Despite nominal denials from the White House, it seems clear that The Washington Post blockbuster about President Trump’s meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak is accurate and may even understate what transpired last week. Numerous other news organizations have now independently verified the Post’s report.
Why did this happen exactly?
The original Post report suggested that the President was boasting about quality of intelligence he receives and dropped the information as part of his bragging. This would certainly be in character from the man we know. But another explanation, different but perhaps overlapping with that explanation comes from NBC News reporter Richard Engel.
In one of a series of three tweets Engel wrote this …
Us intell official says trump was trying to show russians “how cooperative he wants to be with them” in fight against isis. @washingtonpost
— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) May 16, 2017
Whatever the seriousness of the breach, this suggests that, rather than mere boasting, Trump was trying to ingratiate himself with his visitors, leaning forward in how candid he would be to show how “cooperative” he was and how productive a partnership could be.
If I understand Engel’s reporting in these three tweets, his source seemed to be downplaying just how secret the information really was. But this is actually a highly disturbing account of Trump’s motivation. This is a portrayal of a man who seems somehow desperate for a relationship with the Kremlin for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
Another question: why did Trump meet with Lavrov at all? My recollection is that the meeting was announced not long before it happened. Lavrov is the Foreign Minister, not the head of government or head of state. Meeting with Secretary Tillerson only wouldn’t have seemed out of the ordinary. It would have seemed more like the norm. The best answer we have on this point is that in a recent phone call President Putin asked him as a personal favor and Trump obliged.
When people think about what Trump’s ties might be to Russia and whether those around him colluded with the Russians in their disruption campaign they often think in very binary terms: no connection at all or a coordinated, deliberate plot. I suspect the truth is much more murky. Indeed, as I’ve argued before, targets who are gullible, impulsive, stupid or corrupt (or in this case all four) are often the most rewarding for spies.
Consider again from the campaign when Trump went before the press and begged the Russian government to hack more of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Was he serious? Joking? It seemed to be both and not quite either. It was one of many examples that people at the pinnacle of the Russian government seem to have some hold over Trump, some understanding of him that triggers his most impulsive and transgressive instincts. It’s like a paramour who has some kind of hold over a person or ability to manipulate them which is difficult or impossible to understand from the outside.
If you’re asking yourself, ‘what is he suggesting?’, I’m actually not suggesting anything. Or rather, I’m not suggesting any one specific thing. I’m saying that I do not believe this is an accident that this huge breach happened with, of all people, the foreign minister of Russia, during an Oval Office meeting which itself beggared belief. It can hardly be the case that Trump is somehow focused, deliberate and strategic in some notional plot with the Russian government when we’ve seen that each of those qualities elude him entirely. He is, at least at his current age, wholly incapable of those attributes. But as hyperbolic as it sounds to say, members of the Russian government do seem to have his number, some ability to push his buttons and make very weird things happen. I suspect that whatever else we end up finding will either be of a similar character or share the same mix of illicit actions with clownish, erratic and impulsive behavior.