May 8, 2018
“I love documents”: How Seth Hettena came to write Trump / Russia, on sale today
by Seth Hettena
Russia wasn’t much on the radar when I started researching what became my book, Trump/Russia: A Definitive History. Obama was still president, the Steele Dossier hadn’t leaked yet, and James Comey was FBI director. But if you didn’t think that something was going on with Trump and Russia back in the summer of 2016, then you just weren’t paying attention. First, Russian intelligence hacked the Democratic National Committee. Then came Trump’s bizarre “Russia, if you’re listening,” remark. (Remember that one, when he asked the Kremlin to “find” Hillary Clinton’s missing emails?) As the GOP gathered to nominate Donald Trump for president in Cleveland, the Trump campaign quietly softened the language in the party’s platform about arming Ukraine. These were not mere coincidences. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond and a former intelligence officer, once wrote, “One is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”
My wife thinks this is strange, but I love documents. People were marching in the streets; I started digging through documents. I got hold of every article I could find and read books on Russia in my spare time. I began to gather all these tiny pieces of information and assemble them into a coherent whole. It turned into a mountain of information. I was compiling timelines, and writing posts about hacking and Russian intelligence at trump-russia.com. “Just a guy trying to figure out if the president is an agent of a foreign power,” is how I described myself. It was my personal attempt to understand the election of Donald Trump and what role Russia had played in it. I knew this stuff mattered to me. If somebody else found it helpful, great.
It was my agent, Scott Mendel, who contacted me and told me what I was doing was interesting and important and mattered to everybody. The outline of the book was there, but I just hadn’t seen it yet. In February 2017, I wrote what would turn out to be my most popular blog post ever. I took a look at all the Russian Mafia figures who have lived or worked in Trump Tower, including a few names that would feature prominently in my book. The more I looked, the more Russian Mafia figures I found, and this became the tie that binds many of the disparate threads of the Trump/Russia story together. It’s what Michael Cohen, Donald Trump, Felix Sater, and many other characters all have in common. I didn’t know it then but I was on the same path that others had followed, including the FBI and the researchers at Fusion GPS who commissioned the Steele Dossier.
We hear a lot of talk about collusion between Trump and Russia, but the story I saw was one of corruption. Trump has always been a Mob-friendly businessman, as David Cay Johnston’s best-selling book, The Making of Donald Trump, showed. Trump chased after Russian criminal money for decades in Trump Tower, his building projects, and his casinos. He has rubbed elbows with Russian Mobsters for years — it was part of his business model. Just as importantly, the story of Donald Trump and Russia is incredibly complex. I wanted to write a book that would help people understand the events of Trump’s election and his connections to Russia.
Trump / Russia was written in the space of roughly three months, give or take, an incredibly tight turnaround. Events were unfolding so fast that chapters were being written and revised on an almost daily basis. I really relied on my training in the Associated Press. I also had a great editor at Melville House in Michael Barron, who helped me craft a narrative that I think will stand the test of time. This story is still being written, of course. There is much we will learn in the coming months and years. But one thing is clear with President Trump. The past is prologue; Trump is a creature of habit. If you want to understand what’s happening today, you need to understand that it all starts in New York in the 1980s.
Trump / Russia is on sale now. Buy your copy here, or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.
Seth Hettena is an award-winning journalist. He was a long-time investigative reporter for the Associated Press, where he covered numerous stories of political corruption and American war crimes. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book Feasting on the Spoils, and, most recently, Trump / Russia: A Definitive History. He lives with his wife and sons in San Diego.