The early books detailing investigations of the Trump campaign and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election tend to have lame, repetitive endings.
“Mueller’s investigation was far from over,” concludes Luke Harding in “Collusion,” published in late 2017. “The agony of Donald J. Trump was just beginning.”
“The Russia scandal was far from over — for Mueller, Congress, and the American people,” write Michael Isikoff and David Corn at the close of their best-selling “Russian Roulette,” out in March.
And in “Trump/Russia: A Definitive History,” released in May, Seth Hettena riffs on the president’s quest for a border wall to craft this final sentence: “So far, the only wall that is being built is the legal one that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is erecting around the White House, and it increasingly seems too high for America’s forty-fifth president to escape.”
Painful. But understandable. How do you satisfyingly finish a book — let alone one claiming “definitive” status — about an unfinished story? In the race to capture the scandal of our time, journalists are producing works that feel out of date the instant they’re published. It is impossible to include the latest indictment, the most recent testimony, the newest disclosure. Yes, everyone wants to know how the story ends. But we don’t know yet. We can’t know.
What we can know, and must know, is how the story begins.
It begins with decades’ worth of ties between an overstretched Manhattan real estate developer and questionable Russian investors. It begins with the smoldering suspicions through which a Russian president has always viewed the United States. It begins with frustrating cycles of engagement and animosity between Washington and Moscow, chronicled in Michael McFaul’s “From Cold War to Hot Peace.” It begins with the erasure of historical memory and self-understanding in the Soviet Union, which gave us the nostalgic and paranoid Russia of Masha Gessen’s “The Future Is History.” And it begins with the susceptibility of America’s people and politics to distraction and manipulation, which, as Timothy Snyder argues in “The Road to Unfreedom,” have pushed this country to indulge its own worst instincts.
In the 1990s, Washington fought over who lost Russia. Twenty years later, we are wondering whether, with a Kremlin nudge, America has begun to lose itself. Answering that question is not simply the work of in-the-moment books promising high-level sources and big reveals. It is a task for history, memoir and memory — exercises that, in today’s onslaught of myth and antagonism, feel imperiled.
None of the works on Trump and Russia is comprehensive; the appeal of one or another depends on the angles you obsess over and the blind spots you ignore.
Harding’s “Collusion” is best for anyone fixated on the origin story of the dossier linking Trump and the Kremlin, even if the author at times reaches too far. (“Was Moscow blackmailing Trump? And if yes, how exactly?”) Isikoff and Corn are versed in the Washington threads of the tale: They are sympathetic to former FBI director James Comey and merciless toward the Obama White House for its unwillingness to counter Vladimir Putin more aggressively, and they explain how the Clinton campaign worried at first that calling out Kremlin-backed hacking might come off “too tinfoil.” And if you wish to wade deep in the dealings between Trump World and Russian investors, Hettena follows the dirty money. “There is no question Trump owed his comeback in large part to wealthy Russian expatriates,” he writes, detailing how Russians parked illicit profits in various Trump properties over the decades.
These books were published just months apart, but with this story, even a few weeks make a difference. Though Harding devotes a full chapter to Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, his book came too early to include the former national security adviser’s plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller. Isikoff and Corn just missed the February indictment of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that spread propaganda in 2016. And even Hettena couldn’t quote from the Senate Judiciary Committee’s interviews with Donald Trump Jr.; the transcripts were released a week after his publication date. While the books overlap — Trump’s trips to Moscow, Paul Manafort’s adventures in Ukraine, Michael Cohen being Michael Cohen — together they read like a Google Doc of scandal, a live, collaborative, aggregated work incessantly updated and rewritten.
The authors do converge, however, in their damning conclusions. Russia is “the original sin” of the Trump presidency, Isikoff and Corn declare. Trump is “either hiding something when it comes to the Kremlin, or [is] simply one of its useful idiots,” Hettena decides. “Neither conclusion is comforting.” And for Harding, the June 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and various Russian parties in Trump Tower — and Trump Jr.’s gleeful anticipation of dirt on Hillary Clinton from a foreign source — constitutes “the textbook definition of collusion.” Similarly, he suggests that Trump’s selection of a Russia-friendly Cabinet formed a “discernible pattern” of collusion, “like stars against a clear night sky.”
