On Tuesday, President Trump brushed aside questions about the conviction of his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and a guilty plea by Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen. The two cases didn’t matter, said Trump, because they didn’t prove the central charge against him. “This has nothing to do with Russian collusion,” Trump told reporters as he arrived in West Virginia. Later, at a campaign rally, he taunted the press for failing to prove that he had collaborated with Russia. “They’re still looking for collusion,” he jeered. “Where is the collusion?”
I’ll tell you where the collusion is. It’s right in front of us.
To escape the Cohen and Manafort stories, Trump is retreating into the Russia mystery. He can’t be impeached, the theory goes, because he hasn’t been caught betraying his country. But he has. Trump has bent over backward to defend Vladimir Putin at America’s expense, and the question is why. Journalists have explored the worst possibilities: Trump is a Russian agent, Trump conspired with Putin to tip the 2016 election, Putin is blackmailing Trump with a raunchy sex tape.
In this article, I’m going to take the opposite approach. I’ll assume none of that speculation is true. I’ll stick to the public record. I’ll set aside the question of collusion as most people understand it—a conspiracy during the election—and I won’t postulate any hidden motives. I’ll present the minimum we know about Trump and Russia. The minimum is enough to merit impeachment: Trump is working with Putin to protect Russia and cripple the United States.
This conclusion doesn’t require any wild theories about kompromat or dual loyalty. Everything Trump has done can be explained by traits and motives he displays every day: narcissism, insecurity, ruthlessness, and spite. He enjoys the celebrity of meeting with well-armed dictators. He’s obtuse to moral distinctions between regimes or systems of government. He sees no difference between the national interest and his personal interests, or between getting campaign help from Americans and getting it from a foreign power. And he’s obsessed with domestic enemies. He’s far more interested in using Putin to pummel Democrats than in working with Democrats to confront Putin.
These ingredients have been sufficient to turn Trump, in effect, against his own country. Putin didn’t need to collude with him. All Putin had to do was praise Trump, signal his support for Trump in the election, offer him a prestigious geopolitical relationship, and come to his defense when U.S. intelligence agencies accused Russia of helping Trump win. That put the intelligence agencies on the wrong side of Trump, and it put Putin on the right side. And that’s how we ended up where we are today: with a president who defends Putin’s crimes and persecutes former U.S. officials who exposed those crimes.
Maybe you’re skeptical that Trump’s behavior can be explained without kompromat. Or maybe, in the absence of proof of collusion, you think it’s unfair to accuse him of betraying his country. But come along, and I’ll show you how both can be true.
1. The Courtship
Trump and Putin didn’t begin as friends. To Putin, Trump was just another businessman. To Trump, Putin was just a prop. In the years leading up to his presidential campaign, Trump sometimes tried to look important by pretending to know Putin. Other times, Trump tried to look tough by describing Putin as a menace. In Trump’s mind, Putin was a character who could be used in the fight Trump really cared about: the competition for status at home. So when Trump spoke of Putin as an adversary, he meant that Putin was a standard by which to measure other politicians—chiefly, President Barack Obama—as weak.
When Putin invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, Trump said the takeover exposed Obama’s “failed leadership.” Republican hawks said the same thing, but they spoke of underlying concerns: sovereignty, freedom, human rights. To Trump, those concerns meant nothing. Trump was more interested in Putin’s poll numbers. “Putin has become a big hero in Russia with an all time high popularity,” Trump tweeted as Russia seized Ukrainian bases and vessels in Crimea. “Obama, on the other hand, has fallen to his lowest ever numbers. SAD.”
Trump’s presidential candidacy and his rise in the polls caught Putin’s eye. On Dec. 17, 2015, in Putin’s annual year-end press conference, the Russian president called Trump “very bright and talented.” Trump loved it. The next day, on MSNBC, Trump beamed: “When people call you brilliant, it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.”
Now that Putin was praising him, Trump adjusted his angle. He could still use Putin as a standard for judging American politicians. But now that standard included “chemistry.” “A lot of good things can happen with Russia if we get along well,” Trump argued in the MSNBC interview. “Putin does not respect our president,” he warned, and “our president does not like Putin. … I watch those two sitting in two chairs looking at each other … and I say, ‘Wow, that’s really bad chemistry.’ ”
The interviewer, Joe Scarborough, pointed out that Putin “kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries.” Trump brushed aside these quibbles. “Our country does plenty of killing also,” said Trump. “At least he’s a leader, you know, unlike we have in this country.” Again, Trump marveled at Putin’s approval ratings, noting that they were “in the 80s” while “Obama’s in the 30s and low 40s.”
