How to tell a story always matters enormously. This already urgent task takes on added dimensions and gravity when the story itself is about information, misinformation, and disinformation. The storytelling stakes have rarely been so high as for those seeking to make sense of American and Russian activities in the hot glare of the 2016 presidential election. What some have been moved to call L’Affaire Russe—the “Russian affair,” in a nod to 19th-century political debacles like the Dreyfus Affair—has consumed our news even as it eludes our understanding. Writing in the New Yorker, Adam Davidson worries that the piecemeal nature of sprawling, consequential stories can be confusing: “Somehow … these specific details failed to impress on most Americans the over-all picture.”
The nature and order of major events is now relatively well established for us in the general public: the DNC hack, the release of material on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, candidate Donald Trump calling on Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, the almost daily release of John Podesta’s emails in the final month of the campaign, the surprise win by Trump, the firing of Michael Flynn for lying to the Vice President even though DOJ had warned the White House that he was compromised by the Russians, the firing of James Comey, the appointment of a special counsel, the revelation of at least one meeting at Trump Tower between the campaign and Kremlin agents, indictments by the special counsel and the intensifying revelations around two Trump Tower Moscow deals, at least one of which was so advanced that the candidate signed a letter of intent on the day of the third Republican primary debate. The meaning of those events, what they entail individually and collectively, is far from a settled matter; and not just because of domestic political divisions, but because new events keep coming to light that re-shade other events and new details keep emerging that re-shade known events.1
“We cannot understand what happened in the 2016 election, Russia-gate or the imploding Trump presidency,” explains Kai Bird, “by reading the 24-hour digital news on our phones or watching the talking heads on partisan cable news platforms. Fortunately, we still have a simple technology invented nearly six centuries ago: books.”
Books about L’Affaire Russe abound. The plural is crucial. Multiple books approaching similar material from various perspectives make the light and shadows of their tales fall with different emphases across volumes, a variety that enhances our collective knowledge of events and all they entail. Titles include Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Cyberwar (2018), Seth Abramson’s Proof of Collusion (2018), Greg Miller’s The Apprentice (2018), Craig Unger’s House of Trump, House of Putin (2018), Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Russian Roulette (2018), Luke Harding’s Collusion (2017), and Malcolm Nance’s The Plot to Hack America (2016).
Books offer the roominess for details to be set, sometimes even crammed, beside one another, to unfold complex stories over time and across space. In-depth explorations of the ties between Donald Trump—his businesses, his campaign, and even his administration—and Russia are a hedge against a drip, drip, drip of daily information; this holds even when the books don’t provide novel insights or fresh reporting. The very length of an individual book can bring the pattern of events into view, a power that is intensified when those same events are recounted in other books.
For all their immense explanatory power, however, books also come up short; theirs is power that exists in the between times—between experiencing some version of the events they describe and learning, we expect, from the special counsel whether the Russian government coordinated with “individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”
Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Cyberwar shows how information about candidate policy proposals and preferences, personalities, scandals, and campaign organization and style was shaped, set, weighted, and framed in 2016. Jamieson’s expertise in US political communications allows her to unfold what issues were raised, made important, gained traction, and mattered in the back and forth between candidate messaging, media coverage, and voter engagement. Her very title announces the severity and malign intention of the activities she describes. Jamieson’s focus on how American politicians communicate with voters and how voters communicate to and about politicians dovetails with and departs from the heart of Mueller’s counterintelligence mandate.2
She does not posit direct connections between Trump’s camp and the Russian government, but her examination of domestic political messaging and its effects is eyebrow-raising all the same; she tracks the strong congruence between what the Trump campaign, especially its principal, said, on the one hand, and Russian-generated troll-driven messaging, on the other, overlap that was often well timed and extraordinarily high profile. (National security analyst Clint Watts’s star turn in March 2017, at the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was one of the first times Americans really paid attention to that congruence.) She discusses how questions posed to the candidates during the three debates were affected by the ongoing overlap between Trump’s words and those of Russian trolls and bots, a part of the book discussed at length by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker.
