Lyin’ Ted. Little Marco. Little Rocketman. Pocahontas. 1% Biden. Alfred E. Newman. Animal Assad. Donald Trump has a nickname for everyone, it seems.
Everyone except Russian President Vladimir Putin.
No “Sad Vlad” or “Little Putinpie” or “The Murderer of Moskva.” No “Goober of Gorky” or “Moscow Mule” or “Bald Boris.” Where President Putin is concerned, Donald Trump has nothing but good things to say.
“You know what? Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people,” President Trump said in July 2018, responding to press questions about whether he was prepared to face the Russian leader following a Republican delegation led by Alabama Senator Richard Shelby that went to Moscow to demand the Kremlin cease meddling in American elections.
“President Putin and I have been discussing various things and I think it’s going very well. We’ve some very, very good talks. We’re going to have a talk now and obviously that will continue. But we look forward to a lot of good, positive things happening for Russia, for the United States and for everybody concerned,” President Trump said the year before in 2017 about face-to-face meetings with the Russian leader where the subject of the Kremlin meddling in American elections wasn’t a main topic.
“Look, it would be much easier for me to be tough on Russia, but then we’re not going to make a deal,” President Trump said in February 2017.
That eagerness to make a deal, that reluctance to upset the leader of America’s greatest adversary, caught the attention of many, not just political opponents of the president, but neutral observers in the intelligence community who were concerned that Mr. Trump’s behavior indicated there was more going on behind the scenes that security officials needed to investigate.
For, what appears to be the first time in the country’s history, the president of the United States was the subject of a counterintelligence investigation by the FBI seeking to determine if Mr. Trump was secretly working for the Russians. That investigation seems to have ended, but as late as this writing, Congress still hasn’t been briefed by the FBI on what they found during their probe.
“The FBI has an obligation by the National Security Act to brief us on a recent counterintelligence matter. If there are ongoing counterintelligence investigations involving people around the president, they must inform us,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. “What happened to the counterintelligence investigation? Were there other forms of compromise, like money laundering, left out, uninvestigated or referred to other offices? Were individuals granted security clearances that shouldn’t have them? And are there individuals still operating in the administration that leave America vulnerable?” Mr. Schiff stated. “We are determined to find out.”
The reluctance of the FBI to report to Congress the results of their investigation raises legitimate questions. After all, if, at the conclusion of their inquiry, agents determined the president was not in any way compromised, why not just release that information to Mr. Schiff’s Intelligence Committee and be done with the matter? One would assume the Department of Justice, led by Trump-loyalist Attorney-General William Barr, would be eager to put an end to speculation with evidence backed by the skill and competence of expert agents of the FBI.
By sitting on the FBI’s findings, the White House and the Justice Department are simply feeding fires already threatening to explode into uncontainable infernos concerning Mr. Trump’s unusual affection for Mr. Putin.
That affection was the subject of an otherwise forgiving article published in Politico that offered generous explanations of the unusual behavior of Mr. Trump and his staff vis-a-vis Russia and Mr. Putin. Describing the general tone of the piece a “charitable interpretation of (Trump’s) dance with Moscow,” Politico Magazine Editor-in-chief Blake Hounshell, added that dance left a lot of observers scratching their heads.
“…there are also many aspects of Trump’s behavior toward Russia, both as a candidate and as president, that remain baffling,” wrote Mr. Hounshell in March. “His obsession with that Kremlin bogeyman, NATO. His failure to disclose his pursuit of a hotel project in Moscow even as he ran for the White House, and his subsequent lying about it. His real estate business’ many years of heavy reliance on Russian money.”
Offering up that what motivates Mr. Trump’s soft-handed courtship of Mr. Putin might be as simple as the American’s desire for a major diplomatic victory before the 2020 election or perhaps admiration of the Russian’s nearly totalitarian control of his country, Mr. Hounshell still found the relationship between the two world leaders to be highly unusual.
