What Does Vladimir Putin See in Donald Trump?

SPORT

 

At noon on Friday, Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States. Millions of Americans will rejoice at the sight, and millions more will not. As a rule, foreign leaders don’t attend the inauguration of American presidents, but Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, will be there in spirit. To understand why and to understand what’s happening as Trump takes over the White House, we need to go back two weeks.

On Jan. 6, the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the National Security Agency asserted with “high confidence” that “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election” formed part of a broader, worldwide agenda “to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order.”

According to the intelligence report, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” Vladimir Putin

ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.

The intelligence assessment raises the question: what made Trump an attractive vehicle through which to attempt to weaken the liberal democratic order. Why him?

Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth and a contributor to The Upshot, made the case succinctly:

Trump has flouted the norms of American elections and governance at every turn, including calling for the jailing of an opposing candidate, encouraging violence against protesters, endorsing the torture of prisoners, suggesting he might not respect the results of the election, falsely claiming that millions of illegal votes were cast, failing to resolve unprecedented conflicts of interest or to even disclose his tax returns, and attacking a federal judge based on his ethnicity (and that’s of course a highly incomplete list). I can’t directly assess the IC report, but it’s fair to say that the liberal democratic order is being disrupted both in the U.S. and around the world.

On Oct. 13 in National Review, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer argued that Trump’s

incendiary talk is an affront to elementary democratic decency and a breach of the boundaries of American political discourse.” Krauthammer added: “It takes decades, centuries, to develop ingrained norms of political restraint and self-control. But they can be undone in short order by a demagogue feeding a vengeful populism.

I asked several other political analysts to give me their view of Trump’s appeal to those seeking to destabilize the American political order.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, sent me his thoughts:

One, the Russians have known for a long time that Trump was susceptible to flattery, especially from major authority figures. Two, he had a significant following in the US as a mega-celebrity. Three, if he got engaged in politics, it would be divisive — a good early example being his birther efforts. Four, he would perplex, frustrate and divide Republican establishment figures, most of whom were hostile to Russia, but a divided major party serves to disrupt the democracy. I doubt they thought he would win, but he would encourage or exacerbate divisions in the society, challenge many fundamental norms over his own narcissistic sociopathic views of himself and his entitlements, and break a lot of crockery without a second’s misgiving. His victories, with the GOP nomination and the election were unexpected icing on the cake.

Heather Conley, the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (a center-right think tank) and a co-author of the recently released report, “The Kremlin Playbook,” gave me her view of Trump’s allure for hackers:

One of our conclusions was that the Kremlin seeks out political and economic forces which weaken the “West’s desirability, credibility and moral authority.” It does this to make Russia’s neighbors less interested in seeking to cooperate and integrate with Europe or the U.S., making them more dependent on Russia. It seeks to undermine NATO’s unity in the hopes of seeking a new grand bargain with the U.S. in which the U.S. will recognize Russia’s sphere of influence and will not interfere in its internal issues.

Conley continued:

Against this backdrop, during the presidential campaign Mr. Trump was the only candidate that openly questioned America’s commitment to NATO and its commitment to defend the Baltic States. He was the only candidate who was not very critical of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria and chose to reframe them in ways that were in sync with Russian policy. He has proposed a new relationship with Russia. In other words, based on Mr. Trump’s statements, his views appear to align with Russian interests.

There are those who dispute the conclusions of the government’s intelligence report.

Glenn Greenwald, who has written critically of domestic surveillance by the United States government, argues that “on the key claims — that Putin directed this hacking and that he did so to elect Donald Trump — there is no evidence for it.” Matt Taibbi, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who spent several years reporting in Russia, contended that the “report is long on jargon but short on specifics.”

Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post columnist who is also a longtime writer on Russia, presents a counterargument to Greenwald and Taibbi: forget the intelligence report, she suggests, there is more than enough publicly available material to support the charge of Russian involvement.

“Instead of wasting more time” debating the contents of the report, Applebaum wrote on Jan. 13, “maybe we ought to abandon our obsession with ‘secrets’ and ‘spies’ and look at what is sitting in front of us.”

First, “Trump’s real estate empire relies, though we don’t know how much, on Russian money.”

Second, Applebaum writes,

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, spent many years working on behalf of the thuggish Russian-backed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually fled his own country. Manafort maintains links to pro-Russian groups in Ukraine. His name appeared on a list of people who took large chunks of cash from Yanukovych. He hasn’t gone away — in fact, he has lived in Trump Tower.

Third, according to Applebaum, “Trump operatives at the convention altered the Republican Party platform” to eliminate a call to provide arms to Ukrainians who are resisting a Russian takeover.

Fourth:

Throughout the campaign, Trump unquestioningly repeated slogans and conspiracy theories — “Obama invented ISIS” and “Hillary will start World War III” — lifted from Sputnik, the Russian propaganda website.

