Trump, Russia, and the Red Sparrow
We longtime New Yorkers know full well that Donald Trump is no Russian Connection. But the FBI won't disavow the infamous "Steele Dossier," and ex-FBI chief Robert Mueller, now the special counsel, persists in his quest. What is going on? The answer may lie in the just released Jennifer Lawrence spy thriller Red Sparrow.
But first, that absurd dossier. All of us from the New York business community know that the dossier is a fake. Here's why. Remember the lurid highlight of the dossier, that Trump cavorted with Russian prostitutes in a Moscow Hotel while the girls peed on Trump's hotel room bed? Not possible. The Donald Trump we know was for years an extreme germophobe, who would have recoiled in horror at such an idea.
Let me tell you a story.
Years ago, a real estate colleague invited me to a lunch in New York where Trump was the speaker. As the talk ended, and we headed to the podium to introduce ourselves, my host laughingly told me, "Don't try to shake his hand. Donald is a super-germophobe, and he thinks touching hands is dirty!" Sure enough, when I got to the podium and stuck out my hand, Mr. Trump raised his hand as though waving hello, and said nice to see you. But no handshake. No touching from the germophobe.
That is the real Donald Trump. Do you think for a moment that such a germophobe participated in some vulgar peeing game in a Moscow hotel room? Not a chance.
Of course, as Donald Trump embarked on his presidential campaign, he worked hard to overcome his germophobe past. I watched with curiosity at his early appearances, to see if he would pick up a baby. Well, in the campaign, he did, so winning mattered more than germs. Nonetheless, the dossier pee story, from years earlier, is absurdly out of character. I know it. All New York knows it. And I am sure the U.S. intelligence community, that must have an awesomely complete background profile of Mr. Trump, also knows it. The only guy who didn't know Donald Trump, and didn't know that the peeing story was impossible, was this ex-British spy Steele who wrote the dossier. The ex-spy made up a story that he was too ill informed to know was not plausible.
Do some in the U.S. intelligence community really believe this nonsense? I am afraid so.
Let me tell you another story.
Last summer, I attended a gathering with Jim Clapper, the former National Intelligence director to President Obama. Of course, Director Clapper discussed Trump and the election. I found Director Clapper an earnest and well intentioned patriot, clearly proud of his long work on behalf of the United States. And Director Clapper was unequivocal. Russia had "hacked" the election, he said. Asking what "hacked" meant, Director Clapper did not describe physical tampering with a machine or software, but rather an interference of ideas. His lead example: "Just look at RT."
That left me puzzled. RT, which stands for "Russia Today," is a Russian news service. You can find its articles on the internet and on Twitter every day. But why the subtly slanted political stories of RT constituted hacking, I do not know. At the time Director Clapper spoke to us, RT was running a series of articles on the glorious chronology of the Russian communist 1917 Revolution. So RT's outlook and propaganda were obvious to anyone. This is a Russian communist news service. But so what? I read RT often, for its interesting articles on science. When I read other articles – for example, on the Syrian war, where Russia has intervened – I am obviously reading the official Russian take. That is not "hacking" as I understand the word. Just the Russian government promoting its agenda.
Director Clapper rightly abhors the Russian agenda, and I suspect that he equally abhors any U.S. figure not angling for a fight with Russia. That gets us to Mr. Trump.
In the decades I have heard Donald Trump speak on current issues, his first interest has always been the same: failing U.S. infrastructure. Mr. Trump would lead his talks with complaints at the mess around the JFK airport in New York City, and ask, "Why do we live in the greatest city in the World and have a third-world airport?" (Good question, by the way.) But while Mr. Trump's public focus had usually been rebuilding infrastructure, he did have another theme: the scary reality of Russia and the U.S. facing each other with devastating nuclear weapons. I recall one funny interview Mr. Trump did some 30 years ago, where he suggested that President Reagan appoint Mr. Trump a special ambassador on arms control so he could go "make a deal" with Russia to reduce the risk of nuclear war! Of course, diplomatic professionals were aghast that a brash real estate guy in New York thought he could "do a deal" on arms with the Russians! And maybe Mr. Trump was being his usual very eager and very confident self. But so what? We all know Donald Trump, and that is his persona.
And we all also know who was compromised during the West's Cold War with the Soviet Union: the left that so loved socialism. A famous case was the Norwegian Labor Party politician Arne Treholt, once a youth socialist activist who ended up in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, convicted in 1984 of being one of the Cold War's most famous spies. But look at Treholt versus Trump. Treholt was a left-wing politician. Trump entered politics championing Ross Perot's Reform Party, a nationalist movement that was the opposite of the International Left.
But I suspect that when Director Clapper looks at Donald Trump, he doesn't see that typically brash New York City real estate guy. He sees only the dark and menacing Russian threat. Today's Russia is a threat, but that is not Trump's doing. In the years after the fall of Communism in 1989, the West had a chance to integrate Russia into Europe. Instead, the advisers from the West who went to Moscow to help form a post-communist Russia lost a historic opportunity. But Trump had no role in that failure; the culprits were our Liberal elite. When Institutional Investor magazine published its exposé of this disaster, the paper called it "How Harvard Lost Russia" (2006). And the economic adviser who presided over the failure of integration was Harvard's Jeffrey Sachs, protégé of Republican Harvard economist Martin Feldstein. Sachs now heads Columbia University's Earth Institute. In the wake of our Establishment's failure to bring Russia into Europe, oligarchs and thugs like the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin took over the remains, rebuilt the Russian military, and now confront Europe and America, just as in the height of the Cold War. But none of this fiasco has anything to do with Trump.
Today's Russia is scary, but when Trump and his short-lived foreign policy adviser General Michael Flynn began to promote negotiation and rapprochement, they were not colluding. They were trying to undo failures of our foreign policy establishment. Sadly, I worry that Director Clapper and his allies so despise Trump's criticism of our own failures that they set in motion and to this day promote a "collusion" story with lurid absurdities like the "pee-pee" dossier.
This brings me to the Red Sparrow, a Jennifer Lawrence movie about the Russian intelligence services. You may not want to go see it. In order to depict an evil Russia, the movie has scenes of violence and shocking vulgarity that go beyond even the outer boundaries of newly "realistic" war movies. They are horrifying. Of course, that is the point.
The Russia depicted in Red Sparrow is pure, nauseating evil. I wonder: is this film released now to play to the Russia-is-bad narrative that is the cover for the attack on Mr. Trump?
Though I have no doubt that Director Clapper is a patriot, the dossier smear against Donald Trump is ignorant of Trump's past and of Cold War history, and it diverts us from dealing today with a new Russian challenge – a challenge not of Mr. Trump's creation, but arising from the horrific failures of our foreign policy establishment.