When Luke Harding sat down with Christopher Steele in a London pub in December 2016, he hoped Steele might help him develop an admittedly thin lead that Russia covertly financed Donald Trump's campaign. At the time, Steele was a relatively unknown former British intelligence officer, despite the fact that he had helped uncover widespread corruption at FIFA and the Kremlin's hand in poisoning ex-FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko. During their 45-minute meeting, Steele didn't offer much more than vague encouragement that there was a story on the Trump campaign to expose. "There was no hint he had been involved in what was the single most important investigation in decades," Harding writes in his new book, Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win. "Though he implied we were on the right track."
Harding previously spent four years as the Guardian's correspondent in Moscow, where he not only became familiar with the Kremlin's habit of collecting kompromat – compromising intel on high-profile individuals (including himself) – but also with a number of central characters in the ongoing federal investigation into the Trump campaign. He once spent a day with Aras Agalarov, the oligarch whose son helped broker a deal to pass "dirt" on Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump Jr. And in 2007, he interviewed Paul Manafort, who was then helping to install the Kremlin's preferred candidate as president of Ukraine, and would later become Trump's campaign manager. But it wasn't until weeks after Harding's meeting with Steele, when BuzzFeed published the ex-agent's now-infamous dossier of allegations on Trump's relationship with the Russian government, that he realised he had the inside track on the biggest political scandal, possibly, in American history. "The book came together in my head at that stage very quickly," Harding says. "The following weekend, I started writing, in secret, for months."
The result is a gripping, nonfiction political thriller that offers the most comprehensive account to date of the evidence that Trump captured the presidency with the Kremlin's help – from early KGB efforts to cultivate Trump to a series of questionable loans from Deutsche Bank. Although the White House denies any wrongdoing, Robert Mueller's investigation has supported a number of Harding's findings: The special counsel has indicted four members of Trump's campaign and is reportedly examining the president's personal finances. "I understand how the Russian regime thinks," Harding says. "I understand just how dark and thuggish it can be. And also that it lies. About everything. Once you realize that, you have the most thrilling story – and that was the story I tried to tell."
Based on your reporting, how far back does Russia's interest in Trump go?
I think we can say, without being hyperbolic, that the Soviet government and its Russian successor really have tried to cultivate Donald Trump over a period of decades. And I think that to understand the story of Donald Trump and Russia you have to understand the story of the KGB and Soviet espionage. It's not that they are geniuses. They're not – they're kind of opportunists, but they have methods they've tested over a period of time. They've always been interested in Americans because America is the chief enemy. You look at the kind of people they want to recruit and obviously Trump fits the bill, because of his personality, because of his narcissism, because of his corruptibility, because of his alleged adultery, his predilection for young women, allegedly. He's the perfect guy.
Do we know if he cooperated with any of Russia's efforts?
We don't know, and maybe we'll never know, to what degree Trump has wittingly collaborated with Russian intelligence. I mean, I think he has, but it's impossible to judge from the perspective of 2017. Vladimir Putin knows the extent to which Soviet and Russian intelligence have engaged with him, and what degree of willingness he has shown. But I think we're absolutely across the line of collusion. I actually think there's a lot more to come. I think it's now question-mark treason. And I don't want to exaggerate that. We have to be clear, if you're going to quote me: "Trump denies this and it may not be true," but I think that's the zone we're in.
What does "question-mark treason" mean?
If Trump had pre-knowledge that the Kremlin had hacked this stuff to help him and hurt Hillary, and there was a degree of coordination in terms of when stuff was released, then I think that question comes into play. And we can't prove that, but the circumstantial evidence, to me, seems pretty strong. We now know that [Trump's campaign adviser] George Papadopoulos was told by this weird Maltese professor in April 2016 that the Kremlin was sitting on a very big mountain of material from the Democrats. So the Trump team had a jump on this stuff – they knew about it, certainly before the FBI knew, and certainly before the Democrats knew.
I do want to hear your thoughts on the pee tape referenced in the dossier. Do you think it exists?
Who can answer that question? Putin can answer that question. Probably eight to 12 people in the FSB can answer that. Trump can answer that question. But they would have had a recording facility in the penthouse suite. Those five-star Moscow hotels are basically under the thumb of the FSB and, again, everyone in Moscow knows it. So, really, it's not a question of whether they have a tape, it's a question of what Trump did.
You write about other instances in which similar sex tapes – secretly recorded by the FSB – have been strategically released for political purposes.
The KGB has been doing it for years.They even have this rather charming name for it: "swallows," very attractive young women sent to try and seduce high-profile Westerners, with a view to blackmailing them and entrapping them and possibly recruiting them. They're specialists in this stuff. Why wouldn't they do it?
Another potential piece of leverage Putin may have on Trump is financial – related to this massive debt with Deutsche Bank.
There are two parallel lines: One is the capture of Deutsche Bank Moscow by Vneshtorgbank, which is basically the FSB; the other line is Deutsche Bank New York's extraordinary lending to Trump. What we can say is that Deutsche Bank New York – even though Trump had been in default and sued them – continued to lend very large sums to Trump, while simultaneously its Moscow division was running a large-scale money-laundering scheme for Kremlin VIPs, who are still anonymous. While these two lines come rather close to each other, they don't converge, because I can't prove it.
Trump disputes reports that his financial records at Deutsche Bank New York have been subpoenaed. What do you know?
People I talk to, who are kind of insiders, say that if Mueller had served Deutsche Bank with a subpoena, it's highly probable the White House wouldn't know. Indeed, it may be part of the subpoena that they can't tell the client – the client being Donald Trump. That would be sort of standard procedure. So when the White House says "That's not true," I am kind of skeptical because they would not be in the position to call it.
How significant is Michael Flynn's cooperation with the investigation?
Of all the people who have been indicted, Flynn is the most serious so far. First, he was on the team very early. He has this conversation with a senior adviser who, it turns out, is Jared Kushner, when he was talking to [Russian Ambassador] Sergey Kislyak in December 2016. So what he was doing in his basically back-channel negotiation with the Russians was authorised from the top. You have to ask yourself, "If he was getting the green light from Kushner, who is Kushner talking to?"
But I think the other fascinating aspect is that rather like Donald Trump himself, it seems pretty clear that the Russians mounted a fairly major cultivation operation of Flynn. Some of this is in the Steele dossier, some of it you can infer, but this trip in 2013 to visit [Russia's military intelligence] is extremely odd. I think it is something that Mueller will certainly be asking about. And, of course, the man who organised that trip was Kislyak.
There seems to be an effort to discredit the Steele dossier by saying the Clinton campaign paid for some of it.
We know that originally [the conservative website, the Free Beacon, funded by Paul Singer, a Marco Rubio supporter] commissioned it. Then he dropped out when Trump got the nomination, and the Democrats took over. But that doesn't really matter – the queen of England could have paid for it. The point is, Steele didn't know who the client was, at least not for some time. He had a brief to ask the question "What was Donald Trump's relationship with Russia?" He didn't know for whom he was asking. But more importantly, "Is it true?" Because the allegation is so desperately serious: that Trump cheated by getting external help from a power that clearly doesn't wish anything good toward the United States of America. So, whether you are a Republican or Democrat, that has to be the essential question.