It would be a lie to say that Russian Roulette, one of this spring’s nonfiction revelation-packed potboilers that’s been keeping cable news anchors crackling with over-caffeinated and doom-glinted glee, reads like a spy novel. Even though the subtitle—The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump—feels like the sell-line of an unpublished late-period Tom Clancy novel. Nobody would accuse authors Michael Isikoff and David Corn of being all style and no substance. With decades of experience from working the capital’s cloakrooms and briefing rooms, they are deft practitioners of the modern craft of political book prose. It’s a style intended to read like quality long-form news writing of the kind we are inundated with each day, only with the occasional transition bolted on at the end of the chapter to remind you, “Yes! There’s more to the story.”
This isn’t a criticism. Far from it. Given the spike of revelations in the Trump threat matrix in the year and a half since his receiving the Republican nomination, Isikoff and Corn must have been racing the clock when they knocked this one out. The intent here was not to write an all-inclusive study of the history of the Washington-Moscow power dynamic, the full legacy of Trump’s law-skirting business dealings, or the noxious way those two elements have meshed together. Something like that wouldn’t be a book. That would require a multi-volume Robert Caro-type of effort which some future generation—assuming deep-dive narrative nonfiction survives Peak TV and Instagram—can take up to figure out what the hell happened. In the meantime, we’ll resort to Russian Roulette.
So what the hell did happen?
The story that Isikoff and Corn lay out is a streamlined tick-tock that hacks a raggedy but nevertheless straight path through the thickets of leaks, innuendo, and “explosive revelations” (in CNN-speak) that have been flooding the zone for months now. It starts in Moscow in 2013. Trump was in town hosting the Miss Universe pageant and he was “eager” and “anxious” to meet with president Vladimir Putin. The real-estate tycoon and supposed international playboy (trying to burnish the latter image was a good part of his rationale behind buying the pageant in the first place) had been pursuing a high-end project in Russia for decades. Easy money and more Pharaoh-like monuments to himself were part of the lure.
In the years after Trump’s ’90s-era casino debacle dried up his funding sources, a convicted racketeer and Mob-connected fixer named Felix Sater helped served as “a bridge to Russian money for Trump.” Besides being a font of financing and one of the biggest markets that Trump’s international business had never been able to open up, Russia’s post-Soviet embrace of gold-leaf consumerism and crony capitalism, where cozy relationships brushed aside legalistic concerns, must have also appealed to a law-skirting ostentatious vulgarian like Trump.
Despite the frantic efforts of the Trump traveling clown car—which at this point included a bumbling PR flack and an Azerbaijani pop singer—the meeting never occurred. Neither did Trump International Tower & Hotel-Moscow. This leaves a puzzling gap. As the authors acknowledge, given Trump’s later infatuation with Putin and his eagerness to overlook Russian transgressions this trip should have served as Trump’s supervillain origin story:
What could possibly explain Trump’s unwavering sympathy for the Russian strongman? His refusal to acknowledge Putin’s repressive tactics, his whitewashing of Putin’s abuses in Ukraine and Syria, his dismissal of the murders of Putin’s critics, his blind eye to Putin’s cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns aimed at subverting Western democracies?
There would be hints later of puerile goings-on in Moscow. Unconfirmed rumors of “weird sexual antics” that would feature heavily in the Christopher Steele dossier years later. The authors quote gossip columnist A. J. Benza’s telling Howard Stern how Trump would call him and say, “I was just in Russia. The girls have no morals. You have to get out there.” There’s also a curious anecdote here about a sealed letter from Putin to Trump that arrived after the pageant in a black, lacquered box. The authors don’t know what was in the letter but it’s a fantastic detail to include, if only because it fits our imagination of how supervillains communicate.