Cyberwar draws on Jamieson’s original research, but it is also based on three government documents: the October 7, 2016, announcement by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that the Russians were interfering in the election; the January 6, 2017, declassified version of the Intelligence Community Assessment on Russian activity; and the February 13, 2018, indictment by the Grand Jury for the District of Columbia of the Internet Research Agency, employees of that Agency, and its management company, Concord Management.
Naming the book Cyberwar opens questions about the precise nature of Russia’s engagement. Traditional disinformation campaigns, ones that seek to discredit and undermine the political knowledge of an adversary, have long been employed by Russia and other powers. A disinformation campaign can use cyber means, but it can also use print media, television, radio, or pamphlets. At the same time, cyber means can also be employed in an astonishingly broad range of activity beyond the spread of disinformation, including monitoring or stealing or changing information in an adversary’s electronic system or even taking that system or parts of it offline for periods of time. America is all-in on cyber, a fact crystallized in the recent elevation of Cyber Command to a standalone, unified combatant command on par with commands such as Southern Command, Indo-Pacific Command, and Central Command. For an expert in American political communications like Jamieson, it makes a lot of sense to refer to “cyberwar” instead of “information warfare,” but that choice runs into problems of translation when unpacking the impact of a foreign actor’s campaign of misinformation and disinformation.
Russia’s employment of active measures in the election of 2016 (i.e., its use of both overt and covert forms of political warfare to shape events to its advantage), as Jamieson’s account chronicles, wasn’t confined to virtual realms; print and television media and everyday Americans also created, spread, and amplified it. Even more crucially, cyberwar covers a broader range of activity than information warfare, but, unlike information warfare, its aim is not to expand its reach. Russia uses information warfare. There is, of course, overlap; cyberwar in Russia is much more closely connected to information warfare and seems to have been practiced first on Russia’s own population, and then on the so-called “near abroad,” before moving to the West.3 “Cyberwar” is a strong term, but even it is probably not strong enough.
Starting in January 2017, Seth Abramson pushed the boundaries of how to tell the story of L’Affaire Russe by tweeting. Not only did Abramson tweet about the subject a lot, but he threaded his tweets, and not only did he thread his tweets, but his threads often included his previous threads. And as if that didn’t already represent an incredibly dense nesting of layers of information, the tweets often included links to popular American and international news sources.
Where Jamieson powerfully examines the call-and-response between Trump’s own words and the words of Russian bots and trolls, Abramson is intensely focused on the interactions between Trump agents and Kremlin agents. He scrutinizes the where, why, and how of meetings, their nature and context, and the steps each side took to hide interactions. This concern plays out in his tweets as well, but it has a distinct look and feel when laid out across more than 300 pages.
Abramson starts in 1987 and moves steadily toward today as each chapter shows the intensifying relations between Trump and Russia, with the Azerbaijan-born construction magnate Aras Agalarov and his pop singer son as a crucial hinge between the two sides. Abramson chronicles the deals—two Trump Tower Moscow arrangements and the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow—that brought each side closer and closer together, an intimacy that culminates in an astonishing trade-off: election help for sanctions relief. Proof of Collusion moves chronologically, but its chapters are arranged in a novel, three-part way: “Summary, “The Facts,” and “Annotated History.” As each chapter develops it provides more details; as the book moves through its chapters it draws each side closer and closer together.
In-depth explorations of the ties between Donald Trump—his businesses, his campaign, and even his administration—and Russia are a hedge against a drip, drip, drip of daily information.
Even in our fractured, polluted information environment, some details of L’Affaire Russe have lodged themselves firmly in my mind. Greg Miller opens The Apprentice with one of them: the fact that Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) watched in real time in 2015 as Advanced Persistent Threat 29 (APT29), aka Cozy Bear, penetrated the DNC. In 2014, AIVD had accessed the security camera in the SVR—Russian external intelligence—room where the hackers work. This is not the penetration of the DNC by the GRU—Russian military intelligence (APT28), aka Fancy Bear—that Mueller covers in his July 2018 indictment of 12 GRU officers.4 Again, Dutch spies watched in real time as Russian spies broke into an American political party.
