The Birther Crusade
Following the playbook it developed in Eastern European and Central Asia, Russia has meddled in elections in multiple Western countries in the hopes of undermining democracy and the stability of Russia’s traditional opponents. Trump, a political novice with a longstanding public admiration for Putin, potentially massive debts to Russian oligarchs, isolationist policies, and few apparent scruples, who was running against a woman Putin considers among his main adversaries, was an ideal candidate for the Kremlin to back—and there is reason to believe Russia began cultivating Trump as an asset long before he began running for president.
According to the journalist Luke Harding, the author of Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, Russia has been interested in Trump since at least 1987, when Trump visited Moscow with the Russian Ambassador Yuri Dubinin. As it relates to the 2016 election, though, the natural starting point for analyzing the relationship is Trump’s “birther” crusade against President Barack Obama.
It’s easy to forget that Trump initially supported his predecessor. In 2008, Trump—at the time a registered Democrat—praised Obama during the latter’s primary campaign, saying, “I think [Obama] has a chance to go down as a great president.” This praise continued into 2009, when he told Larry King that Obama was “totally a champion,” and 2010, when Trump wrote in his book Think Like a Champion that “Obama proved that determination combined with opportunity and intelligence can make things happen—and in an exceptional way.”
By 2011, however, Trump not only soured on Obama but was a leading proponent of the birther movement. On March 23 of that year, Trump told the “Today” show he had “some real doubts” about Obama’s birthplace and had sent investigators to Hawaii to investigate. On another “Today” appearance, on April 7, Trump again questioned Obama’s citizenship, falsely saying that Obama’s “grandmother in Kenya said he was born in Kenya, and she was there and witnessed the birth. He doesn’t have a birth certificate or he hasn’t shown it,” and that Obama had spent $2 million in legal fees “to get away from this issue.”
If Trump’s birtherism had been a genuine quest for the truth, it would have ended when Obama released his long-form birth certificate on April 27. But after Obama did so—and roasted Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner a few days later—Trump doubled down. By the end of 2012, Trump had not only continued to tout the conspiracy theory on television but also tweeted about Obama’s birthplace 73 times. He would not publicly acknowledge that Obama was born in the U.S. until September 2016, at which point he blamed Clinton for starting birtherism—and, according to The New York Times, he has continued to privately express doubts about Obama’s citizenship.
How—and even whether—Trump came to believe Obama was born in Kenya remains unknown. The belief was popular among Republicans—a poll in April 2011 found that 47 percent believed the conspiracy theory—and on the right-wing, conspiracy-oriented news sources from which Trump is known to get much of his news. Given that Trump was at the time flirting with running for president, some have suggested that he began espousing birtherism as a matter of political expediency.
Wherever Trump picked up birtherism, Russia likely picked up on Trump’s birtherism and saw how Trump could serve Russian interests. The racist conspiracy theory fundamentally attacks democracy, asserting that the populace was duped into electing an illegitimate foreign invader. That such a famous American with a hit television show and a massive Twitter following was spreading the conspiracy theory aligned, perfectly with Russia’s foreign policy goals.
If so, it would be no coincidence that, according to the Steele Dossier, Trump began feeding Russian intelligence information around the same time. The Dossier, citing four sources for the claim, doesn’t specify what information Trump provided; however, one plausible theory is that Trump was keeping tabs on Russian oligarchs living in his properties. This would fit with not only how intelligence services operate—they often begin with such simple requests that assets don’t realize they have become intelligence assets—but also with Trump’s own track record of surveilling his buildings. (Trump, and members of his campaign named in the dossier, have broadly denied its veracity, although have not mounted any significant effort to discredit its individual allegations.)
The Miss Universe Pageant Trip
Trump’s trip to Moscow for the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant provided another ideal opportunity for Russia to cultivate him as an asset, and to create the connections the Kremlin leveraged in 2016. In planning and executing the pageant, Trump met with several individuals who would ultimately resurface during his presidential campaign, including Rob Goldstone, the music producer who arranged the June 9, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower; the Azerbaijani-Russian oligarch and Aras Agalarov and his pop-star son Emin, on whose behalf Goldstone reached out to arrange meeting; and Ike Kaveladze, an executive in the Agalarovs’ real-estate company and suspected money launderer who attended the meeting. Trump even filmed a cameo appearance in the music video for Emin Agalarov’s song “In Another Life” in Moscow’s Ritz Carlton, and rubbed elbows with other members of the Russian elite, such as Herman Gref, Russia’s former Minister of Economics and Trade and the current CEO of Russia’s largest bank Sberbank.
The Steele Dossier also describes the trip as a critical juncture in Russia’s cultivation of Trump as an asset. It is on this trip that Steele alleges Russia obtained kompromat on Trump in the form of a compromising video. This allegation, among the more explosive in the Dossier, has been neither conclusively corroborated nor conclusively disproven. The Trump administration denies the event occurred; Trump’s personal bodyguard Keith Schiller testified before Congress that he actually turned down an offer from a Russian individual to “send five women” to Trump’s hotel room. Though Schiller presented the story as exculpatory, he also said he only stayed by the door to Trump’s hotel room for part of the night, leaving open the possibility that the encounter may have occurred after Schiller left. (The episode also comports with Russia’s known tendency to produce kompromat on visiting government officials and business elite, often by bugging their hotel rooms and orchestrating embarrassing sexual encounters.)
Whether or not Russia obtained kompromat on Trump during the weekend of the Miss Universe Pageant, the trip clearly left Trump with a high opinion of Russia and Putin. In interviews and speeches during and after the trip, Trump boasted about his relationship with the country and its leader, alluding to receiving a gift from and speaking “indirectly—and directly—with President Putin, who could not have been nicer.” Trump, by the time he returned to the U.S., was primed for Russia to exploit to undermine democracy in the 2016 election.