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Is Putin Handling Trump The Way A KGB Officer Handles An Asset?


James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, made a startling observation about President Trump this week. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin is handling Trump the way a KGB officer handles an asset. Mr. Clapper's comments followed joint announcements that the U.S. and Russia cooperated to foil a terrorist plot in Russia. We're joined now via Skype by The Guardian's former Moscow correspondent, Luke Harding, who's also author of the book "Collusion." Mr. Harding, thanks for being with us.

LUKE HARDING: Good morning.

SIMON: That sounds like an extraordinary assertion, and I'll note he says handling like, not is. But is there anything factual to support that assertion?

HARDING: Well, there's a lot factual. If you cast your mind back to the Cold War in 1987, the Soviet government invited Donald Trump to visit Moscow supposedly to talk about a hotel, but certainly people I've talked to, KGB defectors, other people within the intelligence community, think this is a kind of classic cultivation operation. That's what you call it in the intelligence agency business. And I think we've seen a pattern of attempts to woo Donald Trump, to befriend him, to encourage him, going back 30 years.

SIMON: But for all the compliments that Donald Trump has offered Putin, he hasn't tried to lift U.S. sanctions on Russia. So let me ask - is Trump in a sense playing Vladimir Putin?

HARDING: I haven't met anyone who has seriously suggested that. I think in this kind of power relationship it's clearly that - clear that Putin is the senior partner.

SIMON: Well, that's why we call you. You're an expert on this kind of stuff. Not me.

HARDING: (Laughter).

SIMON: But he hasn't gotten the gift that would mean the most to him ostensibly.

HARDING: Well, I mean, you're right. I mean, Putin, obviously, his No. 1 political priority is to get American sanctions lifted. It's damaged the economy. He sees it as a wider plot by the West against Russia. But what Putin has got big time, if we look back on this extraordinary year, is he's got divisions, he's got turmoil inside the U.S., he's got America almost retreating from being a kind of leading force on the international stage. And that serves his interests very well. So I think it's a mixed record for Putin, but I think he finishes the year feeling very happy about where things are and about his relationship with Donald Trump.

SIMON: What do you make of the claims about CIA assistance in alerting Russia to - about a plot to bomb a cathedral in Saint Petersburg?

HARDING: Well, I mean, I read the White House press release, and it was a rather stunning document that could almost have been written by the Kremlin rather than by anybody in Washington. And I think what struck me as rather bizarre about this is Russia is the country that hacked the U.S. presidential election - we have all American intelligence agencies agreeing on that - to help Donald Trump and to hurt, almost chop the legs off Hillary Clinton. Now, I mean, it cannot be business as usual, and the idea that Vladimir Putin wishes the U.S. well is, frankly, for the birds. I mean, he doesn't. He's a zero sum guy. He thinks what's bad for America is good for Russia and vice versa.

SIMON: As we approach our last minute, and the end of the year in the last minute with you, does Vladimir Putin have anything to worry about in the investigation of the special counsel, Robert Mueller?

HARDING: I mean, I think he does. I think - I actually think that the kind of - the thesis by Christopher Steele, a former British spy who I spoke to for my book, is broadly correct, that the Russian half of this - I think we can probably call it a conspiracy or an alleged conspiracy - is very well buried and is being extensively covered up. But I think the American half is more vulnerable. This is what Robert Mueller is after, and we've had four indictments so far and more coming.

SIMON: Luke Harding is the author of the best-selling book "Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, And How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win." Mr. Harding, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

HARDING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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