Anyone watching from the Kremlin could see that Trump was exploitable. He valued strength and popularity, not human rights or policing aggression. He admired Putin and was willing to praise him in public. And he was willing to make chemistry and good relations—in short, Putin’s satisfaction—the measure of American success.
2. Tests of Loyalty
As Trump stormed through the primaries, Russia collected material on his opponents. In March and April 2016, Russian hackers penetrated the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. In June, an intermediary for a Russian oligarch sent Donald Trump Jr. an email offering “sensitive information” on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. set up a meeting in Trump Tower to get the dirt, but the Russians didn’t deliver. Not until July 22, three days after the GOP nominated Trump, did WikiLeaks release documents from the DNC hack.
These moves tested Trump’s allegiance. If he had been unwilling to conspire with Moscow, the email to his son might have led to nothing. At worst, Trump’s campaign might have notified the FBI. Instead, Trump Jr. replied, “If it’s what you say I love it.” Manafort, Trump’s then-campaign chairman, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, also showed up to hear the offer. No FBI action seemed to follow. Apparently, Trump’s campaign was open to cooperation.
In the quest to prove collusion between Trump and Russia, the Trump Tower meeting has become an obsession. But sometimes things said in public are more significant than things said in private. For that reason, Trump’s comments in late July are worth revisiting. When WikiLeaks released its first trove of stolen emails, it provoked a public clash between the Kremlin and U.S. intelligence agencies. The agencies said Russia was behind the hack. Russia denied it. Putin was pitting his credibility against the U.S. government’s credibility. Trump had to choose.
Trump chose Putin. On July 27, at a press conference in Florida, he paraphrased Putin’s denial and rejected the judgment of the intelligence agencies. But if Russia was behind the hack, Trump mused, then it ought to get Clinton’s emails, too. Facing the cameras, Trump declared: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
Reporters were dismayed. One asked Trump: “Do you have any pause about asking a foreign government—Russia, China, anybody—to interfere, to hack into the system of anybody in this country. … Does that not give you pause?” “No, it gives me no pause,” said Trump. “If Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I mean, to be honest with you, I’d love to see them.”
The press conference told Putin everything he needed to know: that Trump felt no bond with Clinton or the Democrats, that he put opportunism before patriotism, and that he was happy to seek Russia’s help in the campaign, including through espionage. But it also told Putin that Trump was willing to trust him over the U.S. intelligence community—and that Trump was willing to say all of this in public.
That night, Russian hackers targeted Clinton’s personal office and her campaign.
3. The War at Home
In the months that followed, WikiLeaks released more hacked documents, and Trump touted them on the campaign trail. Clinton tried to make Putin’s support of Trump an issue, but it didn’t work. Trump won the election.
Democratic leaders were horrified. They asked the public to unite behind Trump, but Trump didn’t reciprocate. He was untransformed by victory. For weeks, he held rallies around the country, ridiculing Americans who had opposed him. He couldn’t let go of the idea that Clinton and the Democrats, not foreign dictators, were his enemies.
This was a fatal character defect, and Putin exploited it. On Dec. 23, in his year-end press conference, the Russian president again reached out to Trump. A reporter asked Putin about American complaints of Russian interference in the election. Putin replied that Democrats were “losing on all fronts and looking elsewhere for things to blame.”
Trump pounced on Putin’s remark. He tweeted, “Vladimir Putin said today about Hillary and Dems: ‘In my opinion, it is humiliating. One must be able to lose with dignity.’ So true!” This, too, sent a signal: Trump wasn’t finished with his war at home. And he welcomed Putin’s help in waging it.
4. The Turn Against Intelligence
Two weeks before Trump took office, U.S. intelligence agencies tried to turn him away from Putin. They failed.
