Few things in this world are ever straightforward and easy to understand. To see the big picture, you have to do some homework. You have to consider several stories that seem unrelated, and which have unfolded since the early 2000s.
Below, I've provided a "reading list" of seven articles and interviews that can give you the outlines of that Big Picture. I trust that you will arrive at your own conclusions, or at least come up with your own questions about what all of this means for our country. For me, the story here is that after the fall of the Iron Curtain, America tried to befriend the former Soviet Union, and did some massive damage to the new Russian Federation in the process. Our captains of (financial) industry swooped in and essentially taught Russia how to rip itself off.
In 2001, President Bill Clinton pardoned a U.S. financier named Mark Rich on his last day in office. Rich had fled the U.S. in 1983 to avoid tax evasion charges, and Clinton's pardon allowed him to return home. If you remember that story from 2001 (as I do), you probably understand that this event was just the tip of an iceberg which came between the U.S. and Russia over the following decade. If you only remember that story because it became part of the 2016 election, you probably wrote it off as a ploy to harm Hillary Clinton's electoral chances. (And her part in this larger story is one of several reasons I have never been eager to vote for her.)
Rich, whose wife had donated nearly half a million dollars to the Clinton Presidential Library fund, was just one of many U.S. businessmen who tried to make money in Russia post-Soviet chaos. When Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, he began a campaign of cleaning up corruption and pointed at the Clinton-era relationship with Boris Yeltsin and the later pardoning of Rich as reasons why the Russian economy at the time was doing so badly.
There is likely a lot for you to learn about Putin and Russia that is crucial to understanding today's headlines, but the way I would put it is this: Putin (and because he tells this story constantly through his state-run media apparatus, the Russian population) believes that the U.S. in general, and the Clintons in particular, humiliated Russia in the 1990s. He was a pragmatic communist before communism fell, and in the decades since, he describes himself as believing in "managed democracy," which I have learned bears a striking resemblance to organized crime. His vision throughout the 2000s was to use the booming oil market to rebuild Russia and to restore it to its rightful place of superiority in the world; and now that they have been rebuilt, to knock the U.S. from its position as the "only remaining Super Power."
In other words: Putin wants to humiliate the U.S. the way Russia was humiliated by the U.S.
Bill Browder's story is key to understanding current events because he was in Russia during Putin's early years, and his company is at the center of several of the stories playing out in the news, now. (His testimony to the U.S. Senate is below, and he has a book out called Red Notice that tells the story in greater detail.) He is the reason the U.S. passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012 - the sanctions bill which Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya tried to discuss with Donald Trump, Jr. - you might remember his famous episode over the summer in which he said she just wanted to talk about "Russian adoptions"? That was because the Russian government barred U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, and the Russians had apparently not yet figured out that the Trump people were too stupid to know anything about these issues.
But all of this is just the backdrop to the Big Picture. Here are the seven promised links for you to go and start doing your own "homework":
- The Vital Questions on Trump and Russia - The Guardian, by Tom McCarthy (30 Oct 2017)
- All the Trump Administration Ties to Russia (That We Know About) - Esquire magazine, by Jack Holmes (1 Dec 2017)
- Bill Browder's Testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee - The Atlantic, by Rosie Gray (25 July 2017)
- Journalist Explains How Panama Papers Opened Up The World's Illicit Money Networks - NPR Fresh Air (transcript + audio) interview with Jacob Bernstein (20 Nov 2017)
- Paradise Papers: Offshore Trove Exposes Trump-Russia Links And Piggy Banks Of The Wealthiest 1 Percent - published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (5 Nov 2017)
- Journalist Investigating Trump And Russia Says 'Full Picture Is One Of Collusion' - NPR Fresh Air (transcript + audio) interview with Luke Harding of the Guardian (21 Nov 2017)
- How Trump Walked Into Putin's Web - Luke Harding, the Guardian (15 Nov 2017)
But consider that list of people - like Wilbur Ross, and Paul Manafort - whose names appear in multiple places in this Big Picture story. Think about how many top positions in our government the Trump Administration has left unfilled; and then think about how lucky we are that they remain empty. Think about how incompetent those who are in office are, even according to Trump supporters.
In many ways, 2017 has been a year without a president. The man in the office is possibly the least qualified we have seen in living memory and is certainly the least trustworthy to hold the responsibility of the U.S. nuclear arsenal under his control. And whether you interpret these stories to mean that he has been knowingly compromised by Vladimir Putin, or simply that he has been a useful idiot of the Russian president, it is abundantly clear that Moscow is getting what it has long wanted: a weakened and humiliated United States.