Here is one scenario that explains Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia.
When the Manhattan businessman announced his presidential bid in the summer of 2015, Moscow perked up its ears. Here was a candidate arguing against America’s traditional world leadership role, who attacked American allies as scroungers, who wanted to make “America first” and whose amoral, transactional worldview rendered him an outlier among a crop of Reaganites. Here was a reality television show host whose outbursts made American politics – and, by extension, America – look like a foolish country. And here was a businessman who had dealings with some minor Russian oligarchs, whose understanding of Russia was limited to the glitz and glam on offer for big spenders in Moscow.
Combined with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal loathing of Hillary Clinton (owing mostly to his paranoid belief that she orchestrated protests against him in 2011), all these factors convinced the Kremlin to intervene on Trump’s behalf through a combination of hacks, leaks and disinformation.
This is essentially what the U.S. Intelligence Community concluded in a declassified report issued earlier this year, and it is worth keeping in mind as a series of government investigations into Russian meddling proceed apace. Many liberals and Democrats appear convinced that they’re just on the cusp of uncovering evidence that Trump knowingly collaborated with Russian agents during his campaign, the key word being “collusion.” Were such evidence to be produced, it would make Trump guilty of treason — obvious grounds for impeachment.
Yet Trump is likely to be found guilty of nothing more than being an unscrupulous jerk.
To be sure, Trump’s behavior – namely, pressuring FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation into his former national security advisor Mike Flynn, and then firing Comey for refusing – lends credence to suspicions that the president has something to hide. But it’s just as likely that Trump’s impulsiveness, and not his fear of being exposed as a secret Russian agent, led him to fire Comey. An avid cable news watcher, the president loathed hearing about “the Russia thing with Trump and Russia,” as he put it. Trump was annoyed with Comey for being a “showboat,” since as everyone in Washington knows, there’s only room for one showboat in that town.
Look at it from Trump’s perspective: The president is genuinely mystified at the hullabaloo surrounding the Russia story because, as far as he’s aware, there really is nothing to it. While Trump ultimately fired Flynn for misstatements he made to the vice president about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador, it has since emerged that Flynn’s unacknowledged ties with the Turkish government were significantly more substantive and morally problematic than his relationship with Moscow. As for Carter Page, a central figure in the Trump-as-Manchurian-candidate hypothesis, he never even met Trump, and is not so much a sinister agent of influence as a familiar Washington, D.C., type: a bumbling social climber of dubious ethics who greatly exaggerates his importance.
Like Richard Nixon, who probably wasn’t aware of the Watergate break-in before it happened, Trump is getting into serious trouble not because of his involvement in some cockamamie Russian plot to steal the American presidency, but rather his high-handed attempts at squashing an independent investigation. “It’s not the crime that gets you,” Nixon himself said. “It’s the cover-up.” Had Trump simply left well enough alone with Comey, he wouldn’t be in the hole he’s dug, with another former FBI director, Robert Mueller, carrying on not only the bureau’s investigation into Russian meddling but now also Trump’s possible obstruction of justice.
In a sense, it would be more reassuring for the robustness of America’s civic health were investigators to expose Trump as the recipient of laundered Russian money, or of colluding with Russian officials, or as having been recruited by the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, as one of the wilder conspiracy theories claims. Any of these would at least supply a grubby, opportunistic explanation for Trump’s pro-Russian rhetoric; and Americans who voted for him would have an excuse, of sorts, for their folly — namely, ignorance as to what was really going on.
The likely reality, though, is that the full extent of Trump’s morally objectionable views and behavior were wide out in the open throughout the presidential campaign. Trump repeatedly praised a Russian dictator and paid no political price. There’s no denying that he also retailed the products of Russian hacking, called upon the Russians to hack his opponent’s email, and peddled Russian-generated disinformation. The American people simply didn’t care.
When the dust settles, when the special investigations conclude and the politicians have their say, American political institutions will strengthen their cybersecurity measures and schools will teach students media literacy to dampen the impact of fake news. But there is no way to stop a shameless narcissist from exploiting public anger. No way to stop a ratings-obsessed media from offering him a platform. And no way to force an apathetic populace to care about a foreign adversary’s war on truth.
Donald Trump isn’t guilty of being anything other than an unscrupulous, unpatriotic demagogue. We’re guilty of letting him get away with it.
James Kirchick is author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.” He is filling in for Doyle McManus.