Nobody’s sure exactly what Trump sees in Putin. But in the other direction, the allure is obvious.
Last week I characterized the idea that Vladimir Putin hacked the Democratic National Committee to help Donald Trump become president as “mostly a conspiracy theory” and “pretty speculative”. That theory got quite a bit more believable this week.
Trump even called for Russian hackers to try to find the emails deleted from Clinton’s server, though he later backed off and called the request “sarcastic“. (No doubt Trump would be equally amused if Clinton called on Chinese hackers to find the tax returns he refuses to reveal.)
Then he got caught in a tangle of his own previous lies. In the past he has exaggerated his connection to Putin, because that’s what hucksters do: namedrop to make themselves seem more important than they really are. But now that he’s accused of having an improper relationship with the Russian dictator, he says “I never met Putin.”
In The Atlantic, David Frum lists the various ways Trump has deferred to Putin.
- When asked whether he would tell Putin to stay out of U.S. elections, Trump said that he would not tell Putin what to do.
- He has called NATO “obsolete”, and told the NYT he would not necessarily defend NATO countries if Russia attacked them.
- He weakened a pro-Ukrainian plank in the Republican platform. (As Rachel Maddow points out, he showed little interest in the rest of the platform.) (Sunday, he appeared confused about Ukraine, saying that Russia was “not going to go into Ukraine” under a Trump presidency, when in fact it has occupied parts of Ukraine for two years.)
- He replied “Yes, we would be looking at that” when asked whether he might drop the sanctions that were imposed on Russia after its takeover of Crimea. (Again, though, Trump may just be a victim of his own bluster. In TrumpSpeak “We will be looking at that” usually means “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He says it fairly often.)
Various people have proposed reasons he might be so pro-Putin. Maybe he admires Putin’s strong-man style of leadership. Or his investments are entangled with Russian oligarchs. Or he wants to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. So far, though, that’s still the speculative part of the theory.
But regardless of why Trump loves Putin so much, it’s obvious why Putin would want to help Trump: The best thing that could happen to Russia is for NATO to disband, and a President Trump might well make that happen.
NATO has not been a partisan issue in the U.S. since the alliance was formed during the Truman administration. But now it is. In an interview with the NYT’s David Sange and Maggie Haberman, Trump was explicitly asked whether he would defend the Baltic republics from Russian attack, as the NATO treaty obligates us to do. And Trump did what Trump does with any contractual obligation: He looked for a loophole.
SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——
TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.
HABERMAN: And if not?
TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.
At the time, I thought he was referring to a longstanding American complaint that the other NATO allies don’t spend enough on defense, leaving us to shoulder the burden. NATO guidelines call for members to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense, but only the U.S., Greece, United Kingdom, Estonia, and Poland currently do. Getting tougher with the other members about their defense spending would be consistent with Trump’s “America First” slogan. (Even so, one member-nation failing to meet a guideline is hardly legal justification for another member to violate the treaty. To make an analogy: I retain my constitutional rights as an American even if I’m behind on paying my taxes.)
But in subsequent statements, Trump made a very disturbing word choice: He talked about NATO countries paying “us”. Not fulfilling their obligations to spend money on their own defense, but paying us for defending them.
Trump offered an even more explicit ultimatum to NATO allies.
“I want them to pay,” he said. “They don’t pay us what they should be paying! We lose on everything. Folks, we lose on everything.”
He went on to criticize former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record: “She makes it impossible to negotiate. She’s not a negotiator. She’s a fool.”
“We have to walk,” Trump added. “Within two days they’re calling back! Get back over here, we’ll pay you whatever the hell you want.”
“They will pay us if the right person asks,” he said. “That’s the way it works, folks. That’s the way it works.”
Trump’s view of NATO, in other words, is not an alliance; it makes Europe an American protectorate, which it has never been before. Currently, member countries may pay the cost of the bases on their soil and then invite our troops to use them, but no NATO country pays us for defense.
If you know your classical history, this should ring bells: After the wars with Persia, Athens led the Delian League, an alliance of city-states that contributed ships, soldiers, and money to the common defense. Eventually, though, Athens moved the League’s treasury from Delos to Athens and told the other members of the league to just send money. In other words, Athens now collected tribute from its former allies, who became subjects in an Athenian empire.
Unless he just doesn’t understand what his words mean — another distinct possibility — that’s what Trump is proposing to do with NATO: We threaten to “walk”, leaving European countries to face Putin alone, and offer the alternative that they start paying us tribute and become provinces in an American Empire.
I strongly suspect that Germany, France, Britain, and Italy have no interest in being American tributaries, and so NATO would cease to exist in anything like its current form.
If I were Vladimir Putin, and I could get that result for the price of a few computer hacks, I’d consider it a very good deal.