Former prime minister Theresa May’s chief of staff just described to a British newspaper how President Trump exploded in anger when he heard, during a 2017 meeting with May, that Russian President Vladimir Putin had requested a call with him that had not been completed. The president reportedly shouted at his national security adviser: “If Putin wants a call with me you just put him through!”
What is it with Trump and Russia? Why is the “America first” president so eager to cater to the anti-American dictator of Russia? That is the central mystery of the Trump administration. Almost every day, there are fresh signs of Trump’s subservience to Putin.
Trump still hasn’t upbraided Putin over reports that a Russian intelligence unit placed bounties on the heads of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — even though the White House had known about the purported payments for many months before the New York Times broke the news on June 26. Trump admitted to Jonathan Swan of Axios that he didn’t even mention the issue in one of his regular phone calls with Putin. (A source told CNN that the congenial Putin-Trump conversations sound like “two guys in a steam bath.”)
Nor has Trump had anything to say about reports that last week a Russian armored vehicle in Syria rammed a U.S. armored vehicle, injuring seven U.S. soldiers. You would think a president who lauds himself as a champion of “our incredible Military” would at least rhetorically defend U.S. troops. But, while Trump focused on the supposed menace of China in his convention speech, he was entirely silent about Russia.
The Republican convention also featured Trump boasting about his efforts to free U.S. hostages held overseas. Well, Putin has imprisoned two former Marines — Paul Whelan received a 16-year prison sentence in June on charges of espionage, and Trevor Reed received a nine-year sentence in July on charges of assaulting two police officers. Their family members say the cases are fraudulent and politically motivated. The U.S. ambassador to Moscow is protesting — but Trump stays silent. “Our Veterans risked everything for us,” Trump tweeted last year. “Now, it is our duty to serve and protect THEM every day of our lives!” Yet Trump appears to be prioritizing his relationship with Putin over his duty to protect these two veterans.
By now we all accept that Trump won’t say or do anything about Putin’s attacks on our democracy. The Russian interference may well have changed the outcome in 2016, and the Senate Intelligence Committee has just released fresh details about the extent to which the Trump campaign welcomed, and relied on, Russian help. The bipartisan report noted, for example, that Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was in regular contact with a Russian intelligence officer, while Trump’s friend Roger Stone was in regular contact with WikiLeaks, a conduit for Russian disinformation. If this isn’t collusion, the term has no meaning.
Now the Russians are interfering again — “the warning lights are flashing red,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote in a Post op-ed. Far from trying to protect America, Trump is amplifying Russia’s anti-Biden disinformation while trying to muzzle the intelligence community. Over the weekend, John Ratcliffe, the Trump loyalist who has been installed as director of national intelligence, informed Congress that the intelligence community would no longer provide oral briefings on foreign election interference. That will make it easier for Ratcliffe to stop career intelligence officers from revealing the extent of Russian efforts to reelect Trump. Trump might as well be extending another direct invitation to Putin to subvert our democracy: “Russia, if you’re listening….”
What accounts for Trump’s proclivity for Putin? Is it just part of Trump’s general admiration for dictators — or is there something more sinister going on?
The Senate Intelligence Committee offered some provocative new nuggets, including suggestions that Trump might have engaged in dalliances with Russian women during visits to Moscow that left him open to blackmail. This is the first confirmation from any branch of the U.S. government that rumors of Russian kompromat on Trump — a central feature of the infamous Steele Dossier — may have some basis in fact.
There have also been widespread reports that the Trump Organization has been dependent on Russian money. (Eric Trump in 2014: “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”) But the Intelligence Committee had no access to Trump’s closely guarded finances, so it could offer no insights on his financial ties to Russia.
Many observers expected that former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III would unravel this mystery, but he didn’t. Now we know why: Michael Schmidt of the New York Times reports that former deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein prevented “investigators from completing an examination of President Trump’s decades-long personal and business ties to Russia.”
This is a stunning dereliction of duty by Rosenstein. The upshot is that what might be the biggest scandal in American political history remains maddeningly mysterious. Trump continues to cater to Putin — and we still don’t know why. All we can say for sure is that Trump consistently puts America’s interests last.