The Guardian “Scoop” Would Shift the Timeline and Bureaucracy of the Known 2016 Russian Operation

Luke Harding has a story based on alleged Russian documents that show that Vladimir Putin personally approved of the 2016 Russian operation on January 22, 2016.

In advance of a known meeting — which Russia claimed at the time was convened to talk about Moldova — the Guardian claims Putin was presented with a plan on how an influence operation might work. Putin purportedly approved the operation at the publicly announced meeting. And then all three intelligence agencies implemented it.

The author appears to be Vladimir Symonenko, the senior official in charge of the Kremlin’s expert department – which provides Putin with analytical material and reports, some of them based on foreign intelligence.

The papers indicate that on 14 January 2016 Symonenko circulated a three-page executive summary of his team’s conclusions and recommendations.

In a signed order two days later, Putin instructed the then chief of his foreign policy directorate, Alexander Manzhosin, to convene a closed briefing of the national security council.

Its purpose was to further study the document, the order says. Manzhosin was given a deadline of five days to make arrangements.

What was said inside the second-floor Kremlin senate building room is unknown. But the president and his intelligence officials appear to have signed off on a multi-agency plan to interfere in US democracy, framed in terms of justified self-defence.


After the meeting, according to a separate leaked document, Putin issued a decree setting up a new and secret interdepartmental commission. Its urgent task was to realise the goals set out in the “special part” of document No 32-04 \ vd.

Members of the new working body were stated to include Shoigu, Fradkov and Bortnikov. Shoigu was named commission chair. The decree – ukaz in Russian – said the group should take practical steps against the US as soon as possible. These were justified on national security grounds and in accordance with a 2010 federal law, 390-FZ, which allows the council to formulate state policy on security matters.

According to the document, each spy agency was given a role. The defence minister was instructed to coordinate the work of subdivisions and services. Shoigu was also responsible for collecting and systematising necessary information and for “preparing measures to act on the information environment of the object” – a command, it seems, to hack sensitive American cyber-targets identified by the SVR.

The SVR was told to gather additional information to support the commission’s activities. The FSB was assigned counter-intelligence. Putin approved the apparent document, dated 22 January 2016, which his chancellery stamped.

Because the analysis presented in this story says things that many people now believe — that Trump was unstable, that he harmed the US, that Russia’s operation sowed division in the US — it had been uncritically embraced by many.

But experts are raising some cautions. Thomas Rid raises cautions here (not all of which I agree with). Matt Tait raises more cautions here (not all of which I agree with). Craig Unger quotes more experts raising questions about the document.

What few are doing, however, is comparing the claims in the Guardian document to what we (think we) know about the 2016 operation, which not only is a good way to test their accuracy but also might answer the question Douglas London raised with Unger: “‘Coincidence and convenience are red flags in espionage,’ he told SpyTalk. ‘So why now?'”

If these documents are disinformation, they would change the known story in at least two ways. The resulting story would sustain a claim that both key events and key players in the 2016 Russian operation weren’t really part of that operation. That is, if this is disinformation, it likely was told to try to obscure who were the most important players in the 2016 operation and what events were part of it.

A January 22 approval would suggest presumed parts of the 2016 operation weren’t actually part of it

If the Russian operation weren’t approved until January 22, then events believed to be part of the operation that happened before that might be dissociated from it.

Perhaps the most important temporal conflict these documents would introduce would be the Trump Tower Moscow dangle. That effort — floated by Felix Sater and relying on a former GRU officer as a broker — started in fall 2015 and ratcheted up in December 2015. Importantly, a key call Michael Cohen had with Dmitri Peskov’s assistant took place before Putin allegedly approved the operation, on January 20.

On January 20, 2016, Cohen received an email from Elena Poliakova, Peskov’s personal assistant. Writing from her personal email account, Poliakova stated that she had been trying to reach Cohen and asked that he call her on the personal number that she provided.350 Shortly after receiving Poliakova’s email, Cohen called and spoke to her for 20 minutes.351 Cohen described to Poliakova his position at the Trump Organization and outlined the proposed Trump Moscow project, including information about the Russian counterparty with which the Trump Organization had partnered. Cohen requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the project and with financing. According to Cohen, Poliakova asked detailed questions and took notes, stating that she would need to follow up with others in Russia.352

The next day — so still one day before, according to the Guardian document, Putin approved the 2016 operation — Sater responded to Cohen claiming that Putin’s office had called.

However, the day after Cohen’s call with Poliakova, Sater texted Cohen, asking him to “[c]all me when you have a few minutes to chat .. . It’s about Putin they called today.”353 Sater then sent a draft invitation for Cohen to visit Moscow to discuss the Trump Moscow project, 354

If Putin didn’t approve the 2016 operation until January 22, Russia and Trump might claim, this effort wasn’t really an attempt to offer Trump financial salvation in exchange for policy considerations and other quid pro quo that became part of the operation, but instead was a viable (albeit ridiculously lucrative) real estate offer. Indeed, if Russia wanted to bail Trump out of the financial difficulties created by the prosecution of Trump Organization now, they might want to launder this earlier real estate dangle so as to dissociate it with any attempt to buy a president, or else any deals from this point forward might be deemed a continuation of an earlier conspiracy or even an effort to keep Trump afloat long enough to run again in 2024.

Similarly, also before the purported January 22 approval date, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko started a several month outreach to Trump, one that would be sustained through March.

