The Gist

Trump’s Russian Policy: Outright Collusion … or Baffling Incompetence?

Whether it’s to own the libs, feed his ego, or plow headfirst into the fire, Trump—even in a thought experiment where he is innocent—has acted in ways that are inexplicably destructive.

Donald Trump with a halo over his head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Leah Millis/Reuters and Getty Images Plus.

The following essay is adapted from an episode of The Gist, a daily podcast about news, culture, and whatever else you’re discussing with your family and friends.

Donald Trump knew he was under FBI investigation early on in his presidency, and as soon as he knew about it he let us know about it, tweeting a month and a half after being inaugurated that he’d had his “wires tapped.” He had not. (In fact, a onetime Trump “aide” named Carter Page had been the subject of a FISA warrant because of his dalliances with Russia. But even before these specific allegations of Russian meddling were made public, Trump and his staffers had spent many news cycles battling interference charges.)

In July 2016, Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. contended with questions on the Sunday shows about the Trump campaign’s links to Russia. Three days later, Trump weighed in on CBS about Russian involvement.

“I think if I came up with that, they’d say, ‘Oh, it’s a conspiracy theory, it’s ridiculous.’ I mean I have nothing to do with Russia. I don’t have any jobs in Russia. I’m all over the world but we’re not involved in Russia,” he said.

In October 2016, he dismissed allegations of Russian involvement at a rally in Tampa: “I have nothing to do with Russia, folks, OK? I’ll give you a written statement.”

And days later saw it necessary to assert via Twitter: “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”

All of this shows the president knew there were serious allegations of Russian involvement during the campaign. Weeks into his presidency he knew there was a federal investigation into campaign associates and Russia. Within his first four months in office he fired James Comey in part over the Russia investigation.

You’ve probably read or seen countless arguments that essentially ask: “How would the words and actions of Donald Trump be any different if he were indeed a Russian agent?” I am here to do the opposite. I ask you to assume, for the time being, that Donald Trump is not a Russian operative, or even a willing beneficiary of Russian operations. Assume that his explanations about Russian involvement in the election (shifting though those explanations are) are centered on this premise: Donald Trump never knowingly worked with the Russians to win the election. With that as the baseline, I contend that Trump’s actions and statements are at least as troubling and disqualifying as if he had been conspiring, or yes, colluding, with Russia the whole time.

Take, for instance, the meeting that Trump took with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office a day after firing James Comey. Yes, a totally innocent and noncolluding Donald Trump decided to welcome two senior Russian officials into the Oval Office and to allow only the Russian state news agency, not American journalists, to document the meeting. Even if Trump deduced that only his wildest enemies could possibly believe that he did anything wrong to get elected, he thought the best way to make this point was to meet with representatives of the very foreign government accused of interfering with U.S. elections. In this meeting he also divulged to the two Russian officials theretofore classified intelligence concerning Israel and ISIS. Maybe he thought, “Would a guilty man possibly act this way?” The problem is that many observers strongly concluded “Yes.” That alone is a problem for him.

Two months later, Trump traveled to the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, for his first ever meeting with Vladimir Putin. The two presidents, who, in our scenario, certainly did not commit a ruse to influence American voters, met out of the earshot or monitoring of U.S. aides. There were actually two meetings in Hamburg between these two honest actors, the second of which went undisclosed for 11 days until it was reported by security consultant Ian Bremmer. During this meeting, as the Washington Post recently reported, Trump seized his translator’s notes and demanded that other administration officials not be provided details of the meeting.

Why would a president who did not do anything wrong with regard to the Russians take these steps? I don’t mean this sarcastically, or as a rhetorical gambit to lead you to conclude, “Ah, there is indeed no other explanation other than collusion.” Really, imagine that Trump truly is blameless. And yet he acts furtively, wantonly, and in contravention of established diplomatic practice. One obvious explanation is that he has no knowledge of diplomatic practice. (I’ll buy that, by the way.) Another is that he does not believe anyone will find out that he met with Putin a second time and that he did not keep notes or use his own aides. He miscalculates, as evidenced by the fact that I’m discussing it here. A third supposition is that Trump must think the importance of a private communication with Putin—which, again, has nothing to do with collusion, conspiracy, or cover-up—outweighs the perception that the president of the United States is up to something fishy.

In other words, Trump thought that even if the fact of his meeting were to be discovered and even if its unusual circumstances would cause concern among the public or give ammunition to his critics, none of that was as important as substance of the totally above-board and non-eyebrow raising conversation he had with his Russian counterpart. This is, I will generously say, a spectacular miscalculation.

On his way back from the G-20, aboard Air Force One, an unbothered, nothing-to-hide president gave—or as per Sarah Huckabee Sanders “weighed in, as any father would”—an explanation of his son’s Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. This statement, which asserted that campaign matters were not discussed at said meeting, was shown to be misleading at best and a lie at worst. So in our world, the world of the pure POTUS, this is an example of lighting upon a falsehood to explain a set of facts, facts that if disclosed honestly would in no way implicate the president or the campaign … and yet he went with the falsehood instead. In contributing to the Air Force One statement, Trump made one of a few calculations. A.) His misleading explanation would do more to advance his narrative of innocence, because he truly is innocent, than the actual truth would; B.) the misleading version of these innocent events would never be uncovered; or C.) if it were uncovered, it wouldn’t look worse than simply offering the accurate version of this innocent meeting.

