Craig Unger Interview: How the KGB Cultivated Trump as an Asset
Image attributed to Craig Unger
Craig Unger is the author of seven books, including the New York Times bestsellers American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery, House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia, and House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties. He appears frequently as an analyst on CNN, the ABC Radio Network and other broadcast outlets. He is a former deputy editor of the New York Observer, editor-in-chief of Boston Magazine and has written for the New Yorker, Esquire and has been a longtime contributor to Vanity Fair.
Unger’s latest book, American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery, is situated in the ongoing context of the Trump-Russia scandal and the new era of hybrid warfare, kleptocrats and authoritarian right-wing populism it helped accelerate. Was Donald Trump a Russian asset? Just how compromised was he? And how could such an audacious feat have been accomplished? To answer these questions and more, Unger reports, is to understand kompromat – operations that amassed compromising information on the richest and most powerful men on earth and that leveraged power by appealing to what is for some the most prized possession of all their vanity.
"I can appreciate the calls for unity now that Biden is in office, but this was the greatest national security catastrophe in the United States, I think, since John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. Nothing like this has ever happened. Imagine putting a Russian asset in the Oval Office of the White House. How can we just let that stand? I think there absolutely has to be an investigation."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Craig, you’ve written two books so far about the relationship between Donald Trump and Russia. Prior to that, it was the relationship between Bush and the Saudis. Do I sense a theme here?
Craig Unger: (laughs) Yes, it is a theme, and its sort of the unseen way in which power works in secret relationships, and it does happen to involve a lot of Republicans. But, yes, there is a theme.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I can only imagine that these are complicated books to write. So why did you decide to take on the challenge?
Craig Unger: Well, the more I got into it, the more horrifying it was. I saw this period of just mind boggling corruption and also in a way, what’s going on with Trump. This is a war of sorts. It’s a war without bombs, bullets or boots on the ground, but it’s with Cyberwarfare, it’s with disinformation, and it’s a war on reality. It’s a war via corruption and weapons like that. I never imagined it could be this intense in a way. I mean, look at what Russia has really done to the United States without firing a single bullet.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Exactly. The Russian word “kompromat” in the book title may not be familiar with a lot of Americans. Can you define what is meant by that?
Craig Unger: Kompromat is a Russian word, and it means really compromising materials. It’s like extortion or blackmail, the idea that they’ve got something on you, they’re keeping it secret, they’re holding it over your head and manipulating you as a result. I think that’s true of both Donald Trump’s interactions with the Russians and also the book talks about Jeffrey Epstein.
If you look at Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell’s operation, most people write about it as sex trafficking, which it is, and it’s quite horrible as such. But it’s also, to me, a kompromat factory. It’s corrupting the dirty little secrets of the richest, most powerful people in the world. In all of his parties at his lavish residences at his island, Epstein has video cameras in the rooms and was capturing all that information and using it one way or another.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There are several other books that examine Donald Trump’s weak spot for Russia – Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Russian Roulette, Luke Harding’s Shadow State and Seth Abramson’s Proof of Collusion, just to name a few. How is American Kompromat different from the rest of them?
Craig Unger: Mine is the first narrative of how the KGB cultivated Trump as an asset, as an intelligence asset. A lot of people have speculated this. I did in my first book on the subject in House of Trump, House of Putin. You may have seen that virtually every major pro-Trump intelligence official have suggested that, yes, he is a Russian asset. Even Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader, was caught on tape about three years ago saying, “Oh, my God. I really think Trump is on Putin’s payroll.” But no one has actually talked to a KGB agent before on the record who says exactly how it happened.
I interview, among other people, a former KGB major named Yuri Shvets who was stationed in Washington, D.C. during the 1980s. He was recruiting American spies himself. Meanwhile, his colleagues in the KGB’s New York station were starting to cultivate Trump as an asset. I tell that story from beginning to end. A lot of seemingly boring now little episodes, and suddenly you see, thanks to my interviews, how there was really always a KGB person in the background.
So when Trump was developing his first major hotel, the Grand Hyatt near Grand Central Station, and he had to buy TV sets, he bought them from an electronics store owned by Russian Soviet emigrates. Well, it turns out they were tied to the KGB, and the electronics store was really a KGB front. So they gave Trump a really low price on all those TV sets, and that was a way of opening the door to start grooming him, to cultivate him to see whether he’s worth investing the time in to get him to do things for the Soviet Union and the Russians.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So the cultivating of Donald Trump as an asset began 40 years ago?
Craig Unger: That’s correct. The purchase of the TV sets was in 1980. Even before then, Trump’s first wife Ivana was a Czech national, and the Czech secret service (known as the StB) was keeping an eye on them and reporting to the KGB. This is back during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was sort of one vast empire. So there was certainly surveillance of Trump going on at that time.
