Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump

Image of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump
Release Date: 
March 13, 2018
Reviewed by: 

This book has six basic flaws. First, it does not live up to its subtitle’s promise on Russian president Vladimir Putin. It comes nowhere close to offering smoking-gun evidence of Putin’s involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or his motives. As the authors admit near the end of the volume, Putin’s role remains “shrouded in mystery.”

Second, the book is premature. Insofar as there really is a great conspiratorial story to be fully uncovered about Putin, Trump, and the 2016 election, it will be told by special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s federal investigation, which is still ongoing.  

Third, Isikoff and Corn refer to Putin’s alleged subversion of something that doesn’t really exist: “American democracy.” Saying that Russia has undermined “American democracy” is like this reviewer—middle-aged, five-foot nine, and unblessed with jumping ability—saying that the Brooklyn Nets’ Russian-born center Timofy Mozgov undermined my potential career in the National Basketball Association.

University of Kentucky history department chair Ronald Formisano’s latest book is quite properly titled American Oligarchy: The Permanence of the Political Class (University of Illinois, 2017). As Formisano shows, U.S. politics and policy are under the control of a “permanent political class”—a “networked layer of high-income people” including Congressional representatives (half of whom are millionaires), elected officials, campaign funders, lobbyists, consultants, appointed bureaucrats, pollsters, television celebrity journalists, university presidents, and executives at well-funded nonprofit institutions.

This “permanent political class,” Formisano notes, is taking the nation “beyond [mere] plutocracy” to “the hegemony of an aristocracy of inherited wealth.” It “drives economic and political inequality not only with the policies it has constructed over the past four decades, such as federal and state tax systems rigged to favor corporations and the wealthy; it also increases inequality by its self-dealing, acquisitive behavior as it enables, emulates, and enmeshes itself with the wealthiest One Percent and .01 percent . . . [and]contributes to continuing high levels of poverty and disadvantage for millions that exceed almost all advanced nations.” This “permanent political class” (PPC) and the “aristocracy of wealth” it attends to and apes is a product of U.S. history and U.S. state capitalism. It has nothing to do with Russia.

Yes, U.S. Americans get to vote, today as in 2016. But as the leading political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens note in their recent book American Democracy? (University of Chicago Press, 2017), “Elections alone do not guarantee democracy.” 

Majority opinion is regularly trumped by a deadly complex of forces in the U.S.: the campaign finance, candidate-selection, lobbying, and policy agenda-setting power of wealthy individuals, corporations, and interest groups; the special primary election influence of full-time party activists; the disproportionately affluent, white, and older composition of the active (voting) electorate; the manipulation of voter turnout; the widespread dissemination of “distracting, confusing, misleading, and just plain false information;” absurdly and explicitly unrepresentative political institutions like the Electoral College, the unelected Supreme Court, the over-representation of the predominantly white rural population in the U.S. Senate; one-party rule in the House of “Representatives”; the fragmentation of authority in government; and corporate ownership of the reigning media, which frames current events in accord with the wishes and world view of the nation’s real owners, who are wealthy U.S. oligarchs, not Russian ones.

We get to vote, but mammon reigns in the U.S. where, Page and Gilens find, “government policy . . . reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.”

Fourth, Isikoff and Corn leave out much of the inside story behind Trump’s election. A multiplicity of factors besides Russian/Putin’s involvement led to Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Donald Trump’s victory: the dismal centrist awfulness, strategic failures, and related policy silence of  Mrs. Clinton’s big money and establishment campaign; the remarkable free media attention Trump received; the anti-establishment “populist” mood of an electorate still climbing out a horrific Wall Street-imposed Great Recession and struggling with the weak, low-wage “Obama recovery”; the demobilization of much of the Democrats’ usual base by the neoliberal Obama presidency; racist voter suppression in key Republican-controlled battleground states; the remarkable influx of campaign cash Trump received from right-wing U.S. billionaires and equity capitalists (American, not Russian oligarchs like Sheldon Adelson and Robert Merver) in the late summer and fall of 2016; FBI Director James Comey’s last-minute revelation that Hillary Clinton’s private email server was once again a subject of federal investigation; the remarkable network of homegrown media and cyber-politics developed by the U.S. right-wing on its own, with no help required from Russia.  It seems likely that Russia’s interference was a relatively minor factor by comparison with of all these other factors.

Fifth, Isikoff and Corn fail to provide any serious historical context (certainly part of the “inside story”) on why the Kremlin would want to try to influence U.S. politics and particularly to help a candidate (Trump) who promised to roll back America’s New Cold War on Russia defeat a candidate (Clinton) who stood in the aggressive U.S. vanguard of the New Cold War.  An honest accounting of that context would include

