Russian Roulette by Michael Isikoff and David Corn

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The sub-title of this book is ‘The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump’ which is perhaps a slightly sensationalised indication of what the book is about.

Russian Roulette sets out to expose what the authors call ‘political skulduggery unprecedented in American history’.  It charts the intent of Vladimir Putin to reassert Russian strength in world politics and, at the same time, to spread information which could affect the outcome of the 2016 American election.

The origins of this ‘skulduggery’ are found back in 2013 when Donald Trump was in Moscow promoting the Miss Universe pageant the rights to which he had purchased some years before.  At the same time, he was scouting for business opportunities for the development of high-end projects in Moscow.  Trump was ‘obsessed’ with meeting Putin as he believed that his hopes to build in Russia depended on developing a bond with Putin.  Putin’s repressive tactics, his attempts to undermine Western democracies and the murders of his opponents seemed to be of little consequence to Trump.

For some years previous to this, it had been clear to the FBI that Russia was placing ‘spies’ in American communities where their task was to blend in and develop ‘ties in policy-making circles in the US’.  Some were particularly effective and one actually established links with a Democratic fundraiser close to Bill and Hillary Clinton.  This was thought by the FBI to be ‘alarming’.

Thus, the scene is set for a gradual unravelling of the many strands in this deep and dark political intrigue.

The key question in American politics, and addressed in the book, was How and why did a foreign government infiltrate the country’s political process and gain influence in Washington?  Trump seemed unwilling or unable to come to terms with what the book calls ‘Putin’s war on American democracy’ so the onus to establish the full story fell on investigators and reporters.

What emerges is a story where political expediency, and sometimes simple disbelief, overrode the value of information about Russian infiltration into American politics being reported to senior figures by FBI officers in the field.  The hacking of computer systems and emails by the Russians – while not producing anything of national significance – exposed weaknesses in the systems which no one wished to acknowledge.  Even Trump refused to acknowledge the exposure as he interpreted any potential inquiry into the exposure as an attempt to undermine his Presidency.

Closer to home, there is a reference to Alexander Downer – at the time [in 2016] Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.  It is claimed that George Papadopoulos – one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers – remarked to Downer at a function at the Kensington Wine Room that ‘the Russians had political dirt on Clinton’ [108].  It seems that Downer dismissed this remark as simply ‘bar talk’.

Russian Roulette is a complex and difficult book to follow unless the reader has a sound understanding and interest in American:Russian politics.  The level of detail is phenomenal and clearly demonstrates the investigative skills of the two authors.  Essentially, it seems that no stone was left unturned in seeking the truth – and all the stones turned over have revealed dirty secrets or underhanded machinations.

It is somewhat unfortunate that being an investigative journalist is not necessarily an adequate grounding for authoring a book.  The writing style is very much journalistic and while that is not a major issue, there are occasions where further exposition would be helpful.  In addition, some particular words and expressions used throughout the book are specifically American.  While the context generally assists in understanding, that is not always the case. But perhaps, these are not issues for the target group of this exposè of intrigue, betrayal and mendacity.

As the authors point out, the matter is not yet completed and some of the players referred to in, or interviewed for, the book are still involved in American politics and may be subject to future legal inquiry.  This adds to the immediacy of the book and its value in understanding the complex dynamics of the matter.  However, as stated above, it is primarily a book for students of American politics.

The book is supported by comprehensive Notes on each chapter and a substantial index.

Michael Isikoff is an American investigative journalist.  He had joined Newsweek in 1994 and written extensively on the US Government’s war on terrorism, the Abu Ghraib torture and prison abuse, presidential politics and other issues.

David Corn is an American political journalist.  He has been the Washington Editor for The Nation and has appeared regularly on television.

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