On Jan. 6, 2017, the intelligence chiefs briefed Trump on their assessment of Russia’s role in the election. Their report concluded that Putin had “ordered an influence campaign” to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process,” to hurt Clinton, and to “help President-elect Trump’s election chances.” The agencies also released their report to the public. That made it difficult for Trump to dismiss the report’s conclusions. At a Jan. 11 press conference, Trump wavered between acknowledging Putin’s guilt (“He shouldn’t have done it”) and disputing it (“It could have been others also”).
The briefing affected Trump. He seemed to have gotten the message that he should oppose foreign interference in American elections. But that message couldn’t overcome his ego or his spite. At the press conference, he blamed Democrats for letting themselves be hacked. He insisted that the damning things they had written in their emails were more important than who had done the hacking. And he argued that intervention on his behalf by a foreign power, in any form, was good. “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability,” he said.
Trump’s fixation on personal loyalty gave Putin a huge advantage over the intelligence agencies. The agencies were obliged to report the truth and serve the country, even if it made the president-elect uncomfortable. This created constant friction with Trump. At the briefing, FBI Director James Comey warned Trump about a dossier of Trump-Russia allegations, including a story that the Kremlin had a tape of Trump watching prostitutes urinate on a bed in Moscow. The point of the warning was to alert Trump to the dossier, which was already in the media’s hands, and to defuse any blackmail threat from Russia. Instead, Trump took the warning as a threat from the intelligence agencies. Days later, when the dossier showed up in the press, Trump felt vindicated in his suspicion.
Trump’s drift toward the Kremlin, and away from his own government, was now self-perpetuating. The more the intelligence agencies looked into Russia’s relationship with Trump, the more Trump turned against them. Putin could accelerate the split just by defending Trump and opposing the agencies’ work. So when Trump, in the wake of the Jan. 6 report, called the focus on Russian interference a “witch hunt,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, parroted him. Peskov dismissed the dossier as a “complete fabrication” and part of a “witch hunt.”
Trump, in turn, echoed Peskov. “Russia just said the unverified report paid for by political opponents is ‘A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION,’ ” he tweeted. Two days later, Trump added: “Russia says nothing exists. Probably released by ‘Intelligence’ even knowing there is no proof, and never will be.” At his press conference, Trump thanked Putin for denouncing the dossier. In their joint defense against the intelligence agencies, Trump and Putin were beginning to coordinate a message.
5. Attacking the Investigation
On Jan. 20, Trump was sworn in as president. In a Fox News interview, he brushed aside Putin’s bloody history, asking, “What, you think our country’s so innocent?” Now that Trump had power, intelligence officials who threatened Trump’s relationship with Putin wouldn’t just face angry tweets. They could lose their jobs.
Six days after Trump’s inauguration, U.S. intelligence officials sent an emissary to the White House to warn Trump that his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had misled the FBI and Vice President Mike Pence about secret conversations with Russia. The conversations, which had taken place after the election, addressed the possibility of easing U.S. sanctions on Russia. The warning was meant to protect Pence. But Trump didn’t turn against Flynn or Russia. He turned against the FBI.
Trump kept Flynn on board until Feb. 13, when the Washington Post disclosed the warning. Under pressure, Trump accepted Flynn’s resignation. The next day, Trump cleared the Oval Office so he could speak to Comey alone. According to Comey’s notes, Trump told the FBI director, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”
That night, the New York Times published another unwelcome story. It reported that “American law enforcement and intelligence agencies” had evidence of repeated contacts between Russia and Trump associates before the election. Trump raged at the leakers. “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?),” he tweeted.
On Feb. 16, Trump held a long press conference to attack the Russia story. “The whole Russian thing,” he insisted, was a “ruse,” a “fabricated deal to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats.” Worse, said Trump, it was blocking a harmonious U.S.-Russia relationship. Several times, Trump speculated aloud that Putin was watching him, and he lamented that “pressure” from the Russia story was making it “impossible” for the two presidents to work together.
The pressure grew. On March 20, Comey confirmed that the FBI was investigating whether Trump’s campaign had colluded with Russia. Trump began to argue that the real scandal was the investigation itself. On Twitter, the president demanded that the media “start talking about the Obama SURVEILLANCE SCANDAL and stop with the Fake Trump/Russia story.” Privately, Trump pressed Comey to “lift the cloud” of the investigation.
