Donald Trump’s son Eric argued in an interview with the U.K. Telegraph that his father’s missile attack against a Russian ally (Syria) proves the elder Trump is not, in fact, an active agent of the Russian state:
[Eric Trump] described allegations of links with the Russian regime as “ridiculous.”
He said: “If there was anything that Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie.”
Unfortunately, what we have here is a situation in which we must acknowledge that Eric Trump, seen above doing his day job by promoting a seniors’ golf event, is somewhat correct. Many Democrats’ beliefs about Trump were disproven by the Syria strike. Throwing a wrench into Russia’s Middle East manuevering is indeed probably not what the president would do if, as popular liberal conspiracymongers like Sarah Kendzior, Seth Abramson, and Eric “Game Theory” Garland (who’ve been amplified by such mainstream figures as Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald and Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott) have alleged, he’d been actively cultivated as a Russian intelligence asset in a decades-long blackmail plot.
Writers such as Sam Kriss and Christopher Hooks have observed that the empirically unsupportable obsession with a Manchurian candidate scenario is an intellectually embarrassing Democratic version of birtherism. As Eric Trump’s comment shows, the obsession is also a strategic burden. When you make wild, unjustified claims about Russia having controlled Trump since 1987, you create a situation in which the president and his allies can legitimately say that he has proven his critics wrong simply by taking any action that isn’t obviously in Vladimir Putin’s interest, as he’s already done several times during his White House tenure.
Giving Trump favorable talking points on this subject isn’t just dumb because it makes him look good in the short term—it also obscures the troubling aspects of his campaign/administration’s ties to Russia that are not resolved by the reality that his administration has not been uniformly supportive of Russian goals. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was paid millions of dollars by Russian and Ukrainian figures closely allied with Putin; former Trump adviser Carter Page once gave information to an actual Russian spy; longtime Trump ally Roger Stone admits that he communicated privately with a hacker Twitter account believed to be operated by Russia; former Trump business partner Felix Sater is a Russian-born organized crime figure; former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn took money from a Russian-backed media outlet and lied publicly about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
The fact that Trump impulsively changed a foreign policy position because his daughter saw a TV segment that made her sad—seriously, Eric Trump also said that he thinks his dad bombed Syria because Ivanka was upset by the images of the gas attack—does not eliminate this mountain of Russia-related evidence that his closest associates are for the most part corrupt, grifting sleazeballs. Going forward, meanwhile, the FBI may (or may not!) reveal evidence that some Trump figures colluded inappropriately with Russian-backed hackers or engaged in illegal campaign finance shenanigans. In other words, what Trump’s already done is a huge scandal, and what he might have done could be an impeachment-level offense—but it all still might seem like a letdown to a public conditioned to expect evidence that he had people assassinated to cover up the pee-pee tape.