What was interesting is I interviewed a lot of CIA people, FBI counterintelligence and so forth and other KGB people as well. But here you have one episode after another and still have a narrative where in 1987, Yuri was back in the Soviet Union at KGB headquarters, and the KGB put out an internal memo celebrating the recruitment of a new asset for the KGB who had just performed his first successful active measure. An active measure is sort of an act of propaganda in a way. Anyway, attached to that memo was an ad that appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe, and it was signed by Donald Trump. It was promoting all these ridiculous foreign policy talking points that Trump was putting forth back then that had apparently been pumped into him by the KGB.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So, the the new asset that the memo was referring to was Donald Trump?
Craig Unger: Absolutely. Yes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Other terms that have been mentioned in previous books and conversations are “agent” and “useful idiot.”
Craig Unger: We’re calling him an asset. But there’s a difference between an agent and an asset. An agent is always knowing, and he can be talked into perform specific operations and report to his handler. An asset is a much broader term. There are, as you say, useful idiots that may not be knowing what they’re doing, and they just exploit them. Its possible Trump is like that. But Yuri characterized him as what is known as a special unofficial contact.
I don’t know if you’re old enough, but unfortunately, I am old enough to remember an oil man named Armand Hammer who died in 1990. He was one of the first American businessmen to get very, very lucrative concessions in the oil industry from the Soviet Union. He was known as a special unofficial contact, and in return for these lucrative oil concessions, he would do various favors for the KGB. Trump is in the same category really. It’s very hard to prove how knowing he is.
I don’t have special access to Tump’s brain in what he was thinking at the time. But some of this goes back to my first book, House of Trump, House of Putin, that by 1984, the Russian mafia was using Trump real estate to launder money. I cite an incident of a man named David Bogatin who went to Trump Tower in 1984. Trump Tower had just opened, and it was this glitzy huge condo building on Fifth Avenue. Bogatin just put down $5 million in cash, the equivalent of about $15 million today, and he said, “I’ll take five condos.” Trump, of course, didn’t ask him where he got the cash. He just took it.
What happened then was a purchase in all cash in which the beneficial owner of those condos could be anonymous. Those are the prerequisites for money laundering: all cash and anonymous purchase. Trump had about 1,300 condos that were sold under similar conditions. So you see what appeared to be massive money laundering through Trump real estate. That’s sort of the way it started. That’s what he was getting out of it at least in the early 80s.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Could that be one reason Donald Trump refused to release his tax returns?
Craig Unger: That could certainly be part of it. The other possibilities happened somewhere around 2002. Another real estate development company called Bayrock, which was located in Trump Tower just a couple of floors from Trump’s office, came to stay and started pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into developing buildings franchised under Trump’s name. Trump really wasn’t doing anything for this except allowing them to use his name. He was deeply rewarded. Bayrock also had strong ties to Russia, to the Russian mafia and to Russian Intelligence.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But still we do not know for sure that Donald Trump was aware of this mutual arrangement between himself and the KGB?
Craig Unger: There’s an open question as to how knowing Trump was. But it’s hard to think he was unaware of it because he did everything Putin seemed to want. And as I write in my book, you would see various episodes in which some things would take place that were perfectly legal. Mueller was supposed to be doing a counterintelligence investigation. But it changed and became a criminal investigation which is very, very different than counterintelligence. Criminal investigations are supposed to find crimes and prosecute them. Counterintelligence is supposed to find evidence of subversion and an intelligence operation that’s undermining the United States. What’s shocking to me is that has not happened at all even now. So in my own simple way, that’s what I was trying to do, and Yuri helped me out a lot by giving me a lot of information, and I would try to corroborate or repudiate it.
You would see episodes like the following: Donald Trump, Jr. gave a speech just before the election in 2016 in Paris at a French think tank, and you’d pay $50,000 or so for that. Well, that’s all perfectly legal. What’s unusual is that the French think tank was essentially a front for Russian Intelligence. During that visit, Donald Trump, Jr. was passed the talking points that Russia wanted his father to implement in the Middle East once he became president.
Sure enough, in 2017, Trump did exactly what the Russians wanted. He withdrew our forces from Syria, he abandoned our Kurdish allies, and he allowed Russia to dominate the region. You would see that kind of thing happen again and again and again. That’s why we need a counterintelligence operation. Each component of that, strictly speaking, was legal but what you end up with is the president’s family getting money from Russia and executing policy that is in the interest of Russia and against American interests.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did the Russian KGB decide to recruit Donald Trump because of his wealth and influence?
Craig Unger: One thing was that this was not one grand ingenious plot that, “Oh, we’re going to get the president of the United States, and four years from now he’ll be elected president.” That’s not what happened. If you go back to the 1980s, the Cold War was very much alive. Russia was our bitter adversary, and they had assets like Armand Hammer who was getting old. He was in his late 80s or 90s by then, and they needed replacements.
