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How to stop Russia from recruiting the next Trump

Voters deserve to know more about who they're electing.
Photo illustration of silhouette of Trump and Biden against the seal of the president of the United States with white, blue and red scan lines over it.
There's no reason not to know key facts about candidates.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

A new book provides fresh details and further confirmation of a Russian intelligence service grooming former President Donald Trump as a potential asset. These revelations raise the question of whether a suspected foreign asset could ever again rise to high office. Spoiler alert: It can — and will happen — again, unless voters demand changes to how America publicly vets candidates for elected office.

The book in question — "American Kompromat" by journalist Craig Unger — features the claims of Yuri Shvets, a former major in the Soviet spy service, who details the KGB’s 40-year attempt to successfully hook the man who would ultimately occupy the Oval Office.

Shvets operated inside the U.S. in the 1980s, using a cover position as a Washington-based correspondent for Tass, the Russian news agency — a mission he detailed in his 1995 book, "Washington Station: My Life as a KGB Spy."

Now an American citizen, Shvets explained to Unger how Trump caught the eye of the Russian spy agency in 1977 when he married his first wife, a Czech model named Ivana Zelnickova. As described in the book, the Czech intelligence service was joined at the hip with the KGB, and they worked in concert to spot and assess Western recruitment targets for Russia.

Unger’s book provides an account of how, as Trump prepared to open his first large property in Manhattan — the Grand Hyatt New York — he purchased 200 television sets for the hotel from a Soviet émigré who owned a Fifth Avenue electronics store. Shvets revealed to Unger that the store was controlled by the KGB, and the émigré owner was a spotter-assessor for the Russian government. Later, in 1987, Trump and Ivana were invited to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg. Unger writes that while there, Trump was surrounded by KGB operatives who skillfully stroked his high-maintenance ego, teased him with visions of a Trump property in Russia, and planted a suggestive seed that he should consider running for office.

A worker in the coffee shop at FBI headquarters is subjected to far more security vetting than any presidential candidate.

“For the KGB it was a charm offensive, “ Shvets told reporter David Smith in an article that appeared in The Guardian last week. “They had collected a lot of information on his personality, so they knew who he was personally. The feeling was that he was extremely vulnerable intellectually, and psychologically, and he was prone to flattery.”

“They played the game as if they were immensely impressed … and believed this is the guy who should be the president of the United States one day," Shvets added. "They fed him these so-called active measures soundbites, and it happened."

Sure enough, after returning to the U.S., Trump explored a run for the presidency and held a rally in New Hampshire. He also submitted a full-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe that expressed familiar Russian refrains — including the assertion that the U.S. should reconsider its participation in NATO, and the notion that “America should stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves.”

While we should remain skeptical of the narrative of someone like Shvets who once worked for the intelligence arm of our adversary, his story is supported by other similar accounts. In the book, "The Plot to Betray America," the author Malcom Nance, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, writes of a “treasure trove of data” from old Czech intelligence records that corroborate Trump’s appearance on KGB radar screens when the Czech service reported extensively on Trump’s relationship with Ivana.

Further, investigative reporter Luke Harding found in his research that the “top level of the Soviet diplomatic service arranged his 1987 Moscow visit. With assistance from the KGB.”

A foreign adversary’s successful long-term cultivation of a target who might one day be of political use to them isn’t unique to Trump, nor is it unique to the Russians. In my own book, "The FBI Way," I retell my experience as the FBI’s head of counterintelligence having to confront a then-sitting member of Congress and warn him that we knew he was considered to be an asset by a foreign intelligence service.

Similarly, I describe sitting down with a second-tier presidential candidate and discussing the FBI’s awareness of their clandestine meetings with foreign intelligence officers. The threat posed by candidates and elected officials being co-opted by adversaries isn’t new — and it won’t stop until we do something about it.

Many Americans understandably, but mistakenly, assume that elected officials — particularly those whose positions come with security clearances — undergo a background investigation. Yet, the truth is that they don’t. A worker in the coffee shop at FBI headquarters is subjected to far more security vetting than any presidential candidate. The reason is tied to our national values as a democracy.

Rightfully, Americans place high value on the freedom to choose whomever they want as their next member of Congress or their next president. We are proud of the notion that anyone can rise to high office if they simply win an election. Imagine if we imposed some type of barrier to the Oval Office in the form of an FBI background investigation. At that point, a bunch of bureaucrats, not the American voters, would decide who could or could not become a senator or a president. No one wants that.

But there are measures we can and should demand, now that we’ve experienced our first president who personified a national security threat. The Fordham University School of Law issued a proposal in January 2020 that represents an excellent start. At minimum, we should see mandatory public disclosures of tax records, debt, property ownership, business holdings, international travel history, serious health issues, and any foreign interests of the candidate and immediate family to be collected and disseminated by the Federal Election Commission.

Let’s equip the American voter with the intelligence they need to make the most informed decision possible before electing someone hand-picked by our adversary — again.