Germany, Donald Trump declared before the gathered NATO leaders and press of the world, is in Vladimir Putin’s pocket… It was a classic Trump comment: Democrats colluded with Russian intelligence in 2016, Trump has charged repeatedly, to deflect those same charges against his campaign; he brought Bill Clinton’s accusers to a Presidential Debate in the face of accusations of his own sexual assaults; and now, as he prepares to meet with Putin alone in Moscow, he reflexively insists that it is Angela Merkel who is doing Putin’s bidding.
Trump’s schoolyard “I know you are, but what am I?” tactic is central to his playbook, as Ted Cruz pointed out early on. “This man is a pathological liar,” Cruz warned, “And he has a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook. His response is to accuse everybody else of lying… it’s simply a mindless yell. Whatever he does, he accuses everyone else of doing.”
Everyone expected fireworks at the NATO meetings, but just when you think Trump had stretched the limits of hubris, he steps it up a notch. It is truly remarkable to watch in real time. The United States has become too limited a stage; he is now trolling the entire planet. There he was, deconstructing the world order with the cameras rolling, step by step, daring anyone to stand up to him. Sitting across the table from him as he attacked Germany, not one of the European leaders rose to the challenge. The best they could do was mumble platitudes about having fought a couple of wars together; muttering words about friendship and enduring alliances, sotto voce, as if not to prod the bear.
“Everything Trump is doing is on Putin’s anti-America wish list,” a Republican operative insisted to me the other day. “Putin is blackmailing him, there is no other way to explain it.” He assumes that Putin is blackmailing Trump with the infamous “pee tape” described in Christopher Steele’s dossier, or perhaps some other incriminating material. But there is another answer, a simpler answer, an Occam’s Razor of sorts: Donald Trump is not serving anyone’s interest but his own. Trump has demonstrated over and over that he respects strongmen. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping fit the bill, as does Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and even Kim Jong-un, about whom Trump spoke so admiringly after they spent time together. They are strong like Trump imagines he is strong.
European leaders, on the other hand, are weak, in Trump’s estimation. No one cowers when they walk into the room; instead, they are the ones who cower. They cower before right wing, nationalist challenges that are shaking the Continent. They cower before the self-righteous press. And, as they demonstrated this week, they cower when Trump walks into the room.
Trump evinces a feral pleasure as he seeks out opportunities to taunt America’s erstwhile allies. He delighted in mocking Canada’s Justin Trudeau as a lightweight. He was all the more happy to twist the knife in the backs of Great Britain’s Theresa May and Germany’s Angela Merkel as their governments teeter, knowing that tormenting them about how ‘immigration is destroying European culture’ would play perfectly to his core supporters at home, and to his growing right wing following overseas. When Trump commented this week in the face of public protests that “they like me a lot” in Great Britain, the mainstream media back at home may have snickered, but he knew who he was talking about.
It may be that Vladimir Putin has something that he is holding over Trump, but Donald Trump does not have the look of a man who is being dragged kicking and screaming to the task at hand. When Trump tears down the rule-based global order that America has nurtured over the past 70 years, it may be because it is one of Putin’s core strategic ambitions, or simply because in Trump’s mind, there is nothing fundamentally admirable about rules; he has chafed against them his whole life. Now that he has the power to break that order apart, Trump appears more than happy to do so. He lives for the attention, and relishes the anger he is provoking — no longer just among Democrats at home, but among the whole, global liberal democracy crowd.
If Putin actually has something on him, we will likely never know for sure; at least not until this historical moment is long past. In his book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore revealed the inner workings of Stalin’s rule, based on archives that for half a century had been buried deep within the Kremlin walls. Montefiore’s is a gruesome story, detailing, among other things, the orders that Stalin gave to his lieutenants, specifying how many thousands of people each of them were responsible for killing each month. We all knew about the millions who died during Stalin’s reign, but the documentary evidence was hidden away until long after he and his regime were dead and buried.
If Trump’s undermining of the post-World War II order — with a speed and breadth that must surpass even Vladimir Putin’s wildest dreams — is explained by the existence of Christopher Steele’s tape, or some other evidence that Putin holds over Trump, we will likely never see it. Like the documentary proof of Stalin’s crimes, that evidence is surely buried away, far beyond the prying eyes of the world, probably in a special vault in the Lubyanka Building in Dzerzhinsky Square that holds the deepest secrets of Russian intelligence.
If we are waiting for Robert Mueller to confirm the truth of the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, and, in so doing, to resolve the chasm of public discord surrounding the whole Russia affair, we are likely to be disappointed. This week, Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for cyber warfare operations targeting the 2016 election. The 29-page indictment reads like an intelligence briefing that Putin might have received over the course of the operation. Yet, for all its detail, the indictment begs the question that remains central to the Mueller investigation: What was the extent of Donald Trump’s collusion with Russia, and what is the evidence upon which that conclusion is based. And this question increasingly begs consideration of a second one: When Mueller finally delivers his report, will his conclusion — whatever it might be — help to resolve the deep-seated animus that is now roiling the nation, or will it only exacerbate the situation in which we find ourselves.
Trump supporters and Trump haters may be equally unwilling at this point to accept any conclusion that Robert Mueller presents in his report that does not comport with the view of the world they have come to embrace. There is little doubt that Trump supporters will reject any conclusion that suggests active collusion by the President himself, absent the contemporaneous publication of the “pee tape” on YouTube, or comparable irrefutable documentary evidence. And even that evidence will likely be claimed across Trump World to be a fabrication of the Deep State, providing further evidence of treachery by the intelligence community. With respect to charges relating to obstruction of justice, those will be rejected out of hand, absent proof of the underlying crime of collusion.
On the other hand, should Mueller conclude that there was no evidence of collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia — perhaps suggesting instead that Russia’s actions were aligned with the interests of the Trump campaign, but that no significant coordination was evident — that will only prove to Trump haters the depth of Putin’s cunning, and the limits of documentary evidence. Absence of evidence, many will no doubt observe, does not constitute evidence of absence, and those who believe that collusion took place will remain convinced that somewhere deep in the Lubyanka Building lies a thumb drive… but it will be decades, at least, before that evidence sees the light of day.
As the months go by, more and more seems to ride on the Mueller investigation, but it is becoming increasingly hard to imagine that his report is going to solve anything; potentially leaving the sides arguing about the very real crime of obstruction of justice, with Congress unwilling or unable to act. The larger question that is emerging seems to be how and whether our democracy can return to some semblance of normalcy once the Mueller report is submitted. Fixing a nation whose polity has been torn apart — even before the report arrives — is going to be where the real test of our political institutions lies, but it is difficult to imagine that anyone in Congress is preparing to meet that challenge. Meanwhile, blackmail or no, Donald Trump is heading to his sit down with Vladimir Putin, having spent the better part of the past week trolling his way across Europe, basking in the attention, stopping in for tea with the Queen, playing a little golf, and having the time of his life.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore.”
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.