FEATURE

Only Disconnect

Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win Luke Harding. Vintage. Paperback, 368 pages. $16
Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump David Michael; Corn Isikoff. Twelve. Hardcover, 352 pages. $30
Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America Seth Abramson. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 448 pages. $28

A SECRET ALWAYS HAS A HIDING PLACE: an unmarked house, a black lacquered box, an undisclosed conference room somewhere in misty Halifax. In retrospect they’re obvious. In Christopher Steele’s consulting office in London, the only giveaway as to the nature of his work is a set of Russian dolls, painted with the likenesses of Tolstoy, Gogol, Lermontov, and Pushkin—“as good a metaphor as any for the astonishing secret investigation Steele had recently been asked to do,” Luke Harding writes in Collusion. It’s December 2016 and Harding, a foreign correspondent for The Guardian, has arranged a meeting with Steele to discuss rumors about the relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. “It was as if there were a strange fealty at work, an unexplained factor, an invisible hand, a missing piece of the puzzle,” Harding writes. Could blackmail be a factor?

Bradley Davis/Flickr

Steele seems to offer some answers. The former British spy had been commissioned by Fusion GPS, a private investigative company working for the Democratic National Committee, to gather intelligence from Russian sources about the Kremlin’s relationship to the Trump campaign. Harding’s December meeting was inconclusive (“Steele wasn’t going to tell us much,” he writes), but Steele did appear to hint that the rumors of blackmail could be true. The following month, Steele’s memos, which had been circulating in Washington’s upper echelons, were published by BuzzFeed. Though never intended as confirmed facts, their contents—including the suggestion that the Kremlin was using a sex tape as leverage over Trump—piqued the interest of the public. “Our mission was now clear: follow the sex and the money,” Harding recalls thinking after his meeting with Steele. This was the prelude to Russiagate; the special counsel, Robert Mueller, would be appointed that May.

A lot has happened since 2017, when the first spate of Russia books were published. Steele has backed down, slightly, from his faith in the contents of his dossier. While much of it has been confirmed, he now puts the odds of the “pee tape” being real at about fifty-fifty. At the time, some of us doubted the integrity of the information in the dossier and wanted someone to determine its veracity. Harding, who had previously written books about Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, was one of the first journalists who leapt in to meet this demand. Collusion was published in November 2017 and almost immediately shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

While Harding can’t deliver proof of the pee tape, he does offer an assessment of Steele’s character. In Collusion he describes Steele, approvingly, as a fellow professional—respected, but under the radar. Steele was working for MI6, the British foreign-intelligence service, as a Russia analyst until he was outed in 1999, forcing him to return to London. Steele then left the agency in 2009 to form his own consultancy—the aim being, as Harding describes it, to escape the pressures of the service and make more money. Steele established a reputation in Washington by revealing corruption within FIFA, the soccer governing body, which led to the indictment of fourteen officials and the arrest of seven. The accounts of people who know him seem to corroborate his integrity. Glenn Simpson, the Fusion GPS employee who commissioned the investigation, testified that Steele is “basically a Boy Scout.” He reportedly also has a photographic memory.

The question Harding’s book attempts to answer—the question of who is a reliable narrator of Russiagate—is one that has come up again and again over the past two years. We’ve since squinted, collectively, at former FBI director James Comey, at Mueller, and, now, at Attorney General William Barr, trying to decide who deserves to be trusted. Who, in the end, do we want to write the story of Russiagate? As we weigh our options, we look for seams in their accounts—as if we could twist them, crack them open, and find another, hidden narrative inside. The Russian dolls in Harding’s account are a clumsy metaphor, the kind reporters with literary ambitions reach for but can’t pull off. Russiagate—constantly summarized but impossible to keep straight—demands this unfortunate work. Readers need something to hold it all together, some framework into which each new detail can nicely slot. We need to know not only what happened, but why, so the journalist grasps at the novelist’s tools of metaphor, character, motivation, and suspense. But the facts of this story sprawl, leading everywhere and nowhere at once.

