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How close is the Trump campaign to the Russian government?

The New York Times has recently uncovered a worrying link between Paul Manafort, Trump’s Campaign Manager, and Vladimir Putin. The new Ukrainian National Anti-Corruption Bureau have unearthed a ledger that reveals $12.7million in undisclosed cash payments were earmarked for Mr Manafort from the Pro-Putin former president, Victor Yanukovych.

At the time, 2007-2012, Manafort was an advisor to Yanukovych. He helped maintain political control and broker deals for the state. These deals included the $18million sale of Ukrainian Cable Televison to a close ally of Vladimir Putin. It is currently unclear whether Manafort actually received the money although the payments are under close scrutiny.

Manafort is not the only close ally of Trump to have questionable links to the Russian government. Carter Page, a foreign policy advisor, has financial links to Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy company. Page also previously acted as a consultant for the company and doubles up in the Trump campaign as the energy policy advisor. In March Page still publicly admitted to having shares in Gazprom and has a history of defending the Russian Government. These links extend to Trump himself who also has sketchy ties to the Russian regime.

In 2008 Donald Trump Jr, Trump’s son, admitted that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” In 2013 Trump received part of a $13million payment to host the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, this event was organised in concert with Russian investor Aras Agalarov.

Agalarov is a wealthy Russian developer who receives a large number of lucrative state funded construction projects and has received the Order of Honour of the Russian Federation, one of the states highest accolades. Prior to this Trump’s partners have travelled to Moscow to attempt to sell a housing project to Russian investors and Trump himself has been attempting to build a “Trump Tower” in Moscow since 1996.

Trump’s connections with Russia extend beyond simple cash. Trump has previously claimed to have met and bonded with Putin during a 60 Minutes interview. This is despite Putin’s segment having been recorded in advance and in a different country. Trump has previously praised Putin for “running his country like a leader.” When challenged by Morning Joe on Putin’s brutal tactics, including the alleged murder of journalists and politicians, Trump responded “I think our country does plenty of killing also…There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity.” Trump has been praised by Putin in return, the Russian President has called Trump “bright and talented” and the “absolute leader of the presidential race.”

Trump’s foreign policy has also been consistently pro-Russia. His criticism of NATO and the countries it protects aligns strongly with Russian foreign policy. Trump’s disregard for alliances and his intention to turn the guarantee of defence of Eastern Europe into a glorified protection racket would benefit Putin’s kleptocracy. His suggestion that Eastern Europe should “pay for its own defence” only make events like the annexation of Crimea far more likely. Therefore it should come as no surprise therefore that Trump has attempted to justify the annexation of Crimea. Trump echoed Putin’s line that the majority of people wanted it. This is despite the referendum being questionable at best.

Trump has also praised Putin’s actions in Syria. Trump asked “What’s wrong with Russia bombing the hell out of ISIS and these other crazies?” This is despite Putin having more interest in bombing the US backed moderate opposition than ISIS. He also seemed, during a speech in Indiana unaware that co-operation with Russia over ISIS is already US policy. Furthermore Trump’s claim that “Obama founded ISIS” is similar to one made by Putin himself earlier this year. All of this criticism relies on the assumption that Trump understands the implications of his foreign policy. The vast majority of experts would suggest he does not.

Perhaps the most damning interaction was when Trump called on Russian hackers to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails. This is unprecedented in American politics. A nominee from one of the major parties calling on a major foreign power to engage in espionage against his political opponents.

His later claim that he was joking has begun to ring somewhat hollow in the light of Wikileaks unveiling 19,000 emails. These emails were taken from private DNC servers and were likely obtained by Russian hackers. It is unclear whether the leaked documents, in the possession of the hackers for several months, were timed to damage Clinton’s campaign. However, it is clear that if Trump were to win then Russia and Putin would benefit greatly.

It is unclear to what extent Manafort’s connections have effected the Trump campaign’s policy positions. Trump has historically been pro-Russian and said many of the things mentioned above before Manafort joined the campaign. He may have always been one of Putin’s useful idiots. The level and depth of connection does however raise questions about “straight-shooter” Trump’s approach to foreign policy.

It is questionable whether Trump is aware of how much his statements and policy benefit Putin. It is however beyond a doubt that the Russian Government has a lot to gain from a Trump Presidency. Given Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns we cannot know the level of direct financial connection with Russia. However, as the man himself would say, some people are saying it’s a big – HUGE – connection, it’s gonna be the best connection ever.

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