I wanted to flag Daniel Drezner’s look at a series of articles (including mine) reporting on or speculating on connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. By and large I think he is appropriately cautious and sometimes skeptical. Most things, I would say we agree on. I have similar skepticism that we know to some certainty that Russia was behind the DNC hack or their subsequent disclosure – a point I’ll return to in a subsequent post.
There are two points I would like to address, however, where I think he’s got it a bit off. Drezner says Trump’s advisors who have various levels of connection to Putin or Putin-aligned leaders or businessmen in the post-Soviet successor states are largely irrelevant because the people who call the shots in Trumpland are Trump and his immediate family, specifically his adult children. I think this is largely true. But it misses the point.
Does Ivanka or Donald Jr have strongly held views on NATO commitments to member states in the Baltics or who the good guys and bad guys are in the Ukraine? Of course not. The question answers itself.
So while I don’t think Carter Page is secretly running the Trump campaign, I think his views and agenda are actually quite significant on a critical foreign policy question that I strongly suspect neither Trump nor anyone in his family knows the first thing about. The same goes for Paul Manafort and others.
Does Trump bring a preexisting worldview to this series of questions? Absolutely. Trump basically sees foreign policy, taking the reins of US leadership, as akin to taking over a real estate empire in a major international metropolis and finding out the business partners had all been kept on way too loose a leash, keeping far too much of the money for themselves, and need to be brought to heel. What was notable in Trump’s genuinely terrifying NYT interview was that he wasn’t saying that it was a mistake for NATO to extend its nuclear umbrella deep into what the Russians consider their sphere of influence (a very legitimate debate, if a destabilizing one in the present context). He talked about their needing to pay up if they wanted US protection. As I wrote a few nights ago, “Trump treated the matter like a real estate goon shaking down a distressed landlord to make an easy buck.” This is something originating out of the bully culture of New York real estate, not Moscow. But they line up in this case.
So I think Drezner misses the significance of the advisors because his read of the inner functionings of the Trump campaign is wrong. The other point is that Drezner concludes by saying, “I really wish those writers who have critiqued the Trump-Russia ties were as vigilant and careful when talking about whether Hillary Clinton has been compromised by foreign funding for the Clinton Global Initiative.”
Aside from the whiff of both-sides-do-it-ism, I would respond this way.
First, it is simply not credible to pretend that the Clinton Foundation has not been the focus of a vast amount of press and investigative scrutiny over the last year. What’s more, since the Foundation operates mainly in the open world of publicly available documents and since the Clintons have released years worth of tax returns, all the dirty or at least off-white laundry is there for inspection.
None of this is the case with Trump.
The Clintons have always had countless wealthy hangers-on in their orbit all of whom want something, proximity to power, help with some deal. It runs the gamut. Let’s take what I think most would agree is the most troubling finding from the Clinton Foundation document pile. The gist is this. (More details here.) The Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom bought a Canadian company with numerous uranium mining stakes. By doing so they were able to gobble up a substantial additional amount of the global uranium supply chain. This deal had to be signed off on by the Canadian government and numerous agencies and departments within the US government. One of those was the State Department which was being run at the time by Hillary Clinton. While this was happening, a Canadian financier Frank Giustra, who played a key role in orchestrating the deal, was making substantial contributions to the Clinton Foundation.
Sounds pretty bad. Until you realize a couple things. First, there’s no evidence Hillary Clinton took any action tied in any way to Giustra’s contributions. Far more importantly, the entire deal had to be signed off on by numerous government agencies in addition to the Canadian government. The deal was considered entirely uncontroversial and it went through. The whole episode is a great example of why former presidents shouldn’t be taking lots of money for a foundation while the former president’s wife is the country’s Secretary of State. The chances for conflicts of interest, appearances of conflicts of interest, schemers of all sorts are immense. Still, the entire story revolves around a deal that almost certainly would have gone through had Hillary Clinton never set foot in the State Department. To Daniel, I would say, you cannot say this hasn’t been run to ground, plowed over, planted on again and then tightly harvested several times.
The situation with Trump strikes me as quite different. Trump also has extensive business ties with China and Chinese close to the Chinese government. Indeed, his largest single asset is co-owned with a Chinese company. Yet we don’t see Trump out of nowhere making comments about the South China Sea or wanting to pull back the US’s hopefully-not-escalating tit for tat over those manmade islands. His advisors also aren’t people tied to these questions.
On the contrary, Trump seems really, really focused on a series of issues of great concern to Putin: the level of US involvement in Ukraine, the robustness of our security commitment to the Baltic NATO member states, the continued existence of the EU, the continued existence of NATO. For me, the notorious New York Times interview was a key thing. It showed a presidential candidate not only threatening to blow up a highly successful security framework which has served the United States, Europe and actually the world extremely well over almost 70 years. He showed the kind of swaggering, confusion and uncertainty generating talk which is probably the most likely path to a true super power confrontation in Eastern Europe which probably wouldn’t lead to a nuclear exchange … but, well, might.
Whenever we are looking for undue influence or malign alliances, we are always trying to unearth the quid quo pro. Quids are a dime a dozen. You seldom find the quos. With Trump and Russia we’re overflowing with quos and as Trump might say the best quos. We definitely do not know if they’re connected. But what Trump is giving is exactly what Putin would want for his help. This is really indisputable.
Here is the bottom line for me. I don’t think Trump is being blackmailed or working for Putin. In any case, I’m usually surprised when I find out that unbelievable things are true. What concerns me deeply is that Trump has bad, bellicose and impulsive instincts. He joins that with an almost total ignorance of actual policy facts on virtually every topic and what seems to be a militant refusal to learn them. As we’ve learned from his style of speech-making he seems highly impressionable, often spouting whatever the last person who sat down with them said or what the last person liked hearing.
He’s had a lot of financial help from Russian money surrounding Putin and he’s got a group of advisors who are from the world where friendship with Putin is a necessity and do not hide the fact that they think the US should take a more accommodating stance toward Russia. The above is the most generous read of the facts we know, and it’s frankly terrible.
Reading Drezner’s piece part of me feels like, despite critiquing my argument he’s actually farther down the path than I am. He writes: “So there’s a LOT of smoke. Is there any fire? That is to say, is there any proper causal evidence that Donald J. Trump is a patsy of Vladimir Putin? No, I don’t see it. Yet.” Trump being a genuine manchurian candidate, a patsy for Vladimir Putin who has a very good shot at becoming the next President is a nightmare scenario I hope we never have to grapple with. Even Drezner seems to be keeping an open mind on that. As I’ve noted, we don’t have to set that high a bar. We have lots of money flowing in the one direction, lots of terrible, dangerous and difficult to fathom policy proposals moving in the other. In between we have generally Putin-friendly policy advisors who seem like decent conveyor belts for carting each delivery in each direction.