In Russian Roulette (2018), Michael Isikoff and David Corn, two veteran journalists at Yahoo! News and Mother Jones, respectively, set out, like Harding, to stitch together the disparate, incremental, and confusing reports on potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Like the human genome, Russiagate books are 99.9 percent alike. Though their book was published four months after Harding’s, Isikoff and Corn rehash much of the same material. The main difference is one of perspective. Where Harding brings his own experience as a foreign correspondent to bear, Russian Roulette is stuck in Washington. As such, it paints a more distant picture of foreign power, one driven by human vice: Putin is furious about US intervention in regions that have traditionally fallen under Russia’s sway and has a vendetta against Hillary Clinton for her work as secretary of state under Obama. Her relationship with him has been marked by gaffes. During a visit to Geneva in 2009, Clinton gave Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a gag gift: a green gift-wrapped box containing a red button (one that accidentally misspelled the Russian word for “reset”), representing a short-lived attempt to improve US-Russian relations. But what really provoked Putin’s ire was when Clinton questioned the legitimacy of his country’s elections in 2011: “Russian voters,” she said in Bonn, “deserve a full investigation of all credible reports of electoral fraud and manipulation.” Plus, Isikoff and Corn speculate, Putin doesn’t respect women leaders; as insider evidence, they cite the time Putin suggested Bill Clinton go polar-bear tagging with him in Siberia and Hillary declined on his behalf, offering herself instead. “Putin raised an eyebrow. She knew what that meant: Putin didn’t go polar bear tagging with sixty-two-year-old women.”

As in most accounts by investigative journalists, trained since the Deep Throat days to follow the money, Isikoff and Corn devote a lot of space to outlining Trump and his associates’ financial ties to Russian business. Trump has been trying to acquire real estate in Moscow since the 1980s, but the data points describing his fraught relationship with Putin are scattered. Isikoff and Corn place the “birth of a bromance” at the Miss Universe contest in Moscow in 2013—the same trip described by Steele as the possible origin of the pee tape. Russian Roulette casts the visit as having to do with Trump’s ambition to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, rather than a plot to blackmail him by recording his hotel room. Trump, feeling he was on the edge of a successful deal, sought Putin’s tacit approval by inviting him to attend the contest. Isikoff and Corn also attribute Trump’s consistently positive reactions to Russia’s maneuvers with Ukraine to his concerns about how sanctions might affect the Trump Tower deal.

With his interest in the dynamics of Russian power, Harding gravitates less toward Trump’s own corruption and more toward his supporting actors: Trump’s campaign staff. Carter Page, a foreign-policy adviser to the campaign, is universally described as an idiot—an idiot who got “suckered,” per Isikoff and Corn, when he made contact with Igor Sechin, the head of a Russian oil company subject to US sanctions. Harding zeroes in on Paul Manafort’s involvement in the election of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, and his continuing advisory role during the Maidan protests in Kiev and with respect to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. And then there’s former lieutenant general Michael Flynn’s conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late 2016, during which he negotiated rolling back Obama-era sanctions without the authority to do so, and subsequently lied about it.

Still, after all the legwork, many questions remain. The authors of these books seem aware that they haven’t found a smoking gun. And so they are forced to grapple with the mystery at the center of it all: the reasons Trump does anything he does. Neither Trump’s desire for money nor Putin’s desire to end geopolitical sanctions seems to account completely for Trump’s erratic behavior toward Putin. Why, for instance, did Trump tweet “Putin’s letter is a masterpiece for Russia and a disaster for the U.S. He is lecturing to our President. Never has our Country looked to weak [sic]” two months before the 2013 Miss Universe contest? Lacking other compelling explanations, both books gesture toward what Isikoff and Corn call a “bromance” and Harding refers to as “the budding Trump-Putin friendship.” In lieu of grand narratives, vague anecdotes that seem to capture Trump’s character will do. According to Isikoff and Corn, Trump once bought a horse for half a million dollars from an associate of John Gotti, but never paid him because the horse was lame—evidence, they suggest, of a desperate urge to win the approval of powerful men.

