Charles KaiserSun, 7 February 2021, 7:00 am
Craig Unger’s new book has already made headlines, in this newspaper and elsewhere, because of a charge from an ex-KGB colonel, Yuri Shvets, that Donald Trump has been a KGB asset for 40 years.
But as Unger himself points out, former CIA director Michael Morell has called Trump an “unwitting agent” of the Russians; former national security director James Clapper has described him “in effect … an intelligence asset”; and former CIA director John Brennan has said Trump is “wholly in the pocket of Putin”. So Shvets’ accusation isn’t really very surprising.
Many other Trump-Russia books have dated Trump’s initial contact with the Russians to a visit to Trump Tower by then Soviet ambassador to the United Nations Yuri Dubinin, in 1986. Unger – through Shvets – reports that the association actually began six years earlier when Trump purchased 200 television sets from Semyon Kislin, a Soviet émigré who co-owned Joy-Lud electronics on Fifth Avenue. According to Shvets, Kislin was actually a spotter agent for the KGB. Kislin denies any connection.
In any case, the meaning of this transaction – like scores of anecdotes recorded in these pages – is never fully explained. The subtitle of Unger’s book is How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power and Treachery – a rubric that enables the author to throw in almost every bit of unconfirmed gossip ever published about everyone from convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein to former British press magnate Robert Maxwell. And Maxwell’s daughter, Ghislaine, who was – or wasn’t, depending on which page of this book you’re on – Epstein’s girlfriend as well as allegedly his collaborator in recruiting underage girls to sate Epstein’s seemingly unquenchable sexual appetite.
As well as being a publisher, according to Unger, Maxwell was extremely close to the Israeli secret service, Mossad, and the KGB. And perhaps Mossad was actually responsible for killing Maxwell, whose drowning off his yacht was officially ruled an accident.
Unger’s sourcing for this is typical of the book. He writes: “According to the Sunday Age, in Melbourne, Australia, on 2 November 1991 … an unnamed source close to the Israeli cabinet told Hersh that Maxwell would soon be eliminated. The author did not know how seriously to take the threat. Three days later, Robert Maxwell went missing …”
Hersh is Seymour Hersh, probably the most famous investigative journalist of his generation, but in the copious source notes of Unger’s book there is no indication Unger ever contacted Hersh to confirm this Australian bulletin. Since Hersh is in the phone book, and he actually answers his own phone, I found it quite easy to reach him.
Did he remember being contacted “by a source close to the Israeli cabinet” who told him Maxwell was about to be knocked off?
“I have absolutely no memory of getting such a tip,” Hersh told me. “And I must note that most people, so I gather, who want to kill prominent others do not usually discuss such in advance.”
And so it goes throughout Unger’s book: dozens and dozens of wild stories and salacious accusations, almost all “too good to check”, in the parlance of old-time journalists.
This is particularly true of the lengthy section about Epstein, who is here because he had the largest collection of kompromat of anyone in history. Or did he?
Unger writes that it was “widely known” that Epstein “was making tapes of grave sexual crimes”. But Unger has never seen any of the tapes, or found any reliable witness who says that he has.: “The people who knew weren’t talking,” Unger writes. “There was speculation that it was used to facilitate deals with Wall Street power brokers and to cement the loyalty of various actors in the drama, be they high-powered lawyers, heads of state, royalty, billionaires, media moguls, or operatives in any intelligence service.”
On page 186, we are treated to a barrage of bold-faced names from Epstein’s notorious black book – everyone from Deepak Chopra, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson to Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth and Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud. And that sounds very exciting – until you get to page 195, when Unger admits that “being on Epstein’s contact list meant nothing in and of itself. It’s far more indicative of the power brokers he and Ghislaine were cultivating than whether they actually had knowledge of or participated in Epstein’s nefarious activities.”
Related: The martyrdom of Mike Pence
Unger is much more interesting in a long section about Opus Dei, the secret Catholic society with origins in fascist Spain which the lawyer and Columbia lecturer Scott Horton describes as “the most effective secret society in American history, especially when it comes to changing the nature of the judiciary and filling vacancies with people who are their picks”.
There is also the remarkable story of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, the most successful Soviet double agent of modern times, who belonged to Opus Dei and whose brother-in-law, John Paul Wauck, got a job writing speeches for then acting attorney general William Barr in 1991. At that moment, Unger writes, Barr was overseeing “the greatest mole hunt in FBI history, yet presumably [was] unaware that the mastermind spy they were hunting was his own speech writer’s brother-in-law, and that all three of them were closely tied to Opus Dei”.
Details like that keep you turning the pages. But Unger’s willingness to include almost anything to titillate makes this book wildly uneven, and ultimately unsatisfactory.