When the title of your book is “Collusion,” you find it even in the heavens.
These books are useful but partial, stressing the U.S. side of the story of Trump and Russia. Gessen, McFaul and Snyder dip this moment in history, tracing Putin’s opportunism, Russia’s anxiety and America’s vulnerability. Their works are not beholden to the moment, which is why they reveal so much about it.
McFaul, the architect of President Barack Obama’s “reset” policy toward Russia and later the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, looks with longing on past periods of rapprochement. The historic meetings between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The buddy comedy of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Even the brief soul-gazing between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. To this tally McFaul would add Obama and Dimitry Medvedev, Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012.
The Obama administration’s reset with Russia was premised on the belief that Washington could engage constructively with Moscow “without checking our values at the door,” McFaul explains in “From Cold War to Hot Peace.” Both young lawyers shaped by the post-Cold War world, Medvedev and Obama also shared a soft-spoken, analytical style and a reformist self-image. “I quickly concluded that this relationship was going to click,” McFaul writes. Initially, it did, delivering the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, sanctions against Iran and expanded access to Russian supply routes supporting U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “In the early days of the Reset,” McFaul recalls, “it seemed as if all good things could go together.”
They couldn’t. McFaul refers to the “Medvedev era” as if it truly existed, although he knows better. “Even if Medvedev was a closet liberal — a second Gorbachev — he was operating in a very constrained political environment,” McFaul admits. “He worked for Putin.” And when Putin ran for president again in 2012 and needed to conjure an enemy to rally his faithful, the choice was easy. “In the face of growing social mobilization and protest, he revived an old Soviet-era argument as his new source of legitimacy — defense of the motherland against the evil west, and especially the imperial, conniving, threatening United States.”
The expansion of NATO and the war in Serbia. The invasion of Iraq. The color revolutions in Eastern Europe. They all buttressed Putin’s account of American perfidy. Moreover, the Russian leader “despised” Hillary Clinton, blaming her for encouraging domestic protests against him in 2011. “Putin wanted revenge,” McFaul explains. And in the 2016 election — with the hacks, the propaganda, the bots — he exacted it. “The objective of Russian efforts in U.S. media was not only to support Trump and damage Clinton, but also to undermine the truth more generally,” McFaul writes.
Undermining truth, fashioning contradictory realities, denying what everyone knew until they no longer knew it for sure — this has been the work of Soviet and Russian authorities for generations. The Soviet regime’s annihilation of independent academic work, of sociology, psychology and philosophy, “was an attack on the humanity of Russian society, which lost the tools and even the language for understanding itself,” Gessen writes in “The Future Is History,” winner of the 2017 National Book Award. “The only stories Russia told itself about itself were created by Soviet ideologues.”
If deployed effectively, personal and intellectual repression produces an obedient and conformist citizenry — what Russian sociologist Yuri Levada dubbed “Homo Sovieticus.” Levada thought this creature would die off, but it survived even when the Soviet Union didn’t. By the mid-’90s, less than 10 percent of Russians believed that the end of the U.S.S.R. had been a good thing. Gessen recalls a television channel in the 1990s devoted to showing nothing but old Soviet programming. It was called Nostalgia.
A bland apparatchik who managed to rise from St. Petersburg city government to high office in Yeltsin’s administration and eventually the presidency, Putin capitalized on this yearning for restored national greatness. “It was precisely Putin’s lack of distinction . . . that in fact made him the perfect embodiment of the Soviet leadership style,” Gessen explains. “In his person, charisma met bureaucracy.” Authoritarian leaders such as Putin pledge stability but entrench themselves by delivering the opposite, a sort of institutionalized uncertainty of shifting rules, arbitrary decisions and designed unpredictability. “A constant state of low-level dread made people easy to control,” Gessen writes, “because it robbed them of the sense that they could control anything themselves.” Russians still feel that dread, and Americans are getting a taste.
