Journalism struggles to make clear narrative sense of thick fog. Fiction, plays and films are better at handling paranoid unease on an immense, nation-state scaleby John Sweeney / August 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
Donald Trump didn’t like my question about his Russian-born financial associate and ex-con Felix Sater one bit: “why didn’t you say to him”—Sater—“you’re connected with the mafia, you’re fired?” To bring home the point I brought down my arm like a gun barrel and pointed my finger at him in trademark Trumpian style. He got up from his chair and offered his hand on his way out. I stayed put, put my palm up and asked him one more: “why did you share a lawyer with Fat Tony Salerno?”
The story I sought to get some traction from the president-to-be reads like a thriller. Fat Tony was a mobster whose company sold Trump the cement for his tower; the lawyer they had in common was Roy Cohn, who had been Chief Counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy and who, from beyond the grave, provides a thread that connects the Red Scare frenzy of the 1950s to the #TrumpRussia scandal today.
Cohn sat at McCarthy’s right hand as he smeared dozens of people for being Communists or homosexuals and therefore open to blackmail, though, of course, the rumours soon began that Cohn was secretly gay himself; Cohn taught Trump to fight tough, to be not afraid of dishing out the dirt; and yet now Cohn’s own apprentice is in grave trouble for apparently being too close to Russia.
Trump’s exit from our BBC Panorama interview seemed no great deal back in 2013. But then the reality TV star took the White House and in January the New York Times revealed that Sater, who once went to prison for stabbing a man in the face with the broken-off stem of a margarita glass, was playing a role in a strange and very pro-Russian “peace plan” for eastern Ukraine and now it’s been suggested that Sater is co-operating with the Feds in their investigation into #TrumpRussia.
I’ve met and challenged both Trump and Putin, poured over countless documents shining a feeble beam of light into the hideously complicated world of Trump’s financial engagement with Sater, Bayrock—the company Sater worked for—and the evidence that money flowed from former Soviet Union states to Trump Tower and I can’t give you a clear, precise top line. The best I can do is: the Russian émigré company Trump kept does not look good.
Does that prove there is a Kremlin-backed worm in the White House? No.
Do I feel uneasy when I go to Moscow and ask questions about Trumputinism? Yes. When I challenged Kremlin theologian, Alexander Dugin, on the murder of Putin critic Boris Nemtsov he accused me of manufacturing fake news and called me “an utter cretin… a globalist swine.” But, again, the appearance of this grubby rhetoric in Moscow doesn’t prove that the Kremlin has its own creature in Washington DC; far from it.
Journalism struggles to make clear narrative sense of thick fog. Fiction, plays and films are better at handling paranoid unease on an immense, nation-state scale, the kind of frenzy expressed by Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate that gripped the United States during the Red Scare and is perhaps gripping it now. Condon’s novel—and its imitators, including the Israeli spy drama Hatufim and subsequent US series Homeland—was not based on fantasy but inspired by the fact of Chinese Communist brainwashing of American GIs captured during the Korean War. Condon’s novel was inspired by the work of a US military psychiatrist, Professor Robert Lifton, who treated brainwashed GIs, victims of mental capture. He wrote up some of his cases in the textbook on brainwashing, Thought Reform. And then Hollywood cashed in.
Cohn’s rhetoric, too, at least referenced the truth. Behind Senator McCarthy’s Red Scare lay the fact of Stalin’s ambition to overthrow the West. Decrypts from the Venona project shows that hundreds of Americans had some sympathy with that goal, a few in the know handed over America’s atomic secrets to the Soviets, a pearl without price.
But the greatest work of art to arise from the ash of McCarthyism, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, uses the playwright’s liberty to issue a warning: that frenzy can over-reach, that fear of the unknown, the other, can give the wicked and the unscrupulous a hold over the good; that trials must be fair; that evidence must be respected and its lack also respected. Whether or not evidence on #TrumpRussia will some day, soon, emerge in open court is another matter.
Last year I started writing a novel about what it must be like to be Syrian and oppose the dictator (and ISIS) and yet find the CIA’s support slowly draining away. You can’t write even fiction about Syria without coming across the rise of Russian power in the Middle East and the Trump administration’s acquiescence in that. The first chapter opens with a honey-trap operation in a Moscow hotel room. The Russian spymaster, Grozhov, phones the Kremlin, tells its master what they have.
Silence from the man in the Kremlin. Then four words: “So Washington is ours?”
Grozhov sighs. “Not yet.”
It goes without saying that this is fiction, a made-up story.
John Sweeney latest thriller, Road, is out now from Thomas and Mercer books, an Amazon imprint.