The Mueller Report

Published — February 4, 2019

The Trump team’s persistent lying about Russia creates counterintelligence challenge

Former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone, leaves federal court in Washington, Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Roger Stone’s indictment lengthens the list of Trump aides who’ve been accused of trying to hide the campaign’s connections to Russia. 

Alex Finley (@alexzfinley) is the pen name of a former journalist and an officer of the CIA from 2003 to 2009, who is now writing analyses of Robert Mueller’s investigation. She is the author of Victor in the Rubble, a satire about the CIA and the war on terror.


Two personal characteristics drew Donald Trump to employ problematic characters like Roger Stone and Paul Manafort during his presidential campaign, producing a counterintelligence problem for the United States over the past two years as well as fresh fodder for criminal prosecutors.

As a political neophyte, Trump desperately needed veteran political operators with unconventional views who could help him manipulate Washington. And a someone who craved winning, he also was attracted to people willing to ignore the rules when necessary to do so.

Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, whose lobbying endeavors on behalf of a “Who’s Who” list of foreign dictators across the globe had earned them a prominent place in what became known as “The Torturers’ Lobby” fit the bill perfectly. They were longtime political operatives notorious for their willingness to do anything and look anywhere to advance their causes. In Trump, they saw a kindred spirit: A man who aimed to win at all costs.

Foreign intelligence services looking to achieve their own goals in Washington almost certainly made similar assessments about the readiness of Trump and his team to color outside the lines. Agencies routinely compile profiles of prominent and powerful individuals in other countries, just to be prepared. And Trump’s many visits to Russia, beginning in the 1980s, surely attracted the attention of Russian intelligence and its many partners.

Back then, for example, Trump was married to Ivana Trump, a citizen of Czechoslovakia, which was allied with Russia at the time. According to the Guardian, the Czech intelligence service kept a close eye on Trump and compiled information about his finances, political ambitions, travel, and personality traits.

Trump’s disregard for rules and his quest for victories at all costs, especially those that fed his ego, are exactly the characteristics that a foreign intelligence service would find vulnerable to seduction and manipulation. It’s naïve to think Russian intelligence services didn’t do this kind of assessment on Trump, a prominent businessman who had long expressed an interest in getting into politics — and it’s naïve to think Russia didn’t know exactly how to maneuver him to its advantage.

So all that was needed was for them to make contact, which proved strikingly easy. Since his campaign was willing to bend the rules, Russia did too. Its efforts didn’t follow a normal diplomatic protocol, but largely consisted of furtive communications through second- and third-parties.

Trump-Russia meetings galore

The following examples comprise just a few of the meetings highlighted in the indictments released so far in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation:

·      Campaign adviser George Papadopoulos met with a Maltese professor in the spring of 2016  who claimed to have ties to the Russian government and offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The professor arranged for Papadopoulos to meet with a woman claiming to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s niece and introduced Papadopoulos to an individual who claimed to have contacts in the Russian government, who in turn tried to arrange meetings directly between Trump or his aides and Putin or his staff. Those meetings didn’t occur, but other efforts continued.

·      In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort met at Trump Tower in New York with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and others who claimed to have “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary.” Trump Jr., who helped arrange the meeting, was explicitly told that it was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

·      When former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen took the lead in trying to arrange the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow, Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman who was helping to arrange the project, wrote to Cohen that he would “get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.…Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this,” according to emails obtained by the New York Times. Cohen considered going to Moscow to help push the deal and also spoke to Trump about the latter possibly taking a trip to Moscow.

·      And according to the indictment issued last week by special counsel Robert Mueller, Roger Stone coordinated with WikiLeaks, the outlet that, according to the US intelligence community, Russia enlisted to publish hacked emails that would embarrass Clinton. The indictment also says that “a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone” about what else WikiLeaks might have on Clinton.

It’s worth noting that the Stone indictment presents evidence of consultation and coordination, going beyond mere contact. In particular, Wikileak director Julian Assange (identified in the indictment as the “head of Organization 1”) provided information about what emails were coming when. And Stone sent Assange at least one article, asking WikiLeaks to release emails related to it.

The clandestine conversations between Stone and WikiLeaks produced a payoff that we can track. At least some of the topics of the WikiLeaks email dumps were turned into conspiracy stories and amplified by both Russian propaganda sites like RT and Sputnik and Trump-friendly US media outlets, including Breitbart (formerly run by Trump adviser Steve Bannon), InfoWars, the National Enquirer (which was in the business of covering up negative stories about Trump), and Fox News’s Sean Hannity.

The choreography is either amusing or chilling, depending on your perspective. For example, on August 2, 2016, flamboyant political commentator Jerome Corsi (identified as “Person 1” in the Stone indictment), one of the go-betweens for Stone and Assange, emailed Stone and said, “Would not hurt to start suggesting [Clinton] old, memory bad, has stroke – neither he nor she well.”

As the BBC has laid out in a helpful timeline, two days later, on August 4, InfoWars began pushing stories about Clinton’s failing health. On August 7, Matt Drudge joined in, with RT picking up the story the next day. Also on August 8, the National Enquirer ran a story about “Hillary Clinton’s secret health crisis.” Hannity then ran a series of segments about Clinton’s failing health. And by August 15, Trump was publicly stating that Clinton “lacks the physical and mental stamina” to fight the terrorist group known as ISIS.

