many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative. In this story, Russia waged a sophisticated and audacious operation to subvert American elections and install a President of its choice—it pulled off a coup. Tell that to your average American liberal, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Tell it to your average Russian liberal (admittedly a much smaller category), and you’ll get uproarious laughter. Russians know that their state lacks the competence to mount a sophisticated sabotage effort, that the Kremlin was even more surprised by Trump’s election than was the candidate himself, and that Russian-American relations are at their most dysfunctional since the height of the Cold War. And yet the indictments keep coming.
.. I mean that I’ve figured out how to think about what we know and not go crazy. The answer lies in the concept of the Mafia state. (And, no, I’m not invoking the Mob because Stone encouraged an associate to behave like a character from “The Godfather Part II,” as detailed in his indictment.)
As journalists who usually cover American politics have connected the dots of the story of Russian interference, those of us who normally write about Russia have cringed. Early on, it was common to point out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who is now under arrest, worked for Viktor Yanukovych, who is often characterized as the “pro-Russian President of Ukraine.” In fact, there was no love lost between Putin and Yanukovych. After he was run out of town, during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Yanukovych did seek refuge in Russia, but during his tenure as President he was an unreliable partner for Putin at best. Perhaps more to the point, he’s a crook and a brute. He served time for robbery and assault before he became a politician, and he is wanted in Ukraine for treason, mass murder, and embezzlement. A visitor to Ukraine can take a tour of Yanukovych’s palace, famous for its marble, crystal, immense scale, and a life-size solid-gold sculpture of a loaf of bread. Manafort made a career of working for the corrupt and the crooked. That in itself tells us little about Russia or its role in the 2016 campaign.
.. In media coverage, her e-mailing with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office was portrayed as evidence of a direct line to Putin, suggesting that she met with Trump’s campaign officials as his emissary. To me, it read as a lot of bluster on the part of a minor operator. From all the available evidence, and contrary to her sales pitch, Veselnitskaya did not have any dirt to offer on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that Veselnitskaya had established connections to high-level Russian officials, they were the kind that are necessary for a lawyer to be at all effective in a corrupt system.
.. We cringed at the characterization of the Russian online influence campaign as “sophisticated” and “vast”: Russian reporting on the matter—the best available—convincingly portrayed the troll operation as small-time and ridiculous. It was, it seems, fraudulent in every way imaginable: it perpetrated fraud on American social networks, creating fake accounts and events and spreading falsehoods, but it was also fraudulent in its relationship to whoever was funding it, because surely crudely designed pictures depicting Hillary Clinton as Satan could not deliver anyone’s money’s worth.
What we are observing is not most accurately described as the subversion of American democracy by a hostile power. Instead, it is an attempt at state capture by an international crime syndicate. What unites Yanukovych, Veselnitskaya, Manafort, Stone, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, the Russian troll factory, the Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos and his partners in crime, the “Professor” (whose academic credentials are in doubt), and the “Female Russian National” (who appears to have fraudulently presented herself as Putin’s niece) is that they are all crooks and frauds. This is not a moral assessment, or an attempt to downplay their importance. It is an attempt to stop talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.
The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who created the concept of the “post-Communist mafia state,” has just finished editing a new collection of articles called “Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes” (to be published by C.E.U. Press early this year). In one of his own pieces in the collection, using Russia as an example, Magyar describes the Mafia state as one run by a “patron” and his “court”—put another way, the boss and his clan—who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. When I talked to Magyar on the phone on Monday, he told me that Trump is “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia. Trump cannot transform the United States into a Mafia state, of course, but he still acts like a Mafia boss.” Putin, on the other hand, “is a Mafia boss with a real Mafia, which has turned the whole state into a criminal state.” Still, he said, “the behavior at the top is the same.”
The Mafia state is efficient in its own way. It does not take over all state institutions, but absorbs only the ones necessary for extracting profit. Some structures therefore continue to work as though they were part of a normal state. This may explain why we saw the official Russian foreign-policy establishment preparing, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, for a working relationship with the presumed Hillary Clinton Administration.
When we think about a normal state, Magyar told me, “the assumption is that the state acts in the public interest, and if that doesn’t happen, that’s a deviation.” That is true of how we think about democracies but also, to a large extent, of how we think about dictatorships as well: the dictator positions himself as the arbiter and sole representative of the national interest. A Mafia state, on the other hand, acts only in the personal profit-seeking interests of the clan. “That’s not a deviation,” Magyar said. “It’s a substantive, structural characteristic of the state. The state itself, at the top, works as a criminal organization.”
When members of the American media cover the story of Russian meddling, they implicitly portray Russia as a normal state, and the influence operation as an undertaking of the state aimed at furthering Russia’s national interests. This strikes Russians as absurd. By the measure of national interest, the Trump Presidency has been disappointing for Russia. Most of what Trump has given the Russian state has come through inaction:
- he has barely reacted to continued Russian aggression in Ukraine;
- he has failed to support nato; and
- he has said that the U.S. will withdraw from Syria, although it looks like the withdrawal is unlikely to be fast or total.
At the same time, diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. have deteriorated to the point of near-total dysfunction, and, despite considerable foot-dragging by the White House, the U.S. has continued to impose new sanctions on Russia.
By the metrics of a Mafia state, though, the Trump Presidency has yielded great results for Russia. A Mafia boss craves respect, loyalty, and perceived power. Trump’s deference to Putin and the widespread public perception of Putin’s influence over Trump have lifted Putin’s stature beyond what I suspect could have been his wildest dreams. As happens in a Mafia state, most of the benefit accrues to the patron personally. But some of the profit goes to the clan. Over the weekend, we learned that the Treasury Department has lifted sanctions on companies that belong to Oleg Deripaska, a member of Putin’s “court” who once lent millions of dollars to Manafort. If a ragtag team employed by or otherwise connected to the Russian Mafia state tried to aid a similar collection of crooks and frauds to elect Trump—as it increasingly looks like they did—then the Deripaska news helps explain their motivations. The story is not that Putin is masterminding a vast and brilliant attack on Western democracy. The story, it appears, is that the Russian Mafia state is cultivating profit-yielding relationships with the aspiring Mafia boss of the U.S. and his band of crooks, subverting democratic institutions in the process.
Though she, too, has avoided public name-calling, it’s clear Pelosi doesn’t feel the same admiration for Trump. After a recent meeting at the White House, Pelosi returned to the Hill and questioned his manhood before a room full of House Democrats. She likened negotiating with him to getting sprayed by a skunk, and expressed exasperation that he is even president.
Pelosi’s allies say she doesn’t trust him, pointing to
- a tentative immigration compromise they reached in 2017 that she believes Trump backed out of. She’s noticed how
- he’s blamed Republican congressional leaders when his base decries spending bills, and
- upended their legislative plans with surprise tweets.
“Speaker Pelosi has a history of bipartisan accomplishments. … But the test for this president is figuring where he stands on issues from one day to the next,” said Nadeam Elshami, Pelosi’s former chief of staff.
Pelosi is also uncomfortable with Trump’s handling of facts — a big obstacle, in her mind, to cutting deals with him — and has occasionally called him out. During their first meeting after his inauguration, when Trump opened the gathering by bragging that he’d won more votes than Hillary Clinton, Pelosi was the only person in the room to correct him, noting that his statement was false and he’d lost the popular vote.
Since then, Pelosi has tried to correct Trump privately, her allies say. She doesn’t like fighting in public, they added, and it was one of the main reasons she tried, in vain, to end the sparring match over border wall funding that unfolded on TV live from the West Wing last month.
Sources close to Pelosi say she’s willing to work with Trump despite her party’s total rejection of him. Her confidants note that when Pelosi first became speaker in 2007, some Democrats were calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush over the invasion in Iraq. Pelosi ignored them and went on to strike major deals with Bush, including a bank bailout and stimulus package in response to the 2008 financial meltdown.
“They became friends,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a Pelosi confidant. For the incoming speaker, “It’s always about: Can you get things done? There are always going to be different points of view. How do we overcome them to get to a conclusion?”
Pelosi allies say as long as Trump is willing to compromise on Democratic priorities, she’ll work with him, too. But with the shutdown dragging into Pelosi’s takeover on Jan. 3, there’s a serious question about whether the two can make any headway.
