I’ve been writing about Donald Trump’s mysterious connections to Russia for close to eight months. Over that time, I’ve occasionally heard from law enforcement or intelligence types who say, “You’re on to something … Keep going.” To which I’ve wanted to reply, “Really?”
I say this half in jest but only half. I’ve always been highly skeptical of the more outlandish theories about Trump and Russia. Whether this is naïveté or the skepticism of experience I’m not sure. But whether we’re investigators or reporters or just people trying to make sense of the world we live in, it is important that we try to find the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts we know. Relatedly, we should look for explanations which require as few leaps of speculation or unattested and fantastical facts as possible. It’s a life version of Occam’s Razor.
The simplest explanation isn’t necessarily the right one. But in the spirit of Occam’s Razor, we should prefer it because it usually will be. To state the key point for clarity and emphasis, it is not the simplest explanation. It it is the simplest explanation which accounts for all the known facts. That distinction makes all the difference in the world.
With this prologue and with the above in mind, here is what I would call the innocent explanation of the Trump/Russia story. I don’t think it is necessarily the true story. Or, to put it more precisely, I don’t think it is necessarily the whole story. But I think it accounts for most of the what we know so far.
1. In the late 90s and early aughts, Donald Trump ran out of lenders. A string of bankruptcies on top of numerous ventures where he walked away unscathed and lenders lost their shirts convinced every major US bank to stop lending to him. The only exception is DeutscheBank, which of course is not a US bank. This put Trump’s whole family business under great strain. In response he increasingly took capital from abroad, especially from Russia and other post-Soviet successor states. Whether this was the influence of lawyer Michael Cohen or his almost decade long business partnership with Felix Sater and his coterie doesn’t really matter for present purposes. It did happen. None of this is speculation. All of this happened. What we don’t know is quite the degree of his dependence on money from the former Soviet Union, both for investment capital and for the purchase the numerous apartment units which make up his ubiquitous high-rises. None of this is illegal or wrong. Foreign capital is pervasive in the New York City area real estate market.
2. Trump gets into this world. He associates with these people. He starts thinking like they do. Perhaps along the way, people in this murky Russian world where oligarchs and mafiosos and legitimate businesspeople are hard to differentiate and perhaps not really different at all, find out about his dirty laundry. Nothing extravagant like sex tapes. Just the more garden variety stuff business associates find out about each other from long association. We know Trump is highly secretive. His myriad partners and investors likely know a lot of those secrets. Consider the example of Felix Sater I wrote about today: there are probably a lot of secrets.
3: One thing I think we’ve learned about Trump over the last almost two years is that what’s helpful to Trump is good. People who are helpful to Trump are also good. In fact, they’re the best people. Things that aren’t helpful to Trump are bad. Things that threaten Trump are especially bad. Trump is highly malleable in his thinking and he doesn’t do detail. From watching him casually for decades and intensively for almost two years, it seems clear to me that, in his mind, what Donald Trump thinks is right. Not just right but the rightest. We probably all think this about our deeply ingrained beliefs. It’s almost a tautology. But for Trump I don’t think it matters whether it’s deeply ingrained or just something that seemed convenient to say for some situational purpose or provided some momentary advantage the day before. The key point is that it’s not that Donald Trump thinks the right things. Whatever he thinks or says is by definition right. What’s good for Donald Trump is not just right but obviously right. And vice versa.
4: Now the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea comes along, to be followed by the low intensity intervention in eastern Ukraine and, critically, the imposition of western sanctions. If Trump is significantly dependent on capital out of Russia, those sanctions are going to put a crimp on all his ventures. It won’t be fatal. But it will hurt – potentially a lot. They’re also bad for a lot of people he works with and likes and needs. That also means they’re bad. Remember, what is good for Donald Trump is right and vice versa. The sanctions regime is bad for Donald Trump. It’s bad for his friends. Ergo the sanctions regime is bad. We should also remember that by 2015 Trump had spent 10 to 15 years working in the company of people like Felix Sater, Tevfik Arif, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort. They are all from or invested in or implicated in that world. They think a certain way and he does too. Even if we posit no bad faith on Trump’s part, it would be surprising if some number of people that Trump and his people come into contact with did not have relationships with or work for Russian intelligence.
