Below is my working theory (i.e., what I think happened), followed by supporting details, below the picture. More supporting details, exhaustively sourced, can be found on the two “timeline” pages (Graft Timeline and Hacking Timeline). This is not a conspiracy theory; this is an attempt to form the facts of the case into a viable narrative. This is what detectives do.
In the summer of 2016, Russian president Vladimir Putin, working through intermediaries, approached Donald Trump’s people with an offer: If and when he became U.S. president, Trump would lift the Ukraine sanctions on Russia; in exchange, Russia would forgive Trump’s nine-figure debt to its bank.
When Trump demurred, Putin added a sweetener: If Trump agreed to the deal right then and there, months before November 8, the debt would be forgiven even if Trump lost the election and never became president. Believing he would not beat Hillary (he never thought he’d actually win), Trump agreed—whereupon Putin did everything in his considerable power to affect the result.
Now Donald Trump faces a dilemma: He’s made a promise to Vladimir Putin, and Putin has already fulfilled his end of the bargain. Can Trump possibly get away with lifting the sanctions without getting busted?
UPDATE: 2 February, 2017: Trump has begun to lift the sanctions!
In the summer and fall of 2016, the British spy Christopher Steele wrote a series of intelligence reports (“the Steele dossier”). These were originally financed by Republicans not in support of Trump, as opposition research. However, Steele became so concerned with his findings that he continued to submit reports even after he was no longer being paid for them.
The best known, and most lurid, detail from the Steel dossier involves Trump’s hiring of Russian prostitutes to perform a “golden shower” routine. While colorful, this is the least relevant part of the document. While the dossier has been slammed by Trump as “fiction” and “lies,” the fact is, Steele has a sterling reputation in intelligence circles. Indeed, other sources have backed up some of his claims. That Steele continued to file reports gratis suggests that he is a man of integrity. Furthermore, in late January, Steele’s Russian informants were either arrested or killed by Putin in a purge. All of this suggests that, while some of the information therein may be spurious, the bulk of the dossier is good intelligence. [Update: On February 10, 2017, CNN reports that US intelligence agencies have corroborated “some aspects” of the dossier].
The Steele dossier reports on meetings in the summer of 2016 between Igor Sechin, the CEO of Rosneft, the Russian oil giant, and Carter Page, who at the time was Trump’s foreign affairs adviser. Once Page’s ties to Russia became known, Trump and his people disavowed him; at one point Trump claimed not to know Page at all. Steele’s source claims that Sechin, or Sechin’s people, floated the offer to Page of the brokerage commission of the sale of 19% of the oil company. In December, the sale of 19.5% of Rosneft actually came to pass, although details are murky.
Also in the Steele report is information on the Russian hacking operation, with was considerable. Here is an analysis of the hacking operation, in a piece that builds on an analysis by Louise Mensch. Whatever the details of the exact operation, there is no question that Putin and the Russians—whether through hacking or manipulation of “Big Data” or both—had the capability to unleash a cyber attack on the U.S.
Cambridge Analytica, the Big Data company used by both BREXIT and the Trump campaign to devastating effect, has on its board of directors none other than Trump’s national security adviser and eminence grise, Steve Bannon.
Famously, Trump has refused to release his taxes. One of the pieces of information in those eternally-audited documents would be the exact amount of money he owes Russian creditors. Given the cost of his Atlantic City casinos and other disastrous real estate ventures, it’s quite plausible that he would be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars to the Russians.
Putin, Sechin and the other Russian oligarchs are desperate for the sanctions to be lifted. Exxon, too, stands to make considerable profit when the sanctions are lifted, and the former Exxon CEO is now Trump’s Secretary of State.
Trump and Putin spoke on the phone for the first time (or what Trump claimed was the first time, despite earlier claims that they had spoken before) on January 27, 2017. The “Unholy Trinity” of Pence, Preibus, and Paul Ryan allegedly had suspicions that Trump was being blackmailed by Putin, and insisted on there being more people in the room for the call. Trump behaved strangely, reports said.
Of course he did. Trump knows he has to live up to his end of the bargain. Putin is not a Polish immigrant working on his demolition team, or one of Trump’s vendors. He’s not easily stiffed. If Trump doesn’t come through, the release of the “golden shower” tape(s) is the least of his worries.
Posted 29 January 2017. Updated 12 February 2017. For more information/links to sources, please see the Graft Timeline page.