One of the biggest hurdles these books face is the tedium of describing the contemporary information economy. There’s little in the way of scenic color. As information has become less physical, so too has the economy around it grown less dramatic, bringing us banal neurosis rather than grand suspense: “Simpson was getting anxious. The FedEx package had not arrived” and “I [Harding] entered via the front door and found myself in a barren reception room, devoid of chairs.” Against this backdrop, the more eccentric characters tend to stand out. The small, revealing details about them are arguably the most fascinating aspect of both books. For instance, in 2015, RT (formerly Russia Today) hosts a dinner. Flynn—“hawkish” but “a dove when it came to Russia”—is invited to give a presentation. A staff member begs him, on behalf of the entire Army, “Please, sir, don’t do this.” But Flynn doesn’t heed the warnings, and goes forward with the speech, talking about the need for Russia and the US to collaborate on defeating radical Islamic terrorism, all in front of RT’s logo on the projector screen. At the dinner, Flynn was seated next to Putin. Jill Stein, a presidential candidate at the time, attended the same dinner, and Julian Assange satellited in.

WE RUN IN CIRCLES as we try to hold the whole of Russiagate in mind. The thing we can’t quite pin down also seems incredibly clear: that Trump has no integrity. Yet what we want to indict him for—collusion—is not a legal category. It’s a word that stands in for “conspiracy” or “collaboration,” and implies some confluence of Trump’s and Putin’s interests. This is where the “spy novel” model for Collusion and Russian Roulette starts to show its cracks. Spy novels—unbelievable stories that, as they unfold, prove to be believable—are character-driven, using revealing moments to move the plot forward and to build a sense that behind every act and document is a person trying to get what they want. They also typically end in a fait accompli: in this case, “collusion.” But collusion has proved more elusive than the journalists perhaps hoped. No one who doesn’t already have their suspicions will be convinced by these books. Rather than a nail in Trump’s coffin, their charge of collusion is a kind of literary device for readers to understand the nature of his unwieldy corruption. These books offer narrative, not legal, proof.

Seth Abramson, in Proof of Collusion, abandons the pretense of a novel-like story in favor of an annotated outline of the most comprehensive record so far. His hope is not to reveal the collusive secret at the heart of Russiagate, but to show that collusion is everywhere. Chronology is king, in Abramson’s book; he opts for chapters that lay out a detailed play-by-play of events, abandoning character in favor of timeline. Each chapter has three components: the summary of the period in question, a section called “The Facts,” which expands on the summary, and an “Annotated History,” which adds comprehensive notes to “The Facts.” It’s a mise en abyme of explanation.

Abramson, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop whose most famous poetic work may be his remixing of the incel Elliot Rodger’s manifesto, has coined a term for what he’s up to: curatorial journalism. He writes in The Guardian that his book is an attempt to compensate for the pickle readers find themselves in; “curatorial journalism distills for newsreaders the key connections between the reports they’re being bombarded with on a daily basis, and does so in a way that makes the heterogeneity and frenetic pace of contemporary media seem like a positive development.” Abramson doesn’t do traditional journalism: He declines to investigate any new sources, confines himself to information that’s already been published, and doesn’t speculate about motives or bromances. He lays out “The Facts” and tries to trace a network of evidence. In practice, this amounts to overwhelming the reader with sheer detail, like a certain kind of prosecutor.

What Abramson produces is essentially a really good Wikipedia page. But Proof of Collusion gets closer than the other books to acknowledging what Russiagate really shows us: that the story of Russia and the US has moved past Cold War dynamics. Spy novels are suited to the Soviet age: meetings, real estate deals, secret motives. But the new world is one where conflicts are fought on the internet. Russia creates troll farms and hacks the DNC. Conspiracy theories reign. Instead of a system in which we can isolate and prosecute individual bad actors, we have a web where malign activity is untraceable and distributed. And instead of a smoking gun, a single document, we have a network of fragmented secrets, breadcrumbs that point, conspiratorially, to a conspiracy. Journalists haven’t yet figured out how to present these conflicts.

The final blow to our desire for narrative resolution was the long-awaited Mueller report, which debuted at the top of the New York Times best-seller list in May. Many hoped it would provide a coherent story, but it turned out to be another roman without a clef. Chekhov’s gun failed to go off. We now know roughly what happened in 2016: There was an attempt at interference, one that was welcomed, if not encouraged, by the Trump campaign. But however we spin it, the joke doesn’t land; the last act is a disappointment. Incompetence, it seems, knows no why—and struggle as we might to apply the logic of the feeling person to the bumbling and the power-hungry, we cannot.


Nausicaa Renner is the digital editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and a senior editor at n+1.