Two Congressional committees, the one in the House at least temporarily sidelined by its chairman, Devin Nunes, are now investigating the question of Russian meddling in our 2016 election and the extent to which the Trump administration may or may not have been complicit in it.
The question is serious, but wrongly posed.
That the Russians did take a solicitous interest in our election can, I think, be stipulated. They are old hands at that, going back to their blatant manipulation of postwar elections in Eastern Europe that turned the region Communist within three years of the end of World War II. We were doing the same thing on our side of the Iron Curtain, insuring that our own preferred clients ran the show in Western Europe. We have not tolerated a government in the Western Hemisphere perceived as inimical to our interests since the announcement of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, frequently making the point by invasion and occupation where subtler methods like bribery and assassination would not do. This is the way great powers tend to act, and, for the past hundred years at least, the United States has been Great Power Number One.
The Russians deny all charges about us, as one would naturally expect them to do. The principal charge is that they hacked the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, releasing through third parties embarrassing if not terribly compromising information. The information was true, or at least not contested. The effect was trivial. No committee, certainly in a Republican-controlled Congress, would have bothered with the subject had there not been a more serious flip side, namely the suspicion that the Trump campaign was soliciting or receiving favors from the Kremlin, or having them extorted under threat of blackmail.
The ground of this suspicion was not only Donald Trump’s professed admiration for the autocratic rule of Vladimir Putin and his frequently expressed desire for collaborative relations with Russia. It went back to the murky involvement of Trump’s enterprises in Russia itself, the extraordinarily close connections of some of his key advisors with elements of Russia’s kleptocratic elite, and the unusual volume of communications traffic between Trump operatives and Russian counterparts.
This was complicated by Trump’s apparent devaluation of NATO, the military and political alliance that has been the linchpin of American foreign policy for nearly seventy years, and which remains the prime instrument in our dealings with Russia. Europe’s security — now both East and West — is entirely dependent on NATO, and NATO has also been the prime instrument for the West’s relentless expansion into the former Soviet sphere of influence, which culminated in the overthrow of the Russian-leaning government of Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine in 2014.
An even modestly pro-Russian tilt by the Trump administration, therefore, would have seismic implications for America’s geopolitical position, and, while that has not yet been concretely evidenced, Trump’s coolness toward his NATO partners — the initial snub of the NATO foreign ministers meeting by his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, whose own business dealings are heavily invested in Russia, and Trump’s reported presentation of a “bill” for $300 billion in unpaid subsidies to Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel — has understandably rattled Europe.
As always, such matters are less clear-cut than they look. Hillary Clinton, when Secretary of State, took a distinctly critical, not to say hostile view of Russian policy, and permitted herself comments on the Russian parliamentary elections of 2011 that were seen by the Kremlin as meddlesome at least, while at the same time her husband, Bill Clinton, was collecting $500,000 for a speech to a Russian bank closely tied to the government.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman during the critical period leading up to his presidential nomination, received tens of millions of dollars from a business relationship with Oleg Deripaska, described as one of the two or three most powerful oligarchs around Putin; yet the ubiquitous Bob Dole, the Republican Party’s standard-bearer in 1996 and the key figure in brokering the phone call from Taiwan’s president that triggered Trump’s first foreign policy crisis this year, had also lobbied the U.S. government for incidental favors, including a visa, on the same Deripaska’s behalf. There are a lot more sharks in these seas than fins that break the surface.
We would know a lot more about Trump’s business dealings in Russia if he would release his tax returns, and that — rather than tax avoidance — is clearly the prime reason why he has not done so. We might also know a lot more about Trump’s relation to Putin if we knew why his ousted National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, felt the necessity to lie to Vice President-elect Mike Pence about his conversations in December with Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergei Kislyak (Flynn was also on various Russian payrolls), or why Trump advisor and Blackwater founder Eric Prince found it necessary to make a secret trip to the Seychelles Islands to establish a back channel between Trump and Putin only days before Trump’s presidential inauguration. What do you need a back channel for when you’re about to have a hot line?
We can only speculate for the moment where this web of clandestinity and deception may lead, but the operative principle should be the usual one, especially where Trump is concerned: Follow the money. The simple reality that faces us is that Trump is himself a Russian-style oligarch who happens to have been born in the U.S. and to possess American citizenship. Like other such oligarchs — one of whom was operating out of Trump Tower only three floors below Trump’s private suite — he specializes in gambling, legal or otherwise; kickbacks; money laundering; the plundering of public funds and assets; and, if he follows the pattern, fun and games with underage girls.
Of course, we had the Mafia in the White House with Kennedy, not to mention the girls; we had Halliburton with Cheney and the Bush clan in bed with the Saudi royals and so on. But we have never had a naked kleptocrat in our highest office before, who simply sees the presidency as a branding opportunity and a business killing. Those who have been waiting for Trump to become “presidential” — that is, to assume the duties and responsibilities of leading a world power and governing a nation of some 325 million — fail to realize that what they are seeing is Trump’s idea of the presidency.
It’s not enough, though, to note that Trump is a businessman who sees the White House as a personal profit center. To understand him fully, we need to look at the Russian oligarchic model. Under the Soviet system, the party elite maintained an exclusive control of capital and labor, creating a uniquely privileged governing class. When the system fell apart, this elite, rebranding itself as entrepreneurs, made off with the wealth of the nation: riches without responsibility. This created a model of perfect corruption, in which governing institutions were simply a means of facilitating plunder. That is the state that Vladimir Putin, himself by all reports fabulously rich, presides over.
No doubt Trump, whose own wealth is heavily leveraged, admires Putin the access to fortune that his virtually unchallenged authority gives him. No doubt, too, he would willingly dispense with all those impediments Putin does not have to deal with: a legislature that won’t simply do his bidding; an independent judiciary; a free press, or at least what monopoly has left of it.
When Congressmen balk him, he threatens to oust them; when judges rule against him, he questions the legitimacy of the bench; when the media trip him up, he accuses them of fake news — a category whose opposite is not truth, but propaganda. He neither has nor wishes to acquire any sense of constitutional government; he knows nothing of national economic policy or international diplomacy; he has no concept of any interest but his own. His promises, compounded of cynicism and ignorance, are lies before they leave his mouth. He’s the perfect oligarch, so perfect that he embarrasses the breed.
No doubt, Trump’s Russian connections are interesting. If they’re interesting enough, they could wind up as part of an impeachment proceeding. But in a sense they are beside the point. We’ve elected a president who thinks and acts like a thug, and where he’s learned his lessons or who he’s partnered with is finally unimportant.
He’s simply a public menace.