Tag Archives: Putin

When The Bar Is Low Enough…

In a recent column for The Atlantic, David Frum reacted to the Barr version of the Mueller Report by pointing out that the special counsel’s task was limited to investigation of legal liability.

And as he noted, absence of clearly prosecutable criminal behavior is a pretty low bar.

Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush; in my view he has substantially if not totally redeemed himself with a series of thoughtful columns intensely critical of the current occupant of the Oval Office. This column made several important points after a satisfyingly snarky initial paragraph:

Good news, America. Russia helped install your president. But although he owes his job in large part to that help, the president did not conspire or collude with his helpers. He was the beneficiary of a foreign intelligence operation, but not an active participant in that operation. He received the stolen goods, but he did not conspire with the thieves in advance.

Frum focuses in on the important question that Barr’s summary suggests remains unanswered, although the actual report may shed some light on it.

The question unanswered by the attorney general’s summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report is: Why? Russian President Vladimir Putin took an extreme risk by interfering in the 2016 election as he did. Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency—the most likely outcome—Russia would have been exposed to fierce retaliation by a powerful adversary. The prize of a Trump presidency must have glittered alluringly, indeed, to Putin and his associates. Why?

Frum considers some of the possible reasons: Trump’s distaste for NATO, his contempt for the rule of law, or (my own guess) the possession of information with which they might compromise him. Whatever the reason, the conclusions to be drawn from what we do know are now to be acted upon by Congress and the voters.

The 2016 election was altered by Putin’s intervention, and a finding that the Trump campaign only went along for the ride does not rehabilitate the democratic or patriotic legitimacy of the Trump presidency. Trump remains a president rejected by more Americans than those who voted for him, who holds his job because a foreign power violated American laws and sovereignty. It’s up to Congressto deal with this threat to American self-rule.

Mueller hasn’t provided answers, so much as he has posed a question: Are Americans comfortable with this president in the White House, now that they know he broke no prosecutable criminal statutes on his way into high office?

This American isn’t.

We learned during the Nixon debacle that “I am not a crook” is an insufficient qualification for the office.

The Enemy Of My Enemy…

E.J. Dionne had an interesting column in the Washington Post a few days ago.

He was analyzing the relationship that has recently been uncovered between Russia and the American Right–not just the NRA (fascinating as THAT is) but also the Evangelical Christian community. There’s been a lot of focus on that community’s support of Trump, but very little commentary on its seemingly bizarre relationship with Russian operatives.

In truth, there is nothing illogical about the ideological collusion that is shaking our political system. If the old Soviet Union was the linchpin of the Communist International, Putin’s Russia is creating a new Reactionary International built around nationalism, a critique of modernity and a disdain for liberal democracy. Its central mission includes wrecking the Western alliance and the European Union by undermining a shared commitment to democratic values.

I think that one key to the referenced “disdain” for liberal democracy is resistance to the “liberal” part–not to liberal politics as we understand that term today (although the Right opposes that liberalism too), but resentment of the 18th Century liberal restraints on what the majority can vote to have government require of everyone else. In other words, the limits on majoritarianism imposed by the Bill of Rights. But I digress.

Dionne notes that Putin’s affinity toward the far right makes sense, because his power rests on a nationalism rooted in Russian traditionalism.

And the right in both Europe and the United States has responded. Long before Russia’s efforts to elect Trump in the 2016 election became a major public issue, Putin was currying favor with the American gun lobby, Christian conservatives and Republican politicians.

In a prescient March 2017 article in Time magazine, Alex Altman and Elizabeth Dias detailed Russia’s “new alliances with leading U.S. evangelicals, lawmakers and powerful interest groups like the NRA.”

I thought the most telling paragraph in the column was Dionne’s explanation of the Evangelical/Russia bond.

Evangelical Christians, they noted, found common ground with Putin, a strong foe of LGBTQ rights, on the basis of “Moscow’s nationalist and ultraconservative push — led by the Russian Orthodox Church — to make the post-Soviet nation a bulwark of Christianity amid the increasing secularization of the West.”

