By now, it should be clear to anyone following the news that Russian intelligence made a formidable effort to approach the Trump campaign and assess the potential to manipulate its members. As a former officer of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, I can tell you that Russian security services would have been derelict not to evaluate the possibility of turning someone close to Trump. While the question of collusion remains open, it’s beyond dispute that Russia tried to get people around the president to cooperate. The June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower is indication enough, but other encounters bolster the argument.
How do you get someone to do something they should not do?
Story Continued Below
Generally, an intelligence officer looks for a person’s vulnerabilities and explores ways to exploit them. It usually comes down to four things, which—in true government style—the CIA has encompassed in an acronym, MICE: Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego. Want to get someone to betray his country? Figure out which of these four motivators drives the person and exploit the hell out of it.
It is important to note, too, that a person might not know he is doing something he shouldn’t do. As former CIA Director John Brennan testified in May, “Frequently, people who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late.” Sometimes, such people make the best assets. They are so sure in their convictions that they are acting in their own best interest or in the best interest of their country that they have no idea they are being completely manipulated.
The Russians know all this, too.
From an intelligence point of view, the people surrounding Trump, and Trump himself, make easy targets for recruitment. This is not to say these people have definitely been recruited by Russian intelligence—and they’ve all denied it repeatedly—but you can be sure that Russia’s intelligence services took these factors into consideration when they approached the campaign.
So, what pressure points might Russian intelligence officers have used to get their desired outcome with Trump’s Recruitables?
Paul Manafort: Money
Anyone who has lobbied on behalf of leaders ranging from Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko to the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos to Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang likely has no set ideology or moral compass and is motivated primarily by making money. People like this make very good targets. There is no emotion involved. Getting the person to do something is a fairly straightforward transaction. For example, getting someone to buy real estate to help launder Russian funds, in return for a handsome fee, would be a pretty simple transaction. As soon as the person has done it one time, it is much easier to get them to do something else for you.
A real opportunity came when Manafort went to work on the campaign of Viktor Yanukovych for president of Ukraine. Yanukovych was close to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and was corrupt. By being willing to play in these circles, Manafort signaled his willingness to look the other way as long as the payoff was right. A ledger found in Yanukovych’s abandoned palace showed he was paid $12 million (Manafort denied taking such payments, but the AP has confirmed that two of his companies did indeed receive part of this money). Putin pal Oleg Deripaska reportedly paid him $10 million a year to push Putin’s agenda. Press reports also state he received loans of up to $60 million from Deripaska.
Was he in debt, which made him vulnerable to coercion? Or were these loans not actually loans, but payments that Manafort was never expected to pay back? Either way, money was clearly Manafort’s weakness, and Russian intelligence would have known that, given his demonstrated willingness to work for just about anyone with deep pockets.
Michael Flynn: Money, Ideology, Ego
Flynn was at the top of his game as director of intelligence at JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command. During his tenure, JSOC became a lean fighting machine, able to execute a hit on a target in a war zone and immediately process any actionable intelligence in order to hit the next target immediately, before the bad guys could move on. He moved up the intelligence ladder and landed the top spot at the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2012. Here, the Peter Principle quickly set in. Castigated for his lack of vision for the agency, his inability to manage a large organization, his unconventional approach to counterterrorism, and his “Flynn facts,” it became evident in Washington circles that Flynn was over his head. President Barack Obama fired him.
Oh, how the mighty had fallen.
A top military figure, with a large ego, who felt slighted by Obama, the intelligence community and the military, Flynn was down. From the heights of JSOC to being fired—wrongly fired, no less, in his view—Flynn at this point would have made any foreign intelligence officer salivate. The man was vulnerable on several levels. His ego had taken a massive, public blow. He also firmly believed he was right, that he knew better than the president how to save the country from Islamic terrorists. Add to the mix that so many other military men had gone on to make millions in the private sector, cashing in on their military careers, their time in war zones, their connections to people both in government and in large defense companies. Flynn launched his own security consulting company and certainly might have thought: Where is mine?
