Tag Archives: Russia

What changed in Helsinki

Questions that sounded paranoid a week ago now have to be taken seriously: Is the President betraying the country?


It’s a very odd experience to watch your worst-case scenario play out. It isn’t that you never imagined anything this bad. (Many of us did, that’s what a worst-case scenario is.) But imagining is not the same as expecting. You can still feel shocked and surprised, even as you tell yourself that you should have seen this coming.

What we saw last Monday in Helsinki was an American president completely in thrall to a Russian autocrat.

The Helsinki news conference. It was more than just one statement that might have been a slip of the tongue or a senior moment.

The single event that got the most attention was when Trump was asked about Russian interference in the 2016 election that made him president. He weighed the conclusions of the entire US intelligence establishment (singling out his own Director of National Intelligence by name) against the unsupported word of Vladimir Putin, and favored Putin.

My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. … I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. [1]

[All quotes are from the Washington Post transcript.]

But it isn’t just that Trump has a blind spot about the 2016 election or wants to squelch any suspicions about the legitimacy of his presidency. Putting election-meddling aside, John King listed all the other things Trump decided not to make a big deal out of: Putin’s proxy war against Ukraine (including the direct annexation of Crimea into Russia), the nerve-agent attacks in the United Kingdom, and shooting down the MH-17 airliner. Also, he allowed Putin to pose as a humanitarian interested in helping the Syrian people, when Russia’s ruthless intervention in Syria is a primary cause of their suffering.

He had plenty of opportunities to confront Putin. Asked whether he held Russia “at all accountable for anything in particular”, Trump identified nothing Putin has done wrong and blamed “both countries” for the difficult state of US/Russian relations.

I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office. And I think we’re all to blame. [2]

He couldn’t tell us enough about how reasonable Putin was being. A Putin proposal that the Senate denounced 98-0 was “an incredible offer”. [3]

Trump keeps endorsing Putin’s worldview. Even after he left Putin’s charismatic presence, the effect continued. Julia Ioffe described it best in The Washington Post: “Vladimir Putin has his own version of reality. And President Trump believes it.”

For example, when Tucker Carlson asked Trump “Why should my son go to [NATO’s newest member] Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Trump replied with a mysterious view that he surely did not get from his own national security team:

I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. … They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you are in World War III.

Seriously? The rest of the Balkan countries are trembling in fear over the aggression of Montenegro? And this strange notion is worth mentioning rather than Russia’s attempt to foment a coup. Everybody’s best guess is that Putin is the source of Trump’s view of Montenegro, which he repeats as fact. Ioffe explains where that kind of gullibility goes:

If America is at fault for everything that’s gone wrong in its relationship with Russia, as Trump seems to agree, then why do we impose sanctions on Russian officials and companies? This has been Russia’s position all along.

Secrets kept from us, not from Russia. And then we come to the strangest thing of all: The two hours Trump spent with Putin without any Americans present other than a translator. [4] Days later, DNI Coats told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he had no idea what was said. The rest of the government seems not to know either, though the Russians have been claiming that various agreements were made. [5]

For example, Putin claims he discussed with Trump a plan for a referendum to decide whether rebellious parts of eastern Ukraine will join Russia.

Vladimir Putin told Russian diplomats that he made a proposal to Donald Trump at their summit this week to hold a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but agreed not to disclose the plan publicly so the U.S. president could consider it, according to two people who attended Putin’s closed-door speech on Thursday.

Presumably, this would be similar to the referendum in Crimea, and once you accept the one you’d have no basis for refusing to accept the other, or for maintaining any sanctions that were imposed in response.

During Mitchell’s interview with Coats, the White House announced that Putin was being invited to the White House in the fall. Coats was clearly dumbfounded by this.

The White House then portrayed Coats as having “gone rogue“. But more and more it looks like Trump has gone rogue from the rest of the government, even the parts he appointed himself. [6]

The changing landscape. Here’s the main thing that has changed this week: Eight days ago, the view that Trump was actively working for Russia’s interests was a fringe position. Responsible journalists and pundits try not get ahead of the established facts and hate to be seen as alarmists, so they were actively minimizing the implications of what we’ve been seeing. Writing two weeks ago, Jonathan Chait expressed this view in an evocative metaphor:

The unfolding of the Russia scandal has been like walking into a dark cavern. Every step reveals that the cave runs deeper than we thought, and after each one, as we wonder how far it goes, our imaginations are circumscribed by the steps we have already taken. The cavern might go just a little farther, we presume, but probably not much farther.

He went on to wonder “What if we’re still standing closer to the mouth of the cave than the end?” and to boldly outline what a worst-case scenario would look like: Trump visits Moscow in 1987, and from that point forward is drawn ever deeper into a Russian orbit, relying on Russian money to save his business empire in the 1990s, and taking a favorable view of Russia into his presidential campaign from the beginning.