Comey failed to comply, and on May 9, Trump fired him. The next day, Trump met behind closed doors with Russia’s foreign minister and its U.S. ambassador—the same ambassador whose secret talks with Flynn had prompted Flynn to mislead the FBI. “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told the Russians, according to White House notes of the conversation. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” At the meeting, Trump alarmed his aides by sharing highly sensitive intelligence with the Russians. He seemed to think that the real interference—the meddling of U.S. intelligence agencies in his relationship with Putin—was finally out of the way.
6. Embracing Putin
Trump was mistaken. Over the next year, the pressure of the Russia investigation would increase. To counter it, Trump would have to work harder to protect Putin. So he did.
Trump’s dismissal of Comey backfired. Notes from Trump’s meeting with the Russians leaked to the press. So did Comey’s records of Trump’s attempts to corrupt him. That led to the appointment of a special counsel, Robert Mueller, to take over the investigation. And in early July, the Times reported the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower.
Trump was unapologetic about the Trump Tower meeting and the email that led to it. He saw no difference between getting campaign help from the Russian government and getting campaign help from Americans. In a press conference and an interview with Reuters, he maintained that any candidate would have accepted the Russian offer. “That’s very standard in politics,” he said.
Meanwhile, Trump and Putin bonded. While the Times was reporting its story, the two presidents conferred at a G-20 meeting in Germany. They spoke privately for nearly an hour. Trump was impressed. Afterward, he tweeted that Putin “vehemently denied” having meddled in the election. Trump added his own skepticism, complaining that the FBI had never physically examined the hacked DNC server. (Trump didn’t mention that the bureau had examined a copy of the server’s contents, as is common in such investigations.) He belittled the U.S. intelligence report that implicated Putin, saying the report had been produced by only four agencies. And he announced that he and Putin were discussing the idea of working together on cybersecurity.
Under pressure from Congress, Trump accepted some policies Russia didn’t like. But he did so grudgingly and with harsh words for anyone who caused such trouble. In August, facing a veto-proof majority in Congress, Trump signed a sanctions bill that included Russia. He criticized the bill, however, and resisted implementation of the sanctions. “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low,” Trump tweeted. “You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us [health] care!”
Trump’s defenders argued that his attacks on the investigation weren’t intended to protect Russia. The president’s only beef, they insisted, was with the part of the investigation that posited collusion. But Trump’s behavior defied that explanation. In September, when Facebook acknowledged that Russian agents had put ads on its platform during the election, Putin’s spokesman denied it, claiming that the Kremlin didn’t even know how to place ads on Facebook. The next day, Trump denied it, too. “The Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook,” he tweeted.
In November, Putin got another chance to speak with Trump, this time at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam. On the flight home, Trump told reporters how impressed he was by Putin’s sincere denials of election interference. “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ ” said Trump. “I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. … I think he’s very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth.”
The problem wasn’t Putin, said Trump. It was the Democrats and their “hit job” on Trump and Russia. “President Putin would be tremendously helpful,” said Trump. “But this artificial barrier gets in the way. I call it the ‘artificial Democrat barrier.’ … It’s a shame that something like that can destroy a very important potential relationship between two countries.”
Trump dismissed the intelligence community’s report on Russian interference. He ridiculed Comey, former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and other officials involved in the report:
You hear it’s 17 agencies. Well, it’s three. And one is Brennan, and one is whatever. I mean, give me a break. They’re political hacks. … You have Brennan, you have Clapper, and you have Comey. Comey is proven now to be a liar, and he’s proven to be a leaker. So you look at that, and you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that.
Trump’s allegiance was increasingly overt. He trusted Putin over the intelligence chiefs, and he was proud to be Putin’s man. “The Democrats wanted to have a good relationship with Russia, but they couldn’t do it, because they didn’t have the talent to do it,” Trump told the reporters on Air Force One. “They didn’t have the chemistry to do it.”
7. Denouncing America
In March, Putin won re-election to a fourth term. Trump’s advisers asked him not to congratulate the Russian president. Trump, in a phone call, congratulated him anyway. On Twitter, Trump glowed over their affinity. “Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the ‘smarts,’ ” Trump wrote. “Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry.”
