What I learned from American Kompromat by Craig Unger (2021) Dutton: NYC has prompted me to write a blog.
Trigger Warning: This book contains potentially distressing content that could trigger trauma that we have experienced regarding the previous US President.
I whisper this mantra to myself: "We're safe now. He's gone. We're safe now." The purpose of this exercise is to reduce my blood pressure and decrease my PTSD symptoms after finishing American Kompromat by Craig Unger. I will now perform a public service for all of you by reviewing this book so that you do not have to suffer any health consequences from reliving the last 4 years of your life. Let me also remind you to consider the Russian mafia as an extension of the Kremlin. First let's go back in time - forty-four years to be exact.
In Spring 1977, nine of us gathered weekly on the floor of our living room with our University of Michigan professor, for our "Spies and Lies" class. I am sure it had a more formal name than that. Five of my nine Ann Arbor housemates took part. We relished our evenings discussing Cold War spydom. It seemed exotic and opened up a completely different world. It was a lot of fun. When Meryll and I wrote Jewish Luck, we spent hours trying to understand concepts such as money laundering, shell companies, kompromat, cronyism - all concepts we thought were indigenous to the USSR, now Russia. Once these concepts were foreign, exotic, and intriguing. Now, they are part of our vocabulary thanks to Trump and friends.
Back to our review of American Kompromat. First, who is Craig Unger and why should I believe him? Craig Unger is a journalist who has written seven books. He said four of them (and now we can include this one also as the fifth) could have been subtitled "The Republican Party's War Against Democracy." (See interview below with Chalupa and Kendzior). He has written another book about similar issues, House of Trump, House of Putin. He is a contributor to many magazines of note. He is a Harvard graduate. Otherwise, his available biography is rather vague. According to the New York Times and me, the man does his research and documents his sources.
What is kompromat? Kompromat is formed from two words - compromising and information.
Amanda Taub in a 2017 NYT essay explains further. "Kompromat is more than an individual piece of damaging information: It is a broader attempt to manufacture public cynicism and confusion in ways that target not just one individual but an entire society.
And although this practice tends to be associated with Russia... it is a common feature of authoritarian and semi-authoritarian nations around the world."
...By eroding the very idea of a shared reality, and by spreading apathy and confusion among a public that learns to distrust leaders and institutions alike, kompromat undermines a society's ability to hold the powerful to account and ensure the proper functioning of government."
The essential argument of this book by journalist Craig Unger in my words is: "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck." Whether consciously or not, Donald Trump was groomed as an asset to the Kremlin and did their bidding. Putin inspired ideas include creating chaos within the US population through disinformation campaigns, slandering opponents, breaking up NATO, and leaving Syria to Assad and the Russians. Keep the extremists (Cossacks) handy and use the military, if need be, on ungrateful citizens. Trump may not have needed Putin's instructions to lie, deny and project onto his opponents his own distortions,e.g. "This election is rigged." It was all so easy. The Russians wouldn't have had to use kompromat. Flattery was enough to enlist Trump. That and millions of dollars coming his way at a time when he had his sixth bankruptcy. Unger says in an interview that 1300 properties were bought with cash from undisclosed buyers over the next 30 years. Many could be traced to Russian mafia.
Unger relies heavily on one source regarding recruitment of assets and agents, Yuri Shvets, former KGB, then FSB agent, who knows how recruitment is done in the U.S. Shvets sought asylum in the mid-nineties and wrote his own memoir. The book outlines a plausible route outlining how Donald Trump first was noticed and then invited to Moscow in 1987. Shvets said about 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" (p. 86). He and Ivana were invited to Moscow and wined and dined. There they were shown several potential properties for a Moscow Trump Hotel and wooed with flattery. At that time Shvets imagines that his Russian hosts complimented Trump about his success as a businessman (despite his bankruptcies) and may have said that he might go into politics. Perhaps, one day, he might be president. Certainly they had time to make their talking points about how Russia could be a good friend to the U.S.. When Trump returned, he claimed to have met with Mikhail Gorbachev though he didn't. Trump briefly explored running for President in the 1988 primaries and turned to Roger Stone for help.
Trump had held such fantasies as far back as the 1980s. He would have been spotted as an excellent target years before while living in NYC. In November 1984, he told a Washington Post reporter that he [Donald Trump] should take over the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) with the USSR. "Some people have an ability to negotiate. It's an art you're basically born with. You either have it or you don't" (p. 65). He added "It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles. I think I know most of it anyway" (p. 66).
Shvets and his colleagues would receive examples of excellent propaganda work and Shvets remembers a full page ad being circulated to him. The ad, dated 9/1/87, was published in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and NYT in the form of a letter to the American people stating that Japan and other allies should have to pay for their own defense and supported dismantling the NATO alliance. It was signed by Donald Trump. He had just successfully echoed and amplified Soviet talking points.
An asset is anyone who will be useful to further the propaganda purposes of the agency. The asset does not necessarily get paid or honored as an asset. He/She is not an agent. Does Donald Trump even know he's a Russian asset? In my opinion, not necessarily. In Trump's transactional mind, he may think that Russians are great friends and appreciate his friendship and genius and want to keep his loyalty.
