Let’s sort out some simple, widely reported truths from eyelid-twitch-inducing "just asking questions" Medium posts.
Someday we will have all of this Russia stuff sorted out. There will come a time when documents will be unclassified, officials will spill the beans, and things that once were powerful secrets are just history. Truth has a way of worming its way out horribly into the light, inch by inch. But for now, it feels as if we know nothing, and learn less every day. Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, has resigned, apparently because he talked to a Russian ambassador about sanctions then misled the rest of the administration about it. Members of Trump’s presidential campaign reportedly had contact with Russian intelligence officials, a notion that’s especially distressing because Russian hackers are widely assumed to have hacked and then leaked damaging emails written by Democrats, helping tip a close election to Trump.
The wildest theories paint a hysterical picture of the president as a Russian mole, groomed for years and blackmailed by operatives with footage of his depraved, urine-tinged sex life. On the other end of the spectrum there’s the idea that Flynn and Trump and his crew are actually honest, reform-minded leaders—the problem is the corrupt "deep state" leaking inflammatory information out to a liberal media primed to gleefully publish anything that makes Trump look bad, no matter how sketchy. Conspiracy theories about Russian oil companies and potential coups and spies holding information back from the White House are all floating around, and all plausible to those in the right mood—the right mood being a couple drinks in and half-watching a six-way CNN splitscreen where the guests are debating who should be in jail and for what.
In an effort to sort out some simple, widely reported truths from eyelid-twitch-inducing "just asking questions" Medium posts, I’ve compiled a (likely not quite complete) timeline of Trump’s history of ties to Russia and the resulting controversies that spun off from that. Here we go:
1987: Trump visits Moscow and Leningrad, his first trip to what was then the USSR, to explore expanding his hotel empire to those cities. This was Trump before the bankruptcies of the early 90s wiped him out—at the time he was a flashy, successful real estate developer who had just come off an under-budget renovation of Central Park’s Wollman Rink, arguably his most successful project in New York. Putting buildings in Russia would have been a relatively logical move.
1988: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev comes to New York, and eager to get himself involved in a major news story, Trump circulates a rumor that Gorbachev is going to visit Trump Tower. That doesn’t happen—instead, a Gorbachev impostor showed up and shook hands with Trump. Though the mogul later said he knew it wasn’t the real Gorbachev, a TV producer who helped out with the gag said he was fooled.
1996: Trump, recovered from his bout of embarrassing failure in the casino business, visits Moscow again in hopes of working with a tobacco company to build a hotel. This never happens.
1997: Trump talks with a Russian artist about putting a huge statue of Christopher Columbus with "$40 million worth of bronze in it" in the Hudson River. This never happens.
2005: Trump partners with a company called the Bayrock Group to again attempt to build a hotel in Moscow. This never happens.
At this point, it’s pretty unfair to characterize Trump as doing much business in Russia, especially since none of his planned ventures ever got off the ground. But he was still reportedly doing a lot of selling to Russians. Trump’s image of ostentatious, almost retro, luxury appealed to Russians who probably both liked that aesthetic and saw a chance to invest in American real estate. "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets," Donald Trump Jr. said at a conference in 2008, remarks that became widely reported once journalists dug into Trump’s business. "We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." An ABC News investigation from last year found that "Trump-branded developments catered to large numbers of Russian buyers," especially when it came to condos in South Florida.
September 2007: Trump opens Trump SoHo, a new building in Manhattan that he developed with Bayrock and another company. The idea is that buyers will live in condo units for part of the year (because of residential zoning restrictions) and rent them as hotel rooms the rest of the time. One of the Bayrock partners is a Russian immigrant with ties to organized crime who was also an FBI informant; the project has investments from various entities with ties to the former Soviet Union. (Details about Trump SoHo are all from this great New York Times story published last year.)
October 2007: Trump tells Larry King on CNN that Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing "a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period." This is the first on-the-record praise of Putin from Trump, though it’s less political than it is one branding expert recognizing another.
2011: Trump and his partners in Trump SoHo are sued by buyers who claim that Trump wildly exaggerated how many units had been sold, making the project seem more successful than it was. (They would be refunded most of their money and the building is now a regular Trump-branded hotel.) Also that year a former Bayrock employee sues the company (a suit Trump wasn’t involved in), claiming that there was all sorts of shady business going on, including unexplained payments from Kazakhstan and Russia. Trump would later say that he barely knew the Eastern Europeans he partnered with, though one of them—the one with mob ties—worked for Trump as an adviser and dealmaker even after the SoHo mess.
