If Trump Is Not a Russian Asset, What Explains His Behavior?

For those on both the right and left who doubt a conspiracy between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, I would propose a thought experiment: what else would explain the president’s behavior? Recently I provided a very brief summary of what we’ve seen over the last couple of years.

What we do know is that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election, the Trump campaign was loaded with people who had deep connections with the Kremlin, there were multiple meetings between Russians and campaign staff during the course of the campaign and transition, people involved in those meetings consistently lied about them, and the Trump administration has done everything possible to obstruct the investigation. In addition, Trump’s foreign policy has aligned almost completely with Vladimir Putin’s goals, while the president has done nothing to protect U.S. elections from further attempts to interfere.

The number of meetings Trump’s team had with Russians during the campaign and transition would be cause for concern. But the fact that everyone involved initially lied about them, coupled with the president’s attempts to obstruct the investigation, are indications that there is something they want to hide. If it’s not the fact that there is a Trump-Russia connection, what could it be?

When it comes to Trump’s foreign policy, it is possible that he simply likes and admires dictators and that he has no respect for our allies or the institutions (i.e., NATO and the UN) that have led to the spread of democracy since the end of World War II. In other words, perhaps he simply shares Vladimir Putin’s worldview. That would be troubling enough.

But recently people like Rachel Maddow have been connecting some dots that go beyond that. It began when Trump went off script in what was billed as a “Cabinet meeting” and threw out something that even the Wall Street Journal editorial board responded to by saying, “We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.” Here’s what Trump said that drew their ire: “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.”

There is nothing in those two sentences that bears any connection to the truth. The former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan during the Cold War to support the Marxist government in Kabul. That move was so vehemently opposed by the U.S. that President Jimmy Carter imposed an Olympic boycott and reinstituted draft registration for 18-year-olds.

Trump has consistently demonstrated that he’s not the kind of president who has even the slightest interest in world history. For example, there was that time when Chinese President  Xi had to explain Chinese-Korean history to a U.S. president. The question raised by Trump’s remarks about Afghanistan becomes: where did he get those ideas? Even members of his Fox News cabinet haven’t gone there.

The only people attempting to revise Russia’s history in Afghanistan are Vladimir Putin and his colleagues in the Duma.

Last month, Russian lawmakers took another big step in the same direction by approving a draft resolution that seeks to justify the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. The formal vote on the measure — proposed jointly by lawmakers from the United Russia and Communist parties — will be held before the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops on Feb. 15.

What Rachel Maddow added to that story are the two other times that Trump adopted Putin’s propaganda. In the first few weeks of the Trump administration, this tidbit was included in an Associated Press report about the president’s foreign policy.

According to one U.S. official, national security aides have sought information about Polish incursions in Belarus, an eyebrow-raising request because little evidence of such activities appears to exist. Poland is among the Eastern European nations worried about Trump’s friendlier tone on Russia.

Belarus is one of the countries Putin has had designs on for a few years. His propaganda campaign about Polish incursions into that country is how he is implementing what Anne Applebaum calls a “moderate” takeover model. Early on in his presidency, Trump was promoting Putin’s propaganda on that front.

Finally, right after Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki, he told Tucker Carlson that he questioned why the U.S. would need to defend NATO’s newest member, Montenegro. The president said:

You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. . . . They are very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.

There are currently 29 countries in the NATO alliance. In trying to undermine that alliance, why would Trump chose Montenegro as the example and accuse them of being “very aggressive people” who could start World War III? Once again, he was promoting Putin’s propaganda.

A report by Simon Shuster explains Russia’s involvement in Montenegro, as well the ties it has to two people who come up regularly in the Trump-Russia probe: Oleg Deripaska and Paul Manafort. The Russian oligarch Deripaska invested heavily in Montenegro as that country was building ties with Russia. But in 2016, an important election was taking place in that country.

About three weeks before the American elections, the people of Montenegro were due to hold a pivotal vote of their own. Depending on the outcome, the government would either shepherd the country into the NATO alliance the following year, or a new set of leaders would take power, most of whom wanted to change course and develop closer ties with Russia.

Deripaska and other Russian oligarchs were funding the opposition and there was at least some talk about Manafort playing a role, since he was looking for work after having been fired from the Trump campaign. But as the election neared, they obviously weren’t confident of the outcome.

The day before the vote, a group of men was arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the government of Montenegro, assassinate its leader and seize power by force – all with abundant help from Moscow. The Montenegrin authorities later charged two agents of Russia’s military intelligence service with masterminding the alleged coup.

The coup failed and in June 2017, Montenegro became the newest member of NATO. The first time their prime minister attended a NATO meeting, this happened:

What we have are three instances—Afghanistan, Belarus, and Montenegro—when Donald Trump has promoted propaganda embraced by no one in the world except Vladimir Putin. Here is Chuck Rosenberg, former DEA administrator, commenting on what that means:

He notes that these kinds of things are what trigger a “counterintelligence investigation.” As a reminder, here is the definition of that term:

Counterintelligence (CI) investigations are conducted to prove or disprove an allegation of espionage or other intelligence activities, such as sabotage, assassination, or other national security crimes conducted by or on behalf of a foreign government, organization, or person or international terrorists.

Rosenberg is suggesting that these three instances of Trump promoting Putin’s propaganda, in and of themselves, should lead to an investigation of whether the President of the United States is involved in espionage on behalf of a foreign government. In other words, whether Trump is a Russian asset.

Even though we’ve been talking about that possibility for a couple of years now, it is still a breathtaking possibility to consider. And yet, given Donald Trump’s behavior, I can’t think of any other explanation.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .