Donald Trump has repeatedly resisted the irresistible conclusion that Vladimir Putin did what he could to put Trump in the White House. Now, the summit meeting in Helsinki has forced him to be explicit: to say that he believes Putin, and not the unanimous assessment of his own intelligence agencies, about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Commentators, Democrats and even some Republicans were aghast, but should anyone have been surprised? Trump has spent much of his presidency reviling the US intelligence community and praising Putin. But doing so in Putin’s presence, while refusing to say anything critical of his Russian role model, heightened the general puzzlement and dismay over Trump’s hyper-Russophilia.
The plausible theory that Putin has something on Trump—most likely, damaging, blackmail-worthy information–has gained new credibility. But until we have more evidence, I will continue to prefer the personality-based explanation of Trump’s behavior. An extreme narcissist capable of limitless self-delusion, Trump simply cannot acknowledge that his glorious election victory was tainted. Add to that the admiration by an authoritarian personality for a powerful authoritarian leader. Add to that a favorable disposition toward Russia developed over the course of years of multifarious business and personal ties that Trump and his associates have developed in that country. This combination of factors, I think, constitutes a sufficient explanation for Trump’s tenderness toward Putin.
The most negative outcome of the summit, to my mind, is that Putin now has Trump’s implicit carte blanche to continue his meddling in US politics. But I’m also dismayed by the continued lack of perspective on the Russia problem displayed by Trump’s critics. In their indignation at Putin’s transgressions and Trump’s toleration of same, the critics are loath to recognize the small shreds of merit in Trump’s position.
Trump is absolutely correct to note that some level of cooperation—like it or not–is desirable between the two largest nuclear powers in the world. He is also correct to observe that the US shares blame for the deterioration of relations between the two countries. As I have pointed out, the Russians have legitimate grievances against the US and the West. The relentless eastward expansion of NATO—which originated, after all, as an anti-Russian alliance—is Exhibit #1. But how many Americans realize that Putin’s most often cited crime—his illegal seizure of Crimea—was provoked? Putin’s move into Crimea followed by less than two weeks the overthrow by mob violence of the democratically elected pro-Russian government in Ukraine. This unconstitutional regime change in a country Russia has always regarded as inside its security perimeter was applauded and very possibly abetted by the United States. This doesn’t justify Putin’s aggression, but it does put it into a certain perspective, a perspective that never shows up in the anti-Trump/Putin commentary.
So, another, little-noted, negative result of Trump’s embrace of Putin is that by provoking so much understandable outrage, it makes it harder for any of our political leaders and pundits to consider, much less promote, a realistically balanced assessment of our Russia problem.