Trump received and turned down an invitation to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. In late December 2015, Mira Duma-a contact oflvanka Trump’s from the fashion industry-first passed along invitations for Ivanka Trump and candidate Trump from Sergei Prikhodko, a Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation.377 On January 14, 2016, Rhona Graff sent an email to Duma stating that Trump was “honored to be asked to participate in the highly prestigious” Forum event, but that he would “have to decline” the invitation given his “very grueling and full travel schedule” as a presidential candidate.378 Graff asked Duma whether she recommended that Graff “send a formal note to the Deputy Prime Minister” declining his invitation; Duma replied that a formal note would be “great.”379

It does not appear that Graff prepared that note immediately. According to written answers from President Trump,380 Graff received an email from Deputy Prime Minister Prikhodko on March 17, 2016, again inviting Trump to participate in the 2016 Forum in St. Petersburg.381 Two weeks later, on March 31, 2016, Graff prepared for Trump’s signature a two-paragraph letter declining the invitation.382 The letter stated that Trump’s “schedule has become extremely demanding” because of the presidential campaign, that he “already ha[ d] several commitments in the United States” for the time of the Forum, but that he otherwise “would have gladly given every consideration to attending such an important event.”383 Graff forwarded the letter to another executive assistant at the Trump Organization with instructions to print the document on letterhead for Trump to sign.384

We don’t know what this outreach might have entailed, but like the Trump Tower deal, Trump Organization appears to have withheld evidence about this outreach from one or another investigator, in this case any evidence that Trump declined Prikhodko’s invitation.

Finally there’s the weird way this fits Mike Flynn’s known timeline. To be clear, Flynn was not a full-time part of the Trump campaign when he and his son went to Moscow for the RT Gala in December 2015 and, before he went, he met with Sergei Kislyak in the US. While Flynn was sharing some advice with Trump (as well as some of the other Republican candidates), he would only join Trump’s campaign full time months later. But when Flynn visited Russia, he had prior ties with the GRU. He would later tell the FBI he believed then-GRU head Igor Sergun could work with the US. Days after Flynn’s visit, Sergun died unexpectedly in Syria, and Flynn called Kislyak on January 5 to offer his condolences, the first of Flynn’s 2016 calls with Kislyak picked up on FISA intercepts. Sergun’s death was only widely made public weeks later, after this purported meeting, and there were questions about the circumstances of the death. Those things are probably unrelated, but days after the head of GRU died seems curious timing to put GRU in charge of a risky operation.

The described organization shifts the existing understanding of the 2016 operation

The timing of this meeting, just days after the death of Sergun, is important to explain a claim made in it: that Sergei Shoigu was purportedly put in charge of the GRU part of the operation, its most important part. A January 22 meeting would take place before Sergun’s replacement, Igor Korobov, was appointed (and the suggestion of the story is that Shoigu remained in charge after the later appointment).

And under Shoigu, everything was all tidy and bureaucratic.

According to the document, each spy agency was given a role. The defence minister was instructed to coordinate the work of subdivisions and services. Shoigu was also responsible for collecting and systematising necessary information and for “preparing measures to act on the information environment of the object” – a command, it seems, to hack sensitive American cyber-targets identified by the SVR.

The SVR was told to gather additional information to support the commission’s activities. The FSB was assigned counter-intelligence.

For a lot of reasons I find the designation of FSB for counterintelligence weird, because that’s what they would always be doing and that effort would necessarily (and presumed aspects of which did) long precede any individual operation. Plus, by the end of the year, Putin had taken out two top FSB officers for treason, a prosecution that was later used to offer counter-narratives to the 2016 operation.

But it’s the rest of this narrative that would be intriguing, if true. It would seem to offer an explanation that has never publicly been answered by the US: what the relationship was between the DNC hack by the SVR that started in 2015 to the DNC hack by the GRU that started in 2016. That said, SVR is not known to have hacked several other targets of the 2016 operation: John Podesta individually, state election infrastructure, election vendors, and Hillary’s analytics hosted on an AWS server.

The narrative would be particularly interesting, if true, in the wake of the Solar Winds hack, because it might suggest there will be a GRU sabotage operation following on the entities targeted by SVR. Or maybe Russia wants the west to think that to be true.

That said, there’s a huge part of this neat bureaucratic description not mentioned: The central role of Oligarchs in the 2016 operation.

One might discount the need to include specific instructions for Yevgeniy Prigozhin, as his Internet Research Agency was already engaged in sowing division. But you’d think a description of the bureaucratic structure of the 2016 operation would at least note that a big part of the operation would be accomplished by a known private entity. Furthermore, there are redacted hints in public filings both that Prigozhin’s team interacted with GRU, and that he and Putin had specific conversations about the operation. None of that is accounted for (or arguably, even consistent with) this story.

And that’s the thing: if testimony that Alfa Bank’s Petr Aven gave to the Mueller team is accurate, his role in the 2016 operation got tasked both individually and more generally in quarterly Oligarch meetings with Putin, not through intelligence agencies.

Aven told the Office that he is one of approximately 50 wealthy Russian businessmen who regularly meet with Putin in the Kremlin; these 50 men are often referred to as “oligarchs.”977 Aven told the Office that he met on a quarterly basis with Putin, including in the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2016, shortly after the U.S. presidential election.978 Aven said that he took these meetings seriously and understood that any suggestions or critiques that Putin made during these meetings were implicit directives, and that there would be consequences for Aven if he did not follow through.979 As was typical, the 2016 Q4 meeting with Putin was preceded by a preparatory meeting with Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino.980

According to Aven, at his Q4 2016 one-on-one meeting with Putin,98 1 Putin raised the prospect that the United States would impose additional sanctions on Russian interests, including sanctions against Aven and/or Alfa-Bank.982 Putin suggested that Aven needed to take steps to protect himself and Alfa-Bank.983 Aven also testified that Putin spoke of the difficulty faced by the Russian government in getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration.984 According to Aven, Putin indicated that he did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.985

Aras Agalarov played a partly successful role in the 2016 operation (in fact, Rob Goldstone offered Trump help from Vkontakte before the January 22 meeting, on January 18). Oleg Deripaska played a wildly successful role (a role that included manipulating Harding’s known source, Christopher Steele). A credible story that their roles got tasked through intelligence agencies and not via meetings directly with Putin might insulate them from responsibility, particularly as the US focuses more explicitly on Konstantin Kilimnik’s role, and particularly for things like sanctions adjudications. But it’s far more credible that something similar to what happened with Aven happened, and happened before the January 22 meeting in question.

Russian kompromat on Trump was never going to be a pee tape

In addition to shifting the timing and presumed bureaucratic structure of the 2016 operation, this story seems to reinflate the expectation of a goddamned pee tape.

There is also apparent confirmation that the Kremlin possesses kompromat, or potentially compromising material, on the future president, collected – the document says – from Trump’s earlier “non-official visits to Russian Federation territory”.

The paper refers to “certain events” that happened during Trump’s trips to Moscow. Security council members are invited to find details in appendix five, at paragraph five, the document states. It is unclear what the appendix contains.

The SSCI Report laid out three different rumors about sexual kompromat, on top of the Steele dossier. But every time someone focuses on a goddamn pee tape, they ignore several details. First, Per his own testimony, Cohen learned of such alleged kompromat shortly after 2013. Even if it existed, it would have far less impact than the many other allegations of sexual abuse that actually did come out in 2016, or the allegations that Trump was cheating on Melania shortly after she gave birth with high profile sex workers. Plus, such stories would have been easily accessible for anyone who wanted to outbid Trump for them.

A pee tape was never going to be the most effective kompromat on Trump, no matter how much people still wish to see humiliating pictures of Trump with sex workers. Financial ties would be.

Importantly, given the way this story would shift the operative start date after much of the discussion about the Trump Tower, Trump hid the Trump Tower Moscow dangle the way he would a pee tape, lying both in real time and to Mueller about it. That is, Trump treated the Trump Tower Moscow dangle as kompromat, which likely was part of the point.

Sure, it’s possible that these documents that magically appear are authentic. It’s also possible that Russia has reasons they want to tell a new story about the timing and key players in the known 2016 operation. Why they would want to do that may be the most interesting aspect of this story.

80 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    As I read through the post, I’m struck by your emphasis on “start” with respect to this document, this meeting, and the Russian interference. To me, I think it equally likely that the Jan 22 meeting would not be the start of some kind of intelligence program, but a shift in its direction and a decision to ramp it up in scope.

    Generally speaking, I’m sure Russian intelligence had been watching Trump the minute he expressed interest in anything in Moscow and Russia, include real estate plans, the Miss Universe competition, or anything else. Trump had made noises about running for president in the past, which would only make an intelligence officer more likely to at least poke around Trump or envision dangling something in front of him to see if he bites.

    By January 2016, however, things were moving from Trump talking big about running to him being a legitimate frontrunner in various polls. It’s not hard to imagine various mid-to-upper-level intelligence operatives pushing their bosses (or vice versa) to put forward possible ways to exploit this based on their earlier work. The result of such pushing might easily be a meeting such as is described by the Guardian document. That is, it’s not the start of an operation, but a meeting to coordinate, redirect, and expand those operations in a more coherent manner.

    This also might explain some of the weirdness you note, like the designation of the FSB as in charge of counterintelligence. If other folks were running their pre-existing operations that veered into counterintelligence, this language about the FSB is exactly what one would expect to see expressed following a meeting designed to coordinate and consolidate existing operations as well as authorize new ones. “Yes, you’ve been doing good work on your project” says Putin and the council to these folks in non-FSB agencies, “but now you’re either going to hand your operation off to the FSB or report to them instead of your current boss.” Beyond simply coordination, it’s standard bureaucratic infighting behavior and exactly how I’d expect the FSB to want to assert their authority over certain aspects of a multi-agency effort.

    • emptywheel says:

      He had been a front-running for 5 months before that. I first predicted he could get the nomination in July 2015.

      And the intelligence structure doesn’t make sense. Again, not least bc the Oligarchs were a very central part of it (and I could point to Deripaska taking steps in preparation before this).

      • Ken Haylock says:

        Did not the Oligarchs & the Russian mob have their own reasons for cultivating & manipulating/grooming Trump?

        Also (this isn’t an assertion so much as a hypothesis) there’s a difference is there not between giving the pot a bit of a low risk deniable stir to cause chaos & unrest in your adversary’s social fabric by helping the unelectable candidate who is leading a major party primary right now, & suddenly deciding to go all in to help them win. The downside risk of the latter approach seems massive if they actually lose. I can’t see Nordstream 2 being built, or Ukraine going well, under a President HRC who was very nearly but not quite sunk by a concerted Russian Influence op.

        • emptywheel says:

          I appreciate your questions bc they’re helping me to clarify what I’m not communicating here.

          One thing this story claims is that they were only interested in Trump for the chaos effect, not for affirmative policy stances. But that’s not what abundant evidence suggests. It suggests there were a series of quid pro quos: Veselnitskaya offering dirt (days before the emails dropped) for sanctions relief, Deripaska offering help for help carving up Ukraine, and Guccifer offering advance information on the emails for a pardon for Assange.

