Putin’s Troika: Three Russian Agents Who Infiltrated the Trump Campaign
On 14 March 2016, Jared Kushner attended a lunch event at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. The keynote speaker at the event was Henry Kissinger, the former national security adviser to Richard Nixon who has subsequently met 17 times with Vladimir Putin. The lunch was organized by the Center for the National Interest, a foreign policy think tank once known as the Nixon Center, whose head, the Russian-born Dimitri Simes, had been friendly with the eponymous U.S. president — and is friendly with the current Russian president.
At the time, Kushner was a bit player in the Trump campaign. He’d come aboard in November 2015, just four months before, and was nominally in charge of the campaign’s social media operations, which would not take off until June 2016, when supercharged by Cambridge Analytica. If he was known at all, it was as the husband of Ivanka Trump.
The 14 March lunch is significant, because it is the first known contact between Kushner and representatives of Russian president Vladimir Putin. For Dimitri Simes was not just the head of a think tank and publisher of a periodical, the National Interest, that trumpeted pro-Putin views. He was also, allegedly, one of the highest-ranking Russian intelligence operatives in the United States. He’d met with Putin in Moscow not long before that lunch.
Born in Moscow in 1947, the son of a prominent civil rights lawyer, Simes attended prestigious schools. After graduating in 1970, he worked at Institute of World Economy and International Relations, where as deputy secretary of the Institute’s Komsomol Committee he became politically active. He gave frequent lectures at the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party, where his favorite topic was the failure of U.S.-style capitalism. The Communist rising star quit this post in 1972/3, in order to immigrate to Israel, as many Soviet Jews were then doing.
But Simes never made it to Jerusalem. Under somewhat unusual circumstances, he instead defected to the United States, the subject of his (derisive) scholarly interest. As the historian Yuri Felshtinsky writes in GORDON:
What was it that Simes told (or did not tell) to the US officials in the US Embassy in Rome in 1973 when applying for the US visa, is not known. It seems unlikely that he was telling him about his Komsomol leadership activities and that his departure was sanctioned by Evgeny Primakov, a long-time KGB official and a future Head of the Foreign Intelligence Service.
By the end of 1973, Simes was living in Washington. Leveraging some highly influential conservative political contacts, he wangled a job at the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Ten years later, he’d become a close associate of Richard Nixon, and an informal adviser to the former president on the Soviet Union. After Nixon died, Simes established the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, which later changed its name to the Center for the National Interest. Simes’ advice, as Felshtinsky notes, is always a variation on the same theme: “Russia has a lot of nukes, so it’s better to be friends than enemies. Engagement is key.” This is exactly the position advocated by Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who traveled to Russia last year to hand-deliver a letter from Trump to Putin — which makes perfect sense, as Paul has been an associate of Dimitri Simes for years.
Another Simes BFF is Richard Burt, a Reagan-era State Department official with long ties to Russia. Burt, who sits on the Russian Alfa Bank advisory board, was allegedly a key player in the changing of the Republican party’s platform to soften the party’s stance on Ukraine.
But the most notorious of Simes’ associates, whose pro-Trump/Russia screed “The Bear and the Elephant” he published in the National Interest in 2015, is the self-styled “founding chairman [of] The Right To Bear Arms, a Russian version of the NRA” — Maria Butina.
Soon after Butina’s indictment, Simes fled the United States. He is back in his homeland now, co-hosting a Putin propagandist game show about how Russia will defeat the West.
The ill-starred lunch at which Jared Kushner first met Dimitri Simes would prove the beginning of a fruitful relationship. Over the next several months, a gaggle of prominent Moscow agents would ingratiate themselves into the Trump campaign, and especially into the orbit of Kushner and his brother-in-law, Donald Trump, Jr.
Two weeks to the day later, the campaign would enlist the help of Paul Manafort, the onetime Republican operative who, twenty years earlier, had cut his teeth as a GOP convention broker. During those two decades spent away from convention-brokering, however, Manafort had spent most of his time with a host of unsavory characters: despots, mostly, from foreign dictatorships — and, more recently, a pair of shady Russian oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska and Dmytro Firtash. His most recent client, Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, was a particularly noxious fellow. All three men were thick as thieves with Vladimir Putin. When Manafort joined the Trump campaign on 28 March 2016, he was millions of dollars in debt to Deripaska. His allegiance was to Moscow, not to Washington; certainly he was not interested in Making America Great Again.
To that end, Manafort helped assemble Trump’s foreign policy team, which included two alleged Russian assets: George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, both of whom were already in contact with Moscow. The infamous photo of said team was tweeted out by candidate Trump on 31 March 2016.
Soon after Manafort joined the campaign, and likely at the urging of both Manafort and Simes, Kushner took a call from a second prominent Kremlin spymaster: Sergei Kislyak, who was also the Russian ambassador to the United States. (Later, Kislyak would visit the Oval Office, where he and his colleague Sergei Lavrov, allegedly Simes’ Kremlin handler, would be photographed laughing it up with their asset, Donald Trump).
