I was just talking to David Kurtz about this and he noted that coverage of the Russia/Trump story has been simultaneously so cursory and outlandish that anything short of ironclad confirmation of Trump’s being a Russian spy will seem like a big come-down and hardly worth noting. I have been talking to various cybersecurity experts today to try to get a handle on just what level of confidence we should have in the claims that Russia hacked the DNC servers and then leaked the email cache to Wikileaks to upend the Democratic convention. As David notes, the Russian hacking part of this is so cartoonish and out there that it’s simply hard to know what to make of it, other than the fact that Trump is himself such a cartoonish figure that perhaps it all matches up.
So I thought I’d take a moment to explain what I see as a sober, one-step-at-a-time explanation of what questions need to be answered and explored.
For me you start with a series of highly disturbing and dangerous comments by Trump about Russia and NATO. As I noted a couple weeks ago, our relative peaceful and prosperous world is far from the natural or only possible order of things. Things can get bleak very quickly, especially when you’re stupid. Trump’s comments are far more than highly questionable foreign policy ideas. He seems unable to understand high level geopolitics as anything more than a protection racket with him running for American mob boss. Even if Trump is no more than ignorant, impulsive and stupid, these are highly disturbing intimations of a Trump presidency that should have everyone across the political spectrum taking note and re-evaluating what sort of situation we’re dealing with.
But that’s not all there is. On top of that you have very high level advisors to Trump who have been deeply immersed in the Putin world of dirty politics and energy concessions that characterizes Putin’s Russia and the post-Soviet successor states. Those associations might simply be unsavory if the candidate were an experienced political figure or surrounded by knowledgable advisors. Neither is the case.
Is that connected to this in some way? Simply the influence of people who’ve operated in that world on a man who won’t take the time to learn anything about geopolitics beyond the geopolitics of licensing deals and hotel properties?
Then you see that Trump seems to have relied in recent years quite a lot on investment capital from Russia and Russian oligarchs surrounding Putin.
I think if you really understand the stakes involved with Trump’s comments about NATO and Europe alone and then layer on the advisors who’s been operating in that world and the high volume of money flowing in Trump’s direction, the entirely rational response is to say, let’s put the brakes on here and figure out what we’re dealing with.
This is the most minimal and innocent version of the story. But it’s actually an extremely big deal. When you start layering on Putin’s alignment of Russian media in Trump’s direction, the weird platform solicitousness, even the possibility that Russian security operatives are interfering in the US election it elevates to such a high level that it’s genuinely bewildering as to what to make of any of it. It is so florid and cartoonish that it is almost a set of circumstances only a buffoon like Trump could bring about.
But I want to go back to this point. The most minimal version of the story is actually a very, very big deal and in some ways the more high-octane and outlandish aspects of it are obscuring that. We know very, very little about Trump’s finances. For most presidential candidates – the Clintons, Obamas, even the Bushes – it’s important to see their tax returns. But there’s not likely to be much of significance there. They either don’t have much money or they’ve already been tightly scrutinized. Trump has a long list of bankruptcies, foreign business connections, huge debt loads. Seeing his tax returns is really essential. And yet we haven’t seen them. And he’s justified this on the basis of a preposterous claim that he can’t because he’s being audited – something that makes no sense at all. Even the fact that Trump owes a huge amount of money to DeutscheBank a foreign bank that has been under tight scrutiny recently from US regulators is a big deal. How would that possibly work if that scrutiny continues and the Presidential personally owes them hundreds of millions of dollars? But there’s so much other craziness tied to Trump, no one has really even focused on it.
It doesn’t have to be some wild, maximal version of Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin to be a big, big deal – not just a big deal in the way we toss around the phrase in politics but a big deal in terms of our future, our safety, our children’s safety.
I have no idea just what is behind all this smoke. I tend to be a minimalist in what I assume or imagine in these cases. Sometimes I’m surprised. My own concern is mainly that this kind of mix of ignorance, grifters, disorganization is the kind of seed bed where influence operations and malign influence tend to thrive and take root. We’ve seen more than enough to know this knot of connections requires deep scrutiny, extreme vetting as Trump might say. This is no joke. And it doesn’t have to be the motion picture version of the story to be a very big deal.