Strangest of all is Trump’s relationship with Putin, whom he never criticizes directly. Flash back to that fawning July 2018 news conference in Helsinki, at which Trump stood next to his Russian counterpart and said, “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” It remains one of the more bizarre performances by an American president abroad.
Bizarre, indeed. Never before had an American president stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his Russian adversary and sided with the Kremlin over his own FBI and CIA in public. Having “great confidence” in the dedicated men and women of the FBI, patriots who routinely risk their lives in service to his country, didn’t cause Mr. Trump to doubt the word of President Putin, a former KGB intelligence agent, who Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) claimed in 2015 frequently used murder and bombings for political purposes. “Vladimir Putin has jailed and murdered reporters and political opponents,” said the senator. “He bombed an apartment building as a pretext to attack the Chechens, he is responsible for the downing of that Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine.”
So, if Mr. Trump didn’t directly collude with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election, as Special Investigator Robert Mueller concluded, why does it appear that he is eager to collude with Mr. Putin on reshaping American foreign policy? Why is Mr. Trump so obsequious towards Mr. Putin when he typically treats other leaders less deferentially?
Wired writer Garrett Graff, former editor of Politico Magazine, had this to say prior to the release of the Mueller findings:
We’ve reached a point in the Mueller probe where there are only two scenarios left: Either the president is compromised by the Russian government and has been working covertly to cooperate with Vladimir Putin after Russia helped win him the 2016 election—or Trump will go down in history as the world’s most famous “useful idiot,” as communists used to call those who could be co-opted to the cause without realizing it.
At least the former scenario—that the president of the United States is actively working to advance the interests of our country’s foremost, long-standing, traditional foreign adversary—would make him seem smarter and wilier. The latter scenario is simply a tragic farce for everyone involved.
The idea that Mr. Trump is a “useful idiot,” duped by Russian agents and those in his campaign, like Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Rick Gates, who had suspicious or criminal ties to Russia, is backed by a number of observers who have studied the president over a long period.
George Mason University Prof. Bill Schneider wrote in 2018 that the president’s narcissistic personality made him vulnerable to manipulation by those skilled in appealing to the vanity of men susceptible to flattery. “Trump is a narcissist, a man with boundless self-regard. With a narcissist, flattery will get you everywhere. And Putin, as a former KGB agent and master manipulator, certainly knows how to flatter,” he wrote.
The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that Mr. Trump’s affinity for authoritarians made him susceptible to Vladimir Putin’s influence. “We have ample evidence, going back decades,” he wrote in 2018, “that Trump simply likes authoritarian rulers, that he admires their supposed toughness and doesn’t give a fig about their cruelty, that he thinks they would make more reliable allies and partners for the United States than the ingrate democracies of Western Europe.”
The Atlantic writer David A. Graham believes Mr. Trump’s fear of being seen as weak is what’s behind his relationship with the Russian president. “Given Trump’s affection for authoritarian leaders and fixation on projecting strength, the simplest explanation for Trump’s refusal to criticize Putin might be that he doesn’t want to give the impression that he has been cowed into changing his view. Perhaps he’s thinking that if he allows his critics to troll him into offering harsh words, it would show that they are stronger than him—and if he acknowledges Russian interference in the election, it undermines the legitimacy of his victory in 2016.”
But others see blackmail as a much greater possibility to explain why Mr. Trump behaves as he does towards Mr. Putin. “What else but blackmail can explain why Trump would exclude his own staff from his two-hour meeting with Putin?” asked Fox News political analyst Juan Williams following Mr. Trump’s private meeting in Helsinki with just interpreters in the room.
One of the official explanations for why only interpreters were allowed in the room with the presidents was Mr. Trump didn’t “…want aides, who may take a harder line on Russia, undercutting or interrupting him in his conversation with Putin,” according to CNN. No note takers were allowed in the room and the notes written by the American interpreter were confiscated by President Trump, according to reports.
Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, also believes blackmail is the likely explanation for Mr. Trump’s behavior towards Mr. Putin. He believes that Russia “has the goods” on the president, likely over financial issues or personal conduct from before he was president.
I think that there is a substantial chance that Trump owes the Russians money or that they provided him with money in some other ways. There is also a substantial chance that the Russians have the goods on him. It could be evidence of criminal activity, perhaps sexual blackmail or even something worse.
This is how the Russians have operated for years -‑ they get the goods on people and then they can get you to do what they want. This is how someone like Donald Trump could be turned into a Russian asset. The information the Russians have on Donald Trump could at the minimum be embarrassing and at the maximum criminal.
Max Boot, a long-time conservative columnist who wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal, also listed money as a possible thing over which the Russians might be blackmailing the president. In an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “Here are 18 Reasons Trump Could be a Russian Asset,” Mr. Boot listed the president’s monetary connections to Russia as reason number 1.
Trump has a long financial history with Russia. As summarized by Jonathan Chait in an invaluable New York magazine article: “From 2003 to 2017, people from the former USSR made 86 all-cash purchases – a red flag of potential money laundering – of Trump properties, totaling $109 million. In 2010, the private-wealth division of Deutsche Bank also loaned him hundreds of millions of dollars during the same period it was laundering billions in Russian money. ‘Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,’ said Donald Jr. in 2008. ‘We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia,’ boasted Eric Trump in 2014.” According to Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s guilty plea of lying to Congress, Trump was even pursuing his dream of building a Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign with the help of a Vladimir Putin aide. These are the kind of financial entanglements that intelligence services such as the FSB typically use to ensnare foreigners, and they could leave Trump vulnerable to blackmail.
GQ writer Julia Ioffe might have hit on the true kompromat that Mr. Putin has on Mr. Trump.
I was always skeptical of the idea that Putin had kompromat on Trump that was something akin to the rumored pee-pee tape for two reasons. First, because the operative element in blackmail is shame, and as we saw with his reaction to another embarrassing tape, the one from Access Hollywood, Trump is un-blackmailable on that front. I also assumed that Trump would lash out at anyone who tried to pressure him openly: Do this, or we release the tape. No one puts Trump in a corner.
What didn’t occur to me was the most obvious option, the one we saw revealed in Helsinki. When Putin was asked if he had compromising materials on Trump, Trump interjected and said, “I have to say, if they had it, it would have been out long ago.” And it’s true. It’s been out for ages, since the October 2016 warning by the intelligence community, then the January 2017 report from the Director of National Intelligence, then the drip-drip-drip of revelations in the press, and indictment after Mueller indictment, the last installment coming just three days before the Helsinki presser. Trump was right. It is out there.
The kompromat is the election result itself, and Trump is lashing out at the people who are trying to get him to do something on its basis: the press, the Democrats, the intelligence community, Robert Mueller, and Trump’s own Department of Justice. We are the ones saying, Do this or else. And Trump is, predictably, lashing out. The only person, it seems, who knows how to use the blackmail to his advantage is Putin. True to the intelligence training he spoke about today, Putin knows his subject and his supple psychology, the nooks and crannies of his insecurities and obsessions. Why threaten him when you can get him to do your bidding with simple flattery: Of course we didn’t interfere, Donald. You won fair and square. You did it all by your genius self.
What Vladimir Putin has on Donald Trump isn’t money or shame or evidence of a crime. What Mr. Putin has on the president of the United States is he’s convinced him they are on the same team, that they are comrades, that they, alone in an empty room with just interpreters helping them communicate, understand each other.
So, why doesn’t Donald Trump share with us a nickname for Vladimir Putin? Why doesn’t he give us the same insight into his relationship with the president of Russia he gives us for so many other leaders? Because, if he did, it would be a confession, an admission of how he truly sees the president of our greatest adversary. Because if Donald Trump gave Vladimir Putin a nickname, it would be “My friend.”