London: When asked a question about the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny last week, President Donald Trump gave a rambling response mentioning China, North Korea and Afghanistan, before returning to the question saying “we haven’t had any proof yet”, echoing the words of the Kremlin. This was despite the fact that his officials had earlier been briefed by Germany giving them “unequivocal evidence” that Navalny had been poisoned in Russia by the Soviet-developed nerve agent Novichok. Donald Trump has never criticised Vladimir Putin. Nor has he yet confronted Putin about intelligence reports that Russia paid bounties to the Afghan for killing American soldiers. As reported in the New York Times last week, “To all appearances, Putin has the president of the United States in his pocket!” Why?

It all started in 2007. “Dear President Putin. Congratulations on being named Time magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’—you definitely deserve it. As you probably have heard, I am a big fan of yours. Take care of yourself. With best wishes. Donald J Trump”.

Dated 19 December, this is the first of several letters between Trump and Putin contained in the explosive Senate Intelligence Committee report released earlier this month.

Six years later, Trump sought to further ingratiate himself with Putin by inviting him to his forthcoming Miss Universe 2013 pageant in Moscow. In this letter to Putin dated 13 September 2013, Trump informed him that he would be in Moscow for a few days and “if for any reason you would like to meet with me, it would be my great honour”. The meeting didn’t take place, but in his reply Putin hoped that “we will be able to talk during one of your upcoming visits to Russia”. At the time, Trump was exploring real estate projects in Moscow, including a “Trump Tower”, through his friend and associate Felix Sater (born Mikhailovitch Sheferovsky), a Russian-American mobster property developer and later FBI informant.

Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin has never been easily explained. A man who is always eager to prove his machismo, Trump is strangely subservient to Putin, even playing lapdog on occasions. Few will forget his warm handshake and arm around Putin’s shoulder when they met in Helsinki in July 2018, prior to a two-hour private meeting behind closed doors. Afterwards, Trump removed the notes from the interpreter leaving no record of the meeting, defying US protocol. It was at the later press conference that he said publicly he believed Vladimir Putin’s denials of interference in the 2016 election campaign over the evidence of his own intelligence committee. Donald Trump had earlier fired the FBI Director James Comey in an attempt to stop an investigation into Russian interference in the campaign, raising suspicions that he had something to hide.

So is there something that Donald Trump doesn’t want exposed? Does Vladimir Putin have some compromising material on Donald Trump which could explain this weird relationship? Dan Coates, former director of US national intelligence thinks so. “There is no other explanation”, he says in Bob Woodward’s new book on Trump, Rage, published next Tuesday.

Donald Trump first came to the attention of Soviet intelligence through their Czechoslovak subsidiary when in April 1977, aged 31, he married Ivana Zelnickova, a 28-year-old model and citizen of communist Czechoslovakia. The couple first experienced Moscow in 1987 on a visit arranged by the Soviet ambassador to the US, Yury Dubinin, and organised by the KGB. Dubinin told Trump that the leading Soviet state agency for international tourism, Goscomintourist, had expressed interest in “pursuing a joint venture to construct and manage a hotel in Moscow”. The Trumps stayed in the Lenin Suite at the National Hotel near Red Square, rooms which would have been bugged and well covered by hidden cameras. Although nothing appears to have come from this trip, in his book, The Art of the Deal, Trump describes how the visit fired him with the ambition of developing real estate in Russia, including a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Trump later made three further solo trips to Moscow before becoming President: in 1996 to examine a development opportunity; in 2007 to promote “Trump Super Premium Vodka 24K” (the bottles were decorated with pure 24k gold) at the Millionaire Fair; and finally for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. Trump is insistent that he didn’t spend a single night in Moscow during this pageant, even though in his letter to Putin he said he would be spending two nights there. Flight records show that his plane did arrive two days before the event, so perhaps Trump has a failure of memory about the two nights, or maybe he simply wants to deny what happened. According to the defector Oleg Kalugin, once the youngest general in the KGB and former head of KGB political operations in the US, “Trump had fun with a lot of girls during that trip and that it is certain that the KGB had compromising material from it”. This was later backed up by the Steele dossier used as evidence in the Muller investigations on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.

