By John Sipher
Jan. 29, 2021
The Washington Post
One of the standard warnings attached to U.S. intelligence reports is that the source of a report intends “to influence as well as inform.” The caveat does not mean that the source’s reporting is wrong or should be discounted, but that the source also has an agenda. Craig Unger’s new book, “American Kompromat,” should be read with a similar understanding, for it opens with the presumption that former president Donald Trump is, as former CIA director Michael Hayden described him, “a clear and present danger.” Unger starts from the premise that Trump is a Kremlin asset and proceeds to advance the argument with great detail.
Unger is a veteran investigative journalist and writer, and “American Kompromat” is a follow-up to his 2018 book, “House of Trump, House of Putin,” in which he made the case for Russian collusion. “American Kompromat” can be read alongside others that examine Trump’s weak spot for Russia — including Greg Miller’s “The Apprentice,” Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s “Russian Roulette,” Luke Harding’s “Shadow State,” Tim Weiner’s “The Folly and the Glory,” and Seth Abramson’s “Proof of Collusion” — as well as books by insiders such as Peter Strzok, former FBI deputy assistant director of counterintelligence; Josh Campbell, former FBI special agent and special assistant to then-Director James Comey; and Andrew McCabe, former deputy director of the FBI.
As the Trump administration came to a spectacular end, Unger must have felt the need to update his book continually. Day by day, Trump took actions that added to Unger’s thesis. In the closing weeks of his term, Trump sought to divert attention from a damaging Russian cyberhack, refused to concede Russian President Vladimir Putin’s poisoning of his leading political challenger, and brazenly pardoned cronies who refused to testify in Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. (Not to mention allegedly inciting the mob that violently overtook the Capitol.)
Unger outlines Trump’s decades-long relationships with Russian criminals and his willingness to abet the laundering of dirty money flowing from Moscow, and explains why Russian intelligence would find him an easy mark. The web of Trump’s damning connections and his actions as president suggest some sort of affinity for Putin.
According to Unger, there are indications that Trump was used as a conduit for Soviet covert messaging campaigns in the late 1980s. He made numerous visits to Russia where he was certainly watched, feted and cultivated. At the time, he publicly expressed thoughts that were far outside of mainstream Western opinion. For example, he complained that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was destroying the Soviet Union — suggesting perhaps relations with KGB elements that shared such a view. Unger cites former KGB officer Yuri Shvets, who served in Washington at the time, saying of Trump: “The guy is not a complicated cookie, his most important characteristics being low intellect coupled with hyperinflated vanity. This combination makes him a dream for an experienced recruiter.”
By compiling decades of Trump’s seedy ties, disturbing and consistent patterns of behavior, and unexplained contacts with Russian officials and criminals, Unger makes a strong case that Trump is probably a compromised trusted contact of Kremlin interests.
That said, it is not an argument meant to stand up to the scrutiny of a criminal court (that would require evidence hidden in Russian intelligence files). Instead, it is a counterintelligence case, a circumstantial compilation of patterns, relationships and logical inferences. Even though counterintelligence probes often do not lead to arrests, the stakes of such investigations may be of far more serious consequence. We have learned over the past several years that many of the most important firewalls in our democracy are not necessarily written in the legal code. It may not be a crime for a presidential candidate to seek to make money from a hostile foreign power and lie about it, but it is potentially a far more serious challenge to our system.
In short, Unger alleges that Trump’s long-standing ties to Russian organized crime, his lifestyle and his business practices made him uniquely vulnerable to blackmail and extortion by the country that is unarguably the best in the world at those dark arts. His campaign team — with its own unusual shady ties to Russia — was willing to work with a hostile foreign power and eager to accept material stolen from Americans. None went to the authorities to report the illicit contacts, and many of them were subsequently arrested. When the issue of Russian involvement surfaced publicly, every single one of them lied and covered up their actions. Trump then attacked the very institutions that could hold him to account and sought to obstruct investigations, eventually pardoning anyone who could provide evidence of wrongdoing. Even Trump’s most fervent supporters have been unable to provide an innocent explanation for why a domestic political campaign would need such deep engagement with a hostile foreign power.
Unger’s narrative of collusion relies on piling up any and all damning information he can muster. However, in some cases, the very volume of information undercuts the strength of his argument. Trump’s presidency was such a ruinous fiasco, it is tempting to keep adding inexplicable actions to the pile. However, the tangential material often confuses more than clarifies. Chapters on William Barr, the Catholic Opus Dei sect, Robert Maxwell, Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein are interesting but do little to illuminate Trump’s perfidy. For example, Unger ties Barr to FBI traitor Robert Hanssen, suggesting that Hanssen was promoted while Barr was the attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration. Anyone with experience in government would be hard-pressed to explain how a mid-level FBI promotion of someone not yet suspected of a crime would be of interest to the attorney general.
Further, Unger relies on relatively few sources, and none with direct access to Trump or present-day Russia. Shvets and Oleg Kalugin, his sources on Russian intelligence methodology, were celebrated KGB officers but left Russia in the late 1980s and have no direct knowledge of Trump’s contacts with Russian officials. They provide interesting context and color, but Unger would have benefited from a wider variety of sources.
Trump’s election exposed a previously undetected flaw in our system of protecting national security secrets. A duly elected president cannot be denied a security clearance, yet the Republican Party nominated a candidate whose greed, lack of morals and relationship with criminal elements should have disqualified him for the lowest-level clearance, much less the highest office in the land. What Unger’s books have shown us is that the evidence was there for anyone willing to look. “American Kompromat” uncovers no secrets, nor does it reveal much that is new, but it reminds us that there is still much left to learn. We know that Trump was compromised, but we’re not sure exactly how.
John Sipher worked for the CIA’s clandestine service for 28 years. He is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.