          The Oligarchs were key players in at least two of those quid pro quos.

          By telling a story that there was no ask from Trump except incompetence and chaos hides those aspects of it, which I believe were built in from the start.

          • Ken Haylock says:

            OK, so the ‘carving up Ukraine’ thing is a substantive foreign policy ask, rather than a culture war bomb to be thrown inside America. The ‘Asking for a pardon for Assange’ thing sounds like more of a quid pro quo for Assange (i.e. the Ask) than something they necessarily expected to actually happen. But… wasn’t the ‘Ukraine Peace Plan’ mid 2016, & just a rehash of something else Russia had suggested?

            • Ken Haylock says:

              Also – & sorry for the multiple postings but I’m looking up dates in real time, because I’ve no idea when all this actually happened or in what order now… the infamous Trump Tower ‘adoption’ meeting was in June 2016, which is consistent with the timeline this alleged meeting sets forth; are there any substantive geopolitical asks from Trump that pre-date this alleged meeting that would indicate that they thought he would actually be President if they helped him prior to that?

              • emptywheel says:

                The operation started in January 2016, then hit a lull, then ramped up again between May 4 when he effectively won the primary until June 14, when the Dems revealed Russia had hacked them. Then it ramped up again after the RNC solidified his nomination.

                Trump did say some nice things in 2015. The Ukraine stuff was late July and August 2.

          • earlofhuntingdon says:

            Thank you. Chaos is always helpful in combating an enemy. But it would not be sufficient to compensate for the risk of being caught overtly corrupting the President of the United States.

            It would also be a massive own goal, if Russia were to accomplish that objective without also obtaining major policy changes in their favor. That these would enrich oligarchs – Putin and his patronage network chief among them – could only be part of the deal.

            • Silly but True says:

              There are good reasons for Russia to maintain & engage in a general plan for chaos, multi-generational/year influence & electioneering, etc. but it’s only ever really been about Ukraine for Russia.

              Ukraine is an existential issue for Russia/Putin.

              Russia’s point for operation being “defensive” is tied up with Putin’s grievances predating and associated with reason for and the failure of Obama’s circa 2009 “reset.” Then VP Biden in his Feb. 7, 2009 speech presented a comprehensive bargain to Europe & Russia: end to Cold War mentality in exchange for cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran, as well as assistance on specific Obama policy initiatives (acceptance of Guantanamo terrorism prisoners so Guantanamo terrorism prison can be shut down, etc.)

              Since Russia’s overwhelming beat down of Georgia, relations were quickly souring: Russia pressured Kyrgyzstan to bar US military access for Afghanistan War, Russia peddling quid pro quo START activities was going to line Polish border with missiles if US put missile defense battery in Poland, but greatest among the issues was issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership.

              That wasn’t going to happen while Russia’s pony Yanukovych was President. But two big things happened in 2014: the downing of Malaysian Flight 17 on July 17, 2014 and Yanukovych’s 2014 overthrow changed that.

              US saw arming of Russian-aligned militias in Donbass as irresponsibly escalating tensions; and the downing of Flight 17 by Russia-furnished BUK brought that to head. With some earlier grumbling so, by summer 2014, triggered by Russia’s behavior, it was all but reported as fact that the Russian reset failed.

              For its part, Russia saw the 2014 meddling in Ukraine as at least partially evidenced as part of US foreign policy acts by the leaked Nuland-Pyatt (“F—- the EU”) call as direct attack and threat. The transcript of the call at minimum shows heavy-handedness on part of US: Nuland was coordinating directly with opposition leaders Vitaly Klitschko and Arseniy Yatseniuk); at worst, Nuland and Pyatt can also probably be read in her direction to Pyatt to also coordinate with Klitschko to be overtly engaging in overthrow of Russia’s man. Putin had taken to singling out US Ambassador Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia 2012-2014 as his own personal foe, even to point of infamously offering quid pro quo exchange of access by Mueller to interview Russian officials in exchange to interrogate McFaul.

              Since 2014 neither US and Russia have been shy about escalating tensions.

              It saw Clinton as continuation of the escalating course. It clearly saw Trump as more controllable. For US policy irrespective of President, nearly decade on there has never been justice for Fight 17 yet. And any future resets should need to accommodate that.

          • Troutwaxer says:

            If this is disinformation (and I suspect it is) I’d guess the purpose is to get the Oligarchs off the hook. They’re not intelligence agents and don’t run operations, but they’ve got a lot of power, money, and influence, so if Putin thinks Biden might be turning the NSA/CIA/FBI in the direction of various Russian intelligence operations, (and possibly their server farms) which might have to be abandoned, given up or sacrificed, then Putin can at least have his Oligarchs in place for whatever he might want them to do.

            Essentially, he’s throwing the lower-level operatives under the bus in the hopes of preserving the rich guys who might be able to finance/lead/organize new initiatives. I’d guess the reason for this is that Biden and his crew would have to be very, very stupid not to direct the U.S. intelligence community to do everything possible to discover the extent of the damage from Russia and try to find ways to counterattack.

            • Troutwaxer says:

              I probably should have written, “I agree with Marcy that the purpose is to get the Oligarchs off the hook.” She said it pretty clearly above.

          • Nehoa says:

            NBC News: “The Trump administration wanted to lift sanctions on Russia when the president took office, but career diplomats ginned up pressure to block the move.”
            Trump did try to ease sanctions on Russians as soon as he got in office, but it got blocked by diplomats and Congress (rare bipartisan move).