A month later, on 27 April 2016, candidate Trump gave the first clear and unequivocal signal that he was willing to play ball with Moscow. On that date, Trump was scheduled to give a speech at the National Press Club. Kushner — almost certainly at the behest of Manafort, Kislyak, and Simes — changed the venue at the last minute to the Mayflower Hotel, a larger space that would allow the Russian ambassador to attend, in violation of protocol, and permit schmoozing after the speech.
The new event was organized and hosted by the Center for the National Interest, which is to say, by the alleged Russian agent Dimitri Simes — at Kushner’s request, per the latter’s own Congressional testimony. It was Trump’s first major foreign policy speech. Richard Burt had a hand in its writing, as did George Papadopoulos. In the speech, the candidate promised “a good deal” for Russia, while dutifully refraining from any criticism of Vladimir Putin. But the message was clear. Trump may as well have said, “When I meet Putin in Helsinki, I will kiss his ring.”
The attendees at the Mayflower event form an overlapping Venn diagram with a Robert Mueller “Persons of Interest” list: Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump, Jr., then-senator Jeff Sessions, J.D. Gordon, Devin Nunes, Bud McFarlane, Richard Burt, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks, George Papadopoulos. (Note how many of these individuals were interviewed by Mueller and/or the Congressional committees, and how many are already convicted.)
In his testimony, Kushner claimed that at the Mayflower, he could not recall the name of the Russian ambassador. If he didn’t know it before, he certainly committed it to memory that night. He would meet in person with Kislyak at least three more times, and take God knows how many of the multi-chinned ambassador’s phone calls. Kushner did so as covertly as he knew how. At a Trump Tower meeting in early December 2016, for example, Kislyak was secreted into the building to scheme with Kushner and Michael Flynn, the disgraced general who was the incoming national security adviser.
If Kislyak was not Kushner’s FSB handler, he was certainly doing a convincing job of pretending otherwise.
It was not just Kushner, however. Kislyak would also take several eyebrow-raising meetings with Jeff Sessions (at the RNC in July 2016, and at the senator’s Capitol Hill offices on 8 September 2016); with J.D. Gordon and Carter Page (at the RNC); and, of course, with President Trump in the Oval Office on 9 May 2017 — the day after the president fired James Comey.
The third Russian agent is perhaps the most obscure, but also arguably the most critical of the troika: Alexandr Torshin. Nominally a politician and board member of Russia’s Central Bank, he is, like Trump, an alleged money launderer for the Russian mafiya — in Torshin’s case, for the Tambovskaya Bratva. There is a mob-related warrant for his arrest in Spain.
Torshin is a longstanding member of the National Rifle Association. It has been alleged that he used the NRA to covertly fund the Trump campaign — and, critically, the campaigns of numerous other key Republicans. He made his usual appearance at the NRA convention in May 2016, in Louisville, when the organization formally endorsed Donald Trump for president. Among the attendees at that event: Trump and his namesake son; Rand Paul, who has long ties to Russia, and was alleged by John McCain of working for Putin; Jeff Sessions; Trey Gowdy; and “Sheriff” David Clarke.
Maria Butina was Torshin’s usual companion at NRA events. The indicted Russian spy named Torshin as her Russian handler. If true, this means that Torshin directed her to seduce the various Republican operatives and politicians she bedded, including her “boyfriend” Paul Erickson. Through Erickson, Torshin and Butina succeeded to infiltrate Trump’s inner circle, as Torshin met with Donald Trump, Jr. at an NRA event in May 2016. The topic of that discussion is not known. But, as Sonam Sheth writes in Business Insider:
When [Spanish prosecutor Jose] Grinda was asked whether he was concerned about Torshin’s interactions with Trump Jr. and other American political figures, Grinda replied, “Mr. Trump’s son should be concerned.”
More details about Torshin will emerge as the Butina case plays out. What we already know, however, is damning.
There were many more meetings between Trump associates and Putin agents. The Trump Tower meeting of 9 June 2016 is the most famous, but there were plenty more. Michael Cohen, for example, met several times with key Russian operatives. So did Carter Page. Jared Kushner met with the head of a sanctioned Russian bank in mid-December 2016. Too, there are many more Russians involved than just the three outlined here. The idea that there was, in the president’s pet phrasing, “NO COLLUSION” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin depends on a definition of collusion so narrow as to be meaningless.
The exact details remain to be seen, but this much is clear: Yes, there were Russian agents targeting the Trump campaign. Yes, these agents succeeded. The sooner the American people — and the mainstream media — accept this reality, the quicker the Russian asset will be removed from the office he helped steal.
Note: The expose by Yuri Felshtinsky, “Who is Dimitri Simes and Why is He Trying to Sink the Mayflower,” is a key source for this piece and a must-read for more details on Simes. I encourage you to click and read.