This is the first of a series of articles examining all facets of Donald Trump’s alleged ties or political sympathies with the Russian government. In this installment, Daily Beast Senior Editor Michael Weiss looks at the way Trump has refashioned Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party, largely out of his own conviction, into a helpmeet of the Kremlin. Read parts two, three, and four.
Michael Morrell, a former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, broke dramatically with the protocol of most ex-spies when he used spook parlance to describe Republican nominee Donald Trump as “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” albeit in the course of endorsing Hillary Clinton for president.
The colloquial term for the sort of person Morrell was talking about is “useful idiot,” someone enlisted in the Kremlin’s cause through sympathy, or shared interests, or, indeed, ignorance, without actually intending to be a pawn. But, as Putin certainly knows, the problem with useful idiots is that they tend to be insecure and erratic, whereas witting agents are tutored in how to be disciplined and self-controlled.
Trump is too illogical and self-contradictory to be of much use to a hostile foreign power except as a naturally occurring battering ram against the very institutions and beliefs that power would like to see weakened or destroyed. Trump’s opponent (whom Putin assuredly does not want to see inhabit the White House) and U.S. democracy at large are the truer objects of a Russian state-run information and cyber-espionage program. That Trump’s vulgar and demoralizing campaign is ripping apart America on the path to making it “great again” is simply an added bonus for the former KGB colonel.
Without dismissing the gravity of the Trump-Putin alignment, what our reporting makes clear is that the Republican does genuinely admire the Russian, but the feeling is not necessarily mutual. Putin has been discreet, if not cryptic, in his characterization of Trump. (See the next installation in this series for more.) One might say the relationship between the two is that of an amateur authoritarian taking cues from an aloof and bemused professional, but the performance delivered, to any outside observer, looks more like an oblivious farce than a credible imitation.
What is remarkable, however, is how consistent Trump’s most illiberal, and seemingly pro-Russian, stance on America’s undergirding of postwar European security has been, dating back to before Putin was even master of the Kremlin.
In his book The America We Deserve, published in 2000, the first year of Putin’s presidency, Trump (or his ghost writer) wrote, “America has no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries in Eastern Europe. Their conflicts are not worth American lives. Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous. And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use. We pay for the defense of France and yet they vote against us at the United Nations and choose the side of the North Koreans, the Libyans, and other rogue nations.” (This was in 2000, years before the French were enjoined in the New York Post’s “Axis of Weasel” because they tried to prevent the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, and more than a decade before French President Nicolas Sarkozy agitated for intervention in Libya to protect rebels from Muammar Gaddafi’s depredations.)
Such vague, amorphous isolationism may well have been noted by interested parties in Moscow at the time, only to be filed away for later use. But the military alliance that has more or less underwritten European peace for 70 years, and whose steadfast resistance helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union, has always been a bugbear for Trump. He genuinely believes in upending the postwar security establishment, and this just so happens to dovetail neatly with what Putin now wants.
But that wasn’t always the case.
There was a time, in the early 2000s, when Putin earnestly pursued Russia’s accession to NATO, much to NATO’s astonishment—ironically, just as Trump was vilifying the alliance in book-length form.
“Even before being elected president,” Mikhail Zygar writes in his recent history of the Russian president’s longtime cabal, All the Kremlin’s Men, “Putin asked NATO Secretary General George Robertson at their first meeting, in February 2000, when Russia would be able to join the alliance.” Robertson was not prepared for the question and answered routinely that every country that wanted to join should apply according to the established procedure. “Putin was irked,” writes Zygar. “He was convinced that Russia should not have to wait in line like other countries; on the contrary, it should be invited to join.”
Putin has grown more “irked” since, especially given the enlistment, in 2004, of seven former Soviet-occupied states: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Since then, NATO has come to inhabit, in his imagination, a dark specter spreading across the continent right up to Russia’s vulnerable doorstep. He sees it as driven by the United States rather than out of any intrinsic popular desire on the part of it its national constituents.
In the last decade or so, it is Russian officials who have sounded an awful lot like Donald Trump back in 2000 rather than the other way around. Putin said in 2014 that NATO, as part of the “bloc system of the world,” has “outlived itself.”