There’s an old saying to the effect that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” I have never understood fundamentalist Christians’ seething hatred for the gay community–as many pastors have noted, the one (incessantly recited) bible passage about a man lying with another man is vastly outnumbered by the biblical admonitions they cheerfully ignore about feeding the poor and helping the widow and orphan, etc.

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that these Evangelicals use the Bible the way a drunk uses a street lamp–for support rather than illumination.

Be that as it may, evidently all Putin had to do too woo Evangelicals was discriminate against the people they’d love to oppress if only that pesky Bill of Rights and old-fashioned American notions about civil equality didn’t get in their way…

The deepening ties between the Russian government and elements of the right should give pause to all conservatives whose first commitment is to democratic life. The willingness of traditionalists and gun fanatics to cultivate ties with a Russian dictator speaks of a profound alienation among many on the right from core Western values — the very values that most conservatives extol.

Of course, the people who support Trump and are willing to get in bed with Putin (and I mean that in the most heterosexual possible way!) aren’t genuine conservatives. They have no discernible political philosophy–just a deep-seated resentment for people unlike themselves, and a well-founded fear that the dominance they once enjoyed is rapidly evaporating.

 

Worldviews

Andrew Sullivan has a different “take” on the reason for Trump’s slavish devotion to Vladimir Putin.

It’s a fascinating read, if ultimately unpersuasive–as others have noted, at the end of the day, the fact that the two men share a distasteful and dangerous worldview is insufficient to explain Trump’s puppy-dog fidelity–but it is wickedly perceptive as far as it goes.

Sullivan’s opening presents his thesis:

It is possible, is it not, that Donald Trump simply believes what he says.

I realize, of course, that this is technically impossible from moment to moment. But bear with me. The slackened jaws, widened eyes, and general shock that greeted his chuffed endorsement of the Kremlin over Washington this past week were understandable but misplaced. Everything Trump did in Europe — every horrifying, sick-making, embarrassing expostulation — is, in some way, consistent, and predictable, when you consider how he sees the world. It’s not a plan or a strategy as such. Trump is bereft of the attention span to sustain any of those. It is rather the reflection of a set of core beliefs and instincts that have governed him for much of his life. The lies come and go. But his deeper convictions really are in plain sight.

Those “deeper convictions” are the ones that drive rational people crazy. As Sullivan says, they are pretty much the same as the convictions (“impulses” might be a more accurate term) of the strongmen and thugs with whom he has always surrounded himself.

Accordingly,

The post-1945 attempt to organize the world around collective security, free trade, open societies, non-zero-sum diplomacy, and multicultural democracies is therefore close to unintelligible to him. Why on earth, in his mind, would a victorious power after a world war be … generous to its defeated foes?

This rings true. As we’ve seen with his phony Foundation, “generosity” is the last word one would apply to Trump.

Sullivan’s entire description of Trump is devastating because it is so consistent with what we have seen every day from the embarrassing buffoon who has soiled the Oval Office for the past 18 plus months. After describing the post-WWII world that America was instrumental in building, Sullivan writes

That kind of complex, interdependent world requires virtues he doesn’t have and skills he doesn’t possess. He wants a world he intuitively understands: of individual nations, in which the most powerful are free to bully the others. He wants an end to transnational migration, especially from south to north. It unnerves him. He believes that warfare should be engaged not to defend the collective peace as a last resort but to plunder and occupy and threaten. He sees no moral difference between free and authoritarian societies, just a difference of “strength,” in which free societies, in his mind, are the weaker ones. He sees nations as ethno-states, exercising hard power, rather than liberal societies, governed by international codes of conduct. He believes in diplomacy as the meeting of strongmen in secret, doing deals, in alpha displays of strength — not endless bullshit sessions at multinational summits. He’s the kind of person who thinks that the mafia boss at the back table is the coolest guy in the room.

This is why he has such a soft spot for Russia. Its kleptocratic elites see the world in just the same way.

Why look for collusion when this agreement of worldviews explains so much? Yes, Sullivan says, it’s perfectly possible that Trump knowingly accepted Russian help. It’s perfectly possible that he is still encouraging Russia to help him again.