Finally, Applebaum argues as evidence of Trump’s pro-Russia tilt that

Trump is willing to risk serious conflict with China, to destroy U.S. relations with Mexico, to dismiss America’s closest allies in Europe and to downgrade NATO, our most important military alliance.

All this provides the basis for Applebaum’s conclusion:

Trump doesn’t have to be a Manchurian candidate who has been hypnotized or recruited by foreign intelligence. It’s enough that he has direct and indirect links to a profoundly corrupt and violent foreign dictator, whose policies he admires, whose advisers he shares and whose slogans he uses. That’s kompromat enough for me.

During the past nine days, a highly contentious debate has emerged over the validity and accuracy of a leaked, unverified 35-page dossier put together by a former British MI6 official. The dossier, financed by Trump opponents, both Republican and Democratic — claims that Russia has gathered compromising sexual and financial material about Trump.

Many of the domestic and foreign policy experts I contacted suggested that Russia would not need to blackmail Trump to get what it wanted — that Trump’s susceptibility to praise has made him vulnerable to manipulation.

David Leege, a professor emeritus of political science at Notre Dame, wrote me:

Trump was a willing but unwitting accomplice because he loved the flattery, saw it only as a business opportunity, and had so little understanding of international relations to recognize how affairs of state could be caught up in it.

Along similar lines, Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby, argued that Trump’s

ego is such that he never asked, nor does he ask yet, what playing into the Russians needs and desires meant for our system. An unwitting — ego-driven — tool of Putin’s goal to undermine faith in our system and in the Clinton candidacy.

Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, was outspoken in his response to my question asking why the Russians favored Trump:

His shameless mendacity, narcissism, authoritarian instincts, inability to tolerate opposition or criticism, hostility to formal institutions and the media, vast ignorance of foreign and domestic issues, indifference to constitutional restraints and eagerness to whip up and exploit xenophobia and (barely disguised) racism. We might add his affection for authoritarian leaders and other tough guys. Have I left anything out? Probably. All of these characteristics lead him to say things and propose actions antithetical to democratic norms and standards.

Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan organization promoting campaign finance reform, agreed that

Putin sees in Trump someone who is enormously susceptible to flattery, which Putin is perfectly happy to provide in order to achieve his national objectives.

Putin’s major objective, Wertheimer wrote by email, is

to break up the Western alliance and he appears to see Trump as an excellent vehicle to achieve this goal.

In an interview on Jan. 16 with the Times of London and Germany’s Bild, Trump repeated his assertion that NATO is “obsolete” and suggested that sanctions against Russia could be dropped in return for a reduction of nuclear arms.

Molly McKew, a consultant who has advised such anti-Putin government leaders as Mikheil Saakashvili, a former president of Georgia, and Vlad Filat, a former prime minister of Moldova, published an essay in Politico Magazine on Jan. 1. “Putin’s Real Long Game,” McKew argued, is to capitalize on Europe’s struggle with surging immigration and economic stagnation. As she put it:

Vladimir Putin has seized the momentum of this unraveling, exacting critical damage to the underpinnings of the liberal world order in a shockingly short time.

This threat, McKew warns, should not be taken lightly:

The West is already at war, whether it wants to be or not. It may not be a war we recognize, but it is a war. This war seeks, at home and abroad, to erode our values, our democracy, and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests.

How do “kompromat” and cyber hacking corrode public belief in verifiable truth?

In a Jan. 15 Times article, my colleague Amanda Taub writes:

Specific leaks may take aim at powerful individuals, but in the longer term, kompromat serves the interests of the powerful, which is why it is often a tool of autocrats. By eroding the very idea of a shared reality, and by spreading apathy and confusion among a public that learns to distrust leaders and institutions alike, kompromat undermines a society’s ability to hold the powerful to account and ensure the proper functioning of government.

Masha Gessen, writing in The Times on Jan. 14, noted that in the debate over Russia’s role in the election,

Mr. Trump’s version of reality got a boost: There was no such thing as truth, only a battle of opinions proffered by different actors, each of whom strives to be loudest.

Over the next few months, the Senate Intelligence Committee plans to investigate foreign influence in the 2016 election, an inquiry that will test the independence and integrity of the Republican-controlled Congress.

The fact is, though, that despite Russia’s campaign, Trump won under democratic rules, with his contempt for behavioral and political norms on incessant display. He carried a majority of the Electoral College, more counties than any Republican candidate since 1984 and two million more votes than Mitt Romney collected in 2012.

This means that we are facing the prospect of a renegade commander in chief armed with the considerable powers of the executive branch and a seemingly compliant legislature. Trump has already dealt a body blow to the political process. We will soon learn how much harm he can inflict once in office.

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