A tale of spies spying on spies is in good hands with Miller, an award-winning intelligence and national security reporter for the Washington Post. Miller’s close-up account is based on his own previous reporting, work that was often done in collaboration with colleagues whom he frequently identifies, especially Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous, and whose names are familiar from the original articles.
Miller goes inside intelligence agencies to tell the story of the 2016 election, its run-up and its aftermath; in doing so he shades familiar events in unfamiliar ways and sits unfamiliar material within familiar, public events. Donald Trump’s highly visible performance on January 21, 2017, at CIA Headquarters is recounted early in the book, but takes on fresh meaning when framed by the reaction of “Russia House,” as the CIA unit devoted to Moscow’s activities was unofficially known. In a sentence both pregnant and stripped to its elements Miller writes, “No one knew what Trump would say when he addressed the crowd that awaited him, but one thing was certain: he would not be brought into Russia House.”
Miller’s inside-out perspective underscores not only the covert nature of intelligence work, but the vertiginous experience of watching information from that secret world play out on the biggest, brightest public stage that is an American presidential election. Covering the period from the public revelations of the DNC hacks to the Helsinki summit, Miller traces how public events fed into US intelligence and how intelligence framed understanding of public events.
Craig Unger’s House of Trump, House of Putin is so compelling and self-contained that it doesn’t require an external source as a gloss, but I was glad to have encountered Garrett Graff’s essay “A Vor Never Sleeps” in the months before picking up Unger’s work. A vor is a dangerous mixture of mobster and businessman (Graff explains that the term “essentially means to Russians what ‘godfather’ does to Italians”), a figure whose very existence shines light on the tight interlacing of business, and crime on a global stage; vory are Russian mafia who operate worldwide, including in America. Semion Mogilevich, a vor-like figure whom Graff mentions, is the heart of Unger’s book. Drawing on open-source materials, public reporting, and interviews, including with a former KGB head of counterintelligence, Oleg Kalugin, Unger makes clear that business, crime, and Russian state intelligence are braided together in Mogilevich.
Unger shows how Mogilevich developed novel money-laundering techniques, ones that became especially important as capital flew from Russia to the West. US real estate, particularly when sellers were willing to accept cash or to transact deals with shell companies, was attractive. Unger sets his scene: Trump was just such a seller and David Bogatin was a buyer who employed Mogilevich’s techniques; together they completed a 1984 deal for five Trump Tower apartments that, at the time, was worth a total of six million dollars. In Unger’s view, since 1984 Russians have used Trump Tower to launder money.
Stretching from 1984 through election night 2016, Unger’s account describes the relations between Russia and Trump, continually indicating how these involve not only business and mob activity, but also Russian state intelligence. This is the case even as the relationships evolve and change in response to shifts in internal domestic politics within the Soviet Union and then Russia. When Trump’s finances failed spectacularly in the ’90s, Unger shows, Russian money helped him out of debt, not because Russians cared about him personally, but because they wanted continued access to their means of cleaning cash.
Unger suggests, further, that money laundering allowed Russian intelligence services to keep a hold over its oligarchs by tracking both the movement of money out of Russia and the people who helped in the process. Unger writes about a lot of deals, but a few stand out today because they are freshly relevant and in the news. He tells of the real estate company Bayrock, Felix Sater, Michael Cohen, and Tevfik Arif, and how they helped make Trump SoHo possible; of Aras and Emin Agalarov, Tamir and Alex Sapir, and Rotem Rosen, and how they were at the heart of making the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow a reality.
The Agalarovs resurface for the American public in connection with the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting, because it’s Emin’s British publicist, Rob Goldstone, who emails Donald Trump Jr. to request the meeting that features Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya (who was recently charged in the US with lying in connection to a money laundering case involving the powerful Russian company Prevezon).5 The relatively long sweep of time in Unger’s book is one of its defining features, allowing it to track the twists and turns of specific interactions between Trump and Russians over more than three decades.
