Politics

Trump’s Treachery Goes Way Beyond Russia

He’s not working for Putin. He’s working for any dictator who flatters him.

Donald Trump flanked by photos of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, and Kim Jong-un.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photos by Sean Gallup/Getty Images, Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images, Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images, Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images, and Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has ended his Russia investigation, and Republicans are gloating. “Complete and Total EXONERATION,” says President Donald Trump. “There was nothing there,” adds Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway. “We know that now. We know it from Director Mueller.”

Trump and his surrogates are lying. Mueller has indicted dozens of people. He has obtained multiple convictions and guilty pleas. He has proved or confirmed that Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Donald Trump Jr., and others in the Trump camp collaborated with Russian agents or intermediaries. According to the Justice Department, Mueller’s report also presents evidence that Trump may have obstructed justice.

Beyond the report, there’s plenty of evidence that Trump has collaborated with Russia against the U.S. government. He has shilled for Vladimir Putin, urged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, defended a secret meeting to get Russian dirt on her, attacked U.S. intelligence agencies that documented Russia’s election interference, and fired the FBI director who was investigating that interference. All of these betrayals are recorded or acknowledged on video.

And Russia is just the beginning of the story. Trump’s treachery goes well beyond his service to Moscow. Transcripts, videos, and government records show that he has repeatedly collaborated with tyrants against our country. He has defended North Korea’s Kim Jong-un against U.S. intelligence that shows Kim is lying about his nuclear programs. He has defended Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, against American intelligence that exposes the crown prince’s role in the murder of a U.S. resident. He has sided with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, against American generals and U.S. law enforcement. He has declared that the Chinese government is more honorable than the American Democratic Party.

There’s a good reason why Mueller didn’t find proof that Trump is a Russian agent. It’s because Trump isn’t a Russian agent. Trump doesn’t particularly care about any country, just as he doesn’t particularly care about any of his employees or wives. And the list of countries Trump is willing to betray includes the one that elected him. He chooses his friends and enemies based on their utility to him, not based on their national allegiance. That’s how Putin turned Trump against the United States. And other governments have learned the same trick.

The lesson of the Mueller investigation isn’t that Trump is less treacherous than his critics feared. It’s that he’s more treacherous. He’s been selling out his country to a series of dictators. Don’t take it from me. Don’t even take it from Mueller. It’s all in the public record, one damning story after another. Here are four of them.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, seated, shake hands.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin shake hands before a meeting in Helsinki on July 16.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Trump’s relationship with Russia is the template for all the treacheries that followed. Here’s how it works: A foreign authoritarian flatters and favors Trump. Unlike past presidents, Trump has no immune response to such courtships. He has never served in the military or in public office. He thinks he’s a patriot—earlier this month, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he literally hugged an American flag—but he doesn’t really understand what patriotism means. He loves Americans only if they love him. And that makes him susceptible to the authoritarian’s advances.

Trump is amoral, so he ignores the authoritarian’s abuses of human rights. He thinks of America as a corporation, with himself as the CEO. He regards the authoritarian as a fellow CEO and is happy to make a deal. Anyone who gets between Trump and his new friend becomes, in Trump’s view, an enemy. So when American officials challenge the authoritarian’s lies, Trump attacks the Americans.

That’s what happened with Putin. In December 2015, as Trump gained ground in the Republican presidential race, Putin began to lavish praise on him. Trump reciprocated by suggesting that Russia was better than the United States. An interviewer reminded Trump that Putin “kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries.” Trump retorted that “our country does plenty of killing also” and that Putin was “a leader, you know, unlike we have in this country.” In February 2017, a month after Trump became president, he excused Putin’s crimes again. When an interviewer described Putin as “a killer,” Trump replied: “There are a lot of killers. … What, you think our country’s so innocent?” Earlier this year, Trump went further, defending the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Trump has openly collaborated with the Russian government against Americans. In July 2016, he called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. Trump now claims he was joking. But at the time, when a reporter asked Trump whether he had “any pause about asking a foreign government—Russia, China, anybody—to interfere, to hack into the system of anybody in this country,” the candidate replied, “No, it gives me no pause.” In 2017, Trump defended a secret meeting between Russian emissaries and his top campaign officials during the election. The meeting was based on an explicit, written Russian offer of “sensitive information” about Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” The president said there was no difference between getting such information from Russians and getting it from Americans. He claimed that any candidate would have accepted the offer.

Trump has also conspired against the United States in private. In February 2017, he shooed a dozen U.S. officials out of the Oval Office so he could ask then–FBI Director James Comey, one on one, to drop the FBI’s investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who had lied about his contacts with Russia. Three months later, Trump fired Comey and told two Russian officials, behind closed doors, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” In July 2017, after a meeting with Putin in Germany, Trump confiscated the U.S. interpreter’s notes from the meeting and instructed the interpreter not to tell U.S. officials what had been said. In July 2018, Trump excluded U.S. officials from a two-hour meeting with Putin in Helsinki.

