President Trump: The Manchurian Candidate?

In less than 2 days, Donald J Trump will become the 45th president of the United States. But, much like Sergeant Shaw in the Manchurian Candidate, has America's next commander in chief been recruited, and cultivated as an unwitting Russian agent?

These are the explosive claims made by an unverified dossier penned by Christopher Steele, a highly respected former MI6 officer who has a long history of working in the shadowy underworld amongst Russia's spooks and spymasters.

According to the report which was posted online by Buzzfeed last Tuesday, Vladimir Putin not only helped the property tycoon to win last year's presidential race, but he "has been actively cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years."

His aim: to "disrupt, divide and discredit" the entire western democratic world order in favor of Moscow.

According to the dossier, Putin's wish list includes lifting sanctions on Russia, turning a blind eye towards its aggressive efforts in the Ukraine, and creating a divisive rift amongst western allies.

And, interestingly in the past week alone, Trump has called Nato, the centrepiece of Transatlantic security "obsolete", championed the disintegration of the EU, and said that he is open to lifting sanctions on Moscow.

Originally commissioned as opposition research by Trump's former Republican rivals, the report also claims that Trump's campaign team were privy to the Kremlin's efforts to hack the Democratic National Commitee, and even colluded with the regime in a treasonous exchange of sensitive information.

Moreover, it claims that Moscow has gathered a "kompromat" of compromising and salacious material on Trump in order to blackmail him in the future if need be.

Hired by a Washington DC research firm last summer, Steele grew increasingly alarmed by what he discovered as he began to investigate links between Putin and the former Apprentice star.

He reportedly told friends that he was sitting on highly incendiary material which threatened to be far more damaging than the Watergate scandal which ultimately felled Richard Nixon.

For the sake of national and global security, he felt obliged to share his findings with intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic, and he continued to investigate the matter long after his client stopped paying for it.

And, whilst many of the dossier's claims seem ridiculously far-fetched, both the CIA and FBI brought it to president Obama's attention last week owing to Steele's long history of providing reliable and credible intelligence.

A Cambridge graduate and MI6's former chief Russia specialist, Steele is highly regarded amongst former colleagues, with one US official describing him as "a person of complete professionalism, integrity, diligence and precision."

And, whilst his dossier may be far from perfect, according to one British Foreign Office official, intelligence reports are always marked with "gradations of veracity":

"You aren't dealing with a binary world where you can say this is true and this isn't. The strongest reason for giving this report credence is that intelligence professionals in the US take it seriously. They were sufficiently persuaded by the author's track record to find the contents worth passing to the president and president-elect."

The explosive allegations came just one week after the CIA and the FBI concluded that the Kremlin did in fact meddle in last November's election by hacking the DNC, and by posting a string of fake news which hurt Trump's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

According to the dossier, the Russian president both "hates and fears" the former Secretary of State.

On Friday, the Senate committee said that it would examine links between Moscow and Trump's campaign team, and US intelligence officials are also reportedly looking into the matter.

Time can but tell if anything comes of it as no news or intelligence agency has been able to verify any of the dossier's claims thus far. However, that does not necessarily mean that it is false

Frustratingly, much of the report is hard to corroborate as it comes from uncited Russian sources. And, to make matters worse, Steele himself has now disappeared after fleeing his home last Wednesday in fear for his safety.

As can be expected, Moscow has dismissed the allegations as "pulp fiction" whilst Trump himself has described the findings as "crap", "fake news" and "phony stuff" made up by "sick people."

Moreover, there is always the possibility that the Kremlin fabricated the entire story in order to discredit the next US president. In the smoke-and-mirrors world of international espionage, such misinformation risks are forever present.

Going forward, talk of the dossier may hamstring the new Trump administration for weeks and months to come. Congress will have the power to subpoena witnesses relevant to the case, and two Republican senators are allegedly gunning for a Watergate-style investigation.

"If there was any evidence that the Trump campaign actively colluded with Russia and committed crimes, that would be the most shocking political scandal in American history," says Susan Hennessey, the NSA's former legal counsel: "It would be a betrayal not only of the American people, but of basic democratic values. "

If any of it does prove to be true, the tycoon tweeter will certainly be impeached.

In many ways, regardless of whether the report is true or not, it can be construed as a win-win for the Kremlin. As Simon Tisdall writes in the Guardian:

"The unprecedented confusion and disarray in the US is what old KGB agents like Putin could only dream of. Putin famously decried the collapse of the Soviet Union, which the US played a leading role in bringing about, as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century". A quarter of a century later, having exhibited the calculated patience of Karla, John le Carré's fictional Russian spymaster, Putin can savor his revenge - at arm's length."

After all, Trump's power on both the national and global stage has certainly been compromised, and the entire American Democratic process looks like a complete farce. Many people in the US and overseas will now regard the incoming US president as either a complete "dupe, dope, or stooge."