In the fall of 2016, David Corn and Michael Isikoff, longtime investigative journalists for Mother Jones and Yahoo!, respectively, each published important pieces about what we now know as the Steele dossier. At the time these articles didn’t get a lot of pickup, but in the aftermath of the election that’s changed, to the extent that the Republican majority of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence used the inclusion of Isikoff’s article in an October 2016 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant application for Carter Page as a way to discredit the origins of the counterintelligence investigations into Russian activities in the 2016 election by suggesting that Page was the victim of politically motivated civil liberties violations.6
“Salacious” and “unverified” are two words frequently, if not invariably, associated with the dossier. As raw intelligence, not a finished product of analysis, the dossier nevertheless claims that “the Russian authorities had been cultivating and supporting US Republican presidential candidate Donald TRUMP for at least 5 years.” Isikoff and Corn’s Russian Roulette acts as an account of a collective failure to understand in real time what was happening in the run-up to the November 2016 election. It tells of the stops and starts of Trump’s long-standing attempts to do business in Moscow and ties those business activities to Trump’s campaign and Russian efforts to aid it, even as certain actors were all but running around with their hair on fire, trying to draw public attention to the issues.
Books offer the distinctive advantage of length, of unfolding immensely complicated narratives by unfurling details and relating them to one another.
As a British-born journalist working for a British publication, The Guardian, Luke Harding is at first glance an unlikely commentator, never mind one of the first post-election commentators, on Trump–Russia, but his years of living and reporting in Russia and Moscow for an English-language news organization caused Christopher Steele to seek out a meeting with him in December 2016. Collusion was released in November 2017.
Starting with Donald Trump’s marriage to a Czech national, moving through his financial booms and busts, zeroing in on Russian hacking and dumping and Trump’s reciprocity around the 2016 election, and stretching through the October 2017 indictments of Rick Gates and Paul Manafort and the filing of a criminal information document about George Papadopoulos, Harding weaves together a story that neatly shuttles between Manhattan and Moscow and points in between to tie them ever closer together as Trump moves to Washington.
In the time between publication and today, details of this story have become increasingly familiar to an American audience, but Collusion remains an important early account of the scandal, a reality Harding himself encapsulates in the book’s final lines: “Mueller’s investigation was far from over. The agony of Donald J. Trump was just beginning.”
Malcolm Nance uses his background in US Naval Intelligence and his familiarity with Russian intelligence practices to examine the events around the 2016 election in The Plot to Hack America. The first edition of the book was published before election day, but a subsequent edition includes the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment.
In Nance’s hands the story of the hack and dump, as well as explanations for the mutual attraction between Russia and Trump, emerges as both utterly shocking and entirely banal as they are set in the context of longstanding Russian capabilities and habits and merged with the distinctive elements of Trump’s personality, campaign, and the contentious political realities that predated 2016. The Plot to Hack America certainly focuses on individual events, but because it pegs those events to well-known Russian espionage capabilities, it theorizes and illuminates them in ways that don’t depend on the events in relationship to one another. Nance’s narrative moves forward in time, but it also stops time to show the American and Russian sides interacting with one another.
Jamieson, Abramson, Miller, Unger, Isikoff and Corn, Harding, and Nance cover and retread similar ground. The strength of their books does not lie in novelty, originality, or capacity for revelation. These seeming drawbacks are easily offset by a number of benefits inherent in books that these writers use to their benefit.
Books offer the distinctive advantage of length, of unfolding immensely complicated narratives by unfurling details and relating them to one another. Different writers with different professional backgrounds, sources, and ways of organizing information produce volumes that can complement and enhance one another. Each volume sets its final scene in a slightly different place. The original edition of Nance’s book ends earliest, as it doesn’t even touch the outcome of the election, while Abramson and Miller go through at least Helsinki. These books both singly and in combination reinforce a narrative timeline of events. They vary in their assessments of whether that timeline indicates coordination between the campaign and associates or representatives of the Russian government, not because some suggest that there wasn’t coordination and others suggest that there was; what varies is the degree of explicitness with which they make this suggestion and the reasons they give for showing how and why it happened on both the Russian and the American sides.
Even so, the very nature of narrative itself pulls against these advantages. Books end. They are bound and sold and shelved and borrowed and downloaded and read and returned and reshelved and even discarded. All of this can happen before, as Graff, Mueller’s biographer as author of The Threat Matrix, says, Mueller tells us how it all ends. No matter how long they are, books about the impact of Russian election interference, cyberwarfare, and information warfare are curbed and curtailed in that essential way. They end before their time.
