Trump as a Russian Target – Through the Eyes of a former CIA Russian Expert

Donald Trump would have been an active target of Russian intelligence since the moment they laid eyes on him for two reasons that come straight from the classical espionage textbook: He has influence; and he is potentially vulnerable to various forms of compromise. Playing by the book, the Russians would have attempted to initiate multi-layered operations to develop varied means of access to him in an effort to establish and ultimately exploit mechanisms of control over Trump and his associates. This is not calling out our president, but rather is a reflection of the reality of how Russian intelligence operates. Indeed, it could even benefit the president to know how this stratagem works. To be fair, I have no information that suggests that our president has been compromised by the Russians. Rather, my intent is to offer to the reader an explanation of the classical vulnerabilities that intelligence officers seek to identify and exploit including sexual indiscretions, greed, corruption, revenge, and most of all, ego. In essence, the pursuit of selfish interests over the common good.

Based on well-practiced history, intelligence services typically hold off making a direct approach to high priority targets for years. Traditionally, the modus operandi (“method of operation,” the preferred term in intelligence jargon) is to wait for the right opportunity to present itself in order to maximize leverage over the target and enhance prospects of success. The key questions in this tradecraft are to determine if and how the target can be turned to serve another nation’s interests, rather than the interests of their own country. Espionage is a loyalty test, in the final analysis. Better put, a litmus test for loyalty and betrayal.

In the case of considering businessman Donald Trump as a potential target, as with any high priority target, the Russians would test the waters to avoid taking any undue risks. They typically begin by initiating mutually beneficial activity to test receptiveness to a deepening relationship. In the established business circles Trump and his associates run in, it would have been logical to test interest in lining one another’s pockets for mutual gain. Even if the Russians were ultimately unsuccessful in compromising Trump directly, they would have been content to compromise and exploit lesser targets along the way – minnows with access to the big fish. What’s the harm in that? Taking the bait would incentivize an even greater investment by Russian intelligence to deepen the relationship and, depending on the circumstances, do it more clandestinely. Why clandestine? The Russians want to determine their target’s threshold for cooperation. Will the target report a crime? How will he respond to a test of his loyalty to American interests, if not American law? What are his limits? In any relationship, whether it be with a citizen and his country, or a wife and a husband, a secret relationship with a third party is not a sign of a healthy relationship.

However the Russians opted to test businessman Trump, once he became a serious candidate for president, a strategic opportunity to exploit the situation would have become obvious to Russian intelligence. At this point, if not earlier, the gravity of the stakes would have compelled Russian intelligence to consult with President Putin to ensure he was on board with any continuing or new Russian operations that amounted to meddling in the presidential election. For any intelligence officer worth his or her stripes, it would have been irresponsible for the Russians – looking at it from their perspective – not to have gone all out in trying to lure in the Trump campaign.

Based on an elementary risk-benefit analysis in such circumstances, the Russian urge to plunge into this operation would have been irresistible despite the unprecedented costs to Russia if this activity were discovered by the US government. Before undertaking such an operation, however, the real prospect of direct US retaliation must have been considered. What if Trump or his close associates did not respond positively, despite Russian intelligence calculations predicting they would? What if the Trump campaign ignored Russian entreaties and reported them to the FBI? In full consideration of such risks, the operation to engage the Trump campaign would have unfolded in stages and through several channels, in order to thoroughly assess Trump’s own receptivity to a mutually beneficial relationship. As for any US government response, the anticipated Obama administration reaction to the Russian intelligence activity never came. Blue skies ahead. All systems go.

Drawing on the thick files of past practice, Russian intelligence efforts to assist Trump’s campaign, with or without his witting approval or understanding of such cooperation, presented two tangible benefits that would have likely offset all other risks: Trump could be elected; or he would serve as a useful tool to undermine Hillary Clinton and attack the underpinnings of American democratic institutions, which the Kremlin perceives as a direct threat to Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy and power base. Either outcome had major advantages.

If all else failed, the Russians would count on Americans to subvert ourselves, through the ongoing fratricide within the “chaos” of the liberal democratic system as they see it. Undermining democratic institutions is an established Russian government objective, whether or not they could accomplish the improbable, the fantastic outcome of bagging an American president.

In carrying out the election operation, it is possible Russian intelligence may never have felt the need to confront Trump directly with any compromising material (Kompromat) they had collected, particularly if they assessed that it was not sufficiently serious to serve as the basis of meaningful control over him. Trump would have been a mixed read for the Russians. He’s highly sensitive to derogatory information. He has shown signs of being highly manipulable by his detractors under certain circumstances. But at the same time, his psychological profile undoubtedly reflects a mercurial, stubborn and defiant personality that would be difficult to shame, intimidate, blackmail, or control. In other words, his “agent suitability” for such modes of influence is suspect.

Trump’s reactions to revelations of his alleged behavior in Russia during the campaign clearly presented the Russians with additional valuable assessment data on his potential response to being confronted with disgraceful personal behavior, illegal business activity or other compromising material. I stress “alleged” behavior not only because it has not been established, but because it does not matter for this purpose if it is true. The Russians would have been testing whether, in spite of his thin skin, Trump is in fact a street bully with all the attributes of a fighter who lacks concerns over being exposed. Russian intelligence would have recalibrated its objectives and tactical approaches, accordingly.

Hypothetically, based on well-established norms, what would the Russian file on Trump focus on in terms of offering potential handles for recruitment or manipulation? Trump’s potentially greatest vulnerability to compromise is that he is a natural autocrat. He admires Putin because the Russian strong man is a role model for Trump. It is no surprise that the number of the Russian overtures to the Trump campaign included dangling the carrot of a meeting with Putin—they knew that was a prize Trump coveted. It was as though they were all reading off the same page of his personality profile.

Time and again, Trump signaled to Russian intelligence they were correct about him. On the day he announced his run for president, Trump said about Putin, “He’s got a tremendous popularity in Russia. They love what he’s doing, they love what he represents. … I would be willing to bet I would have a great relationship with Putin.”

Putin seems to be the type of leader Trump himself aspires to be if he could only shed all these constraints – the media, liberal progressive types, enemies real and imagined – that drag him down in business and now in politics. Trump’s unwillingness to criticize Putin’s liquidation of his opponents and assault on free speech must have been very revealing to Putin – and to Russian intelligence. Trump has consistently interpreted expressions of unbridled authoritarianism as strength, not weakness. Trump has never shied away from the mob and shady characters. Look it up: Russian intelligence has. Trump embraces toughness and mentors hard core apprentices – no time for the weak and poor. All of this makes him an even more attractive target for Russian intelligence, which fancies itself as the modern day “Chekists” who killed millions of Russian in Stalin-Led purges. They know how streetfighters work.

Trump shares much of Putin’s worldview, including the notion of leaders, allies and enemies. A compatible “Weltanschauung” — a fundamental view of world order led by ennobled despots who wield unconstrained power — offers a better explanation for Trump’s veritable bromance with Putin than the alternative theory that Trump is worried the Russians have dirt on him. As Trump told us himself, he feels he connects with Putin. What he fails to understand, among other things, is how Putin and the Kremlin are motivated and act to employ that to their advantage.

Perhaps I will be accused by some of unreasonable speculation, but I have never made the mistake of underestimating the capability of my Russian antagonists in the craft of counterintelligence. I respect them too much to make that error. 

About the Author(s)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorism Center.