Trump and Putin at G20 in Hamburg
Credit: Алексей М/Flickr

In 2000, Donald Trump briefly ran for the nomination of the Reform Party in the presidential election. A lot of people assume that his campaign manager at the time, Roger Stone, orchestrated that in order to get back in the good graces of the Republican Party by diminishing the prospects of a race between George W. Bush as the Republican nominee and Pat Buchanan as the Reform Party nominee. Stone was rewarded handsomely when he was tapped by James Baker to orchestrate the so-called “Brooks Brothers Riot” at the Florida recount.

Next, according to Jane Mayer, Trump contemplated the idea of running for president a second time in 2012 to challenge the re-election of Barack Obama.

In 2011, David Bossie, the head of the conservative group Citizens United, introduced Trump to Bannon; at the time, Trump was thinking about running against Obama. Bannon and Trump met at Trump Tower and discussed a possible campaign. Trump decided against the idea, but the two kept in touch, and Bannon gave Trump admiring coverage. Bannon noticed that, when Trump spoke to crowds, people were electrified. Bannon began to think that Trump might be “the one” who could shake up American politics.

It would be fascinating to learn more about that conversation between Trump and Bannon in 2011 and why the reality television star decided not to run in 2012. It is easy to assume that someone like Bannon would recognize that the sitting president would pose a tough challenge and that a lot more work needed to be done to set the stage for a movement that would be responsive to a candidate like Trump. But that is simply speculation on my part.

The fact of the matter is that it wasn’t until June 2015 that Trump announced his candidacy. What happened in those intervening years is worth looking into, especially the events around late 2013 and early 2014.

Trump met the Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov in June 2013 and was paid $20 million to bring the Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow. In what could have been a payoff, Putin gave Agalarov the prestigious Order of Honor award as well as construction contracts for the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament in Russia. It was while Trump was in Russia for the Miss Universe Pageant in November 2013 that there was an initial discussion about a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Agalarov has said he and Trump also met with the businessmen Alex Sapir and Rotem Rosen – Trump’s old partners on the controversial Trump Soho project in New York – to discuss opportunities in Moscow. Agalarov later said they struck an agreement in principle to go ahead. Trump seemed to think so: “TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next,” he said in a thank you note to Agalarov on Twitter. Eight days later, Sberbank announced it was lending Agalarov 55bn roubles ($1.3bn) to finance new projects in Moscow.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 2013 Steve Bannon was meeting with the people who would go on to create Cambridge Analytica due to an investment of $15 million by Robert Mercer. I guess we’re supposed to believe that it was just a coincidence that almost immediately in 2014, when CA was up and running, they hooked up with Aleksandr Kogan, the person responsible for harvesting Facebook data who also happened to be an associate professor at St. Petersburg University, where he was doing similar research.

Last night Christopher Wylie, who worked for Cambridge Analytica in 2014, dropped a bit of a bombshell on CNN. The whole interview is interesting, but take a look at what he said at about the 6:55 mark.

In 2014, Cambridge Analytica was testing phrases and images that would go on to be the boilerplate messages of Trump’s campaign, like “build the wall” and “drain the swamp.” Were those Bannon’s ideas? He goes on to say that what they found was that there were “pockets of Americans” those messages appealed to.

All of that reminds me of a recent clue we saw indicating that at least some Russians knew as early as January 2014 that Trump was going to run for president.

Yulya Alferova was hired by Agalarov to handle social media during the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow. Apparently she knew Trump was going to run for president a year and a half before he made his formal announcement.

As I wrote previously, the Mueller indictments against 13 Russians repeatedly show that the social media efforts he documented all began in 2014. Just prior to that, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov published an article in a Russian military journal that would become the country’s formal military doctrine on the use of cyber attacks and the spread of disinformation. Almost immediately, the Obama administration was warned about Russia’s attempt to disrupt Western democracies, including the U.S.

As early as 2014, the administration received a report that quoted a well-connected Russian source as saying that the Kremlin was building a disinformation arm that could be used to interfere in Western democracies. The report, according to an official familiar with it, included a quote from the Russian source telling U.S. officials in Moscow, “You have no idea how extensive these networks are in Europe … and in the U.S., Russia has penetrated media organizations, lobbying firms, political parties, governments and militaries in all of these places.”

That was followed by this:

Over a 24-hour period, top U.S. cyber defenders engaged in a pitched battle with Russian hackers who had breached the unclassified State Department computer system and displayed an unprecedented level of aggression that experts warn is likely to be turned against the private sector.

Whenever National Security Agency hackers cut the attackers’ link between their command and control server and the malware in the U.S. system, the Russians set up a new one, current and former U.S. officials said.

The new details about the November 2014 incident emerged recently in the wake of a senior NSA official’s warning that the heightened aggression has security implications for firms and organizations unable to fight back.

Meanwhile, as I documented recently, Vladimir Putin was busy in 2013/2014 beginning the process of courting the various groups in the U.S. that would go on to form Donald Trump’s base: gun activists, white evangelicals, and white supremacists.

All of that points to the possibility that Trump decided to run for president in late 2013 or early 2014, with the obvious support of Vladimir Putin. That is precisely why Robert Mueller and his team should be interested in when (and why) the decision was made.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.