The Trump-Russia Investigation and the Mafia State

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.”

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.

Trump calls for unity, stands firm on wall, leaves Socialist Dems on defensive at State of Union

An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said, in an apparent reference to Democratic congressional probes of his administration and possibly to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”

At the same time, the president did not back down from his insistence that Congress fund a border wall, which was at the center of a 35-day government shutdown that ended only a few weeks ago and could fuel another shutdown on Feb. 15. Tolerance for illegal immigration, Trump said, is “not compassionate,” but “cruel.” “Simply put, walls work and walls save lives,” Trump said. “So let’s work together, compromise and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.” However, top Democrats signaled that Trump’s State of the Union address did little to convince them that a legislative compromise to construct his proposed border wall is possible.

Read: Trump’s State of the Union speech

TRUMP AND AOC FEELING ‘SOCIAL’: President Trump vowed during his State of the Union address on Tuesday that “America will never be a socialist country,” in an apparent rebuke to self-described Democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders that drew loud cheers and a standing ovation from Republicans in the House chamber — as well as supportive applause from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi … In response, after the speech, Ocasio-Cortez told Fox News: “I thought it was great. I think he’s scared.”

The progressive firebrand pointedly did not applaud as Trump condemned human trafficking and illegal immigration in his address. In an interview later Tuesday night, Ocasio-Cortez said she was asking herself, “Is this a campaign stop or is this a State of the Union?” She is set to unveil a massive “Green New Deal” with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey next week.

Peggy Noonan: AOC had ‘rare bad night’ – and the rookie lawmaker responds

Documents on Indicted Russian Company Were Leaked Online, Mueller’s Office Says

Purported hackers obtained and leaked confidential information about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as part of a pro-Russian disinformation campaign that appeared to be aimed at discrediting the inquiry, Mr. Mueller’s office disclosed Wednesday.

Mr. Mueller’s office had turned over the documents to a Russian firm fighting federal charges, Concord Management & Consulting LLC, as part of the disclosure process ahead of a trial.

.. This month, Concord’s attorneys criticized the judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, in an unusual filing saying she had created an appearance of bias in favor of the government. That came after Judge Friedrich, appointed to the bench by Mr. Trump, told Concord lawyer Eric Dubelier that he was engaging in unprofessional behavior in his attacks on Mr. Mueller’s team and told him to “knock it off.”

.. The Wednesday filing came in response to request by Concord to share documents with colleagues in Russia, including one of the indicted defendants, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and known as the Kremlin’s favorite restaurateur.

Stone Indictment Underscores That There Was No Trump-Russia Conspiracy

“Was directed”? Naturally, you’re thinking, “was directed by whom?” By Trump? Could be . . . Stone says it was not, but who knows? The point, however, is not who did the directing but why it was thought necessary to reach out to Stone. The Trump campaign had to ask Stone because it was in the dark.

.. Plainly, the campaign was not involved in the hacking, so it did not know what the Russians gave Assange. And it had no involvement with WikiLeaks’ operations, so it turned to Stone, who had held himself out as a knowledgeable source. But Stone, too, was unsure. Mueller alleges: “STONE thereafter told the Trump campaign about potential future releases of damaging material by [WikiLeaks]” (emphasis added). The prosecutor has to say “potential” because Stone did not have solid knowledge of Assange’s intentions — he tried to find out from others (including Credico, who had contact with Assange), but they did not know for sure exactly what Assange had and whether or when he would publish it.

.. 1. It is standard government practice never to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

2. This is especially true of counterintelligence investigations, which target foreign powers, not individuals, and which are classified.