Luke Harding’s latest book “Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House” purports to be the definitive account of Russiagate. For this reason only it makes an interesting read: in the year of “Putin did it” (elected Trump) and omnipresent Russian interference, the book provides an excellent summary of a contemporary conventional wisdom. But not only: this is one of the few opportunities the general public is offered to see how one of the most prominent proponents of journalism as an instrument of the enlightenment actually thinks. Without editorial restrictions by the Guardian’s (Harding’s newspaper) publishers, the author finally is not constrained by the usual language clichés that make so much of journalistic writing and make news consuming something an intellectually frustrating experience akin to fast food versus eating. We will see later, to what effects.
Most people who read in English and have an interest in all things Russia probably were already familiar with Luke Harding’s fame and have increasingly become familiar with his face too: coinciding with the publication of his latest book he has appeared as a guest in many TV shows from CNN to MSNBC. He enjoys almost celebrity status and his status should have granted him at least one very vital thing that successful reporters need more than anything else: access to good sources. For this reason only, most people, even in age of extreme skepticism towards a self-referential media, are left with nothing better than putting their entire trust in reporters like Luke Harding, divulgators who enjoy exclusive access to exclusive information.
Now all things considered, it is rather disappointing to see that for the first 200 pages the book is little more of the retelling of how the now famous report by ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele came about and was finally published. It is a story we already knew. There is nothing is terms of news insights or shocking revelations: it is essentially a collection of the Russiagate news stories that started to appear after Trump was elected. The dossier, which was never meant for general public knowledge but was circulating across many editorial offices, was eventually and surprisingly published in January 2017 by the online news portal Buzzfeed. It made for great entertainment, appealing to the most basic instincts, providing almost pornographic details of how Trump entertained prostitutes in a Moscow hotel in 2013 and watched them pee on a bed where Michelle Obama was said to have slept. Steele himself said that the dossier without doubt contains between 60% and 90% accurate information. Harding writes: “An uncomfortable image in which Trump-the fish-was suckered into taking the bait (“hooked” by hookers, in fact). With his trademark sardonic humour, Putin may have been delivering a second message, darkly visible beneath the choppy, translucent waters of the first. It said: we’ve got the tape, Donald! If this was Putin’s submerged meaning, the President-elect would surely have noticed it”. Here is investigative journalism at its best: the author, thanks to his superior faculties and insider knowlegde, is able to decypher the murky and threatening message delivered to Trump by the Russian president. The launch of Luke Harding’s book, in at least five languages at the same time (English, French, Spanish, German and Italian, possibly other ones) in November this year, a unique phenomenon in the history of publishing, certainly seemed to promise much more to the readers.
The second part of the book is when we get what are supposed to be the spicy bits of information. The first of these revelations comes in the chapter “Collusion” that gives the title to the book. Harding suggests that Trump might have been a KGB-FSB agent for a long time, at least since 1987, when he was invited to visit the Soviet Union in great pomp by the then Soviet ambassador to the United States. Why would the Soviet ambassador have invited Trump anyway if not to recruit him? Moreover, Trump’s wife was from Czechoslovakia, she must have been a potential Communist asset too. Harding is quick to note that it was after his first trip to Moscow in July 1987 that Trump showed his first ambitions to enter politics, a couple of months later, in September and quotes a story from the New York Times: “Trump Gives A Vague Hint of A Candidacy”, titled the NYT on September 2 (incidentally, the hint, if there ever was one, is really extremely vague). The chapter explores else the contact between Trump Jr and some Russian oligarchs that had offered compromising material on Clinton. That nothing came out of it, it does not matter: intention is what matters, Harding says conclusively. Trump & Co. had been willing to accept information from a foreign government.
In the next chapter, Harding looks at the first meeting between Trump and Putin, in Hamburg, Germany, at the G20 forum in Juli. “This was the moment for Trump to make the American view clear”, Harding writes in a paragraph that aims to sound very conclusive, “namely that Kremlin’s hacking of the election amounted to ill-considered interference […] Putin would interpret anything less than this as American weakness. And, practically, a green light for his operatives to tamper again in Washington’s affairs. All done, of course, under the same cover of plausible deniability. Apparently, Trump said none of this.” Harding speaks here of the “Kremlin’s hacking of the election”, another phrase which has become a language cliché. But is this really the problem? Did the Russians hack “the election”, like the popular phrase would suggest? A few pages before, Harding, quoting a senior US intelligence operator, told us it was not so much the hacking, rather the fact that the material was made public through Wikileaks. Is this everything the interference amounted to? The story of how Wikileaks (on which Harding wrote himself a book in 2011) went on to become a favourite of liberal journalists (it worked directly with many left-wing media outlets across Europe and the US back then, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, La Repubblica and the New York Times among others) to basically an arm of Russian intelligence is also a very interesting one. Again Harding shows also unparalleled abilities, a quality shared by many other, present and former, Russia experts, to interpret Putin’s thoughts and reactions like nobody else could do, thanks to their expertise in Putinology: “Putin would interpret this as a sign of weakness …” The concept of plausible deniability is also widely used by professional Russia interpreters and observers like Harding & Co.: “we cannot prove that Russia and Putin did this and that because we do not really have the proofs, but they also cannot prove that they did not do it, so who do you choose to believe, us, the professional and honest reporters who contributed to the cause of the truth or the dark forces of the Kremlin? The choice is up to you.”
