Stop obsessing over 'secrets' about Trump and Russia - what we already know is bad enough

The Russian flag flies at half mast at the Consulate-General of Russia in San Francisco, California, on Dec 29, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

We now have not one but two "secret" dossiers on the Russian campaign to support Mr Donald Trump. One of them is an unverified and probably unverifiable 35-page collection of rumours and gossip put together by a former British spy.

Dumped on the Internet by BuzzFeed, the report is filled with small mistakes and some puzzles (for instance: how could salacious Russian "kompromat", or compromising material, be used to blackmail someone as shameless as Mr Trump?) and mixes the plausible with the implausible without giving real answers.

The other is the declassified version of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) report on Russia's role in the US election campaign. Carefully hedged and printed on official stationery, it sticks almost entirely to information that was already in the public domain, including straight-faced analysis of programmes broadcast on RT, the Russian state propaganda channel, which are available to anybody who owns a television set.

Both of these reports are in the news because they contain "secrets". But they add very little to what we already know about Mr Trump's strange relationship with Russia. The MI6 dossier is tantalising but cannot be proven; the DNI report is banal.

Instead of wasting more time on these documents, maybe we ought instead to abandon our obsession with "secrets" and "spies" and look at what is sitting in front of us.

Here, for the record, once again, are things we already know about Mr Trump and Russia, and they aren't remotely secret: Mr Trump's real estate empire relies, though we don't know how much, on Russian money. Mr Trump says he never invested in Russia or got loans from Russia. But he did get investment from Russia. In 2008, his son said that Russian investment was "pouring in" to Trump properties.

Even before that, Mr Trump had a whole series of partners and investors linked to post-Soviet oligarchs and even Russian organised crime.

Has Mr Trump concealed his tax returns for this reason?

Mr Paul Manafort, Mr Trump's former campaign manager, spent many years working on behalf of the thuggish Russian-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually fled his own country. Mr Manafort maintains links to pro-Russian groups in Ukraine. His name appeared on a list of people who took large chunks of cash from Mr Yanukovych. He hasn't gone away - in fact, he has lived in Trump Tower. There is no secret about his Russian connections. On the contrary, they define him.

Last summer, Trump operatives at the convention changed the Republican platform to soften the language on Ukraine. There was no explanation for this change, one of the few substantive changes made to the entire party platform. Was this a signal, from Mr Manafort or Mr Trump, that the candidate was on Russian President Vladimir Putin's side?

Throughout the campaign, Mr Trump repeated slogans and conspiracy theories - "Obama invented ISIS", "Hillary will start World War III" - lifted from Sputnik, the Russian propaganda website.

Was this just Trump campaign chief Stephen Bannon borrowing ideas, or Mr Manafort using tactics he perfected in Ukraine? Or was there deliberate linkage?

Most important: Mr Trump is willing to risk serious conflict with China, destroy US relations with Mexico, dismiss America's closest allies in Europe and downgrade Nato, our most important military alliance. But he has repeated many times his admiration for Russia and its president.

In 2013, he told MSNBC, "I do have a relationship" with Mr Putin, who is "probably very interested in what you and I are saying today" and will "be seeing it in some form". In 2014, he bragged that Mr Putin had sent him a "beautiful present" and claimed, apparently untruthfully, to have spoken to him as well. Nothing that Mr Putin has done since - invade Ukraine, murder journalists, jail opponents - has induced Mr Trump to change his mind.

To that list, we can now add the fact that Russia hacked material from the Clinton campaign, fed it to WikiLeaks and passed it on through their bot and troll network, which transformed it into hysterical slogans. Eventually, our intelligence agencies may learn more about that process, but at this point, it doesn't matter.

Information doesn't have to be secret to be shocking. Mr Trump doesn't have to be a Manchurian candidate who has been hypnotised or recruited by foreign intelligence. It's enough that he has direct and indirect links to a profoundly corrupt and violent foreign dictator, whose policies he admires, whose advisers he shares and whose slogans he uses. That's kompromat enough for me.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2017, with the headline 'Stop obsessing over 'secrets' about Trump and Russia - what we already know is bad enough'. Subscribe