On New Year’s Day, Trump and Pelosi exchanged words on Twitter over the shutdown — relatively mild ones, especially by Trump’s standards — in a sign of the tense days and weeks ahead.
“I think the president respects her and wants to work with her … Their personalities would lend themselves to strike deals,” Short said. “But I don’t know if Democrats will allow it. … She’s going to have so many members who will object to any transaction or communication with the president, that it puts her in a tight spot.”
It’s just as unclear whether Trump is willing to risk the wrath of his base by compromising with Pelosi. Just as he did on immigration, promising a “bill of love” to protect Dreamers from deportation, Trump privately told Pelosi after their contentious televised negotiation session that he wants to make a deal with her. Even after news that she’d questioned his masculinity went viral, he called her that afternoon to reiterate: We can work together to avert a shutdown.
But that was more than three weeks ago. The two haven’t spoken since.
After a secret 11-hour journey aboard Air Force One, President Trump arrived in Iraq on the day after Christmas in a show of support for the U.S. troops stationed there. The president also took the opportunity to inform U.S. service personnel about his recent decision to pull American forces out of Syria.
Trump – who was accompanied on the trip by first lady Melania Trump — said the U.S. mission in Syria was to strip the Islamic State terror group (ISIS) of its military strongholds, not to be a nation builder. He said that’s a job that should be shouldered by other rich nations — reiterating his America First policies and an ideology that challenges America’s roles as global cop.
“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” Trump told troops at Al Asad Air Base, west of Baghdad.
The president said the U.S. presence in Syria was never to be “open-ended,” and that Turkey has agreed to eliminate ISIS remnants. – Reported by Travis Fedschun and Frank Miles
Mr. Mattis’s resignation letter on Thursday served as a rebuke of the president’s sharp demands of America’s allies and softened approach toward some of its adversaries. Only over the weekend did Mr. Trump realize that Mr. Mattis’s letter was a critique of the president’s policies, leading him to accelerate Mr. Mattis’s departure.
.. “I very deeply regret the decision made on Syria,” President Emmanuel Macron of France said during a news conference over the weekend. “To be allies is to fight shoulder to shoulder. It’s the most important thing for a head of state and head of the military. An ally should be dependable.”
.. Focusing on money saved, Mr. Trump sent more than 10 Twitter posts in four hours.
In one, he declared that Saudi Arabia would “spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States.” It was not immediately clear how or when that would happen.As he assailed critics of his “America First” approach, Mr. Trump also targeted Mr. McGurk, the envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State.
The president misleadingly called Mr. McGurk an Obama-era appointee, and accused him of “loading up airplanes with 1.8 Billion Dollars in CASH & sending it to Iran” as part of the nuclear deal that world powers struck with Tehran — an agreement from which Mr. Trump has withdrawn the United States.
.. The Obama administration did not directly give money to Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal; instead the United States unfroze billions in assets as part of a decades-long debt dispute, $1.7 billion of which was transferred in cash in 2016.
.. Mr. McGurk, who worked in the administration of President George W. Bush as well as President Barack Obama, led the delicate, 14-month negotiations with Iran that prompted the release of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post journalist. This summer, Mr. McGurk was the target of assassination threats from Iranian-backed militias and demonstrators in Iraq.
.. Over the weekend, Mr. Trump suggested on Twitter that Mr. McGurkwas a “grandstander.” The envoy resigned in protest over the Syria decision, which he said had blindsided United States officials and allies in the Middle East, including American-backed Kurdish soldiers who are fighting the Islamic State.
The president also said he was making progress on negotiations with North Korea, despite the State Department having been stymied so farin efforts to persuade the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to begin the process of dismantling its nuclear arsenal. “Looking forward to my next summit with Chairman Kim!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
.. After his initial burst, Mr. Trump tweeted that he had just given out “a 115 mile long contract for another large section of the Wall in Texas.” White House and Department of Homeland Security officials did not respond to a request for comment on what the president meant, and Mr. Trump did not elaborate when he briefly appeared in front of reporters on Monday night.