The last chapters of the book are devoted to exploring the connections between Russian money and Donald Trump. I’ll be extremely short here, but the gist of the story is: Donald Trump has debts, a lot of debts, nobody wants to lend money to him after the 2008 financial crisis; Deutsche Banks uses schemes to transfer money from its branch in Moscow to its banks in London and New York; Deutsche Bank lends money to Donald Trump; conclusion: Russia (which translates into Putin) is financing (and corrupting) Donald Trump. Make up your mind youself.
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Much has been made of Russiagate: some speak of it as a second Watergate, some say it is going to be worse than Watergate, because Watergate did not involve a foreign hostile power. For many journalists Russiagate promises to be, without doubt, the scoop of a lifetime. Without doubt, some very ambitious media stars are flirting with the idea of becoming another Bernstein and one day have movies made about them. Journalists as agents of the Enlightenment. They are not the most modest of people, and in spite of their constant profession of faith in democracy and other core liberal values, in fact it does not take much digging to find out what somebody like Luke Harding really things about some things and some people. Here is how for example he dismisses Carter Page, who was nominated by Trump as an economic advisor during the presidential campaign: “Not that Page’s opinions counted for much. Global Policy has a small circulation. It was edited out of Durham University in the north of England”. Is it really the same person who never tires talking about democracy and liberal values speaking here? Why would somebody’s opinion matter anyway? He is not even writing for the Guardian, I mean …
Books written by journalists are probably not conceived to be analyzed at too deep of level: but they pretend to stand for the truth and nothing but the truth, why shouldn’t they be? Most people understand that journalistic writing is often to be taken with more than a pinch or two of salt, but journalists themselves, living in their own mediatic bubble of semicelebrity, seem to be completely blind to this fact, believing they possess a monopoly in the revelation of facts and the truth.
The fact that this book, in spite of the great sensation that accompanied its publication, is little more than a collection of news reports or gossip, seems to be confirmed by the strange fact that it received very few reviews in other major news outlets. Some mistakes are admissible and excusable in the business of frentic day-to-day news reporting, but when releasing a book, some “facts” could have been very easily checked. Harding for example described the meeting between Trump and Merkel in March as a “glum, handshakeless encounter”. It would not have taken much in terms of investigative and research abilities to avoid this plump mischarecterization. Merkel, in fact, received from Trump in her first visit to the White House much more courtersy than she probably deserved.
For more pictures of the meeting, here. Fake politeness? Maybe. But glum is something else.
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I’ll be honest: in spite of everything, I enjoyed this book. Although it was probably for not the reasons the author and the publisher had in mind. It is because of uncensored passages like this I found the book a breath of fresh air in a discourse stifled by the political correctness:
“Page’s real qualification for the role, it appeared, had little to do with his restless CV. […] Page’s view of the world was not unlike the Kremlin’s. Boiled down: the United States’ attempts to spread democracy had brought chaos and disaster.”
An entirely absurd notion, isn’t it?
“Shaun Walker, the Guardian’s Russia correspondent, had attended an event given by Page the previous evening. He described Page’s PowerPoint presentation as ‘really weird’. ‘It looked like as if it had been done for a Kazachstan gas conference’, Walker said. ‘He was talking about the United States’ attempts to spread democracy, and how disgraceful their were’ “
What is wrong with gas conferences in Kazachstan? (Here you find Page’s lecture at the New Economics School in Moscow, that Harding described as a “distinctly strange, content-free ramble verging on the bizarre” here. “Page, it seemed, was critizing US-led attempts at ‘regime change’ in the former Soviet world. Nobody could be sure. His audience included students and local Trump fans, some of whom were visibily nodding off by the end”, Harding memorably characterizes.)
“I had met supporters of Yanukovych’s arch rival, Yulia Timoshenko. Typically, they were the better educated and middle class: attractive students wearing tight-fitting orange T-shirts. Generally, they spoke English.
Yanukovych’s supporters, by contrast, were distinctly unglamorous. They were provincial, Russophone (he might as well have added: and they stank). Most were Soviet-born old ladies wearing headscarves. […] A few waved Orthodox icons.”
And a few pages later:
“On election night most journalists went to Tymoshenko’s election party, held in the swanky surroundings of Kiev’s Haytt Hotel. I found the usual English-speaking crowd. There were canapes, wine, beautiful people. […] Many of Yanukovich’s supporters looked like mafia bosses on a day out. They were enormous, with thick bouncer-like necks stuffed into dinner jackets. There were fewer women than at Yulia’s bash.”
The author appears to be seduced by the beauty of the youth. The youth is beautiful and has aspirations, and these old people, who do not even speak English by the way, they just want to survive. Were they never young? Why should we care about these old, poor, with golden fake teeth, derelicts anyway?
My final take on this book: read it. This may really be the most important book of the year. Here you will find out everything you need to know on Trump and Russia. And you won’t find much.