- - Monday, December 23, 2019

The Mueller report revealed that the one true Putin intimate, testifying under oath before the FBI, cast serious doubt on Vladimir Putin’s preference for Donald Trump. Was this crucial fact ignored because it rejects the “Putin prefers Trump” narrative at the core of the anti-Trump movement?

This question has become even more relevant with Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s disclosure of FBI and DOJ serial misstatements, omissions, errors and manipulations. Can we rule out similar malfeasance by the intelligence community?

The “Putin prefers Trump” narrative is a key feature of the Steele dossier. But Mr. Horowitz tells us that Christopher Steele characterizes his reports as unvetted “raw intelligence.” The “gullible” Steele claims he just repeated what his “trusted sources” told him. If so, Mr. Steele should then explain why he peddled the dossier to the media, State Department and the FBI with such intensity.

According to Mr. Horowitz, Mr. Steele had only two sources offering second- and third-hand gossip. Mr. Steele (and it was Mr. Steele) claimed they occupied senior positions in the Kremlin and reported that Mr. Putin himself ordered the intervention in the U.S. election, preferred Mr. Trump and had a damaging file on Hillary Clinton.

Throughout most of the Russia investigation, anti-Trump forces cited the Steele dossier as proof that “Putin prefers Trump.” With even mainstream media placing the Steele dossier in the ash heap of history, Trump critics still have the much-cited 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) finding that the 2016 Russian election interference was indeed aimed against Mrs. Clinton and in favor of Mr. Trump. I quote:

“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Readers of the ICA are referred to a technical report that discusses the myriad of intelligence tools available to the intelligence community, but:

“The Intelligence Community rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.”

The protection of “sensitive sources and methods” brings us to a dead end for validating “Putin prefers Trump.” The ICA states that “the CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.” Given the FBI’s most recent performance, we might register “low confidence” in the FBI’s assessment.

Now for the big news: The Mueller report offers a third source that can shed light on the “Putin prefers Trump” hypothesis, but few have paid attention. We have the testimony of a key Kremlin oligarch and uber-insider, Pyotr Aven, before the Mueller team.

It might be noted that Mr. Aven is the co-owner of Russia’s largest private bank, Alfa Bank (notoriously misspelled as “Alpha” by Mr. Steele). Mr. Aven was unfavorably mentioned in the Steele dossier; hence his testimony before the Mueller team.

Mr. Aven, who values his business reputation, described what went on in one-on-one and all-hands (50 oligarchs) meetings with Mr. Putin. Mr. Aven’s account portrays a somber, pessimistic mood inside the Kremlin in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election.

The Mueller report states that Aven “understood that any suggestions or critiques that Putin made during these meetings were implicit directives, and that there would be consequences for Aven if he did not follow through.”

In Mr. Aven’s one-on-one meeting with Mr. Putin, “Putin raised the prospect that the United States would impose additional sanctions on Russian interests, including sanctions against Aven and/or Alfa-Bank. Putin ‘suggested’ that Aven needed to take steps to protect himself and Alfa-Bank.”

Mr. Aven testified further that “Putin spoke of the difficulty faced by the Russian government in getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration.” Putin indicated that “he did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.”

Mr. Aven told Mr. Putin he “would try to reach out to the incoming Administration to establish a line of communication.” Mr. Aven described Mr. Putin as responding with skepticism about the prospects for establishing such contacts.

What are the takeaways from Mr. Aven’s testimony?

First, it lays to rest the collusion narrative. Colluder Putin did not even know how to get in touch with Colluder Trump? No conspiracy structure was in place. Mr. Putin had no idea how to create either a formal or a back channel to the Trump team.

Second, Mr. Putin clearly did not share the elation of his security officers and of the Russian people with respect to Mr. Trump’s unexpected victory. Why they celebrated is clear: Mr. Putin’s domestic propaganda had depicted Mr. Trump and Bernie Sanders as underdogs fighting against a corrupt American establishment. Mr. Putin’s intent was to depict American democracy in the worst possible light. Russia’s “managed democracy” may not be perfect but it is better than the American mess.

Third, Mr. Putin did not expect any special treatment from a Trump presidency, odd for a U.S. president purportedly in Mr. Putin’s back pocket. In fact, he was right. Under Mr. Trump sanctions hardened and, horror of horrors, the United States has become energy independent.

The Kremlin interferes in any and all elections that affect its interests. It bankrolls parties that favor Russia. It targets media with disinformation. It may even attempt assassination of foreign leaders. It would have been a major surprise if Russia did not attack the 2016 U.S. election. I, for one, take it for granted that they did. For Mr. Putin, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump offered pluses and minuses. Mr. Putin likely had preferences and they may have changed over time. The Aven testimony suggests that Mr. Trump’s election filled the Kremlin with foreboding and uncertainty, not a feeling of triumph as asserted by the anti-Trump forces.

Paul Gregory is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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