The desire for an ending, not so much for any particular ending, but the assurance that comes with finality and resolution, takes lots of different shapes today. In the breach between books ending and revelations being made public we find a raft of writings, mostly short-form, about the possibility that Mueller will be fired, the possibility of a new Saturday Night Massacre, the shape of presidential power, the role of congressional oversight, Department of Justice regulations around the release to the American people of the so-called Mueller report, the makeup of the 2020 electorate, and the potential candidates in that race as we work together to think, write, research, and imagine what will be.
In the face of this reality, last fall the New York Times tapped five fiction writers to pen the finale, to dramatize and show how this all wraps up; they each wrote their own last chapter of the Mueller investigation. By imagining a future that has not yet come to pass, and that may not take the forms the authors write, the exercise throws into relief a reality of all narrative, that stories travel on at least two timelines: the order of events as they unfold in chronological time and the order of events as revealed. There is an impatience at the heart of the exercise, an impatience echoed in the gap between what investigators know and what the public does.
Graff zeroes in on the gap between evidence Mueller amasses and what the public knows, noting that the man who oversees the special counsel, Rod Rosenstein, “knows one very big, monumental, history-shaping thing—how Trump’s presidency will end.” Rosenstein and Mueller know how it all ends, but the American public doesn’t yet; but because these two men do, the American public will. In the meantime we wait for future revelations to line up with the order of events as they unfolded.
- Two areas of public reporting on strands of the Mueller investigation jump out in this respect: coverage by the New York Times and the Daily Beast on the roles of other countries, including Israel, Qatar, and the UAE, and the mystery appellant case involving Mueller’s team and a foreign state-owned company that has gone all the way to the Supreme Court and is known as In Re Grand Jury Subpoena. ↩
- The New York Times recently revealed that the President of the United States became a subject in a counterintelligence investigation in May 2017 in the wake of a number of extraordinary events that public reporting had previously suggested might be limited to a criminal obstruction of justice inquiry; the special counsel inherited that piece of the counterintelligence investigation when he was appointed. ↩
- Michael Hayden clearly differentiates the Russian embrace of information warfare in an age of cyber through adherence to the Gerasimov doctrine from the American embrace of cyber in The Assault on Intelligence (2018). Shane Harris’s The Watchers (2011), the authoritative account of Total Information Awareness, is helpful background to Hayden’s story of the US move to cyber, and David Sanger’s The Perfect Weapon (2018) is an in-depth exploration of US cyber capabilities and the considerable challenges they present. Molly McKew writes for a US domestic audience about the Gerasimov doctrine and its impacts in three enlightening articles in Politico—“Putin’s Real Long Game,” “The Gerasimov Doctrine,” and “How Twitter Bots and Trump Fans Made #ReleasetheMemo Go Viral”—and in her appearance in the excellent documentary Active Measures (2018). ↩
- One of the most confusing parts of L’Affaire Russe is the fact that the DNC was hacked twice, by two different Russian government agencies, but it seems that only Fancy Bear weaponized material by stealing it and then spreading it; and these two hacks are separate from the successful email spear-phishing effort against John Podesta that led to his emails being stolen, and then weaponized through leaks. ↩
- Fresh reporting by BuzzFeed News based on internal Trump Organization documents underscores that the timing of the Trump Tower meeting overlapped with aggressive efforts by Sater and Cohen to attend the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum as part of their efforts to realize a building project in Moscow, a project that was unacknowledged by the campaign but anchored the candidate’s belief that he could bring about better relations between the US and Russia. ↩
- Public reporting has done a lot to outline the origins of the counterintelligence investigations into Russian interference, but it’s important to emphasize that there were multiple investigations that began at different times, and focused on different US persons. Comey announced in his public Congressional testimony the existence of a counterintelligence investigation on March 20, 2017 and the appointment letter written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein specifies that Mueller would take over the investigation that Comey announced. For all that, the multiple origins, strands and developments of these investigations can be hard for the public to keep track of, which makes them rich sites for political disagreement. ↩