That Trump could serve as a Russian asset was known. This was the Manchurian Candidate in reality. Only Trump did not need to be brainwashed. His brain is already spongy enough to easily influence. Unger cites a NYT op-ed piece in which former CIA Director Michael Morell wrote, "In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation." That was affirmed by several other people in the intelligence community with some calling him "a useful idiot." This was a term that Lenin supposedly used to refer to Westerners who would be easily manipulated for propaganda purposes.
So reviewing a few things that Trump did that buttressed Russia:
- Trying to set up a secure line between him and Putin, secure from US intelligence.
- Leaving Syria to Assad and the Russians.
- Damaging NATO. Countries should have to pull their own weight and just because a member country is attacked doesn't necessarily mean we should defend.
- Weakening the language in the Republican platform that called for "providing lethal defensive weapons" to Ukraine and replacing it with "appropriate assistance."
- Withdrawing troops from Germany
- Doing nothing in the face of Russia offering bounties to the Taliban to target American troops.
- Directing the CIA to share counterterrorism information with Moscow.
- Siding with Putin vs. his own intelligence sources.
In addition, Trump engaged in unprecedented private meetings with the Russian ambassador and private phone calls and talks with Putin. Our press would find out only after meetings were reported in the Russian press. Trump was also styling himself after Putin by removing all oversight in departments, getting rid of competent professionals especially in the intelligence agencies, and hiring people that would do his bidding. The criteria for Trump appointees was blind loyalty to him, not unlike Putin's staffing principles.
Unger writes extensively of William Barr and his support of "the principle of the unitary executive" which enables the President to basically act autocratically. Barr had been instrumental for sweeping the Iran-Contra scandal and many more under the rug as the attorney general for George H.W Bush. Barr was instrumental in allowing Trump to set up his Trumpdom beholden to no one else. Unger explains that Barr and many others are members of Opus Dei, as are many of the members of the Federalist Society who have brought forth candidates for the Supreme Court. Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Cavanaugh were/are all thought to be members of this secret society. Amy Coney Barrett holds similar views. He writes some very spooky stuff about that secret society which originally supported the Fascist regime in Franco's Spain.
There is far too much information about Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell driving home the point that they were the ultimate collectors of compromising videos of famous people having sex with underage girls, another way to keep people in your pocket.
The most interesting portion of this section is the description of Robert Maxwell, Ghislaine's father. He was a Jewish Czech expatriate born Jan Ludvik Hyman Binyamin Hoch. He owned a publishing empire including Macmillan, the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, the English language Moscow News. Pergamon Press and MTV Europe. According to Unger, during the Cold War, "he had begun to indulge in the treacherous game of espionage while simultaneously serving multiple masters - Russian, Israel and Great Britain"(p.148). Despite all his reported wealth, Maxwell, like Trump, was deeply in debt (about 2.2 billion dollars), which made him pliable. Maxwell designed the plan for the KGB and Russian Mafia to launder vast amounts of money to the West before the fall of the Soviet Union and to keep those investments growing afterwards (p.158).
In the end the lessons are clear to me. Unger emphasizes that much of what the Russians were doing in terms of spotting and recruiting assets, laundering money, and setting up disinformation campaigns was not illegal. If Russians want influence, they can lobby and throw money into congressional campaigns indirectly. Our system is vulnerable. Russia has always been very dedicated to spreading propaganda in the most effective way possible. Social media and computer hacking certainly makes it easier and cyber security/warfare is one of Putin's passions.
There are two other lessons which I've discerned. First we have a significant percentage of the population who can not adequately discriminate fact from fiction. Unlike the Soviet people, these are not people that have had blinders on for generations. There is an anti-intellectual attitude stalking the U.S. Hearing something from your facebook friend or cousin is as valid as reading an account in the Washington Post. Second, the majority of the Republican Party has been complicit with Donald Trump. We have had a "Manchurian candidate" and they have rallied behind him. The kompromat has reached into the Republican party and our citizenship. My sister, Meryll, adds that Trump created a Cult of Personality and inserted it into the Republican Party ignorant of the conservative Republican values, and choosing to rally around hot button issues such as immigration. I understand this as the protection of White privilege.
Vera, our heroine from Jewish Luck, told me that Putin thrives on creating chaos in democracies. She was the first to explain to me that the Kremlin influences events in Britain, Barcelona, Europe and here. She said that the time to leave is when the Constitution is changed to allow the leader to continue or when the leader does not accept a peaceful transition. I once thought I was describing the autocracy in Russia and could sit back and gloat from the comfort of my secure nation steeped in democracy, I now realize we came to the edge of losing it.
"We're safe now. He's gone. We're safe now." I'll continue my mantra and I will stay away from Palm Beach County.
Amanda Taub, "Kompromat and the Danger of Doubt and Confusion in a Democracy", NYT Online1/15/2017..https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/15/world/europe/kompromat-donald-trump-russia-democracy.html.
Andrea Chalupa and Sarah Kendzior, "Craig Unger on Kleptocracy" gaslitnationpod.com 8/21/2019.https://www.gaslitnationpod.com/episodes-transcripts-20/2019/8/27/craig-unger-on-kleptocracyEnter your text here ...