It’s an excellent coincidence that the master of Donald Trump’s latest misfortunes, the unnamed author of a series of unproven yet titillating “memos” about the president-elect’s alleged relationship with Russian intelligence and particularly accommodating Russian prostitutes, is a former operative of MI6.
The British, as 20th-century Cold War spy literature makes clear, have a certain way with discreetly chivvying out dirty secrets of the politically powerful, even if these never see the light of day, and some of the best are presented (or disguised) as fiction.
After decades of being out-maneuvered by his elusive nemesis, John Le Carré’s counterintelligence officer George Smiley finally discovers the means by which to snag “Karla,” by turning the Soviet spymaster’s own tricks against him; that is, by blackmailing him with a life-ruining secret, a tactic known in KGB parlance as kompromat.
Karla has got a mentally ill daughter, had out of wedlock with a mistress of “anti-Soviet tendencies.” He keeps her in pseudonymous seclusion in a Swiss sanitarium using state money by pretending that she is his secret agent. Karla has murdered two people in foreign countries (including a former British agent of Estonian military rank) to keep this secret hidden from his tyrannical government.
But Smiley’s people, by working backwards from one of the murders, finally alight upon it. So Smiley offers Karla a choice: he can have all this disclosed to Moscow Center, at which point he will no doubt lose his job and his life and his daughter will be cast into a state of “perpetual and ailing exile,” or… he can come to the West, with all the usual perquisites and conditions, and work for the British government, giving up untold Soviet secrets. (There can be no stick without the carrot.)
“I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his,” Le Carré writes in the voice of his greatest protagonist. “We have crossed each other’s frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man’s land.”
It is too soon to tell if Trump, who just held a press conference dismissing charges laid against him in this leaked dossier as “fake news,” will find himself cast out of the White House and into the no-man’s land of impeachment, if not treason.
But if he is, it won’t be because of his supposed penchant for “golden showers,” which he wrongly assumes that a known “germaphobe” such as himself could never partake in.
No, a man who has agreed that his own daughter is a “piece of ass” and who was elected president after being caught on tape saying that he grabs women by the pussy would likely withstand the popular disgust, and might even present the event as a sign of his prowess, at least with sex workers. Only Winnie-the-Pooh would revel as much as Trump in being caught up to his ears in a honey pot.
What the Russians could blackmail him for would be his alleged willingness to collaborate with the Kremlin in funding hackers of Democratic operatives and, more problematic still, feeding regular intelligence to the FSB, the KGB’s successor organ, on activities of Russian oligarchs living in the United States.
Both allegations are in the infamous memos, and the latter one would fit the profile of a man recruited as an agent of a foreign power, a model in which “cooperation” becomes a matter of blackmail and control.
Like Karla, Vladimir Putin is a savvy user of kompromat to advance his interests, and it would be in keeping with his style and curriculum vitae to try to run a foreign politician (or aspiring one) with evidence of that politician’s misbehavior, however engineered it may have been. Putin arguably owes his presidency to the use of this very time-honored tool of Russian tradecraft.
Back when he was the director of the FSB, Putin impressed what was then known as the Yeltsin “family,” which included but was by no means limited to the Russian president’s kin, by destroying a general prosecutor who was investigating Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and her husband, Valentin Yumashev, on corruption claims. Some of these involved the misappropriation of state funds, such as receiving kickbacks from contractors hired to refurbish the Kremlin.
Another object of the general prosecutor’s scrutiny was the Iago-like Boris Berezovsky, a Yeltsin loyalist who, more than any other billionaire in what was known as the semiboyarshchina — the reign of the seven boyars, or oligarchs — orchestrated the drunk and infirm incumbent’s near-miss re-election in 1996, chiefly by spreading falsehoods and rumors about his Communist opponent.
The general prosecutor was Yuri Skuratov, who was backed by one of Yeltsin’s political rivals, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
In February 1999, Skuratov resigned, citing poor health, but it was later reported that Yeltsin had tried to "squeeze" him out of a job. The following month, Russia's Federation Council, or upper chamber of parliament, rejected his resignation and issued a motion of confidence in his role. Then a video was released on state-controlled Rossiya TV channel showing a man who looked a lot like Skuratov cavorting with two prostitutes. In April, Yeltsin suspended Skuratov “during the period of the criminal investigation” into the video.
The target had obviously complied with the terms of his kompromat by leaving his job quietly with no immediate repercussions. But that didn’t work, as Russia’s senators wanted Skuratov to carry on in his investigations. So out came the stick.
The person in charge of the investigation into the tape’s provenance was Putin, then head of the FSB who, one might safely assume, ordered the filming of the event (vanilla by modern standards) if not the procurement of the working girls, too. In any event, Skuratov accused him of planting the tape, and journalist Pavel Sheremet (murdered last year in Ukraine) reported at the time that Putin arranged to have Skuratov quietly leave the prosecutor general’s office.
In a televised press conference held in April that year, Putin and Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin verified that it was indeed Skuratov in the video and that the orgy had been paid for by criminal suspects being investigated by Skuratov’s office. Skuratov was finally sacked in April 2000, following the Federation Council's vote to dismiss him, following a year-long intra-government dispute over his future.
And Putin, who was brought into the Kremlin by Berezovsky (who would live to regret it), and who had dutifully demonstrated his fealty to the family, was appointed prime minister. He then became Yeltsin’s successor.