      • Peterr says:

        The oligarchs are folded into the various organs of the state in various irregular ways. People have to be told to look away from certain activities or to assist other activities, after all. I would not be surprised if certain of these things that don’t make sense about the structure are the result of these irregular arrangements to accommodate the oligarchs. After all, you’re not going to see anything in an official document that says “and make sure Vasily gets his cut” or something like that.

        ETA: And just because you made that prediction about Trump, don’t assume that Russia would have come to the same conclusion. There are plenty of folks I respect who made exactly the opposite prediction, and had lots of egg on their faces in November 2016. I think it much more likely that they saw him as a possibility with intriguing potential benefits to them, rather than someone with a good shot of winning.

        • Ralf Maximus says:

          By all accounts even TRUMP was surprised that Trump won. As far as he was concerned, the 2016 campaign was just a really lucrative grift. He’d probably planned his next four years around (1) fundraising for his next 2020 attempt, and (2) building his television presence as a continual thorn in President HRC’s side.

          Dude didn’t even have a transition team lined up.

          • earlofhuntingdon says:

            Trump has never managed more than the handful of people who run his family corporation. But he claims to be a very smart guy, who already knows everything, so there’s nothing he need learn. For Trump, that means he didn’t need a transition team. In the real world, he’s grossly incompetent and would not have had a transition team, whether his winning was a sure thing or close call.

      • subtropolis says:

        The oligarchs are not a separate branch of the Russian Intelligence structure, so they’d not have a seat at the table during this meeting. Rather, one of those agencies (probably FSB) would have been coordinating with them as part of its role in the overall plan.

        I’m with Peterr on this. There’s little reason to expect that nothing was being done wrt Trump, Cohen, Flynn, or anyone else before this meeting, which could have been designed to bring together disparate operations into a coordinated effort due to the upcoming election.

        • Don Van Atta says:

          The promised docs are from the RF Security Council.

          From sitting in post-Soviet bureaucracies, I would suggest, FWIW:

          Setting up a working group (a commission) is standard when an issue has reached a certain ripeness. These bureaucracies are hierarchical and jealous with few horizontal links except at the top. The Security Council meeting is formalizing a decision already agreed.

          The RF Security Council can give direct orders only to formal govt agencies. Very likely the list of members of that interministerial commission includes Prigozhin (or other oligarchs) or his rep “by agreement,” that is, an invitation that is an offer one should not refuse. This is how non-govt entities are involved in govt commissions.

          Shoigu is in charge of the Commission because he’s the GRU’s boss and heads MoD. He will delegate to whomever he thinks appropriate.

          This meeting and the docs it approves sounds like formalization and coordination of things already ongoing.

          Btw, FSB still has domestic counterintelligence job. I would read that assignment as being confirmation of that, and perhaps a bit of agency ego massaging – promising they have a role in this operation.

  2. Zinsky says:

    This is an excellent piece of writing and great analysis of this possible bombshell disclosure by The Guardian. While potentially specious, it does begin to order and make certain known facts fall into place and make more sense as a whole. Your point about downplaying the role of Russian oligarchs is on point and brilliant. Remember that Paul Manafort, in a filing in the Cayman Islands in 2014 that was later filed in New York State court in 2018, alleged that Manafort had stolen $18.9 million from Oleg Deripaska. That may have been what drove Manafort to proffer Trump campaign data to the oligarch to mitigate the debt. Link here:

    Thank you for a brilliant analysis of this development.

  3. Ken Haylock says:

    I feel like the value of a ‘pee tape’ now would be to provide incontrovertible evidence of something Trump has consistently denied & weaponised as ‘proof’ that ‘Russiagate’ was a ‘hoax’. It’s more ‘valuable’ for its cut through potential than for anything substantive it tells anybody engaged about Trump or the Russians come to that.

    It’s not clear to me how the description of the meeting is at odds with various things already being in the works as background & BAU activity. It seems like cultivating Trump was just BAU activity for them. Carter Page wants to be an oil trader, so we blow smoke up his rear & try to recruit him, Trump will launder money for us & wants to build a giant Tower in Red Square & also be President, so we blow smoke up _his_ butt, humour him about his giant erection & put a video of him getting jiggy with the Red Sparrow Watersports Team in the library while he’s in town, etc etc.

    The idea that e.g. fronts for the Russian mob in Moscow were telling Trump they could help him be President & build a giant tower in Moscow & meanwhile could he just wash this vast pile of money through his golf resorts, thank you’ doesn’t mean anybody really expected to do either, does it? In what way would that be incompatible with what we (well… you) know & with this reported meeting where the Russian intelligence operation allegedly decided they were going to make him President for reals?

    • emptywheel says:

      Except the only reason we think there’s a pee tape is bc of the dossier, which was likely used as Russia to create a false Russian operation that could be easily debunked, and used as cover for a very real and much more damaging operation.

      And, no, I’m pretty sure the Tower was part of a quid pro quo.

      • Ken Haylock says:

        One would assume it very much was part of a Quid Pro Quo, but assuming it was never actually going to get built, but was just a plausible looking dangle with an artists impression attached, it’s a pretty cheap Quid Pro Quo if it is being used as a trojan horse to get access to Republican politics or to induce Trump to (continue to) do financial crimes for Russians, rather than something that assumed he should first become President & then withdraw from Syria or whatever…

        • Ken Haylock says:

          The Pee tape is such an oddly specific allegation, & Trump’s reaction so consistent with his reactions when caught, plus his desire to reach out into Russia personally to suppress distribution of a tape that cannot possibly exist plausibly unless he knows otherwise…

      • Peterr says:

        The tower was also a huge piece of bait they (and the whole frickin’ world) knew would appeal to Trump. It is something that is central to who Trump says he is. He wants to own the biggest buildings in the best locations and plaster his name on it all to paint himself as the most special guy in the universe.

