“Are you fucking kidding me?” I said.
It was the summer of 2008, and I was in Wayne, New Jersey, standing in a Hooters parking lot with Captain Oleg Kulikov, a New York–based Russian spymaster. For three years, I’d been working for Moscow, trying to prove my worth. I wanted to become a key asset for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. In return, I wanted a hefty paycheck and thought I’d done enough to earn it. But Kulikov was dithering—and he could see I was upset.
What he didn’t know: I was actually a double agent, working for the FBI. My mission was to make the Russians believe I was a spy. Which meant I had to show Kulikov that I was tired of his games and willing to walk away.
I’ve thought of this moment several times since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Many have speculated that Trump is actually a Russian asset—perhaps a longtime one. His ties to ex-Soviet oligarchs are certainly troubling; some allege he’s allowed the Russian mob to launder big money through his properties (the Kremlin reportedly has extensive links to organized crime). His remarks about Moscow are equally troubling. He has defended the Kremlin’s killing of dissidents (“Do you think our country is so innocent?”) and dismissed claims by his own intelligence services that Russian-backed hackers carried out a plot to undermine his opponent—and American democracy—in November.
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