But that’s simply the kind of unethical thing Trump has done for years, without batting an eyelid. He sees no more conflict here than he did in seeking Russian funding and German loans for his businesses.

Sullivan concludes that Trump simply wants an alliance to advance his and Putin’s amoral and cynical vision of world politics.

The descriptions of Trump and Putin that emerge from this essay are devastatingly negative–and yet, I think Sullivan ends up giving Trump too much credit. Much like other critics who ascribe sinister and devious strategies to our pathetic President, he attributes “vision” to a man I see as utterly incapable of formulating a vision– even a dark and self-serving one. Urges, yes. Vision? Not so much.

Sullivan does get one description absolutely right: that of today’s GOP.

And we know now that the whole Kabuki drama in which we keep asking when the GOP will resist this, or stop it, or come to its senses, is simply a category error. This is what the GOP now is. It’s an authoritarian, nationalist leadership cult, hostile to the global order. Republican voters increasingly like Putin, and 71 percent of Republicans backTrump’s handling of Russia in the Reuters/Ipsos poll. A whole third of Republicans do not believe the Kremlin attacked our democracy in 2016, despite every single intelligence agency and the Republicans in the House saying so. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans in a SurveyMonkey poll actually approved of Trump’s performance in the Helsinki press conference.

This is not treason as such. It is not an attack on America, but on a version of America, the liberal democratic one, supported by one of the great parties in America. It is an attack on those institutions that Trump believes hurt America — like NATO and NAFTA and the E.U. It is a championing of an illiberal America, and a partnering with autocrats in a replay of old-school Great Power zero-sum politics, in which the strong pummel and exploit the weak.

And it is all infinitely depressing.

Chilling…And Compelling

One of my favorite anecdotes about the early days of America’s newspapers comes from a friend who has edited a number of small-town papers and is something of a journalism history buff.  Early newspapers did no reporting; they were just compilations of the circulars generated mostly by the political parties. According to my friend, the masthead of one such publication  proclaimed “interesting, if true.”

That pretty much sums up my reaction to a recent, lengthy and unnervingly persuasive article in New York Magazine.

And that was before Trump’s disastrous, groveling presser with Putin in Helsinki.

The article was written by Jonathan Chait, whose previous work I have found solid (to the extent I am capable of making such judgments). Chait didn’t claim his thesis is proven, only that it is plausible. It was a “what if” speculation that looked at the entirety of what we knew before that outrageous betrayal of his oath of office .

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 muchfarther. And since trying to discern the size and shape of the scandal is an exercise in uncertainty, we focus our attention on the most likely outcome, which is that the story goes a little deeper than what we have already discovered. Say, that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort told their candidate about the meeting they held at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer after they were promised dirt on Hillary Clinton; and that Trump and Kushner have some shady Russian investments; and that some of Trump’s advisers made some promises about lifting sanctions.

But what if that’s wrong? What if we’re still standing closer to the mouth of the cave than the end?

The media has treated the notion that Russia has personally compromised the president of the United States as something close to a kook theory. A minority of analysts, mostly but not exclusively on the right, have promoted aggressively exculpatory interpretations of the known facts, in which every suspicious piece of evidence turns out to have a surprisingly innocent explanation. And it is possible, though unlikely, that every trail between Trump Tower and the Kremlin extends no farther than its point of current visibility.

Chait goes through the lengthy chronology of Trump’s connections with Russia, a chronology suggesting that the situation may be much worse than we now suspect. As he notes, publicly available information about the Russia scandal is extensive, but disjointed.

The way it has been delivered — scoop after scoop of discrete nuggets of information — has been disorienting and difficult to follow. What would it look like if it were reassembled into a single narrative?

It’s tempting to dismiss the article as yet another conspiracy theory in an age that seems to encourage them, but as Chait points out, the people who seem most convinced of its likelihood are not the radio shock-jocks or other “usual suspects.” They are people like John Brennan, former head of the CIA, and other high government officials.

If Chait’s “what if” speculation proves true, calling it “chilling” is an understatement.