        Offer to help Trump build a factory that makes widgets used in poor people’s homes, and he’ll tell you to pound sand. Offer to help him get prime property to build a fantastic building that would have his name on it and make him the talk of the town, and he’ll ask “where do I sign?”

        • ThomasH says:

          Apologies for a (hopefully) humorous aside.

          Your point made me think of an amusing grift of the grifter: approach trump as a representative of extraterrestrial beings, perhaps even god-like in the way Kubrick and Clarke suggested in 2001 a Space Odyssey, dangling a trump tower that’s literally “out of this world!” Given a subtle approach, he would be very likely to take the bait.

          • Silly but True says:

            I always wondered why Trump didn’t just entertain their usual licensing deal of slapping Trump brand on building for a fee as the standard deal he did throughout world like in Canada, U.A.E., Turkey, Indonesia and Azerbaijan.

            Certainly cash and prestige to put his name in lights could have far more reasonably been cemented.

          • Troutwaxer says:

            For real nightmare fuel, imagine what would have happened if aliens had landed during Trump’s presidency…

            • P J Evans says:

              All they’d have had to do was say nice things about him and promise him a hotel somewhere with his name on it.

              • Troutwaxer says:

                If the aliens are tacky-enough to build a Trump Tower on Rigel VII, they deserve what they get!

              • Knox says:

                On the morning of March 6, 2016, I had a dream that Donald Trump gave away all the treasures of the earth, in the form of magical golden keys that he presented, on an embroidered pillow, to alien invaders who stood erect like humans but had lizard heads. When he was confronted for doing this, he said it was because there was a greater threat he was protecting the earth from.
                It was such a vivid dream, I wrote it down when I woke up. This was three months before he announced he was running for President.
                Sharing for no particular reason.

              • Troutwaxer says:

                Because we haven’t been blown up by a deathstar and/or aren’t slaves to “G’nbgar the Magnificent?”

      • subtropolis says:

        “A pee tape was never going to be the most effective kompromat …”

        Putting aside all other questions about the watersports claim, that complaint is meaningless. If they had such a recording then that’s what they had. One plays the game with the kompromat one has in hand.

        Besides, almost everyone thought that the pussygrabber recording was enough to do him in.

      • BobCon says:

        You may well have read it, but if you missed it Ashley Feinberg’s piece in Slate is fantastic.

        She reviews a purported — but hoaxed — version where someone went to enormous lengths to create one that looks authentic, tellingly either taping in the actual Presidential Suite in the Moscow Ritz Carlton with a convincing Trump double and naked actresses, or in a precisely manufactured duplicate of the suite, down to the carpet and wall sconces.

        What’s also telling is that the video is unquestionably a fake — the place where it was taped is exactly like the Presidential Suite after it was remodelled postdating Trump’s visit.

        It’s not a simple hoax — it was made by someone who either had access to the Presidential Suite in Moscow or who had the resources to create a painstakingly researched fake.

        I have to think it has a Russian source, but the exact purpose is cloudy. It may have been part of a larger plan, or it may have been an abandoned project, but it is an elaborate hoax, not a cheap throwaway.

        • Silly but True says:

          It would be an interesting exercise for an honor’s thesis in either Economics, Media or Political Science to investigate as %USGDP the impact of the pee tape on US society, with it being the topic of no less than at least two meetings between the President of the free world, and his FBI Director, but consuming countless thousands of hours of social media and thinkpieces.

        • RWood says:

          “A pee tape was never going to be the most effective kompromat on Trump, no matter how much people still wish to see humiliating pictures of Trump with sex workers. Financial ties would be.”

          I’ve always suspected that it wasn’t so much the tape, or the actions involved, but the age of the participants that provided the leverage.

  4. David B Pittard says:

    Probable typo: “now” intended for “not” in this sentence: “That said, SVR is not known to have hacked several other targets of the 2016 operation: John Podesta individually, state election infrastructure, election vendors, and Hillary’s analytics hosted on an AWS server.”

    • emptywheel says:

      GRU is known to have hacked them. SVR is not known to have pre-hacked them like they did the DNC starting in July 2015.

  5. Another Dude in G-ville says:

    I’m wondering if there is another timeline of events you might consider. “Phil” asked you to delete some of your conversations about a month prior to this thing kicking off. Seems from your writing he might have a tie to Flynn? And Flynn was in Moscow around then? Anything to this?

  6. AlexC says:

    Excellent analysis. Just one point of clarification: there is a pee tape, as confirmed by Cohen and reported by both Mueller and SSCI. It’s a fake, but an extremely compelling one, and was floating around the dark cracks of the internet for a while. The sort of thing that you can’t unsee, and that even though fake, would likely have impacted the MAGA yokels who get their information from supermarket tabloids. A picture is worth a thousand words, and all that.

    Clearly Trump and Cohen were concerned, or wouldn’t have asked their Russian cronies to suppress the flow of the tape(s) in late Oct 2016.

  7. Benvindo Soares says:

    … Trimp , imho… Knows the pee tape doesn’t exist. He also knows he’s done worse things. He also knows he didn’t need to be in Russia, to be recorded.