In his first foreign policy interview with The New York Times’s David Sanger and Maggie Haberman, published on March 26, 2016, Trump similarly described NATO as “obsolete.” Since its founding in 1949, no major presidential candidate from either party has ever treated the alliance as anything other than sacrosanct. Trump also seemed confused by its most recent activities, telling Sanger and Haberman that NATO’s remit should be altered to “include terror.” Never mind that the first and only time Article 5 of the Washington Treaty—the collective defense clause—was ever invoked was on Sept. 12, 2001, leading to every member state’s participation in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Trump again claimed, disingenuously, that NATO was “unfair, economically” to the United States, which “bears far too much of the cost,” ignoring the per capita expenses in blood and treasure paid by the other 27 member-states in helping to defend American interests.
NATO, for him, is at best a pay-to-play arrangement, at worst, a total waste of time. As he told Sanger and Haberman, “Only 4 of 28 other member countries, besides America, are spending the minimum required 2 percent of GDP on defense.” (That “requirement” is actually more of a target or benchmark, and a smaller member state that actually does satisfy it would later become the object of much derision by the Trump campaign, as we’ll see shortly.)
Trump followed this exchange, in March, with his first major foreign policy speech, delivered almost a month to the day later, on April 27, 2016, at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank known for its “realist” approach to international affairs, and its proximity to Moscow.
Richard Burt, for instance, is chairman of the advisory council of the Center’s in-house journal The National Interest. A former U.S. ambassador to Germany, and a State Department official during the Reagan administration, Burt is also a senior advisory board member of Russia’s Alfa Bank (lately accused of having engaged in some interesting internet correspondence with Trump Organization servers). Burt is now also a foreign policy advisor to Trump.
Alexei Pushkov, the former head of the Russian State Duma’s Committee on International Relations (a 9/11 conspiracy theorist who obliquely threatened to arm Iran, the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism, with advanced antiaircraft systems on the anniversary of those attacks), remains on the advisory council of The National Interest even though he was placed on the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions list in 2014 for his role in the unlawful annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.
Whether or not Trump had heard of Westphalian geopolitics before his maiden voyage into the troubled waters beyond America with his speech, he certainly knew his audience and catered, in his own inimitable way, to expectations. Large on generalities and short on specifics, Trump unveiled his nativist “America First” doctrine, unaware he was echoing Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist and pro-Nazi movement of the same name in the 1940s. In marked contrast to the conventional Republican Party wisdom since the era of Ronald Reagan (a man Trump also professes to admire), America First would “put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else,” divorcing it from the notion of enlightened self-interest: the idea that a safer, more stable and secure world is the best guarantor of security for the United States.
Pax Americana, in his long-held view, is a pup: “We have spent trillions of dollars over time—on planes, missiles, ships, equipment—building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia. The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense—and, if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
This would become a popular refrain in Trump’s messaging throughout the campaign, with application well beyond NATO. Japan, he has suggested, should perhaps acquire its own nuclear arsenal and defend itself from North Korea. Troops should be withdrawn from the archipelago, along with the U.S. garrison in South Korea, due to lack of reimbursement to the U.S. Treasury for the cost of their maintenance.
Russia, interestingly given the venue and assembled dignitaries for this speech, earned one rather bland mention, alongside China, as a nation with which the United States has “serious differences,” but not necessarily so serious as to qualify either as an adversary. The former superpower enemy, Trump said, has suffered from Islamist terrorism and, so, this common victimhood could foster a new era of relaxed relations, one inaugurated, of course, from a position of American “strength.”
Pull back from entangling alliances, but confront aggressors with American strength. You see the contradiction here, and doubtless so did Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who was sitting in the front row at the Center for the National Interest as Trump delivered these remarks. Kislyak later told Politico that the real-estate mogul “made some intriguing points… We need to understand what is meant in the implementation.”
The ambassador is likely still waiting to understand.
Trump’s echoes of Russian geopolitical ambitions would grow louder as he creeped closer to the presidency, even as he doggedly refused to put forward any substantive alternatives to the policies already implemented by Barack Obama, a man he claims is eternally outfoxed by the heroic strongman Putin. This strange capacity for condemning the “weakness” in the current American posture toward Russia while advocating what must sound to Moscow like wholesale retreat can be seen in Trump’s non-response to an international crisis that caught the United States and Europe completely by surprise.
UKRAINE’S ON ITS OWN
Trump’s view of the Euromaidan Revolution and ensuing Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea in 2014 broadly derives from his 2000 assessment that the United States shouldn’t really care what happens an ocean away because it has no immediate bearing on U.S. interests.
Ukraine, which he’s of course “all for,” and where he has “friends,” ought to be sorted out by European nations and Russia. In his view, Germany should be leading the EU’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. He seem oblivious to the fact that it is, as part of the so-called Minsk protocol. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s sad situation has given him ample opportunity to expatiate on his favorite topic: contrasting the leadership styles of Putin and Obama.