In our scenario of an unsullied POTUS, no thought is ever given to the legitimacy of the perception that something odd was going down. Trump doesn’t think reasonable people, or even unreasonable people who happen to add up to the majority of the electorate, could come to be concerned with meetings of such an odd sort.

This is exactly why he signaled his disapproval of a Russian sanctions bill that the Senate would come to pass 98–2 and the House 419–3. The president did not object to this bill out of fealty or obligation to the Russians. He did so because this was his constitutional interpretation, and he didn’t care how it looked or who knew it. He struck out against even Republican senators who may one day sit in judgment of him. But that was all outweighed by his assertion of executive powers. Trump does not care how his interactions with Russia or Putin look because Trump knows he is operating from a place that is pure.

This is also why, when the president met with Putin on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in late 2017, he didn’t give any credence  to the growing pile of documentary evidence that Putin meddled in U.S. elections. “He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump told reporters at the time. “You can only ask so many times. I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election.”

Perhaps it’s because Trump doesn’t have a guilty conscience that he can’t conceive of another’s guilt. Though it does seem that Trump has an easy time of seeing the darkness in others, and he has held that out as a virtue in his tools as a negotiator. Or perhaps Trump calculates that a narrative of Putin actually meddling (but Trump not knowing about or being the beneficiary of the meddling) is too complicated for the public to process. In any event, Trump is extremely credulous of Putin’s explanation, or at least doesn’t treat it with the scorn and suspicion he reserves for, say, Alec Baldwin’s unflattering impressions on Saturday Night Live.

Cut to Helsinki. Trump has a bona fide summit with his Russian counterpart Putin. Remember, neither has anything on the other, beyond what leverage statecraft and diplomacy can deliver. But by the summer of 2018, the meeting does come amid a backdrop—really a clamor—of experts across all levels of government having concluded that the Russians did seek to influence the 2016 election.

Pre-summit Trump took to Twitter to bemoan the sorry state of U.S.-Russia relations, which Trump blamed on the Mueller investigation. And the Russians signed off on that.

And then Trump—again, innocent of intent and act in this scenario—stood alongside Putin. Asked about the tone and language used to confront his counterpart about election interference, Trump shared that Putin “just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Why? What would explain such credulity once you have ruled out that the president fears an inculpatory utterance? One explanation could be that he so prizes the norms of diplomatic decorum that he refused to appear confrontational while standing next to anther leader. Remember, this from a man who berated the prime minister of Canada, America’s closest ally, as “dishonest and weak.” Another explanation is that Trump so fervently knows that he did not benefit from Russian interference that he simply cannot imagine that the Russians interfered. Or perhaps Trump calculates that whatever he says, his supporters will believe it … so why not say there was no wrongdoing rather than wade into gray areas? That might complicate the support of the faithful.

The White House acknowledged that whatever Trump’s calculation in the moment, he should have said something slightly different, because they engaged in the post-hoc pas de deux of insisting that Trump misspoke: “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ ” Sure.

This quibbling over words did not change the fact that Trump stood shoulder to shoulder with the man casting a shadow over his entire presidency, and essentially embraced him without qualification. The analogy might go something like this: A man is accused by his spouse, children, co-workers, and friends of having an affair. The man then seeks out his alleged mistress and ostentatiously flirts with her at his daughter’s wedding. Perhaps you could say the man is so convinced of his own rectitude he goes overboard to show he has nothing to hide.

Or you could conclude the man has foolishly misread the situation.

There are so many other examples of Trump going light on the Russians or missing an obvious opportunity to chastise the Russians for misdeeds. To take just one, his administration did issue real punishments for the Russians’ attempt to assassinate their former agent in Britain. But Trump never once mentioned the Skripals by name. Instead, France, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. issued a joint statement, and any admonishments that did flow came from the State Department. This was an easy chance for a noncolluding president to show that he could stand tough against Russia. Why wouldn’t he? Perhaps dedication to the project of improved relations with Russia got in the way. Maybe a total unwillingness to give his political enemies an inch, simply by dignifying the notion that the Russians are bad actors in any realm? One is weak; the other is obstinate. Neither are smart choices.

Perhaps Trump so enjoys tweaking his opponents that he could not help appointing as head of the Department of Justice’s criminal division a former employee of Alfa-Bank, who was paid to defend the Russian bank against accusations of suspicious contacts with a Trump Organization computer server during the 2016 election. These aren’t the acts of a guilt-laden man covering his tracks. Perhaps they are the acts of a gleeful provocateur raising the specter of a boogeyman to confuse and frighten his opponents.

Whether it’s to own the libs, feed his ego, ignore the perceptions, or plow headfirst into the fire, Trump (even our thought experiment’s innocent Trump) has acted in ways that are inexplicably self-destructive. Are we to conclude from all these examples that Trump must be guilty of being in on the job? I don’t think so. There is another explanation. Donald Trump is miscalculating, foolish, incompetent, poorly counseled, impetuous, and unable to read the mood and concerns of the public. That is, frankly very much in keeping what we know about Trump, and in many ways easier to accept than the idea that he is a Russian agent. Trump in the thrall or employ of the Russians argues that he has betrayed his office. Trump as innocent of Russian influence—but acting the way he does anyway—argues that he has been betrayed by his own profound inadequacies.

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