Trump has repeatedly sided with Putin against the 2017 U.S. intelligence report that documented Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He has dismissed the U.S. officials behind the report as liars and “political hacks.” He has explicitly denounced the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and “the intelligence community.” He has revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, citing Brennan’s role in the Russia investigation. In July, the Department of Justice released an indictment that documented the complicity of 12 Russian intelligence officers in the election hacks. Three days later, after his private meeting with Putin, Trump dismissed the evidence and indicated that he believed Putin’s denial.

These aren’t conspiracy theories. They’re facts. They show that Trump formed an alliance with Putin and attacked anyone in the U.S. government who sought to tell the truth about Putin’s crimes. But Putin isn’t the only despot Trump has protected. He was just the first.

Mohammed bin Salman and Donald Trump, seated, shake hands.
Mohammed bin Salman and Donald Trump shake hands during a meeting at the White House on March 20, 2018.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On May 20, 2017, Trump took a seat of honor at the royal palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was his first presidential trip overseas. Three weeks earlier, he had complained that the United States was spending too much money defending the Saudi kingdom. The Saudis were about to rectify that. As Trump looked on, American executives paraded before him to receive lucrative defense and investment contracts from Saudi ministers. Officially, it was a “Signing Ceremony Supporting Saudi Arabia’s Defense Needs.” Unofficially, it was Riyadh’s purchase of the president of the United States.

From that point forward, Trump excused or ignored everything the Saudis did: their brutal war in Yemen, their abduction of Lebanon’s prime minister, and their incendiary blockade of Qatar. He explicitly defended them as a wealthy client deserving of special respect. When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the White House in March 2018, Trump fawned over him in front of cameras, detailing the billions of dollars the Saudis were spending on American products.

Then came a more difficult test of Trump’s loyalty. On Oct. 2, a Saudi hit squad murdered and dismembered Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and U.S. resident, inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. First the Saudi government denied that Khashoggi had been killed. Then the Saudis denied that MBS had played any role in the crime. But U.S. intelligence agencies obtained an audio recording and other evidence documenting the murder and the crown prince’s involvement.

As with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump would have to choose between facts collected by the U.S. government and lies peddled by an authoritarian regime. Again, he chose the regime.

Initially, aides showed Trump the evidence against MBS in private. Trump resisted it, so officials leaked it to the press. One exhibit, confirmed by CIA Director Gina Haspel, was audio of a phone call in which the commander of the hit squad instructed an aide to MBS to “tell your boss” that the job was done. Another was a phone call in which the crown prince’s brother told Khashoggi to go to the consulate, where the hit squad was waiting. Passport records also linked MBS to the killers. The CIA’s internal assessment, based on this and other information, was that MBS had “ordered the assassination.”

To make certain that Trump understood the evidence, Haspel briefed him in person and in writing. Afterward, reporters asked Trump what the CIA had found. Trump couldn’t attack Haspel, since he had appointed her. So instead, he lied. “They haven’t assessed anything yet,” Trump told reporters on Nov. 17. Three days later, he repeated, “They didn’t make a determination.” Two days after that, Trump lied again: “They did not come to a conclusion. … The CIA points it both ways.” The White House made sure that Haspel, who could have contradicted the president, was kept out of a Nov. 28 briefing with senators.

Officials who knew the truth tried to alert Congress. On Dec. 1, they leaked more details from the CIA’s assessment. Just before and after the murder, MBS had exchanged at least 11 electronic messages with his aide, who was simultaneously communicating with the hit squad. The crown prince had also proposed, a year earlier, to lure Khashoggi into a trap and “make arrangements.” The CIA’s report concluded: “We assess it is highly unlikely this team of operators … carried out the operation without Muhammed bin Salman’s authorization.” But Trump refused to budge. “The crown prince vehemently denies it,” he told the press.

Three months later, Trump is still covering up for MBS. On Feb. 7, the New York Times, citing a U.S. intelligence report written in December, reported additional evidence against the crown prince: an intercepted 2017 conversation in which he told an aide he would go after Khashoggi “with a bullet.” On March 17, the Times disclosed that intelligence reports showed MBS had authorized “at least a dozen” violent or coercive operations against Saudi dissenters, some of them executed by the same team that killed Khashoggi. Congress has instructed Trump to issue a legally mandated report on Khashoggi’s death. But Trump has refused.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, seated, shake hands.
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un shake hands with during a meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 27.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Trump’s relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, unlike his relationships with Putin and MBS, started out badly. Kim alarmed the world with missile tests; Trump called Kim “Little Rocket Man” and threatened him with “fire and fury.” Then, on Nov. 28, 2017, Kim conducted a missile test so impressive that everyone realized he could hit any city in the continental United States. Kim announced that his nation had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” And he turned to his next project: recruiting, as North Korea’s new ally, the president of the United States.

