How Trump beat a Russian effort to undermine him
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President Trump is becoming increasingly adept at handling the complexities of international politics, a reality illustrated by the fact that he effectively parried a Russian effort to undermine him over the last several months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mouthpiece in Europe, Czech President Milos Zeman, claimed last year that Trump invited him to discuss matters high on the Russian agenda. Russian state propaganda immediately capitalized on the event while the Trump team was in transition, and began to spin a story of two Kremlin-backed politicians meeting in the White House to further the Russian agenda.

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Zeman hurried to contact Ivana Trump, Ivanka Trump’s mother, and publicly endorsed Ivana to be U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic. In the meantime, Lidovky, a news outlet owned by one of Zeman’s political allies, Minister of Finance Andrej Babis, ran a story alleging that the KGB developed Ivana Trump when she was married to Trump. (Incidentally, Babis himself has been widely reported as someone with ties to Russian intelligence.) This set the stage for the rest of the combination.

 

Taking advantage of the natural confusion surrounding a presidential transition process, Zeman and his team began making claims about the agenda for his meeting with Trump and asserting that a state visit would definitely take place. But the story unraveled when a lobbying firm hired by the Presidential Office submitted federal paperwork under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires that U.S. firms disclose work performed for foreign clients.

The falsehood of Zeman’s claim that he would meet with Trump became clear due to an obvious contradiction: if you already have an invitation from the president-elect, you don’t need to hire lobbyists to force a meeting with him.

The issue is a case study in how an allied nation and its institutions have been hijacked by Russia to operate in the interests of the Russian Federation. Two names on the disclosure tell us all we need to confirm Russian direction.

The lobbying firm identified their point of contact as Martin Nejedly, a former director at Russian oil company Lukoil’s Czech subsidiary. Last year, the New York Times identified Lukoil as a part of Putin’s network of influence buying throughout Europe. Nejedly is publicly associated with Vladimir Yakunin, an FSB general who is under sanctions. Foreign service veterans know very well the role that Lukoil and Yakunin play in financing and conducting active measures across Europe.

The other name on the disclosure is the new Czech Ambassador, Hynek Kmonicek, Zeman’s confidant and foreign policy advisor. While Kmonicek was advising him, Zeman has insulted the United States and the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, has called for the recognition of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation, undermined sanctions against Russia, called for a referendum for Czechs to exit NATO, denied the Russian invasion of Ukraine and supported an anti-Western forum organized by Yakunin. Kmonicek continues to serve Zeman directly in his capacity as presidential advisor, while also serving as ambassador.

The document is signed by Ambassador Kmonicek and the client is the office of the Czech president – a president who, coincidentally, was elected with funding from Nejedly’s Lukoil.

It is my opinion that Kmonicek does not truly represent the interests of the Czech Republic but those of the Russian Federation, and that this entire operation was an attempt to discredit Trump with another phony Putin connection. The Russians found some unsuspecting Trump-connected lobbyists to be their pawns, a bridge to discrediting Trump by creating the illusion of a “Prague Connection.” But the spiciest part of their story would have been Ivana Trump, her connection to Zeman, and the allegations of her connection to the KGB. This was another provocation by Moscow, aimed at President Trump’s family, to further roil the waters in Washington.

Zeman and his team have a track record of using Russian techniques such as provocation and disinformation. Never before have they dared to use it against a U.S. president. But we should have seen this coming when the Obama administration ignored repeated, unprecedented public insults by Zeman to the U.S. Ambassador.

In avoiding Zeman, President Trump avoided another trap set for him by Putin. This is further evidence of his growing competence in foreign and national security policy. Trump promised during the campaign that he would appoint competent people and listen to them. He has fulfilled that promise, and has averted a Russian active measure that was aimed straight at the heart of his family and the presidency.

James D. Durso is the managing director at consultancy firm Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as supply officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).


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