Illustrations by Sophia den Breems for De Correspondent

On July 13, President Trump Here’s video of the presser with the President defending his son’s actions. 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 The meeting that’s been in the news so much in recent weeks took place on June 9, 2016. The Trumps keep trying to downplay it, but the attendance list alone – which keeps growing – betrays its importance. Vox: “There was another person at Trump Jr.’s meeting. He might be a Russian spy” with publicist The former tabloid journalist Rob Goldstone is now a publicist who represents the Russian-Azerbaijani pop singer Emin Agalarov. Goldstone is British and travels to Russia a great deal. In June 2016, he offered the Trumps sensitive information on Hillary Clinton, via Emin and his father, the oligarch Aras Agalarov. Goldstone organized the June 9 meeting. and Russian government lawyer Natalia Natalia Veselnitskaya is a Russian lawyer. She is reputed to be a Kremlin insider, but both she and the Kremlin deny this. Veselnitskaya actively lobbied against a US law that imposed sanctions on Russians involved in cases of corruption and human rights violations. was attended not only by his son Donald Jr, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his campaign manager turned Manafort, a US citizen, worked on behalf of foreign states, and after he was outed, he registered with the Justice Dept. under FARA, which formalized his connections. He did so in June of this year, after leaving the Trump campaign and having those connections outed by the press. Politico, “Manafort registers as foreign agent” but by , a You can read more about Rinat Akhmetshin in this New York Times piece. notorious Russian-American lobbyist with connections to Kremlin intelligence, a translator, a This is Ike Kaveladze, accused of laundering $1.4 billion using shell companies in the 1990s. See “Donald Trump Jr. Met Russian Accused of Laundering $1.4 Billion,” in The Daily Beast and Here’s more from CNN on the increasing head count in the room. 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,” Here’s video of that same presser, when Trump said he’d 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 is the Speaker of the US House of Representatives. See CNN video: “Ryan on Trump's meetings with Comey: 'He's just new to this'” 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

See Newsweek 1987 cover story, “Citizen Trump” 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 Read more about the ruthless Roy Cohn in this 1984 profile of Trump in the Lifestyle section of the Washington Post. 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 Loads more on Stone and Manafort in this piece from Slate. various Manafort really made the rounds with the dictators, lobbying on behalf of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko, dictator of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ukrainian President VIktor Yanokovich. He also worked for oligarchs who acted as proxies of dictators, helping with kleptocratic initiatives. See Manafort's Wikipedia page for more details 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 Photos remain of Cohn sitting cross-legged, smiling, holding a picture of the two of them together while surrounded by his frog collection – an image reminiscent, inadvertently or not, in the Trump campaign’s promotion of Pepe the Frog. Wikipedia's entry for “Pepe the Frog” 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, If you want to understand Trump, read about Roy Cohn. (Scroll for the frog picture.) 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: According to an account by the late Wayne Barrett, the investigative reporter and senior editor at the Village Voice for nearly 4 decades who died the day before Trump’s inauguration. Read this profile in the New Yorker: “Wayne Barrett, Who Wrote the Book on Trump, Is Still Reporting”

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 See this piece from the English translation of Tass, a Russian media outlet. Dubinin died in 2013, but Churkin, who became Russia’s UN ambassador in 2006, spent parts of 2015 See CNN piece, “Russia protests anti-Trump comments by top UN official” in a breach of protocol that Churkin defended Trump publicly against allegations of demagogism, made by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. See Slate: “Now Russia is also defending Trump at the UN” before dying in February 2016.

Neither man remains to Trump tells it himself in The Art of the Deal. See The Art of the Deal, p. 364 of how Trump arrived in Moscow on This is straight from Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal,” excerpted by Spy Magazine. July 4, 1987 ; was housed in Lenin’s suite; and began talking business deals Here’s a 1988 Washington Post piece on Trump’s interest in Russia. with the Politboro. But evidence of the trip’s influence remains. In 1987, Trump began discussing his desire to Here’s a piece I wrote for Quartz on Trump’s nuclear ambition and Russia. 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 See the full page ad Trump took out in 1987 here. 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, Read “The True Story of Donald Trump’s First Campaign Speech—in 1987” from Politico. 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. Here’s the Guardian’s 2016 report on how Czechoslovakia spied on Trump. 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, See German outlet Bild, for the original documents: “Czech Stasi spied on the Trumps” 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 See this 2015 piece from the Daily Beast. 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 See Donald Trump Jr's quote and more in this June 2016 article in the Washington Post, “Inside Trump’s financial ties to Russia and his unusual flattery of Vladimir Putin” Newly wealthy, Trump briefly ran for the presidency in 1999 and 2000 on the Reform Party ticket – on a See this piece in the Advocate for Trump's 2000 presidential platform. than the one today – but backed out in February 2000, See this 2000 piece in The Deseret News.

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 The Washington Post 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 You can read The Ringer’s full profile of Mark Burnett here: “The Mythmaker” originally had his eye set on From the Ringer: "Once upon a time, in 2001, Mark Burnett and Vladimir Putin were going to make a reality show together. It’s true; it was openly discussed in The New York Times. The show was going to be called Destination Mir; the idea was Survivor, but staged as a space race. Contestants would compete to train with astronauts; Burnett had to negotiate with Russia because the final prize involved sending the winner to their space station. " See The Ringer's profile of Burnett, “The Mythmaker” 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 See David Corn's piece 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 The Steele dossier is a private investigative dossier on Trump and Russia written in 2016 by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 intelligence officer. See the original documents here. 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 Read more about the Putin-Trump bromance in this article I wrote for Quartz. praised in return by Kremlin officials and press. In a February 2014 See FOX news 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 See Time Magazine: “Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America” and See the Washington Post, “New details emerge about 2014 Russian hack of the State Department” See CBS report on Russian attempts to hack the Pentagon and See Bloomberg: “Russians Said to be Suspects in Nuclear Site Hackings” – which may have given them Here’s more (much more) about Russia using Ukraine as a test lab for cyberwar, from Wired. the ability to impact the And here’s the short version from Business Insider: “Hackers breached at least a dozen US nuclear power sites — and officials are zeroing in on a familiar player” US power grids – Trump embraces the Kremlin as a friend, even proposing When Trump tweeted this ultimate fox-meet-henhouse idea on July 9, 2017, it met with widespread criticism and disbelief. He soon publicly backed off the idea. But the bizarre plan may happen yet, reported Reuters on July 20. See “Russia says in talks with US to create cyber security working group: RIA”

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 Here’s an earlier piece I wrote for De Correspondent on Trump’s ties with Russia. a veritable matryoshka doll of Kremlin sycophants, many of whom are now under federal investigation for the 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.

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