At an awkward video-linked address Trump delivered at the annual Yalta European Strategy conference in 2015 (held that year, owing to the Russian annexation of Crimea, in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev), he focused mainly on the “lack of respect” for Obama, whom he again described as “not strong.”
Trump spoke haltingly, apparently waiting for his remarks to be translated, and he made no real effort to characterize Russia’s activity as an invasion or violation of international law. Indeed, he barely criticized Putin at all. He complained that U.S. support for Ukraine was more rhetorical than material, but promised no improvement under his prospective administration. Yet would not actually advocate arming the Ukrainian military with lethal weaponry, an action that many European countries would sign onto if not for Obama’s hesitation.
Such Trumpian wishy-washiness would soon be codified.
A majority of GOP representatives and senators have long advocated arming Ukraine. But that didn’t make it into the Republican Party’s platform last summer. As The Washington Post first reported, Trump’s minions excised wording that would have promised lethal materiel to an embattled ally.
To be sure, the rhetoric of the platform remained Churchillian, in keeping with Republican tradition, and it did reaffirm the U.S. government’s current support for (PDF) “maintaining and, if warranted, increasing sanctions, together with our allies, against Russia unless and until Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored.” It said, “We also support providing appropriate assistance to the armed forces of Ukraine,” left undefined, “and greater coordination with NATO defense planning.”
Paul Manafort, Trump’s now-former campaign manager whose political and financial ties to pro-Putin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych are so well documented as to have prompted an FBI investigation into his foreign entanglements, denied that the campaign did any such thing. However, several sources queried by The Daily Beast, including Eric Brakey, a Maine GOP delegate, and Rachel Hoff, a Washington, D.C., delegate, were in the meeting when the platform was being discussed and diluted.
Trump later acknowledged in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that his camp did indeed water down the language on Ukraine.
Trump: “I wasn’t involved in that. Honestly, I was not involved.”
Stephanopoulos: “Your people were.”
Trump: “Yeah. I was not involved in that. I’d like to—I’d have to take a look at it. But I was not involved in that.”
Stephanopoulos: “Do you know what they did?”
Trump: “They softened it, I heard, but I was not involved.”
Bizarrely, Trump went on to pull the pins out from under the party platform that actually was agreed. He suggested to Stephanopolous that not only had Putin not invaded Ukraine but, contradictorily, that the inhabitants of occupied Crimea preferred to be in Russian hands anyway—an assertion that naturally comes from Russian state media and a hastily staged sham “referendum.”
At a press conference four days before the ABC interview, Trump indicated that he’d be open to recognizing Crimea as Russian Federation territory, legitimizing an illegal land-grab that only those paragons of fair play North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Kyrgyzstan (plus Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France) have done so far. He also suggested he’d “look into” lifting sanctions against Russian institutions and officials involved in Crimea’s takeover.
This put Trump in a theoretical posture no Western democracy has adopted. The sole beneficiary if Crimea gained international recognition as part of Russia would, needless to say, be Putin.
And what would happen, under a Trump presidency, if Russia did decide to invade one or more of the three Baltic States, all of them NATO members?
Trump has here, again, attempted to have it both ways. To Sanger and Haberman, in March, he said that since the United States was treaty-bound to defend its Atlanticist allies if they were attacked, he’d observe that part of the treaty. Yet in that second Times exchange, in July, he at first feigned strategic inscrutability, replying, “I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do.” Reminded by Sanger and Haberman of the inconvenient matter of Article 5, the mutual defense clause, Trump again brought up unpaid “bills,” finally answering that only those countries which have “fulfilled their obligations to us” merit collective defense.
As it happens, one of the Baltic States, Estonia, amply satisfies Trump’s requirement on GDP spending. It is also the one which one of his more politically accomplished surrogates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, would abandon to Russia’s tender mercies.
Gingrich, who was rumored to have been a vice presidential consideration for Trump and remains a key advisor to the nominee, told CBS This Morning, within hours of that second Times interview’s publication on July 21 that NATO “countries ought to worry about our commitment. They ought to worry about commitment under any circumstances. Every president has been saying that the NATO countries do not pay their fair share.”
“Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg,” Gingrich continued, perhaps forgetting that Estonia’s border is 85 kilometers away from St. Petersburg and that the country’s accession to NATO was once woven into his own 1994 “Contract with America.”
“The Russians aren’t gonna necessarily come across the border militarily,” said Gingrich. “The Russians are gonna do what they did in Ukraine. I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.”