    ….The Trimp’s in their entirety have always made money via “liens” Putin has a lien. He will leverage it … NRA and GOP , will suffer the consequences. Putin is playing folks like a fiddle. I expect him to hand the fiddle over to Oleg …I have my eyes on Mitch.
    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, Oleg seems to have written it with Manafort …lol
    Marcy you are brilliant ….. thanks for sharing.

  8. OldTulsaDude says:

    I found the following (from The Guardian article) to be a little too spot on: “A Trump win “will definitely lead to the destabilisation of the US’s sociopolitical system” and see hidden discontent burst into the open, it predicts.”

    That one sour note made me think the band selling the record didn’t write the music.

    • Eureka says:

      They ostensibly already knew that (would keep happening) from the years-long IRA troll operations, so less sagacious than data point by then. So it stood out to me for reasons Marcy noted — them blowing off the (integrated) oligarch operations in this ‘plan’.

      Adding: Which also serves to make RU look both less manipulative (i.e. perennial victims) and more powerful (taking eyes off the ball of agency).

      And thanks again, Mark Zuckerberg– from vulnerable peoples the world over!

      • Eureka says:

        ^ clarifying: I threw in an “ostensibly” since their ongoing (yet unmentioned) activities could have been a reliable source for that assertion (which fits their tendencies toward grandiose psychologizing in any case), but to be fair that could have been salted in (especially given how it fits their narrative)

  9. gmoke says:

    One of the most interesting things about this story to me is that I have not seen or heard a single word about it on BBC America, PBS Newshour, and CBS News over the last two days. I might have missed it but I was paying attention. Caution or memory hole?

    • bmaz says:

      Caution. And that is a good thing. Adding, and maybe I missed it, but don’t believe I have seen it discussed on CNN either.

      • gmoke says:

        I agree that caution is wise in this circumstance but the fact that it doesn’t seem to be mentioned at all, at all on the usual news programs indicates something more like a memory hole to me. You can cover this story without buying into its narrative lock, stock, and barrel.

        • subtropolis says:

          Sure, but the right approach would be to look into it themselves first, rather than simply repeat what The Guardian has reported.

  10. Molly Pitcher says:

    Trump bought the Aberdeenshire Golf course land in 2006 and the Turnberry course in 2014. Since then he has invested over $289M CASH without turning a profit. I have to believe that he has been playing footsie with oligarch’s money for quite a while. 2014 was the fourth time he declared chapter 11 bankruptcy. How do you buy a multi million dollar golf course for cash while declaring bankruptcy in Atlantic City without someone else slipping money to you thru the backdoor?

    This May 2021 article from Reuters addresses the renewed call for an ‘unexplained wealth order’ investigation in Scotland regarding the source of funding for the courses and also has the origin of the theory that Russian money is what enabled the purchase of the courses and keeps them afloat.

    I think the Guardian piece was intended to nudge timelines knowing that there are many investigations into all things Trump now that he is without the protection of the infuriating DOJ policy of hands off Presidents in office.

  11. morganism says:

    I think Marcy is correct about the oligarchs, and think this is just to try and protect the families of them, as Biden is now extending sanctions onto them.

    It could simply be that they want to be able to send their families to Trump Miami?, where they run an “anchor baby” operation for pregnant russian women. After all, they had lock downs, and there must be plenty of well placed ladies who are now coming due. They like access to western healthcare, and offers US citizenship to the rest of the family.

    and i think the Miami Herald? broke the story.

  12. G2Geek says:

    (Long-time reader, first time commenting here.) Most interesting. I had been inclined to believe the Guardian story because the Guardian is generally credible and the story claimed the docs were already in IC hands. At this point, thanks to Marcy’s and others’ analyses & critiques (hi Marcy!;-), I’ll put it in the ‘reasonable doubt’ category, heading toward ‘dubious.’ And, at the end of the day, there’s nothing very new here, so it doesn’t change our overall knowledge or assessment.

    So this gets us to the questions of who and why? Russia or allied actors admitting to what’s already known, as cover for something else or something new? A boobytrap similar to the GWB / Dan Rather op, to try to discount what’s known by having it become identified with a forged document? Possibly an attempt to ‘out’ a US asset in the Kremlin via a salted document?

    At this point I think it’s sufficient to handle this by marking it ‘dubious’ and being alert for ‘the next thing,’ whatever that might turn out to be. Because as we all know, there will be a ‘next thing,’ and then something after that. And there will soon be more news of Russian goings-on.

    Unrelated question: Where might I find credible assessments and scenarios for a post-Putin era in Russia?

    • subtropolis says:

      I’m skeptical of the notion that the Russians purposely leaked this. None of the suggested reasons that they might do that makes a lick of sense. (Protecting the oligarchs? Please.) And I similarly find it difficult to believe that someone in Trump’s orbit put this together as a means to discredit the whole story, as was done with Dan Rather. Recall that that was based on real documents that had been salted with fakes.

      The question as to the veracity of this file turns on its provenance. And the length of time that Western Intelligence has had it would settle some questions as to whether it is a fake, and by whom.

      The article claims that US Intel (CIA, I presume) has had it for months. But it does not suggest that that’s where The Guardian got it from. I suspect that MI6 gave it to CIA, but did so only after Biden was sworn in, for two reasons. First, it would have pissed off Trump, obviously. Secondly, although MI6 wouldn’t necessarily reveal the name of its source they would necessarily have to provide some information to CIA in order to establish some credibility for the document. But doing so might be almost as dangerous as naming the individual. I have no trouble at all believing that the British were wary of what might get back to Trump, and what he might subsequently reveal back to the Russians.