Much has been said about the Steele dossier, heavily criticised by an apprehensive Trump team. They continue to shower scorn on the claims about Trump without providing any evidence for their scepticism. A colleague in the British Embassy in Moscow in the early 90s, Chris Steele was an energetic 3rd Secretary and built up an impressive list of contacts in Russia during his three  years. He was rated “a very professional operator” by a former UK ambassador. Between 2006 and 2009, he ran the MI6 Russia desk in London, before retiring to form his consultancy company Orbis. Because of Steele’s extensive knowledge and credibility on Russia, prior to the 2016 presidential election, Orbis was contracted by the Washington consultancy Fusion GPS, acting for a Republican donor, to create the “dossier” examining links between Donald Trump and Russia. In the dossier, Trump’s alleged sexual activity during his 2013 trip to Moscow was described in colourful detail, causing severe embarrassment to the White House, which in the traditional way described it as “fake news”.

Countless businessmen and diplomats have been compromised over many years by Soviet or Russian videos taken by concealed cameras during “arranged” sex sessions in hotels. Students of Soviet/Russian intelligence will confirm that “Kompramat” has been the weapon of choice by Moscow since cameras were invented. So it would be extremely surprising if hidden cameras had not been used during Trump’s various stays in Moscow for “future use”. In fact, as Kalugin says, it is virtually certain that Donald Trump was compromised on each occasion. However, until the numerous tapes locked away in the Putin-controlled KGB stores in the bowels of the Lubyanka become available, we shall have no absolute proof. But such activity would be in line with thrice-married Trump’s proclivity for sexual misconduct. He has already admitted to grabbing women inappropriately and to paying off multiple women with whom he allegedly had affairs.

Perhaps you agree with Donald Trump that he is too decent and honest a man to fall for sexual blackmail. OK, so let’s consider another area of opportunity for Putin to blackmail Trump—money.

It’s widely believed that when faced with multiple bankruptcies Trump was “saved” on countless occasions by Russian money, the reason why he fights so hard to keep his financial returns out of the public eye. In 1992, he admitted to New York Magazine that two years earlier he was $5bn in debt, with a whopping $980m in personal guarantees. He managed to reduce this to $115m by selling off a string of yachts and planes and restructuring his debts, but by July 1991 his flagship Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City New York was in financial trouble and filed for bankruptcy. Bondholders, believed to be Russian mobsters, rushed to the rescue and the casino was saved.
But now the Taj Mahal became the place where “no questions were asked” about the vast amount of Russian money flowing through the casino, where Russian racketeers flocked to pay $100,000 a time for “special treatment”. In this way, the casino became a favourite venue for laundering the “black” cash pouring out of Russia, organised by the KGB in cohorts with Russian mobsters after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2015, the casino admitted to having “wilfully violated” anti-money laundering regulations for years and was fined $10m, a paltry sum but the highest penalty ever levied by the US Federal Government against a casino.

In her best-selling new book Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West, the highly respected Financial Times journalist, Catherine Belton, describes in intimate detail how Russian “black cash” repeatedly came to Trump’s aid in the nick of time to prevent disaster. Belton worked in Russia for many years, from the time Putin came to power until 2013, during which she built up a formidable list of contacts. Detailing her sources, she describes how numerous Russian mobsters laundered black cash into Trump’s businesses over a number of years. As almost any deal, even as low as $20m, had to be authorised by President Putin, he will have a complete record of Trump’s indebtedness to him. Such information is power.

Ever since he arrived at the White House nearly four years ago, Donald Trump’s deferential relationship with Vladimir Putin has puzzled observers. Why should such a macho man, President of the most powerful country in the world, kowtow to the leader of a nation which many consider to be a third-world country with rockets?
The answer may be simple. “My dear Donald, be nice to me or else…”

John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.