5: So by 2015, this gets you to a pretty clear storyline: Sanctions wrong; Russia good; Putin good; Putin strong. To me this provides a fairly satisfying explanation for most of what we’ve seen over the last year and a half: Trump’s weirdly fawning attitude toward Putin, hostility toward Russia sanctions, insistence on the obviousness of ‘getting along’ and ‘making a deal’ with Putin. It also gets us most of the way to explaining why he has so many people in his orbit with conspicuous on-going communications and relationships with suspicious figures in the Russian intelligence world or the criminal underworld. The point we cannot understate with Trump is the man’s bullheadedness and the iron equation of what’s good for Trump being right, good and obviously the best. The final reason this theory makes sense to me is that Trump’s world is pervasively disorganized and corrupt. That’s less fertile ground for conspiracies than influence operations, which is easy to reconcile with what I’ve set forth above. It also gives some explanation or some logic to the fact that Trump’s Russia-infused coterie includes a lot of people who just seem like idiots. Why did Carter Page go on Chris Hayes’ show last night? Why is he on TV at all? That simply makes no sense. Why did Michael Cohen take a meeting with a shady pro-Russian Ukrainian parliamentarian – with Felix Sater in tow! – right as the Russia story was engulfing his boss’s presidency? Seriously, why?
Again, I think what I’ve described here gets you most of the way toward an explanation of at least most of the facts we currently know. And it requires no fantastical facts not currently in evidence: no extortionate sex tapes, no treasonous deals with Putin. It all comes more or less together by long association, interest and some specific and clear characteristics of Trump’s personality. It’s not clear these broad outlines require anything illegal or any one thing beyond putting personal financial interest above the national interest. To me, this seems obvious with Trump. It requires little imagination. And, as I’ve said, I think his mind doesn’t really distinguish between these things. What’s good for Trump is right. Everybody wants to do what’s right. And if they don’t, they should.
Now, here are three problems I identify with this theory.
1. There are more than a few facts that are very weird and difficult to explain and what I’ve laid out here doesn’t really provide a satisfying explanation. That’s a big problem.
2. This is a theory that addresses perhaps not all but most of the publicly known information. But I think the publicly known information is only a very small subset of the full story. To really know the full story we’d need investigators with access to tax returns, business records, financial transactions. People would have to be deposed. There would need to be subpoenas. None of that has happened. We’ve only scratched the surface. Trump’s world is built on secrecy and confidentiality. What are the odds that a full investigation would unearth lots of new details but nothing that really upends my theory? Not a good moment for my theory.
3. Here’s the big final point. Let’s assume some version of my narrative above is accurate. On its face its mainly about bad priorities and bad values. But anyone trying to make this chain of events happen in real life – not just Trump but his various business associates, hangers-on and supporters – would have a very difficult time not committing a large number of bad acts in the process. Maybe very bad acts. It may not be inherent in the storyline. But it’s just the way that world works, especially when you have a principal who has a vast ability to justify what satisfies his self-interest, his desires, his need to dominate and be right. As we’ve already seen, even the fairly innocent stuff is hard not to lie about. Eventually that will get someone in trouble. There’s too much dirty money, too many things that may be narrowly legal but need to be lied about, too many scams and bad actors.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the entire story remains difficult for me to get my head around. My inherent skepticism is frequently challenged by finding that things did happen which really shouldn’t have. The need to lie and lie conspicuously about things that aren’t even that central to the action is almost always a sign of something big under the water than hasn’t surfaced yet. Trying to figure out the Trump story is a bit like instruments only flight rules. You’re supposed to ignore your feelings and sensations and focus only on the instruments. Because they’re right and your sense of speed, up and down and so forth are just not reliable. In this case, experience, the ways things work tells us something like this can’t happen. But instruments say otherwise.
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