Donald Trump's White House Is the Kremlin on the Potomac: Former FBI Double Agent Offers Explanations
Donald Trump’s White House is the Kremlin on the Potomac. It is a place of intrigue, confusion, scandal and incompetence. Trump is the first American president ever to become the subject of an active investigation by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies for conspiring with a foreign government.
Trump is a plutocratic authoritarian who was installed in office with the apparent aid of a foreign power, Russia. He is reported to have impulse-control problems, appears to undergo wild mood swings, and fires people on a whim. Trump has abused his authority by firing the FBI Director James Comey in order to stop the latter’s investigations into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russian intelligence and Vladimir Putin’s government. Trump’s inner circle also consists of many people who have received money from Russia, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who some experts have speculated may be a Russian agent.
Those on the outside of Trump’s court — the American people, journalists and the world at large — are left to wonder what machinations are occurring therein and what the consequences will be for the country and the planet. As the New York Times recently stated, serving in Trump’s administration is akin to being "stewards for a syphilitic emperor."
The election of Donald Trump has forced the American people to learn new skills. They now must grapple with life under a plutocratic authoritarian who has little to no respect for democracy and the rule of law. Such a situation was not supposed to be possible in America; this political dystopia is real and was brought to America by the Republican Party, Donald Trump and (arguably) Vladimir Putin.
Trump’s nebulous connections with Russia have also forced the American people to add new words to their common vocabulary. Since the election of Trump, we have learned about the “deep state” as well as “unmasking” individuals who are recorded in phone conversations by the National Security Agency. When Trump recently told two senior Russian officials about a highly secret program to counter the Islamic terrorist group ISIS, we added “code word” to the lexicon. Amy Zegart of the Atlantic explains:
Code word is beyond Top Secret. It limits access to classified information to a much narrower pool of people to provide an extra layer of security. Many secrets are super-secrets — Harry Truman, as vice president, didn’t know about the Manhattan Project. He learned of it only after Franklin Delano Roosevelt died and Truman was sworn in as president. Code word classification is so far off the scale, even fake spies rarely refer to it in the movies.
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with former FBI counterespionage operative Naveed Jamali. He is a senior fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, an MSNBC contributor, and the author of the new book How to Catch a Russian Spy, which details his time as a double agent working against Russian military intelligence.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Chauncey DeVega: The scandal and intrigue around Trump and his inner circle’s inappropriate and perhaps even illegal connections to Russia are maddening. It’s a story that literally changes every day. How do you assess this situation?
Naveed Jamali: What I’m particularly concerned about right now is that Russia was successful. The Russians have suffered really no pushback on this, and that emboldens them, as well as our other adversaries like China, Iran and even North Korea. They can use Russia’s mode of operations and suffer no consequences. So why not? We have to be careful, though. There are a lot of things that the public has an appetite to know, and there are some things that we’re just never going to know. Also, we need to be careful about speculation and conspiracy theories because that benefits Russia, in that such speculation delegitimizes the real questions that need to be asked. This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.
CD: Here’s what I struggle with. How do we parse out just the overwhelming coincidence that nearly all of Trump’s inner circle has connections to Russia? And it’s simply a fact that Russia tried to interfere in the election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. The Russians also used disinformation and lies that they circulated through the right-wing media to manipulate Republicans and other Trump voters. Are these observations correct?
NJ: There is no evidence that Russia actually physically manipulated or changed the actual vote count. It is worth noting as a takeaway, though, that one of President Obama’s last acts was to add [the internet] to the critical infrastructure list, which is hugely important. This signals to what Russia will do going forward. They’re going to dance along this line. They’re smart, so the way to do that is through information warfare, through propaganda, through fake news and indirect efforts. Between money and business ties, the simple fact could be that someone’s a crook.
It is a given that the Russians and the other countries had a dossier on Trump. Is Trump just a useful idiot who Putin and his operatives looked at and said, “You know what, we will work the people around him, we’re going to manipulate him to get what we want.”
