Column: Let’s get real: Trump is no mastermind. Secretly colluding with Russia isn’t in his skill set

President Donald Trump chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017.
President Donald Trump chats with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017.
(Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite the indictment of 13 Russian professional social media pranksters who worked to tip the 2016 election to Donald Trump, I remain somewhere between skeptical and agnostic on the question of whether or not Trump knowingly and secretly colluded with the Russians to win the election.

We’ll come back to those important qualifiers — knowingly and secretly — in a moment.

But first, a word about conspiracy theories: As a rule, they will almost always let you down.

The conspiracy theories that capture our imagination usually depend on false assumptions about how the world works. They rely on the idea that government — or some other large organization — is both profoundly evil and profoundly competent, particularly at keeping secrets. Sometimes the former may be true, but the latter virtually never is. They also rely on the belief that objectively bad outcomes are subjectively intended, like in a literary work where all actions foreshadow future events.


That’s why I tend to avoid conspiracy theory in favor of what one might call character theory. Character is destiny, as Heraclitus observed, and it serves as a far more reliable guide than feverish dot-connecting of disparate events.

It is President Trump’s character that leads me to think he didn’t do it, at least not in a way the impeachment-hungry mob hopes he did.

Oh, I think he’s morally capable of having done it. As a candidate he publicly called on the Russians to (further) hack Hillary Clinton’s server and release the missing emails. He is the one member of his administration incapable of condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin or his regime. Indeed, his instincts are to hail Putin’s “leadership.”

Nor do I think he surrounded himself with people who would have talked him out of collusion. We know that his former campaign manager Paul Manafort is not overly scrupulous. And Trump’s son Don Jr. has already admitted to a) meeting with a Russian emissary and b) that he didn’t care where anti-Clinton dirt came from.

It is President Trump’s character that leads me to think he didn’t do it, at least not in a way the impeachment-hungry mob hopes he did.

But while they may have been willing to coordinate with the Kremlin, I’m not at all certain they would have been able to pull it off — and keep it a secret. Everything we know about the Trump campaign is that it was a shambolic movable feast of warring egos, relentless leaks and summary firings. But we’re supposed to believe that everyone maintained total secrecy about Russian collusion?


More implausible, we’re supposed to believe that Trump has never let it slip, in private or public? The man admitted he fired FBI Director James Comey to thwart the Russia investigation. Indeed, his blunders are what invited the investigation in the first place.

A counter-argument is that the president is obsessed with stopping Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel leading the Russia probe. That does seem suspicious, but I have three mutually reinforcing theories for his obsession that don’t imply guilt.

First: Trump thinks the probe is unfair. He knows he didn’t personally collude and feels unjustly accused. Second, it’s a blow to his ego, because he thinks it robs him of credit for what he believes was a landslide victory. (It wasn’t.) Third, he fears Mueller might find something else. Perhaps Trump’s not nearly as rich as he claims. Maybe his business practices — or those of his family — particularly with regard to Russia, would not withstand close legal scrutiny. One explanation for why Trump always flattered Putin on the campaign trail is that he thought he would lose, so why foreclose future business opportunities?

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon matter-of-factly told author Michael Wolff: “This is all about money laundering.”

Mueller’s “path to ... Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner,” he added. “It’s as plain as a hair on your face.” Tellingly, the president has said he might fire Mueller if he looks into his families’ finances.

These three factors add up to an explanation for why he insists the whole Russia investigation is a witch hunt and why he can’t stop obsessing over it. It’s not the only explanation, but it’s more in keeping with what we know of Trump’s character than the current conspiracy theories, which depend on us believing he’s a villainous mastermind.


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