Each of Trump’s apparent pro-Russia moves left room for some alternative explanation: He was just bragging when he revealed sensitive intelligence the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office. His ego won’t let him admit he needed illicit help to win the presidency. He admires “strong” autocrats and has a distaste for the compromises democratic leaders have to make. Hiring a Putin operative like Manafort to be his campaign chair was just a coincidence. And so on. But at some point, the individual sky-is-not-falling explanations collectively require more gullibility than the One Big Explanation.

Two weeks ago, that assertion was daring. It no longer is.


[1] More than a day later, after a firestorm of criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats — even Newt Gingrich and some Fox News hosts were unhappy — Trump tried to walk this back, saying that he meant to say “wouldn’t” instead of “would”.

As unlikely as this claim seems, give Trump the benefit of the doubt for a moment and edit the quote to match his after-the-fact intention: Does it make any significant difference? Now maybe you can interpret him as leaning towards US intelligence over Putin, but it’s still a he-said/she-said thing. US intelligence just “thinks” it’s Russia; it’s not like they know anything. The main thrust of Trump’s statement remains the same: There’s really no way to choose between them, so why make a big deal out of it?

And even as Trump was throwing a bone to Coats and the rest of his national-security team, allowing the possibility that collectively they might be somewhat more trustworthy than Putin, he also undercut that message by indicating that he still doesn’t believe what they’re telling him:

“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that meddling took place,” Trump told reporters in brief remarks before a meeting with members of Congress. Yet he immediately contradicted both his own statement and that community’s findings, saying, “Could have been other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”

The consensus of American intelligence agencies, Trump’s own top advisors, and the Republican-controlled House and Senate Intelligence Committees, is that it was Russia, not that it “could have been other people”. Trump still wouldn’t admit that.

By Sunday, he was back to full denial.

So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election. Why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!

[2] This might be a good place to mention how much heat President Obama took for his so-called “apology tour”. The Heritage Foundation published a report on it.

The Obama Administration’s strategy of unconditional engagement with America’s enemies combined with a relentless penchant for apology-making is a dangerous recipe for failure.

The “apologies” in question are statements like “We have not been perfect.” and “We went off course.” I’m not sure what less he could have said about the Bush administration’s policy of torturing people, but Heritage judged that such statements “humiliated a superpower”.

[3] Putin proposed to let Robert Mueller come to Russia to question the 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted for hacking Democrats’ computers, in exchange for his own people getting similar privileges with Americans named in some tax-evasion conspiracy theory centered on Bill Browder (the guy who spearheaded the fight for the Magnitsky Act).

When Russia sent the full list of people it wanted to interrogate, it included former US Ambassador Mike McFaul. The entire US foreign policy establishment, Republican and Democrat alike, was horrified. Still, Trump considered this incredible offer for an entire day before saying no. Even in rejecting it, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the offer had been “made in sincerity by President Putin.”

[4] Democrats in Congress have proposed subpoenaing the translator to find out what was said, but Republicans have blocked them. My own feeling is that this is precisely the kind of thing that executive privilege ought to cover. I picture Obama, or some future president I like, trying to have a private conversation with a foreign leader without the suspicious circumstances of this meeting. Would I want the other party to be able to force the translator to testify? Worse, would I want our president to rely on the other country’s translator precisely to keep the conversation private?

Still, it should be up to the administration to claim executive privilege. Congress should go ahead with the subpoena.

[5] Susan Glasser wrote in The New Yorker:

Days after the Helsinki summit, Trump’s advisers have offered no information—literally zero—about any such agreements. His own government apparently remains unaware of any deals that Trump made with Putin, or any plans for a second meeting, and public briefings from the State Department and Pentagon have offered no elaboration except to make clear that they are embarrassingly uninformed days after the summit.

This morning, finally, Trump tweeted.

I gave up NOTHING, we merely talked about future benefits for both countries.

Trump blamed the “Corrupt Media” for spreading the idea that Putin got concessions from him. In fact, though, the media was just reporting what Putin and his government have been saying. Trump should blame Putin for the misunderstanding, if it was a misunderstanding. But that would mean contradicting Putin, which Trump can’t do.

[6] Trump’s chosen FBI director, Christopher Wray, told NBC’s Lester Holt:

I do not believe special counsel Mueller is on a witch hunt. I think it’s a professional investigation conducted by a man that I’ve known to be a straight shooter in all my interactions with him.

Undersecretary of Defense John Rood said “Russia is the larger near term threat” than even China. Saturday, the Associated Press gave us the inside scoop on Trump’s would/wouldn’t walkback.

Vice President Mike Pence, national security advisor John Bolton and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly stood united in the West Wing on Tuesday in their contention that Trump had some cleanup to do. They brought with them words of alarm from Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, as well as from a host of congressional leaders and supporters of the president for whom Trump’s public praise of Putin proved to be a bridge too far.

Disbanding NATO: Why Vlad loves Donnie

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.