Putin became, as Snyder writes in his pitiless “The Road to Unfreedom,” Russia’s redeemer. “The redeemer suppresses factuality, directs passion, and generates myth by ordering a violent attack upon a chosen enemy,” the historian explains. The United States was not Putin’s first or only target. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Georgian news agencies were hacked and internet traffic blocked, Snyder recounts. Similarly, Russia’s 2014 military offensive in Ukraine — which Putin denied with a wink early on — featured a massive cyber-offensive that included fictitious reports about Ukrainian atrocities in Crimea. Britain’s 2016 Brexit vote, too, was influenced by Russian bots spreading anti-European Union propaganda.
Back home, Putin’s lies are not meant to truly fool anyone “but to create a bond of willing ignorance with Russians, who were meant to understand that Putin was lying but to believe him anyway,” Snyder writes. Trump’s thousands of instances of presidential untruth — from the size of the crowds at his inauguration to his declaration this past week that the North Korean nuclear threat is already over — are little different. Defending them is not a sign of conviction but of allegiance.
The American election in 2016 was Putin’s “grandest campaign” of deceit, Snyder writes. He outlines the stages of Trump’s ascent, beginning long before the presidential race: Russian money rescued him from financial collapse, thus enabling the reality television fantasy of Trump the successful businessman. That character became a spokesman of the birtherism fraud, propelling Trump’s political career and presidential ambitions, which were in turn further supported by Russian propaganda. “Fiction rested on fiction rested on fiction,” Snyder writes. “From a Russian perspective, Trump was a failure who was rescued and an asset to be used to wreak havoc in American reality.”
Trump’s victory and presidency have indeed served Putin’s interests, precisely through the havoc they wreak. Though Washington still imposes sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations, long-standing Western alliances and trade relations are rapidly deteriorating under Trump, as are the reputation and global influence of American democracy. This helps Putin argue that the United States “is not exceptional,” McFaul laments, “that we have no moral authority to preach to other countries about their behavior.” The president also continues to minimize the Kremlin’s role in the 2016 U.S. election and even lobbies for Russia’s reentry into the Group of Seven.
But none of this means that Putin is responsible for Trump’s election, nor does it mean that Russia is masterminding some unwitting American transition to authoritarianism. “Americans were not exposed to Russian propaganda randomly, but in accordance to their own susceptibilities,” Snyder emphasizes. “People are led towards ever more intense outrage about what they already fear or hate.”
The siloing of news consumption and the erosion of faith in common facts and truths, the demonization of opponents and the polarization of our politics, especially on the right — they were all underway long before Trump announced his candidacy. Snyder also highlights the weakening of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, maintaining that “when Russia acted against American democracy, the American system was already becoming less democratic.”
Whatever is happening here, we were ripe for it. The risk is not that Putin will turn us into a Russian facsimile; it’s that we morph into something different all on our own.
The proliferation of books exploring the Trump-Russia connections, with their ominous red dust jackets and vaguely Cyrillic cover type invoking Soviet-style propaganda posters, risks aggrandizing Putin far beyond his merits. They’re also a doomed enterprise: lengthy works that events will overtake almost immediately, with new developments adding to the tale, even rewriting prior chapters, and the Mueller investigation — and its own expected report — looming over them all.
But the cumulative power of these books as a historical record is essential. After all, the Starr Report was hardly the definitive statement on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, which we are reconsidering even today; and despite its lore, “All the President’s Men” symbolizes the beginning, not the end, of our understanding of Watergate, as the book’s authors have made clear. There never is a final, overriding account. Hettena’s subtitle hints at this — his book is a definitive history, not the definitive history. There will be so many more.
In “Russian Roulette,” Isikoff and Corn recall the civic impact of official inquiries into the Teapot Dome scandal, Watergate and Iran-contra. “A major purpose of congressional investigations for decades. . . was to educate the country through public hearings,” they write. “Yet the Russian probes were being run almost entirely behind closed doors.”
The journalism and literature on the Trump presidency, on America and Russia, on the hopes and grievances of the president’s supporters and resisters, are standing in, however imperfectly, for such hearings today. Gessen says she wrote her book to tell “the story of freedom that was not embraced and democracy that was not desired” in her native Russia. If freedoms eroded and democracy squandered prove to be the story of our nation and our time, I hope it is recorded with similar discernment and empathy, should it be written at all.