      I think that it’s possible that someone at MI6 leaked it to Harding et al, in any case.

      • Rayne says:

        Jesus Christ on a pogo stick — why the everlivingfuck would a western intelligence agency “leak” a questionable document rife with disinfo which doesn’t serve NATO members’ best interests?

        That’s a rhetorical question. I don’t want your answer because it’s clear you’ve no skepticism whatsoever about the provenance and content of the material.

        • subtropolis says:

          Once again, you’ve blown up at me in a manner that leaves me wondering about your reading comprehension.

          My comment was entirely about my skepticism of the provenance of this alleged document. Are you just pissed off because I happen to think that the common wisdom about it (the Russians leaked it) seems stupid?

          To answer your non-rhetorical question: I did not mean to suggest that “a western intelligence agency” had leaked it. Read it again: “I think that it’s possible that SOMEONE at MI6 leaked it to Harding et al, in any case.”

          What I’d meant was that some INDIVIDUAL may have decided to pass it to Luke Harding — who clearly does have a Intelligence contacts — perhaps out of concern that US Intel would bury it. Or, for any of a bunch of reasons that one could speculate about.

          Do try to read more carefully before losing your shit in the comments. It reflects poorly on both you and this site.

          • Rayne says:

            This: “I think that it’s possible that SOMEONE at MI6 leaked it to Harding et al, in any case.” which I’ve now read multiple times between your first comment and this one does not allow for SOMEONE OUTSIDE WESTERN INTELLIGENCE to have leaked it to Harding, leaning instead into a single possibility.

            Your comment excludes what non-western intelligence would prefer to see happen — an immaculate drop of disinformation furthering their false narrative.

            Furthermore, you can knock off policing what we’re writing. Now go piss up SOMEONE else’s fucking rope for a while.

  13. Eureka says:

    The first thing I thought of on this news (besides jhc here we go again w the reactivity they seek; the time _and scope_ are too contracted and locate power in Putin* and Trump as opposed to the American people; rant rant rant) was how Kilimnik’s tasking to FSB vs GRU might fit (if you consider that timeline, and if you consider this Jan 22 thing a point in time), and Treasury’s ID of same.

    I see you pointing there; am interested what else you might be able to flesh out.

    Sidenote: that thing you did with Gerstein and Cheney today was _not_ available to people unless using a phone (super rude of twitter — they basically said ‘Sorry not sorry, eff off!’). It is archived, playable somewhere?

    *yet another victim-hero story

  14. Leoghann says:

    I’ll chime in here to concur with those who believe that the claims made in the “leaked” (coincidentally) information is true, but the time line may not be. It’s completely implausible to me that an operation like this would just suddenly spring to life on 22 January 2016, because Putin so ordained it on that date. Most of the upper-level actors in the Russian government, just as in other places, have the authority to work on projects of their own. While 22 JAN might have been the date of the meeting when Putin gave his blessing and ordered some coordination to being, it seems more likely to me that some parts of the program had been in process for months, if not years, in the hands of the upper-level underlings who were at the meeting. Bureaucracy being what it is, it would take an order from Putin to make some of those personalities work together and share information. But even if Harding has developed a hell of a source, it would be par for the course for some of the actual details to have been fictionalized, either to keep the Westerners guessing, or to make the story difficult to trace. Without an actual, accurate timeline, Harding’s story only goes to confirm what, by now, many of us already strongly believe.

    One other thing–the “goddamn pee tape.” It’s the Russian way to use compromising information to gain leverage, and Trump certainly doesn’t have a history of decorous behavior. But video evidence of actual peeing with sexual partners? Absolutely not. This isn’t in character for Trump, and it’s such a fun little dirty scenario for gossipy people to be shocked about. The many reports of DJT’s sexually assaultive behavior, including some from his attendance at Epstein’s parties, indicate that he has a penchant for rape, degradation, and violent behavior toward women, particularly young ones.

    • subtropolis says:

      “While 22 JAN might have been the date of the meeting when Putin gave his blessing and ordered some coordination to being, it seems more likely to me that some parts of the program had been in process for months, if not years …”

      Yes, there could been several ongoing operations, and the point of holding this meeting was to establish coordination of them.

    • earthworm says:

      i am only a mere flatlander, without the expertise of many of the regulars on this site; but i have sensed, for quite a long time, that Harding is unreliable.

  15. Darrell Lucus says:

    But here’s the rub–if this is disinformation, why would Putin essentially admit to ordering an invasion? He isn’t normally that sloppy.

      • Darrell Lucus says:

        Nothing in this campaign to interfere with the election happened without, at the very least, Putin’s tacit approval.

      • subtropolis says:

        Darrell didn’t suggest that it was him. In fact, he’s questioning the notion that the Russians leaked this.

        • bmaz says:

          Thanks, but I was referring to the “Leak Report”, not more general things. Sure Putin approved with whatever actions were taken by Russia as to election interference. The question is the authenticity and provenance of this particular document set.

  16. timbo says:

    Having just read the Barrack indictment pdf I’m wondering if this whole thing about changing the Russian timeline is somehow connected to the UAE stuff in some hard to piece together way. Clearly there may be a major scandal being uncovered with the Tom Barrack indictment (is “US Person 1, a former official”, Trump himself?):

    (And where does Erik Prince fit into all this? And all those nuclear power plant deals, Flynn, etc?)

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