2011: In Time to Get Tough, Trump says that he "respects Putin and Russians" and blames Barack Obama for being soft on them.
2013: Aras Agalarov, a Russian oligarch, talks to Trump and gets him to bring the Miss Universe pageant, which he’s owned since 1996, to one of Agalarov’s venues in Moscow. Trump brushes off criticisms about Russia’s recently passed landmark anti-gay law, and reportedly talks about building properties in Moscow, though no deal ever gets made. Trump does tweet about wanting to be friends with Putin and appears in a music video with Agalarov’s son, a wannabe pop star:
October 2013: Trump tells Larry King that Putin is "outsmarting" the US. It’s worth noting that Trump isn’t the only right-winger praising the Russian leader. Pat Buchanan, among others, admired Putin’s defense of "traditional values," though other conservatives denounced these views.
November 2015: Now a Republican candidate seeking the presidential nomination, Trump says during a primary debate that he "got to know [Putin] very well" when the two men were on 60 Minutes—even though they were interviewed in different countries in that episode. Trump would later clarify that he never met Putin.
December 2015: When asked on MSNBC’s Morning Joe about Putin’s praising him as "very talented," Trump says he appreciates the compliment. When pressed about Putin’s abysmal human rights record and killing of journalists, he replies, "I think our country does plenty of killing also."
This sort of thing happens several times during the Republican primary, with Trump being given opportunities to strongly denounce Putin and refusing to take them, instead insisting he’d rather get along with Russia.
March 2016: Trump says that a man named Carter Page is one of his foreign policy advisors. Julia Ioffe later reports in Politico that though Page is supposed to be an expert on Russia, few prominent people have any idea who he is—though his new proximity to Trump was helping him get meetings with VIPs.
April: Paul Manafort, a longtime political operative who worked for the pro-Russian Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, takes charge of the Trump campaign in advance of the GOP convention.
June: It’s reported that Russian hackers gained access to the Democratic National Committee email system, stealing opposition research files on Trump, among other things. Russia denies this, and Trump bizarrely claims that the DNC invented the story in order to distract from other issues.
Early July: As reported later by Yahoo News, Page goes on a visit to Russia where he meets with government officials, which worries some people in US intelligence. (When asked by Yahoo about this in September, the Trump camp said Page had "no role" in the campaign.)
Later in July: During a GOP platform committee meeting, Trump’s representatives move to strike language about providing weapons to Ukraine so it could defend itself against Russian-backed rebels. This was notable, NPR reported, because Trump’s people didn’t ask for much else on the platform. (Obama was also against providing weapons to Ukraine on the grounds that it would escalate the conflict, but many Republicans were in favor of it.)
Also late July: Wikileaks publishes emails stolen from the DNC, the most damaging of which paint a picture of a Democratic party that was backing Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, making it more difficult for Clinton to unify the party after a contentious primary campaign.
July 26: In response to a lot of stories about Trump’s Russia-friendly statements, the hacking stories, and his staff’s ties to Russia, the Republican nominee takes to Twitter:
August: Manafort resigns from the Trump campaign as a series of stories breaks about his ties to pro-Russian politicians. The most salacious of these involves Yanukovych secretly paying Manafort $12 million, an allegation he denies.
September 26: At the first presidential debate, Trump continues to insist that no one knows who is behind the DNC hack: "She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia. Maybe it was. It could also be China, it could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. You don’t know who broke into DNC, but what did we learn? We learn that Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people."
Early October: Wikileaks begins publishing emails stolen from the account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, a slow drip of stories that will dog Clinton until Election Day. Later reporting and investigations indicate that the same group that hacked the DNC also targeted Podesta—Russian-backed hackers, in other words.
October 30: As the campaign heads into the home stretch and the media focuses on a statement from FBI head James Comey about the continued investigation into Hillary Clinton’s improper email procedures, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid writes an angry letter to Comey:
"It has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity… The public has a right to know this information."
What Reid is talking about isn’t immediately apparent, but Mother Jones reports the next day that it probably has something to do with a dossier of explosive allegations against Trump that’s been circulating in DC political circles for some time. The public won’t know what’s in that dossier until after the election, however.
November 1: The FBI reveals that it looked into ties between Trump and the Kremlin and found nothing concrete.
November 8: Trump beats Clinton in an election that comes down basically to mere thousands of voters scattered across a few Midwestern states. With a result like that, it’s possible to point to a lot of factors as being decisive, but the spread of anti-Clinton stories based on Wikileaks-provided emails surely had an effect.
November 11: Russian officials