Moments of unpleasantness—a poisoning here, a chemical weapons attack there—occasionally threatened Trump’s bond with Putin. But Trump worked hard to preserve their relationship. In April, after the Syrian government gassed civilians, Trump warned Putin not to get in the way of U.S. missile strikes on Syrian forces. But two hours later, Trump blamed their spat on Democrats. “Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama,” Trump tweeted.
In July, Trump and Putin met for a summit in Helsinki. Three days before, the Department of Justice released a grand jury indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for the election hacks. The indictment, drafted by Mueller’s team, presented extensive evidence of the officers’ guilt. But Trump blamed the United States. “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse,” he tweeted, “thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
Trump insisted on meeting Putin alone. For two hours, the two presidents spoke behind closed doors, accompanied only by translators. Afterward, at a joint press conference, Trump again blamed his own country and refused a point-blank challenge to say that he held Russia “accountable for anything.” When a reporter asked Putin about “the evidence that U.S. intelligence agencies have provided” to prove Russian interference, Trump stepped in to dismiss the question. “The whole concept” of Russian interference, said Trump, had been concocted “as a reason why the Democrats lost.”
A second reporter challenged Trump to denounce Russia’s interference and asked him whether he believed Putin or the intelligence agencies. In response, Trump attacked the agencies. Trump distinguished his own appointees—“my intelligence people”—from the intelligence chiefs who had issued the January 2017 report on Russian interference. He demanded to know “why the FBI never took the server.” And he concluded: “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
And President Putin said that. One of the early things he said when we started, he said: “It’s really a shame, because we could do so much good.” … When he went in, he said, “What a shame.” He felt it was very hard for me to make a deal because of, you know, all of this nonsense.
Trump attacked the whole investigation, claiming that Flynn was innocent of lying to the FBI (Flynn had already pleaded guilty) and that Manafort was being unfairly prosecuted (in addition to his underlying financial charges, Manafort had been jailed for allegedly tampering with witnesses). In fact, said Trump, Mueller’s team was so rotten that it probably wouldn’t accept Putin’s “incredible offer” to work with Russia in investigating the indicted Russian officers. Putin had generously “said that Robert Mueller’s people could go with them,” Trump told Hannity. “But they probably won’t want to. The 13 angry Democrats—you think they’re going to want to go? I don’t think so.”
Four times during the interview, Trump used the word wedge to describe how his enemies were dividing the United States from Russia. But Trump’s accusation was itself a wedge. He was trying to turn Americans against anyone—prosecutors, reporters, intelligence officers—who threatened Putin. And he was casting the Russian president as the standard of truth and fairness. If Putin said the Russia investigation was nonsense, it was nonsense. If Mueller’s team refused to accept Putin’s terms for investigating the indicted Russian officers, then Mueller’s team was corrupt.
Helsinki made Trump’s alliance with Putin too blatant to ignore. Trump was almost cartoonish in his efforts to protect Russia and vilify its accusers. “The Fake News Media wants so badly to see a major confrontation with Russia, even a confrontation that could lead to war,” Trump tweeted. “The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.” On Fox News, Trump’s supporters parroted this reverse McCarthyism. Jeanine Pirro asked: “Is Mueller a greater threat than Putin to this country?” Mark Levin declared: “Robert Mueller is a greater threat to this republic and the Constitution than anything Vladimir Putin did during the campaign.”
8. The Crisis That Will Not End
The past three years have made clear that Trump is mentally incapable of confronting Russia’s interference. Even Republicans in Congress acknowledge this. Trump “views any sort of admission of Russian interference as admission of collusion,” says Sen. Marco Rubio. And this inability to detach himself from Putin has grown into a cancerous union. If this theory is true—if Trump is working with Putin not because of a pee tape or a secret debt, but because the two men have found common cause—that’s far more ominous. It means that Trump’s motives to betray his country are internal and enduring.
Trump will continue to attack Putin’s critics and weaken the United States until he’s stopped. Last week, Trump revoked Brennan’s security clearance, citing the former CIA director’s role in the Russia investigation. The White House said Trump was considering similar moves against Comey and Clapper. “These people led” the “rigged witch hunt,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal. “So I think it’s something that had to be done.”
Something must be done, but not to men who have faithfully served this nation. The United States can’t have a president who is mentally incapable of uniting our country, acknowledging an attack on it, putting its interests before his own, or distinguishing foreign from domestic influence. No one who is that morally defective can fulfill the oath of office.