In 1983, the KGB contacted Carl Gebhardt, the CIA’s Moscow station chief, with a proposal. In order to avoid needless problems between the two spy services, the KGB wanted to open a secret communications channel with the CIA.
The CIA readily agreed, and the pact led to a series of secret meetings between top CIA and KGB officials in Europe. Eventually nicknamed the “Gavrilov channel,” after a 19th century Russian poet, this carefully choreographed exchange of secret communications continued throughout the remainder of the Cold War.
Some of the Gavrilov meetings took place in Helsinki, where Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin on Monday. But one of the key differences between the Gavrilov channel and the Trump-Putin meeting was that the CIA always insisted on having at least two American officers present – no one from the CIA could meet the KGB alone. That guaranteed that no American could hand over secrets to the KGB without at least one other American knowing about it; it also insured that no American would come under unfair suspicion of being a KGB spy simply by meeting with the Russians alone.
Trump, on the other hand, insisted on meeting Putin without any of his aides present. At a time when there is a federal investigation underway into whether his campaign colluded with the Russians to win the 2016 election, Trump’s decision to meet Putin alone was at best reckless. His many critics will take it as further evidence that he really is a KGB agent.
Both leaders’ comments to reporters after the meeting only reinforced the growing belief among many Americans that Trump is in Putin’s pocket. Trump said that Putin had denied to him that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election — and that was good enough for Trump. Trump also called the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into whether Russia colluded with the Trump campaign during the election a “disaster for our country.”
“There was no collusion at all,” Trump insisted. “Everybody knows it. … There was no collusion. I didn’t know [Putin]. There was nobody to collude with.”
He also ruled out collusion with his campaign, saying: “We ran a brilliant campaign and that’s why I’m president.”
Trump was dismissive of the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia intervened in the 2016 election. “My people came to me, [Director of the Office of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Trump then said that Putin had made him “an incredible offer” to have Russian intelligence officials work with U.S. intelligence to get to the bottom of the Russian meddling story. Putin helpfully added that “if there are any specific materials, if they are presented, we are ready to review them together.”
Trump then launched into conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s email server, her missing emails, and a “Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC.” He treated the post-summit press conference like a campaign event before his fevered right-wing base.
“Where are those servers? They’re missing. Where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? Thirty-three thousand emails gone, just gone. I think in Russia, they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails.”
Just hours after Trump and Putin’s lovefest ended, the Justice Department announced that it had charged a Russian woman living in the United States with acting as an unregistered foreign agent of the Russian Federation. Maria Butina was accused of seeking relationships with American politicians and a gun rights organization to establish a back channel means of communication between influential Americans and representatives of the Russian government.
The charges against Butina follow a series of recent indictments against Russians and Russian entities in the Trump-Russia inquiry. In February, 13 Russians and three entities, including the Internet Research Agency, were indicted for seeking to interfere in the 2016 election. On Friday, Mueller’s office indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for conspiring to conduct a cyberoffensive against the Democratic Party during the 2016 election.
Butina has been publicly linked to the Trump-Russia inquiry for months. She was a special assistant to Alexander Torshin, a top official at the Russian central bank who is closely allied with Putin. She and Torshin have developed close ties to the National Rifle Association, and both became life members. In May 2016, Donald Trump Jr. spoke to Torshin at the NRA’s annual convention. In January, McClatchy reported that the FBI was investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA in order to help Trump win the presidency.
Butina has been described in the press as a strong advocate for gun rights in Russia – even though restrictions on gun ownership in Russia are much more severe than in America — and has developed close ties to the Republican Party. Butina formed a company in South Dakota with Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican operative who has fundraised for the NRA.
Top photo: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting at Finland’s Presidential Palace on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland.