entered the political stage – because the same players who propelled him thirty years ago played a vital role in both the 2016 election and the Russian interference scandal.
That Trump uses ignorance as an excuse for negligence and criminal behavior is bad enough, but Trump is not ignorant. There is a grey area between moron and mastermind, and he occupies it. What he lacks in geopolitical acumen he makes up for in his ability to manipulate the political system to benefit himself – and he was groomed by some of the US’s most notorious operatives to do so.
A “dirty trickster,” a foreign agent, and the ruthless Roy Cohn
A 1987 Newsweek cover story on Trump paints a damning portrait of Trump’s presidential ambitions, which he had announced that year. “He’d love to be president, but only if he were appointed,” one friend told the magazine. A second source warned of the consequences: “He is a dangerous man… he’s the type who’d make the trains run on time,” said John Moore, an attorney who fought a tenant dispute with Trump. A second friend accurately forecast Trump’s ceaseless ambition: “No achievement can satisfy what he wants. What he wants still is acceptance from his father. He is playing out his insecurities on an incredibly large canvas.”
Trump first expressed his political ambitions while under the tutelage of ruthless lawyer Roy Cohn, one of the most infamous figures in US politics. Cohn was an advisor to Joseph McCarthy, the Senator who led anti-communist witch-hunts in the 1950s, and to Richard Nixon.
While working with Nixon, Cohn befriended Nixon advisor Roger Stone, the self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” who has remained active in GOP politics for over forty years. In the 1980s, Stone formed a consulting firm with Manafort and fellow political hitman Lee Atwater, where they lobbied on behalf of various dictators. In 2015, Stone joined Trump’s presidential campaign, and Manafort followed in 2016, before resigning after it was revealed he had been working on behalf of Kremlin-connected oligarchs.
But though Trump was tight enough with Manafort and Stone to bring them into the fold thirty years later, no one ever seemed as close to him as Cohn. Trump is not known for having close friends and has openly acknowledged having trust issues, but his relationship with Cohn ran deep. According to Wayne Barrett, a journalist who covered the Trump and Cohn relationship – and who died the night before Trump’s inauguration – in the 1970s and 1980s, the two men would talk 15 times per day.
Cohn died of AIDS in 1986, and when Trump heard of his dear friend’s diagnosis, he abandoned him, prompting the dying Cohn to proclaim: “Donald pisses ice water.”
But Trump had moved on to a new passion: Russia
That same year, Trump was invited to visit the Soviet Union by two Kremlin officials: Yuri Dubinin and Vitaly Churkin. Dubinin died in 2013, but Churkin, who became Russia’s UN ambassador in 2006, spent parts of 2015 defending Trump in a breach of protocol that baffled many political experts, before dying in February 2017.
Neither man remains to tell the story of how Trump arrived in Moscow on July 4, 1987 ; was housed in Lenin’s suite; and began talking business deals with the Politboro. But evidence of the trip’s influence remains. In 1987, Trump began discussing his desire to partner with Russia to use nuclear weapons on third countries, among them Pakistan and France. He also openly revealed the anti-American and xenophobic streak that remains part of his politics to this day, taking out full page ads condemning US policies and calling America a “failure” in a speech that October. Though he ultimately stated he would not run for president in the 1988 election, the content of that speech was like a dry run for his vitriolic 2016 campaign rallies.
In 1987, Trump was still married to his first wife Ivana, and their relationship was of interest
to the security services of her native Czechoslovakia, then part of the Soviet bloc. In files released in 2016, Czech officers assert that Trump had made an agreement to not pay taxes in the US for thirty years and was being put under great pressure to run for the presidency, with an eye on 1996. No US government official has commented on the veracity of this baffling claim.
What we do know is that Trump’s political aspirations stalled in the early 1990s, as his business empire collapsed and Ivana divorced him after accusing him of battery and rape. The Soviet Union collapsed at that time as well, and Trump appeared to have minimal involvement with Russia during the early 1990s.
That changed in the latter half of the decade. Trump spent the 1990s trying to build himself out of bankruptcy, and did so with the help of Russians, who by 2008, according to Donald Trump Jr, represented a disproportionate amount of his assets. Newly wealthy, Trump briefly ran for the presidency in 1999 and 2000 on the Reform Party ticket – on a far more liberal platform than the one today – but backed out in February 2000, blaming party infighting.
As Trump’s star began to rise once more, so did that of Vladimir Putin, elected president of Russia in May 2000, and Trump had ties with Putin’s associates.
An advisor to Putin and a TV producer salvage Trump’s image
In addition to friendships with oligarchs who backed his ventures, Trump maintained close relationships with US power brokers linked to the Kremlin, including Michael Caputo, an associate of Manafort’s who worked as Putin’s image consultant in the early 2000s and who helped run Trump’s 2016 campaign; and Mark Burnett, who produced Trump’s 2004 reality TV show “The Apprentice” but who originally had his eye set on a reality show about Putin. Burnett was largely responsible for transforming Trump from a symbol of corruption and greed to a mainstream American star.
In 2012, Trump ran for president for the first time as a Republican. It was a short-lived campaign, as Trump was relegated to the sidelines as a fringe figure, a reality TV show racist whose ceaseless demands for Obama’s birth certificate had become a national joke. But when he dropped out, he proclaimed he was convinced that if he were to run again, “I would be able to win the primary and, ultimately, the general election.”
At the time, it sounded like typical Trump bravado, though it echoes the 1987 statements of friends that Trump would run “only if he were appointed.” And now, in 2017, government officials are exploring if that is, to some degree, what happened.
Dismissed as implausible – until details turn out to be true
On October 31, 2016, reporter David Corn released a blockbluster report in Mother Jones stating that Trump had been cultivated by Russia since at least 2011, according to a spy later revealed to be Christopher Steele, author of the infamous Steele dossier which broke down the plot in greater detail. Dismissed initially as implausible, numerous details of the dossier have proven true over 2017, including, most recently, the meeting that Donald Trump Jr held in June 2016.
Many have noted that while Trump’s political positions have vacillated over 30 years, he has never wavered in his deference and dedication to Russia. In 2014, Trump began praising Russia profusely on US television, and was praised in return by Kremlin officials and press. In a February 2014 interview, Trump noted the US should go easy on Russia because “[The US is] going to win something important later on, and they won’t be opposed to what we’re doing.”
The Kremlin certainly is not opposed to what Trump is doing now. Despite their attacks on the integrity of the 2016 election and hacking of the State Department, Department of Defense, and nuclear plants – which may have given them the ability to impact the US power grids – Trump embraces the Kremlin as a friend, even proposing a joint “cybersecurity” group.
Trump’s pet proposals benefit Russia, not the American people
Other policy proposals he has mentioned – ending sanctions, dropping out of NATO, abandoning the interference investigation – benefit the Kremlin far more than they do the US public. His administration is a veritable matryoshka doll of Kremlin sycophants, many of whom are now under federal investigation for their role in the election inference, along with campaign advisors Manafort, Stone, and Caputo.
Whatever the reasons are behind Trump’s actions, they cannot be attributed to political naivete. Trump spent thirty years planning for the presidency, collaborating with Kremlin associates, and working with the most extremist elements of the GOP. He knows what he’s doing. The real question is what Americans are going to do about Trump.
Correction, January 29, 2018: We originally stated that Vitaly Churkin met his maker in February 2016. That’s incorrect. He died in February 2017.