How Trump Borrows From Putin’s Dirty Tricks Playbook

Donald Trump
Donald Trump at a campaign event in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 11. Newsweek Media Group has analyzed his texts and examined the 9,152 words in those missives to figure out what they tell us about his presidency so far. Carlo Allegri/reuters

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

The same dirty tricks deployed by the KGB for decades are used in today’s Cold War 2.0 and have permeated geopolitics from Syria to Ukraine and the world’s capitals.

But spies in trench coats have been supplanted by Russians in tuxedos with huge bank accounts who use financial, social and political weaponry to build tentacles that reach into the highest echelons of targeted jurisdictions.

This geopolitical architecture is the brainchild of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, and his operatives are Russians who owe him everything because he has, by edict, made each one a fabulously wealthy owner of Russia’s assets and vast resource endowment.

Their tools are no longer listening devices or fast Aston Martins but transactions, partnerships, investments, banks, loans, lobbyists, public relations specialists and social access at the highest levels to fatten their wallets and advance Russia’s influence and geopolitical agenda.

They lurk in the shadows of offshore banks, tax havens, anonymous corporations, private clubs and influencers who are secretly on their payrolls.

They “bribe,” but through sophisticated transactions such as overpaying for assets or services; selling assets or services or lending money at rock-bottom prices to enrich a targeted influencer; or inviting politicians, tycoons and officials to yachts, estates, sporting team events, sponsored arts galas, ribbon-cutting ceremonies at libraries, think tanks, universities or other charities that they lavish money on strategically.

President Donald Trump denies involvement with Russians but strangely shared an interesting transaction that’s led to an ongoing association with a Russian oligarch.

“You know the closest I came to Russia? I bought a house [in 2006] in Palm Beach...for $40 million, and I sold it [in 2008] to a Russian for $100 million,” Trump said.

Could such a windfall be a result of his astute real estate smarts or was it a buyer who wanted to curry his favor?

What’s interesting to note, however, is that the Trump media-management style borrows heavily from propaganda techniques honed by the Russians. These include negativity and disdain toward institutions and the traditional media to demoralize the “enemy” and the widespread use of disinformation (false assertions or allegations), such as Trump’s unproven accusation that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower illegally.

Related: Did Trump attack Assad to end the Russian collusion story?

Another technique is called “whataboutism.” This is the use of false moral equivalencies to reduce the truth to just one of many possibilities. It litters the conversation and gives equal play to ludicrous assertions.

For instance, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly questioned Trump’s admiration for Putin and called him a “killer.” The president responded by saying, “We’ve got a lot of killers.”

Propaganda techniques include hacking to embarrass or impair rivals, as happened during the election, but also to perpetuate “fake news” or hoaxes on social media sites. The most odious example involved Hillary Clinton and a Washington, D.C., pizzeria and pedophilia.

Also of concern is the promotion of search rankings by Russian trolls and chatbots. For instance, type in “Putin...” on Google in the United States or Canada and the drop-down menu offered by its artificial intelligence (based on site rankings and number of clicks) is “awesome” or “a hero.”

The cumulative danger of these shenanigans is serious, writes Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny: “Paid trolls have made it impossible for the normal Internet user to separate truth from fiction.”

Related: Trump and his buddies keep red flags flying in the Russia probe

He said such efforts are paid for by Russian officials and oligarchs to gain control over media outlets they don’t own, with the added benefit of spreading lies internationally.

Another gambit is known as “gaslighting,” named after an American suspense film about a man who drives his wife mad by accusing her of doing things that she didn’t do—but that he had done.

An example was when Trump began labeling critics who prove his allegations to be inaccurate as “fake news” purveyors. Such memorable lines are repeated in order to become a hashtag on social media or a colloquialism.

Another maneuver is known as “chaff,” the code name for a top secret weapon in World War II that enabled allies to drop bombs in broad daylight. Chaffing was when planes dropped tens of thousands of strips of aluminum foil to confuse radar systems by creating thousands of decoys in the sky.

The Trump media strategy is all about “chaff,” or throwing up all kinds of noise, confusion and distractions to shift attention. For example, the Obama wiretapping allegation was followed by a bombardment of tweets that sent the press on wild goose chases. Likewise, Trump’s pronouncements against NATO or Europe are contradicted in statements by his vice president and others.

This use of contradictions, nastiness and dissonance is not helpful to democracies or economies. But they work.

For years, the Russians have seized control of conversations around the world, and their bespoke agents have infiltrated the world’s powerful. And America is no exception.

Diane Francis is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, editor at large with the National Post in Canada and a distinguished professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.