Donald Trump and the Russians

If the recent press conference is any guide, the hope Donald Trump would magically become more “presidential” appears utterly doomed. The Donald will remain the Donald. One of the most explosive aspects of the meeting with journalists involved a tense standoff between the president elect and a CNN reporter, with Trump refusing to call on the latter and condemning his cable network as a purveyor of “fake news”. He was angered by CNN’s coverage of a controversial story. Trump’s behavior was disturbing but not surprising. It confirmed what we know about his personality: he is remarkably thin skinned and will viciously attack anyone who challenges or threatens him in any way. This is not a reassuring quality for someone about to occupy the most powerful political office in the world.

So what triggered Trump’s emotional outburst? As CNN reported, Trump and Obama were briefed by US intelligence recently that the Russians (I was tempted to write “the Soviets”) might have personal and financial information embarrassing to the president-elect. In a remarkable plot twist out of a Le Carre novel, Russian intelligence operatives, according to a retired MI6 officer deemed to be a credible source, obtained damaging personal information on Trump during visits to Moscow. Being an old KGB operative himself, one can imagine how Vladimir Putin would be delighted to have such “kompromat” or compromising information, allowing him to become a de facto handler of a US president and capable of exercising leverage over his behavior.

We should remember that Putin leads a regime eager to reestablish its central position on the world stage after a humiliating loss in Afghanistan, a devastating defeat in the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and, perhaps even more significantly, being left in the dust in the global marketplace by their erstwhile communist comrades, the Chinese. And when coupled with ongoing sanctions from the West and the collapse of oil revenues that plunged the economy into crisis, one can readily understand Putin’s desperate attempt to restore Russia’s rightful place as an international force to be reckoned with.

This is the principle underlying his aggressive military action in Syria and Eastern Europe. While most Russian citizens remain unaware of their military’s action in Syria, Putin enjoys wide popularity at home because of his brazen incursions in Crimea and Ukraine to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence at its western border. Putin needs international adventures to distract attention from ongoing economic problems and to repair the wounded national psyche. And what better way to flex personal and national political muscle than by obtaining humiliating information about an American president? If such compromising evidence exists, Putin would use it to neutralize US opposition to Russian overtures in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Democrats and Republicans alike have been puzzled by Trump’s curious lack of interest in condemning or even acknowledging Russian aggression, his suggestion to lift sanctions imposed after Putin’s invasion of the Crimea and his turning a blind eye to probable war crimes committed by the Russian Air Force in Aleppo as he remains determined to align with Putin to defeat ISIS. Many have been baffled if not alarmed by Trump’s war of words with the intelligence community, as he remained dubious of its conclusion that the Russians hacked DNC computers and directed a disinformation campaign against Hillary Clinton, coupled with his defense of Putin’s leadership style. In fact, Trump has been consistently more critical of Obama and US intelligence officials than of Putin. Has the president elect’s curious behavior reflected the presence of damaging information obtained by the Russians? At this time, we do not know. Of course, Trump condemns the allegation as fake news. How ironic coming from a politician who resurrected his political career questioning if Obama was an American citizen and who referred to the National Enquirer as a credible news source.

But even more ominous is the extraordinary rumor about contact between the Trump campaign and Russian officials to coordinate efforts against Clinton. While it is simply stunning to contemplate this, it should be noted that Ron Wyden, a US senator from Oregon, pushed FBI director Comey about this allegation in a public hearing and that the latter refused to even acknowledge if the agency was pursuing an investigation. Of course, if there is any shred of truth to the story, it is grounds for immediate impeachment. And it would place our entire political system into House of Cards territory. For now, this is putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps none of it will amount to anything. Perhaps the Russian ambassador, who called the story about Russian hacking “pulp fiction”, will be proven right. But does anyone believe the Russian denial is credible? And given Trump’s shaky relationship with the truth, is it unreasonable to harbor doubts or fears about his vehement denials? To quote a TV news anchor about an emerging story about the Watergate break in: I believe we will be hearing more about this story. Let us hope the intelligence community will conclude that allegations about colluding with the Russians belong to the pages of a Cold War potboiler rather than the headlines of today’s newspapers.

However, even if there was no collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russians, Trump’s attack on the American intelligence community signals another red flag about his personal temperament. Trump objected to their conclusion that the Russian government tried to influence the outcome of the recent presidential election because he interpreted it as a challenge to the legitimacy of his electoral victory. Trump’s belief that their intelligence finding was simply a personal attack rendered him unwilling or unable to register any concern about a hostile foreign power trying to undermine a hallmark of our democracy, the integrity of our electoral process. Quick to take offense and prone to take offense often, the president elect seems intent on denigrating anyone he perceives as personally challenging or threatening. His vindictiveness could make the Nixon White House and its infamous enemies list appear to be a model of relative tolerance.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano