The main problem I have in understanding Trump’s relationship with Russia is his complete failure to conceal it. For this same reason, experienced former CIA counterintelligence officer Jack DeVine concluded after watching the Helsinki press conference that there is no way that the president is an “agent” of the Russian government. Here’s what he told Adam Davidson of The New Yorker:
The proof, he told me, was right in front of us. If Trump were truly serving as a Russian intelligence asset, there would have been an obvious move for him to make during his joint press conference with Putin. He would have publicly lambasted the Russian leader, unleashing as theatrical a denunciation as possible. He would have told Putin that he may have been able to get away with a lot of nonsense under Barack Obama, but all that would end now: America has a strong President and there will be no more meddling. Instead, Trump gave up his single best chance to permanently put to rest any suspicion that he is working to promote Russian interests.
Instead of being a direct agent, he is probably just afraid of what the Russians have on him and is mostly concerned not to provoke anyone who might be able to expose him. According to Davidson, it’s more likely to be financial crimes than anything of a sexual nature. As proof, Trump has weathered plenty of damaging revelations and accusations about his sexual behavior without much of a problem, so why would he be paralyzed by the threat of a pee tape?
The facts do support this assessment up to a point. There’s plenty of reason to believe that Trump grew dependent on Russian financing when most banks wouldn’t lend to him, and his own sons have essentially said as much. And, as I spelled out in What Trump Did to Win a Tower in Moscow, he was in direct negotiations with Russians to build Europe’s tallest building throughout the fall of 2015 and spring of 2016. Other deals he pursued in former Soviet Socialist Republics have potentially compromised him in financial crimes. Dirty Russian money has certainly flowed like a mighty river into many of his condo developments. Trump may not actually know what his precise liabilities are but at the same time be quite certain that he doesn’t want to find out.
The reason this theory is ultimately unsatisfactory to me is that Trump does not seem to have the base of knowledge or the capacity for memory retention to understand what Russia would want without it being explained to him in some detail and with periodic reiterations and refinements.
We know Putin told him it would be a good idea to cancel joint military exercises with the South Koreans before Trump did precisely that without getting anything in return. We know that they discussed Syria at length during their private meeting in Helsinki. We know that Putin pitched him on some resolution to the Crimean/Ukrainian crisis in that meeting, too. This is how a handler communicates with his agent when other means of communication are extremely difficult if not impossible.
But Putin has had only three opportunities to talk directly and privately to Trump since he’s become president (a fourth opportunity presented itself yesterday when the White House announced Putin will visit in the fall). Somehow, Trump has been clear on a host of issues that align perfectly with Russia’s interests, and he’s been clear on them since the earliest days of his campaign. Here’s a partial list:
1. Advocating that Americans pull their troops out of the Far East.
2. Advocating that Americans pull out of Syria and arguing that the Russians only want to be there to fight ISIS.
3. Arguing that Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia because many ethnic Russians live there.
4. Saying NATO is obsolete.
5. Refusing to commit to the protection of former-Soviet NATO members in the Baltics.
6. Refusing to commit to the protection of NATO member Macedonia.
7. Attacking the European Union.
8. Calling the European Union a “foe.”
9. Supporting the United Kingdom’s split from the European Union.
10. Supporting the same Euro-Skeptic far right white nationalist parties that Putin supports.
11. Attacking and undermining the governments in London and Berlin, which present the strongest resistance to Putin’s influence in Europe.
12. Attacking the U.S. intelligence community and federal law enforcement agencies to undermine their credibility with the American public.
13. Decimating the Department of State.
14. Pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership
It’s not so much any one thing on this list as the combination of them all pointing in the same direction. Seemingly everything Trump does serves Russia’s interests. Even disputes with Canada and Mexico weaken Western unity and resolve and undermine America’s ability to exert leadership to counter Russia’s influence.
Certainly there is some natural confluence of interests between white nationalist Americans and white nationalist Europeans, and a more isolationist foreign policy has an obvious appeal to Russia regardless of any intrinsic merit. There may be innocent explanations for some things on the list, but it’s the sophistication and comprehensiveness of Trump’s pro-Russia drift in policy that makes it unmistakable as not his own work.
When he was pursuing real estate deals, he may have had people advising him on what to say that would please Russians in general and Vladimir Putin in particular. I am quite certain that Putin greatly enjoyed Trump’s Birther exploits, for example. But now that he is president, how is Trump getting the information he needs to make sure he aligns himself with Russia’s interests? Are his sporadic one-on-one meetings with Putin sufficient for this purpose?
I believe there is another source. There is some other way that Trump receives what essentially amount to orders.
I am convinced that there is kompromat on the president, and I think it’s possible or even probable that’s he’s not even certain what exactly the Russians have on him. The fact that he makes no effort to conceal this fact isn’t exculpatory and it doesn’t suggest that he isn’t an agent. The nature of what he’s trying to do cannot be concealed.
How do you bring Russia back into the Group of Eight without advocating for it? How do you cancel joint exercises with the South Koreans without announcing it? How do you rhetorically undermine the government of Theresa May or Angela Merkel if you don’t speak in a public way?
Trump is not a slick character. That he’s too obvious is beyond dispute, but that’s not a defense. That is just a personal limitation that makes him less effective as an agent. From the Russians’ point of view, he’s plenty effective and his failings mainly serve to cause chaos and confusion. Even when Trump fumbles and bumbles, it serves their interests just fine.
Finally, we can get bogged down in definitions and semantics that don’t actually make a bit of difference in the real world. If we can’t tell the difference between how Trump is acting and how an agent would act in terms of the actual results, then it doesn’t really matter how formal the arrangement is or how best to describe it.
He’s quite obviously doing Russia’s bidding and he’s doing it with a level of sophistication that he is not capable of conceiving or executing on his own. That’s the important thing.