I live here in New York, and there were hundreds of Soviet spies at the time, many of them working at the United Nations. You had the spy wars in the mid 80s with turncoats like Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames. They’re both serving life sentences in jail, and they betrayed the United States. So that kind of thing was going on. The Russians often used influential businessmen.
Robert Maxwell, the father of Ghislaine Maxwell who was the partner of Jeffrey Epstein, had been very, very close to the KGB. He had the same kind of relationship with them that Trump did. So the KGB is a phenomenal institution. They can plan an operation that lasts 20 years or more, and they’re very patient. It’s very different than the CIA.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Donald Trump and Jeffrey Epstein apparently had a close friendship years ago. Was Epstein involved with the KGB or aware that they had attempted to recruit Donald Trump?
Craig Unger: I think Epstein was putting together what I call a kompromat factory. Yes, he was very close to Donald Trump for 15 years. They had a falling out. The friendship really went from 1987 to 2002 or so. One of my sources said that he saw Epstein in Robert Maxwell’s office in London back around 1987 or 1988 when Maxwell was working with the KGB. When it came to procuring young women and girls (many underage), the procurers were getting a lot of young girls from Russia in the former Soviet Union. It’s sort of common in Russian Intelligence to have the honey trap set up where you put a beautiful young woman in front of a guy, things start to happen, and the guy is spilling everything. In this case, Epstein’s mantra was “the younger the better.” There’s a real difference between having extramarital sex and essentially pedophilia. The latter can put even a multi-billionaire in jail.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you believe that Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide?
Craig Unger: I don’t know what to think, to be perfectly honest. I don’t like the idea of what I believe. I try to accumulate as much evidence as possible and see where the facts take me. You had a series of accidents. There were so many coincidences. The surveillance video outside his cell was deleted. He was accidentally left alone, he was accidentally taken off suicide watch, on and on like that. There are plenty of people who did want him dead. There is no question about that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Craig, in summary, what do you want the readers to understand from this story, and can you offer them a smoking gun?
Craig Unger: I think the first 100 pages are so far the only detailed narrative about how the KGB cultivated Donald Trump. You see a series of episodes that, I think, are quite well documented. I have hundreds of footnotes in the book, and a lot of what I say are first person, out-of-the-mouth of Yuri Shvets. I’ve done everything I can to corroborate orrefute what he has told me.
You start off seeing that in 1980, the KGB opened their relationship with Donald Trump by giving him a great deal on all these TV sets. Then they decide that this guy is potentially an asset. They are deciding if it’s worth their time to recruit him, to cultivate him and to groom him. They quickly find out that he is so vain, he is so narcissistic, he’s so gullible, and if you flatter him, he goes for it. What happens next is very strange because Trump was really almost a new version of a playboy. I lied in New York in the 80s, and you’d see him in the gossip columns all the time with beautiful women even though he was married.
Suddenly, in the middle of this, he starts to present himself as a genius on foreign policy and nuclear arms when he has almost no expertise in the area whatsoever. This, according to Yuri, is where the KGB was pumping all this information into him and was encouraging him by saying, “Wow. You’re so brilliant, so refreshing. You’re so unorthodox. You should run for president. You should become a public figure.” Believe it or not, in 1987, he goes to Russia and comes back and starts to run for president. This is when George H.W. Bush was running for the first time.
When Trump does this, he takes out this ad in the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe that had disseminated KGB talking points, an event that called for a celebratory memo to be circulated at the KGB. When Yuri told me this in a taped interview, he was back in KGB headquarters in the Soviet Union. This is closer than anyone’s gotten to a smoking gun. I don’t have a document, but this is out of Yuri’s mouth on tape, and he’s said it in public again and again: He got an internal cable celebrating the recruitment of a new asset, and attached to it was the ad from the New York Times that, of course, was signed by Donald Trump. That was the first time Yuri ever knew about it. But it meant he was a Russian asset.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So from your interviews with Yuri Shvets, an ex-Major in the KGB and your other sources, do you feel there should be an immediate counterintelligence investigation on Donald Trump?
Craig Unger: I think absolutely. I think if you follow the crash of the Boeing 737, you just don’t say, “Oh, the plane crashed. They’re already dead. Don’t don’t go into it.” No. It’s going to happen again. You have to investigate that. I think that is the the problem we’re left with.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But some people might say that we’re in a new administration now, so who cares about whether Donald Trump was a Russian asset or not. How do you answer them?
Craig Unger: I can certainly sympathize at being exhausted by all of this and wanting to move on to a new chapter. I can appreciate the calls for unity now that Biden is in office, but this was the greatest national security catastrophe in the United States, I think, since John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. Nothing like this has ever happened. Imagine putting a Russian asset in the Oval Office of the White House. How can we just let that stand? I think there absolutely has to be an investigation.
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