  • President Bill Clinton’s decision to annul a 1990 agreement with Moscow not to push North Atlantic Treaty Organization further east after the reunification of Germany and not to recruit Eastern European states that had been part of the Soviet-ruled Warsaw Pact.
  • NATO’s decision to renege on its 1997 pledge not to install “permanent” and “significant” military forces in former Soviet bloc nations.
  • NATO’s decision two years ago to place four battalions on and near the Russian border.
  • The 1999 U.S.-NATO military intervention in the Yugoslav civil war, leading to the dismemberment of Serbia and the building of a giant U.S. military base in the newly NATO-/U.S.-created state of Kosovo.  (This remarkable development has hardly stopped Washington from shaming Russia for deploying its military to “forcibly redraw borders in Europe” by annexing Crimea.)
  • President George W. Bush’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
  • President Obama’s decision to deploy anti-missile systems (supposedly aimed at Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapons and actually meant to intercept Russian missiles) in Romania and Poland.
  • Obama’s decision to invest more than of $1 trillion on an upgrade of the U.S nuclear weapons arsenal, which was already well enough stocked to blow up the world fifty times over. The upgrade involves “strategic’ bombs with smaller yields, something that dangerously blurs the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons. It has certainly helped spark a new nuclear arms race with Russia and, perhaps, China.
  • U.S. provocation and endorsement of a right-wing 2014 coup against the pro-Russian government in Ukraine on Russia’s western border—a development that predictably created war in eastern Ukraine and created a crisis that has led to dozens of dangerous incidents between NATO and Russian forces.
  • Washington’s self-righteous denunciation and slandering of Russia’s frankly reasonable and defensive annexation of Crimea, which was overwhelmingly supported by Crimeans as a natural response to the United States’ installation of a right-wing pro-NATO government in Kiev.

If Putin’s did in fact undertake a “war” on “American democracy” (elections), this and more is all part of the “inside story” of why. Isikoff and Corn have nothing to say about this U.S.-led Western aggression.

Sixth, Isikoff and Corn’s reference to Russian help as the “original sin” of Trump’s presidency is insulting to people of color, immigrants, women, and environmentalists, many of whom will quite reasonably argue that racism, nativism, sexism, and/or rapacious eco-cidalism are the true original sins of the Trump presidency.

These problems aside, Russian Roulette should still be read by anyone who is interested in the difficult yet fascinating detective story of Donald Trump’s weird and disturbing relationship with Russian oligarchs and Putin. It’s the best chronological dissection and tying together yet of the numerous complex and often bizarre chapters in the story:

  • Trump and top Trump associates’ (including Trump’s slimy former campaign director Paul Manafort, Trump’s bizarre former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign consultant Carter Page, and former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos) financial, political, and espionage entanglement with Russian oligarchs, officials, and agents
  • Trump’s fabled 2013 Miss Universe trip to Moscow and the mysterious sealed letter (its contents have never been revealed) that Trump received inside “a black lacquered box” from Putin after the pageant
  • a Russian journalist’s discovery of the infamous Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm” employing hundreds of Russian creating and working with fake Web identities to influence American politics.
  • the alleged Russian Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear-Guccifer 2.0-WikiLeaks-Julian Assange hackings of the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton campaign, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2015 and 2016.
  • the infamous and creepy meeting of Donald Trump, Jr and Jared Kusher with Russian agents promising damaging information on Hillary Clinton in Trump Tower in June of 2016.
  • the famous “golden shower” Steele Dossier, a summer 2016 report by Britain’s former top Russian intelligence expert alleging that Russia had been cultivating Trump for at least five years and possessed compromising information with which to blackmail him
  • the Trump campaign’s squashing of a platform amendment that would have called for arming Ukraine in its war with Russia.
  • the Democratic Party’s panicked, paralyzed response to the “intelligence community’s” reports that that it was under Russian cyber-assault.
  • the Obama administration’s reluctance to forcefully and openly confront Russia on the Kremlin’s alleged subversion of U.S. “democracy.”


All that and more is treated at great and careful length in Russian Roulette.  Detective and spy novel fans may especially enjoy this book. Those less experienced in reading dense mysteries may want to keep some index cards handy to keep track of all the different names and affiliations of the large and wild cast of characters that appear in Russian Roulette (which is thankfully blessed with an excellent index).  This book is a dizzying blitzkrieg of American, Russian, and other actors.

Though they were strong pro-Clinton Democrats in 2016, Isikoff and Corn deserve credit for reporting something we can expect many Democratic Party readers to quickly forget about on pages 30 and 31 of Russian Roulette:

"The day after . . . Russian spies were arrested [on June 27, 2010], Bill Clinton arrived in Moscow to deliver the keynote speech at a conference sponsored by Renaissance Capital, a Russian investment banking firm with links to the Kremlin. Clinton was paid a whopping $500,000 for his ninety-minute appearance, which drew an audience of top Russian government officials. Though his wife was secretary of state, the former president had not curbed his lucrative overseas speech-making, even when the gigs were underwritten by groups that might have interests before the State Department . . . In the case of Renaissance Capital, the firm at that time was promoting a stock offering of a company called Uranium One—a mining firm that controlled about 20 percent of uranium production capacity within the United States. And Russia’s nuclear agency, Rosatom, was in the process of purchasing a controlling interest in Uranium One, pending approval of a U.S. government foreign investment review board on which Hillary Clinton sat with eight other senior U.S. officials…Around the time of the Uranium One deal, the company chairman’s family foundation donated about $2.35 million to Clinton Foundation programs.”

That raises an interesting question: if Hillary Clinton had run a better campaign and fended off the Trump-Steve Bannon-Robert Mercer-Sheldon Adelson- (and Putin/Russian?) assault in the late summer and fall of 2016, would a Clinton45 presidency now be facing Congressional inquiries into its Russian entanglements?

In the meantime, anyone left or right who thinks there isn’t something strange and disturbing about Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia and Vladimir Putin has got their head in the sand no less than does somebody who thinks the United States possessed a great democracy to subvert in 2016.