In the meantime comes “Russian Roulette,” a new book by two veterans of Washington political journalism, Michael Isikoff and David Corn, whose subtitle promises to reveal “the inside story of Putin’s war on America and the election of Donald Trump.”
Alas, it does not — at least so far as offering foolproof evidence of Putin’s involvement, or his motives. “For all the public controversy,” they write two pages before the end of their book, “there was still much about Putin’s cyberattacks that was cloaked in mystery, especially what had happened in Russia.”
“Russian Roulette” is, thus, not an investigative breakthrough as much as a new contribution to that well-worn genre: the granular, source-on-the-wall election diary. On that score, they have produced the most thorough and riveting account so far — riveting, that is, as long as you don’t mind falling into paroxysms of political outrage and dismay.
Although the authors make their view clear from the start, referring to Russian help as the perceived “original sin” of Trump’s presidency, it is to their credit that they present both campaigns in an unfavorable light. The book will surely infuriate readers on either side of what should be the most urgent question facing the nation today: the vulnerability of our democratic institutions to Russian manipulation.
For aggrieved Clinton supporters, reading “Russian Roulette” will be like reliving a nightmare. Trump supporters, too, should wince at the cringe-worthy embarrassments that would have derailed any other candidate.
In one scene inside Trump Tower, the candidate’s aides debate how to respond to the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which the future president boasts about grabbing women by their genitals. According to the authors, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, her face reddening and eyes filling with tears, urged her father to make a full-throated apology. He did not. He simply dismissed what he said as “locker room banter” without denying anything he did.
It should have been a moment for Team Clinton to celebrate a knockout blow to Trump’s insurgency — except that the video landed on an inauspicious day for them.
Barely an hour earlier, the director of national intelligence and secretary of homeland security issued a statement saying that the intelligence community was “confident that the Russian government directed” the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email system. The subsequent leak of thousands of emails was a tactic “consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.”
This was the Watergate burglary of the internet age, yet the revelation was all but drowned out by the release of the tape. “The Clinton staffers hit the phones, calling reporters they had worked with, urging them to give more attention to the Russia story. They weren’t having much luck.”
And still to come was the third October surprise of the day. WikiLeaks announced that it would begin dribbling out thousands of emails to and from John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman, that proved hugely embarrassing to the candidate.
That day — Oct. 7 — may prove to be a turning point in American history. It was, by some unearthly coincidence, also Vladimir Putin’s 64th birthday.
“Russian Roulette” is best when describing how the country’s intelligence agencies were slow to recognize Russia’s effort and the frustration among Clinton’s supporters of the failure of the administration, the F.B.I. and the media to trumpet it for what it was. (Some reporters did, in fact, including Corn and Isikoff, but much more became clear only after Trump’s victory.)
It was President Obama, however, who set the administration’s tone: He did not want to be seen as trying to tip the scales of the election by suggesting a foreign leader was intervening in support of one side. “We were wearing self-imposed handcuffs,” one agonized aide tells the authors.
A disclosure is required here: The book describes an article that a colleague, Eric Lichtblau, and I wrote for The New York Times. In it we reported on the F.B.I.’s inability to substantiate what appeared to be ties between the Trump Organization and a private Russian bank, Alfa, even as its agents were following an array of other leads. Some of them were detailed in the “dossier” of Christopher Steele, the former British agent hired to conduct opposition research.
While evidence of many accusations remains unclear, the authors argue that the article and headline wrongly focused on the absence of proof rather than the main point, which was that there was an investigation into “possible links between the Russian government and the Republican presidential candidate.”
There are, in the end, no heroes in “Russian Roulette.” The bureau’s director, James B. Comey, deserves significant scrutiny (and he has his own book coming). During the investigation into her private email server, Clinton and her staff were so suspicious of the bureau that when agents first came to the Brooklyn headquarters to inform them of the Russian hacking, the campaign manager, Robby Mook, refused to meet them, fearing they were there to ask about Clinton’s emails.
The suspicions boiled over when Comey made an 11th-hour statement that the bureau was reviewing “new” emails found in a separate investigation, into Anthony Weiner, the disgraced husband of Clinton’s close aide Huma Abedin. By doing so, Comey hurled a thunderbolt into the election only days before the vote — something aides quoted anonymously claim he wanted to avoid.
Historians may long debate who had a bigger influence on the outcome: the F.B.I. director or the Russian leader.
For anyone who believes in the better angels of American politics, “Russian Roulette” is a depressing book. The Russian hacking, it is now clear, simply exploited the vulgarity already plaguing American political campaigns, which churn on spin and strategy (and money) far more than vision or values.
The book does have its flaws. The simplistic vilification of Russia — without evidence or better context — reinforces the view of some thoughtful Russians that Americans have become irrationally hostile toward the country and even the culture. The sourcing is also sloppy in places. The authors are respected journalists, and one can trust their use of anonymous sources or not, but in the span of four pages describing the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013, for example, they quote four different ones. There is “a Miss Universe associate” (whatever that means), “a Miss Universe official,” “a Miss Universe staffer” and “another Miss Universe staffer.”
The “Miss Universe official” states that only Putin could have approved holding the pageant in Moscow, which is absurd. Putin controls much in Russia, but only in the fevered imagination of a pageant official does he dictate the location of beauty contests. The “another Miss Universe staffer” suggests Trump winnowed the finalists in his pageants by rejecting dark-skinned contestants and those who “snubbed his advances.” That is an explosive accusation to attribute to a single source among a muddle of them.
Still another anonymous source reveals one of the book’s most significant revelations. A Russian insider had been providing the American Embassy in Moscow with unconfirmed but what turned out to be prescient information about Putin’s inner circle around the same time Trump was presiding over the pageant. Among the disclosures was the racially tinged disdain senior Russians felt for Barack Obama, all dutifully reported back to Washington in top-secret cables.
This source — described not as an intelligence asset but as a sympathetic political insider, who as a young man had been “heartened by Ronald Reagan’s anti-Soviet rhetoric” — told his interlocutor as early as 2014 that the Kremlin was planning to undermine democracy in the West. It was, the authors suggest, one of many missed signals of what was coming.
“Anybody who had any doubt about Putin’s intentions,” the source’s American interlocutor is quoted as saying, “just wasn’t reading what we reported.”