In short, both sides promoted the same narrative that benefited each of them.

Did Roger Stone and other members of Trump’s campaign fully understand what they were doing?

As former CIA Director John Brennan told the House Intelligence Committee in May 2017 about Russia’s interactions with the Trump campaign, “Frequently, people who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late.”

An intelligence officer does not recruit an asset in an instant. He or she develops the individual over time, and sometimes the individual does not know whose bidding they are doing. Intelligence operations, by design, use cutouts — an individual or front organization, for example, that is separate from the state entity running the operation — to create plausible deniability.

For every action an intelligence officer takes, he or she creates what is called “cover for action,” basically a cover story that makes the action look more benign than it is. This plausible deniability creates a sort of safety net, making it difficult to connect those who are actually involved.

Sometimes the cover story and cutouts and deniability make drawing this line impossible; sometimes they provide only a fig leaf. Stone, in theory, might have worked with WikiLeaks without knowing it was being used as a cutout by Russian intelligence.

But once the fig leaf is pulled aside, an individual must choose: continue being complicit, or back away and try to convince others he had no idea he was actually collaborating with a foreign power.

Proving Stone knew he was working with Russian intelligence might be impossible, because the intelligence operation was designed to make it impossible. This is why focusing only on Mueller’s criminal indictments is perilous. Even if Mueller uncovers nothing more illegal, a national security threat might still be present.

However, Team Trump did know that at least some of the help was coming from Russia.

The Trump Tower meeting was set up on the premise of collecting help from the Russian government. Papadopoulos’ meetings, too, made it clear Russia’s government was involved. Cohen’s exchanges with Sater also made it clear. And by July 24, 2016, two days after the first dump of Clinton’s emails, nearly everyone had concluded Russia’s intelligence agencies were likely involved.

So when a senior Trump campaign official (unidentified in the Stone indictment) reached out to ask Stone about getting more Clinton emails released, the original source of those purloined emails – namely Russia – would likely have been evident. Soliciting foreign assistance for a presidential campaign is illegal, but this hasn’t been charged.

It is also a counterintelligence threat, leaving the campaign indebted to a foreign adversary. And it was only one of a string of mutual favors being sought by Trump and the Kremlin. “Donald Trump wanted Russian help to build a lucrative Trump Tower in Moscow. His campaign wanted Russian help in the form of stolen emails and dirt on Hilary Clinton. And the Russians wanted Trump’s help in removing sanctions. The convergence of interests is hard to ignore.” House Intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), tweeted  on Jan. 28.

Did Trump, who was in some ways a foreign affairs neophyte but had experience with international deal-making, know what he was getting into? It turns out that he and his team had good reason to be on the lookout for efforts at manipulation. They had received a counterintelligence briefing from the FBI in July 2016, which would have included warnings about Russian contacts.

Having had a counterintelligence briefing myself, I know Trump’s team would have been warned to be wary of any foreign approaches — particularly from traditionally adversarial countries like Russia — and to alert the FBI of any contacts. As we now know, the FBI had opened its counterintelligence investigation into Russian attempts to influence the election that same month.

Team Trump’s decision to make contact with Russia — and lie about it — has had far-reaching consequences

Instead of alerting the FBI, however, Team Trump consistently chose to hide its contacts, a set of decisions that has drawn repeated censure in Mueller’s probe.

Manafort, according to the special counsel, lied — even after his plea agreement—including about the fact that he shared polling data with a Russian-connected aide named Konstantin Kilimnik. When news of the Trump Tower meeting broke, Trump personally crafted a misleading account of its substance — that the meeting was supposedly about adoptions — during a flight home on Air Force One from a G20-nation meeting in Germany, where he had just had a tête-à-tête with Putin.

Trump even took pains to keep the substance of that conversation, as well as at least four others he has had with Putin since becoming president, private.

The question remains: Was Trump just conducting business in his usual free-wheeling way, without realizing this was particularly perilous because of the involvement of the Russian government?  Even if this was the essence of what happened, it could still pose a counterintelligence threat because Russia would be better positioned to establish the parameters and gain the upper hand, making any manipulations more feasible.

How have things played out so far? Trump got elected with Russian support, though we still don’t know precisely how much it mattered. Putin seems to have profited already from Trump’s tenure. Certain oligarchs have seen some sanctions relief. Trump has announced the US is getting out of Syria. He has talked loosely about pulling the United States out of NATO.

A president has the right to choose his policy. But when he gets entangled in a foreign adversary’s intelligence operation against the American electoral system — an intelligence operation that aimed to elect that very person — the counterintelligence risks cannot be overstated.

There is such a cloud now over Trump’s connections to Russia, due to the lying as much as the actions themselves, that the American people wonder if Trump is acting in their interest or has been manipulated into following an agenda that serves others.

Doubts aren’t held by a minority anymore. In mid-January, Politico magazine polled nearly 2000 registered voters about whether Putin holds information about Trump that incriminates him. And fifty-seven percent said they think Putin does.

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