If that’s true, we are in the midst of a scandal unprecedented in American history, a subversion of the integrity of the presidency. It would mean the Cold War that Americans had long considered won has dissolved into the bizarre spectacle of Reagan’s party’s abetting the hijacking of American government by a former KGB agent. It would mean that when Special Counsel Robert Mueller closes in on the president and his inner circle, possibly beginning this summer, Trump may not merely rail on Twitter but provoke a constitutional crisis.

And it would mean the Russia scandal began far earlier than conventionally understood and ended later — indeed, is still happening. As Trump arranges to meet face-to-face and privately with Vladimir Putin later this month, the collusion between the two men metastasizing from a dark accusation into an open alliance, it would be dangerous not to consider the possibility that the summit is less a negotiation between two heads of state than a meeting between a Russian-intelligence asset and his handler.

After that disgraceful press conference, Chait’s “possibility” seems all too likely.

GOP’s Moment Of Truth

We really are in “never never” land. It is impossible to draw innocent conclusions from yesterday’s press conference following Trump’s private meeting with Vladimir Putin.  During yet another incoherent and unhinged rant, the President insulted America’s intelligence community and insisted that he believed Putin’s denials of election interference.

The “summit” with Putin came on the heels of disastrous meetings during which Trump insulted America’s closest allies and inflicted significant damage on important American alliances.  In stark contrast, he absolutely fawned over Putin– even after Putin made a point of coming 45 minutes late to their meeting, a public signal of disrespect that somehow didn’t enrage our notoriously thin-skinned POTUS.

At this point in the surreal saga that has been the Trump presidency, there is no longer any doubt about Russia’s interference in the American election. That case has been made over and over by American Intelligence officials, most recently, Dan Coats. It has been confirmed by the mounting number of detailed indictments filed and guilty pleas obtained by Bob Mueller.

Over at Vox, Ezra Klein has an exhaustive (and damning) list of what we now absolutely know.Not what we speculate, not what we surmise, but what we know.

Nevertheless, as Klein noted,

Standing next to Putin, Trump turned on America’s intelligence services, and again mused about how much better it might have been if Russia had cracked Clinton’s server and gotten her documents.

So while the entire world was watching, the President of the United States attacked agents of his own country and administration– and gave Putin a big wet kiss.

As Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, 

Such behavior by an American president is so perverse, so contrary to American interests and values, that it leads to only one conclusion: Donald Trump is either an asset of Russian intelligence or really enjoys playing one on TV.

Everything that happened in Helsinki today only reinforces that conclusion. My fellow Americans, we are in trouble and we have some big decisions to make today. This was a historic moment in the entire history of the United States.

There is overwhelming evidence that our president, for the first time in our history, is deliberately or through gross negligence or because of his own twisted personality engaged in treasonous behavior — behavior that violates his oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

A Manchurian candidate committing intentional treason would have been more skillful. Even if–as a friend of mine posits–the Russian oligarchs who have financed Trump for years have him “by the short hairs”– the stupidity displayed at the press conference was counterproductive. This clumsy and irrational performance  just adds to the already overwhelming amount of evidence that (while he may or not be a knowing Russian asset) Trump is definitely seriously mentally ill.

The real question is: what will Congressional Republicans do with this incontrovertible, in-your-face evidence of traitorous behavior? How long can they pretend he is either competent or acting in America’s interests? As Friedman says,

Every single Republican lawmaker will be — and should be — asked on the election trail: Are you with Trump and Putin or are you with the C.I.A., F.B.I. and N.S.A.?

As former CIA chief John Brennan tweeted,

Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you??? 

Where indeed? They sure aren’t from Indiana. And I haven’t noticed much in the way of patriotism from other Republicans currently serving in the House or Senate.

The refusal of an American President to honor his oath of office–his refusal to protect and defend our country– is a Constitutional crisis. If GOP lawmakers continue to put their own interests and those of their party above their duty to the country, if they continue to abet this President’s erratic and treasonous behavior, history will not be kind to them.

Hopefully, neither will the voters.