There are two possibilities here. First there is a decision to target the U.S. person. Then there is an assessment and then that goes into the recruitment. You can recruit someone; you can say, for example, “This person is of interest; we want to recruit them because when we have access, they are potentially someone that could be beneficial to us.”
The second is a goal for what you’re going to do with them. Let’s use a classical example. There is a CIA officer, he drinks a lot, he has a gambling debt, let’s make a pitch to him because why not. We don’t know how we’re going to use him but it just seems like someone who might be receptive and could be beneficial. Ninety-nine percent of the people who are approached diligently report back to their security officers or the FBI and that’s the end of it. It’s the 1 percent — it’s that small sliver who are willing, and then an even smaller percentage of that who the Russians assess have value to them.
You can have someone who’s in the recruitment phase for years. It took them two years to get to the operational part for me. They could just say, “Hey, this person is useful; let’s just recruit them and we’re going to keep them in our back pocket until a time that we need them.” This idea that the Russians recruited U.S. persons in a five-month window from the time that Trump started running for president is not credible. If there was a concerted effort to recruit these people it would have taken years to get to that point.
CD: Talk about this in terms of tradecraft. If we’re painting the picture and you have Flynn or Tillerson, or someone around them, do you say, OK, we take him out, we wine him we dine him, and at some point we say, “We want something from you”? In your case did they give you a check, a suitcase full of money? What happened?
NJ: The approach for me was legitimate overt access, whereby they approached me through my business. It offers a legitimate way in. Of course you’re going to take them out to dinner, have pleasantries and conversations; that’s part of the process and that’s part of the assessment. The initial contact may be completely within in the bounds of legality, maybe within the bounds of being completely innocent and overt. You’ve done nothing wrong. The change is that as the relationship progresses eventually the Russians will get to the point where they believe that you are someone who is not just willing but someone they can trust with telling you what they want you to do. What they protect very closely, when it comes to their tradecraft, is what they want you to do.
CD: If Trump and his people are not guilty, why are they acting so guilty?
NJ: Are we talking guilty from a legal standpoint? Or are we talking about guilty from a moral standpoint? Espionage in the traditional sense is a very difficult thing to try, let alone get a conviction, because you have to show an intent. That is why in most of the big espionage cases people plead guilty, or they are convicted of a subsequent, separate lesser charge.
Consider Michael Flynn. You can be a lobbyist for Turkey or for Russia. You just have to register as a foreign agent. Those things do not necessarily mean that you are guilty of being a spy. But his case is certainly curious. However, we just don’t have enough information yet. Certainly, it would seem — and my hunch would say — that there is something to that. But knowing what I know about the Russians, I find it very hard to believe that there would ever be this “gotcha moment.” The Russians, when it comes to tradecraft, are very careful.
With me, they never said to me, “We want you to be a spy for us and when you spy for us we will pay you cash for the information.” They never said that in those words. The Russians are very careful about the language they use.
CD: Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election has to be located in the context of global politics. Is Trump behaving in a way that furthers Russia’s national interests?
NJ: The Cold War might have ended for us, but for them it hasn’t. We are still their major threat, and secondarily NATO. I look at this and I say, they have an inherent desire to undermine the United States, to undermine NATO. For them, part of the narrative is not just about [what happens inside] the U.S., but also to discredit the United States internationally.
CD: A question many people have been speculating about: Is Donald Trump a Manchurian candidate for Putin and Russia?
NJ: It is not physically practical. I think it is much more simple. Whatever you think of Trump, the longest he is going to be in office is another seven and a half years. Russia really wants to essentially harm the credibility of the United States. That’s always been their first goal. Their second goal is to negate the military and economic advantage both of the U.S. and NATO. As long as the U.S. looks illegitimate, as long as we look to be in total freefall to the outside world, that’s a huge benefit to them. That’s simple enough. That is probably a much more attainable goal than anything else would be. This was also the message to Ukraine, other parts of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern European states. I think that’s probably much more what they were aiming for.