Trump drops out of Russian Roulette for some time as it lays out how ties between Russia and America frayed during the Obama years. Obama famously failed in his attempt at a “reset” of ties by courting Dmitry Medvedev during the brief interregnum in Putin’s reign. The book chalks that failure up to several factors. The administration’s unwarranted optimism and reluctance to confront (both are recurring themes here) made for a deadly combination with Putin’s paranoia and aggression. Although Washington had assumed the Cold War was over, the Russians didn’t agree; they just kept quiet. “They never stopped fucking with us,” said John Sipher, a former deputy director at the CIA’s Russian division. “But that was not something they wanted to hear about downtown.” Isikoff and Corn write that years later, Obama administration officials looked back at their mocking Mitt Romney’s claim that Russia was America’s biggest threat “and wince”. The result of all this inattention was a shadow war that one side never realized had been declared.
Just as paranoia would be President Trump’s default response, Putin saw everything through an antagonistic lens. Like some wannabe-WikiLeaks YouTuber, for Putin, America was behind everything. And, like a parody of some right-wing wingnut’s online screed about feckless liberals, the Obama administration consistently ignored or downplayed the threat.
When the 2016 Panama Papers leak exposed how many of Putin’s sidekicks were hiding their millions around the world, he assumed the story was independent investigative journalism, but instead an American attempt “to weaken us from within, make us more acquiescent and make us toe their line.” Not long after, American intelligence reported that the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence service) “was about to strike Hillary Clinton in an act of revenge for what Putin believed was her role in the anti-Putin protests of 2011.” American embassy officials in Moscow were being harassed, had their apartments broken into, and were in one case physically assaulted. In an eerie repeat of the kind of pre-9/11 institutional blindness that Lawrence Wright laid out in The Looming Tower, nothing was done. Isikoff and Corn note that “it was if no one in the U.S. government could imagine what was about to come.”
That reluctance to act on a foreign threat—and the inability to imagine Trump beating Clinton—carried on well into the 2016 presidential campaign. This continued well after it became clear government-supported Russian hackers had not only brazenly stolen electronic files and communications from the Democratic National Committee, but were weaponizing leaks of that material to sew chaos and swing the election in favor of Trump. It was a classic destabilization operation of the kind the KGB ran during the Cold War. (Remember the rumor that AIDS was started in a US government lab? The Soviets started that one.) Although Isikoff and Corn commendably keep invective out of their writing, the sections of their book covering the Obama administration’s paralyzing fear of interfering in the election are nevertheless laced with incredulity.
The parts of Russian Roulette that have received the most attention, though, are about whether the Trump campaign directly colluded in espionage and criminal activity with Russian intelligence. The authors provide an excellent and detailed timeline of all the major points in this aspect of the story, from Trump’s eager dupe Carter Page getting suckered by Russian agents to the FBI launching a (secret) investigation of Trump’s links to Putin while also (very publicly) looking into Clinton’s mishandling of government emails. Their coverage of Christopher Steele’s opposition research dossier on Trump—the one with the lurid golden-shower anecdotes—is based a bit too much on how that material became a political football and not enough on its less-salacious and still highly disturbing content.
As for whether Trump is right when he brays out those all-caps tweets about “NO COLLUSION”, the book doesn’t take a definitive stance on whether the president is a Manchurian Candidate or simply a dupe. Isikoff and Corn don’t pull punches, though. Their writeup of the infamous June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between Donald’s surrogates and a rogue’s gallery of Kremlin-connected figures is one of the most definitive yet written. It makes clear that even though the Trump team walked away without any usable anti-Clinton dirt, that was clearly their intention: “The Russians had offered to help, and Trump’s campaign had demonstrated a willingness to take what Moscow had to offer.” Later on, they state flat out that “Trump’s top advisers were advancing covert Russian propaganda.”
As more layers are ripped away from the sordid and nation-shaming affair, and Republican quislings burn down the nation’s institutions to keep their leader from being exposed for the traitor he likely is, Isikoff and Corn’s inability to find some link showing Trump directing some lackey to offer Putin X in exchange for Y doesn’t matter. Context matters. Intent matters. Both are made crystal clear in Russian Roulette.
Just as Trump announced to the world on NBC that he fired FBI director James Comey because of the “Rush-er” investigation, he also told everybody flat out that he was all too happy to use foreign intelligence services to beat his political opponent:
I will tell you this—Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the thirty thousand emails that are missing. I think you’ll probably be rewarded mightily by our press.
Russian Roulette is a public service, for certain. But although it does its best to answer the question, we already know the answer.