This would have been a good moment for the Russians to send in a clever operative, stroke his ego, and tell Flynn how smart he was and how ridiculous Obama was for firing him. We’ve got a lot of people at RT who agree with you, the person might have added, while making it clear, “Our president agrees with you.” Payments, made through speaking fees and consulting contracts, would have helped smooth the deal.
Story Continued Below
Does this mean Flynn was recruited as a traditional asset, fully under Russian control? No. The Russians are concerned with being able to influence people only as much as they need to. And with Flynn, who reportedly developed an obsession with collaborating with the Russians against ISIS and even defended RT as no different than CNN, had readily demonstrated his willingness to follow and promote the Kremlin’s agenda in return for a certain amount of ego stroking (which, in turn, might have helped him actually believe what he was saying).
Felix Sater: Money, Coercion, Ego
In an article in the Atlantic, titled “Why Didn’t Trump Build Anything In Russia?” Julie Ioffe painted a picture of Trump’s former real estate partner as someone who really wanted to be part of the rich Moscow club but who lacked krysha, or “roof”—the political protection, Ioffe explains, to act as insurance should a deal go wrong—to be able to do it. “He tries to create the impression of someone who is extremely well-connected and very busy,” a source who had worked with Sater told Ioffe. Sater made a few forays into Moscow business circles but could never convert and was unable to win the trust of anyone who would have mattered. As Ioffe wrote, Sater was worried about his image. So worried, in fact, he looked into hiring a PR firm to help build up his reputation. He was, in the end, an outsider who really wanted to be an insider.
Give this person the chance to say he is wheeling and dealing with Very Important People, and he will bend to your will. Russian security services could offer at least the appearance of “roof,” even if they never intended to help Sater make money. His increased cachet would have been worth it to someone so image-conscious.
Jared Kushner: Money, Coercion
Kushner had a rocky entrée into Manhattan real estate. His purchase of 666 Fifth Ave. at $1.8 billion in 2007—that is, just before the market tanked—was perhaps not the strongest display of business acumen. And now, with payments due and business going badly, he was in a pickle. Perhaps the Russians had a great way for him to get out of that pickle. So they introduced him in December 2016 to Sergey Gorkov, the head of the Russian state investment bank Vnesheconombank, or VEB, who would have made it clear that he was in a position to help.
Donald Trump Jr.: Money, Ego
Junior is a lot like dad in his need to feel important. He was certainly a target because he manages access to his father, and his arrogance makes him easy to read. There is probably quite a bit of insecurity behind the smugness. Sure, he’s done a few international deals, but it’s going to take more than that to please daddy (Junior certainly could see that his dad never really pleased his father; Junior didn’t want to repeat that). Access to deals and money would certainly be a way to manipulate him, but mostly it would be stroking the Trump ego. The most important thing for Junior was that daddy win, at any cost. The perks and business deals would be a nice bonus, but I don’t think Junior even equated those perks with aid to his father’s campaign. Why wouldn’t he accept help for his father’s campaign? He likely didn’t even realize there was anything wrong with a foreign adversary lending a hand. As he wrote when approached with derogatory information on daddy’s opponent, “I love it.”
Donald Trump: Ego
A lot has been made of the possible existence of a peepee tape that Putin could lord over Trump to make him do Putin’s bidding. (Trump denies it.) But the president has been revealed time and again as a deadbeat who does not pay his bills, a serial philanderer and a confessed sexual predator. He has bragged about walking in on women at the Miss America contest and grabbing women “by the pussy” whenever he likes. Would anyone really be surprised or shocked by such a tape? This is not to say such a tape does not exist, only that its role as kompromat is limited.
Ego is clearly the best way to get Trump to do anything. The Saudis certainly understood this, feting him with gold and orbs and displaying his enormous portrait on the side of a hotel, right next to the king’s portrait. The Saudis had this man in the palm of their hands, hence Trump’s pro-Saudi stancesince the trip, despite his campaign rhetoric shouting down the kingdom.
Trump’s ego wanted to win and, he figured, everyone else wanted him to win, too. He was under the impression that everyone loved him and appreciated his greatness. Of course everyone wanted to help him win. If he accepted help from Russia, it’s possible he didn’t realize there was anything wrong with doing so. Why wouldn’t they he