Note that a Republican éminence grise and a former candidate for president himself has blithely gone from the clear and present threat of Russia’s dispatching “little green men” into Estonia directly to all-out nuclear war.
This is not an accident, as it recycles and amplifies upon an argument sold by Russian state propaganda organs.
WORLD WAR III AND OTHER MEMES
The notion that any confrontation with Russia, even if only confined to the realm of military deterrence, will lead to “World War III” is a well-worn tool in the Kremlin’s “psychological arsenal,” as Russia expert and Economist editor Edward Lucas put it not long ago in The Daily Beast. The obligation to defend NATO members against foreign attack is easily conflated with the belief that doing so will provoke an American “shooting war” with Russia, perhaps sending ICBMs soaring across the hemispheres.
Deterrence itself thus becomes an accelerant of Armageddon, forcing the United States—or terrified voters—into affirming that any act of Russian provocation or aggression must not be met by a concomitant defense.
While U.S. policies on de-proliferation are designed to lower the risk of such a dire contingency—and remain very much part of the same international security compact Trump and his ilk would like to see dismantled—such alarmism fails to recall that many periods of the Cold War were rather “hot”: Cuba, Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan being prime examples.
More recently, in Syria, U.S.-licensed weaponry has been used by anti-Assad rebels to kill Russian servicemen. Turkey, the second largest military in NATO, shot down a Russian fighter jet in 2015, precipitating not doomsday but rather a year of demarches and trade hostilities which culminated in happy rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow.
As Lucas argued, “The United States is overwhelmingly dominant in every part of the military spectrum, from space to cyber via conventional and nuclear weapons, just as the Western alliance with its combined GDP of around $40 trillion, and population of 800 million, is overwhelmingly more powerful than Russia (GDP of $1.7 trillion and population of 140 million: both shrinking, incidentally).”
Nevertheless, Trump supporters—identifiable by their Pepe the Frog avatars, anti-Semitic double parentheses and other trademarks—are busy on social media propagating the “World War III” meme, typically with Hillary Clinton’s picture superimposed against backdrops of mushroom clouds or enveloping infernos. This hysterical conceit—some of which may be the yield of Kremlin-compensated “trolls” working out of their Augean stable in St. Petersburg—follows directly from Trump’s most outlandish claim yet, that if Clinton were elected she would unleash “World War III” through her avowed policy of establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, which perforce means militarily confronting the Assad regime and, possibly, Russia.
Trump may well have come up with this apocalyptic forecast on his own, or it may have been lifted from Breitbart or any number of his campaign’s domestic sounding boards. Nevertheless, the threat of nuclear holocaust has been a consistent theme of Russian state media organs for the past two years and depends, exclusively, on how Moscow would respond to any escalatory American intervention in one or more of its self-designated spheres of influence.
In March 2014, Russia’s most prominent state propagandist, Dmitry Kiselyov—a man who believes that the hearts of homosexuals should be burned into the pavement to stop the spread of AIDS—took to the airwaves of his Sunday evening show News Weekly to announce that Russia “is the only country in the world that really can turn [the] USA into radioactive ash.”
Coming from a man who a week later would be sanctioned by the European Union for his role waging information warfare against Ukraine, this was no idle, Glenn Beckian bit of bombast, but rather a warning licensed from on high. Kiselyov repeated it just last month: Any attempt by the United States to engage in “impudent behavior” (he left this undefined) would carry a “nuclear dimension.”
Right about that time, nuclear-capable Iskander missiles were deployed to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave between Lithuania and Poland, giving menacing shape to this fever-dream. Not that any warheads were attached to those missiles, of course.
If U.S. Strategic Command has yet to elevate its alert status to DEFCON 1, then it may owe to the fact that the only person who counts in Russia is downplaying doomsdays, projecting himself as the picture of sanity amid a launch-nutty general staff. Putin has lately publicly rebuked his generals who want to buzz American warships in the Baltic and dismissed the atomic chatter of his scripted chattering class.
At Valdai last week, he essentially agreed with Edward Lucas’s sober appraisal of comparative military advantage. “It is unthinkable, foolish and completely unrealistic,” for Russia to go to war with the United States, Putin said. “All of the NATO members together with the USA have a total population of 600 million, probably, but Russia has only 146 million. It is simply absurd to even conceive such thoughts.”
Trump, meanwhile, has become a kind of schizophrenic Peter Sellers, alternating between the megalomaniacal Dr. Strangelove and the imminently reasonable Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake within the same take.
“Why can’t we just use nukes?” Trump asks Joe Scarborough, before deciding that a President Clinton may well do that in his stead, her eternal soul be damned.
It was exceedingly odd for Trump to pick Syria—above, say, the Baltic states—as the cynosure for the End Times, given that his own “policy” with respect to the ravaged Levantine nation depends upon the time of day and whether or not it can be fashioned into a ball-peen hammer with which to bash his opponent over the head.
In March 2016, Trump told Sanger and Haberman that he supported a “safe zone, a number of safe zones, in sections of Syria and that when this war, this horrible war, is over people can go back and rebuild if they want to and I would have the Gulf states finance it because they have the money and they should finance it.”
How this differed substantively from Clinton’s plan, apart from who’ll be stuck with the tab, he did not condescend to hazard. Then, in the second presidential debate, when reminded that his running mate Mike Pence had made essentially the same call as Clinton for a no-fly zone, risking war with Assad and Russia, Trump said, “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree.” The ideal scenario, Trump said, would be the U.S., Assad and Putin all joining in common cause against the scourge of ISIS, which would make more sense if Assad and Putin were not focusing most of their bombs on groups that aren’t ISIS at all, including and especially American assets.
Elsewhere, Trump’s fact-free accusations appear copied-and-pasted from Russian state propaganda outlets. To give the most obvious example, when he suggested that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama “founded ISIS,” he was regurgitating a conspiracy theory propagated by, among others, Sputnik, the loudmouth baby brother to that older English-language bullshit purveyor, RT (formerly Russia Today).
In stark contrast with his predecessors for high office, he also regularly traffics in “whataboutism,” a Soviet-honed method of changing the conversation. Whenever human rights abuses or the trampling of freedoms abroad is raised, he shifts to the real or perceived shortcomings of the United States. As he told Sanger and Haberman in July: “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country—we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems.”
From “gravely concerned” to “who are we to judge?” a Trump-run State Department would indeed be a sight to behold.
There are few or no precedents for the aspiring commander-in-chief of America’s armed and clandestine services declaring that he is surer of the Russian government’s professions of innocence than he is of the American intelligence community’s assessment.
When it comes to recent cyber attacks, in fact, Donald Trump is even surer than the Russian government that the FSB and GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, did not hack into the Democratic National Committee’s email accounts, or those belonging to Clinton campaign chief John Podesta. Even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov coyly told CNN’s Christian Amanpour last month, “We did not deny this, they did not prove it.”
If we’re to credit Trump’s “off-hand” encouragement to Russia that it hack into Hillary Clinton’s personal emails was just a “joke,” as he’d have us believe, then how to square Trump’s dogged insistence that “nobody knows” what everybody knows and the Russian foreign minister playfully hinted at?
During the first presidential debate, on Sept. 26, Trump threw cold water on what intelligence officials and security experts had concluded. “I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC,” he said. “[Clinton is] saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t—maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”
A little over a week later, the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence gave the official U.S. government view of the matter. In a joint statement released on Oct. 7, the two bureaus concluded: “The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.”
Trump was no doubt apprised of these findings in advance, having received an intelligence briefing as the Republican nominee. Yet he again denied what his own government had found at the second presidential debate, this time calling into question whether or not the DNC and Podesta accounts were even hacked at all: “Maybe there is no hacking, but there is—now Russia—and the reason they blame Russia is they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia.”
But why would Trump even consider such a Democratic tactic “tarnishing,” given his unabashed and well-advertised admiration for an authoritarianism he has long sought to replicate at home?
Russia, in his mind, is not a rogue or pariah state guilty of war crimes in Syria and anschlusses in Europe, but rather an illiberal beacon of revanchist progress. Trump sees Putin’s would-be empire as an “anti-globalist” great-power-in-the-making. That Putin brooks no criticism that can’t be legally shut up or physically exterminated, and that he singularly pursues his own vision of national interest with nary a nod for international law or what the wrongheaded and overpaid “elites” might say to the contrary—well, you can’t make a country great again without stepping on a few toes.
Putin, meanwhile, is along for this excellent adventure so far as it goes, which is exactly as long as Trump continues to occupy a U.S.-depleting national spotlight and flatters the cheap seats with his own homegrown version of anti-Americanism. But Putin’s interest ends when Trump’s sell-by date expires . If and when the puckered and spray-tanned baron of Fifth Avenue loses the race and descends into the wilds of fringe media empire-building, he’ll be just another sorry case of what Putin hates most of all: an ostentatious oligarch who fancied himself a politician.
Tomorrow: A Fine Bromance