Kim enlisted South Korea as his intermediary. On March 8, 2018, a South Korean emissary went to the White House to pitch Kim’s offer: a summit with Trump. American officials opposed the idea, since Kim hadn’t promised, much less taken, any steps toward halting his nuclear program. But Trump ignored these officials. He immediately agreed to the summit and launched a campaign to promote it.

Kim’s offer converted Trump from an enemy to an apologist. Unlike previous presidents, Trump saw the summit as a showcase not for Kim but for himself. By staking his prestige on the summit’s success, Trump became Kim’s partner. Trump was a willing liar, and if North Korea failed to denuclearize, Trump would look bad. So no matter what U.S. intelligence said, Trump would insist that North Korea was denuclearizing.

The summit took place in Singapore on June 12. Trump declared it a triumph. He brushed aside questions about Kim’s human rights abuses and asserted, without evidence, that North Korea had ended its nuclear research. “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office,” Trump announced on Twitter. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

Trump’s assurances were false. A post-summit U.S. intelligence assessment, leaked to NBC News on June 29, found that North Korea had increased its nuclear fuel production at secret military sites. An official familiar with the assessment said it showed “unequivocal evidence that they are trying to deceive the U.S.” and “no evidence that they are decreasing stockpiles or that they have stopped their production.” The Washington Post reported additional details from the assessment, including concealment of sites and weapons. The New York Times added that according to satellite images, “the test missile engine site that Mr. Trump told reporters was being dismantled still stands.”

Trump shrugged off these reports. In an interview with Fox News on July 1, he defended Kim’s sincerity: “I shook hands with him. I really believe he means it.” Two days later, Trump tweeted: “Many good conversations with North Korea—it is going well! … Only the Opposition Party, which includes the Fake News, is complaining.” On July 12, Trump piped up again: “A very nice note from Chairman Kim of North Korea. Great progress being made!”

These statements followed the pattern of Trump’s statements about Putin. Again, Trump was taking the word of a dictator over U.S. intelligence. Again, he was treating any criticism of the dictator as a threat to himself. And again, Trump was telling his supporters that Americans who spoke the truth about the dictator were the real enemy.

On July 30, the Post disclosed fresh satellite images and other intelligence that showed North Korea was building “at least one and possibly two liquid-fueled ICBMs” that could hit the United States. In addition, North Korean officials had been caught discussing plans to conceal missiles, warheads, and nuclear sites so they could feign denuclearization. Trump replied that these “negative stories” were “fake.” On Aug. 10, the New York Times reported that North Korea had opened a new reactor and that the CIA’s estimate of Kim’s nuclear weapons had doubled. Trump repeated that Kim was denuclearizing, and he said he and Kim had fallen “in love.”

In an October interview on 60 Minutes, Trump contradicted his own negotiating team, insisting that North Korea was “closing up sites.” Lesley Stahl asked the president, “But is it true that they haven’t gotten rid of a single weapon, and they may actually be building more missiles?” Trump waved the question away. “Nobody really knows,” he said. In November, a study based on satellite images and information from defectors identified more than a dozen secret military bases involved in North Korea’s missile program. “Just more Fake News,” Trump tweeted.

Trump’s deception campaign continues to this day. A month ago, at a second summit with Kim, a reporter pointed out that in the eight months since the Singapore meeting, North Korea had cranked out more missiles and nuclear material. “Some people are denying that,” Trump retorted. He discounted satellite pictures of North Korea’s secret weapons work, arguing that they had been taken from “way above.” And he insisted that Kim had nothing to do with North Korea’s fatal mistreatment of an American citizen, Otto Warmbier. “I don’t believe he knew about it,” said Trump.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump, seated, shake hands.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump shake hands before a meeting during the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2017, in New York City.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

There’s one more story that sheds light on Trump’s disloyalty. It’s the story of his relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey. Trump hasn’t sucked up to Erdogan the way he has sucked up to Putin, Kim, and MBS. But Turkey has repeatedly encroached on American sovereignty in ways that a normal American president would have resisted. Instead, Trump has acquiesced.

Their relationship began with an infiltration. On July 15, 2016, four days before Trump was nominated for president, renegade officers in the Turkish military attempted a coup against Erdogan. The coup failed, and Erdogan set out to capture the man he blamed for the plot: Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric living in the United States. To get at Gülen, Erdogan’s government recruited an American agent: Trump’s foreign policy adviser, Michael Flynn.

Turkish intermediaries opened talks with Flynn in late July. They paid Flynn’s company more than $500,000 and introduced him to Turkish government ministers who backed the project. For the rest of the presidential campaign, Flynn secretly worked for Turkey, promoting Gülen’s extradition. And after Trump won, Flynn did something else that pleased his paymasters. As the incoming national security adviser, he spiked an Obama administration plan to arm Kurdish forces—regarded by the Turks as an enemy—for an attack on ISIS.

There’s no proof that Trump knew about Flynn’s duplicity. What’s notable is that once Trump found out, he didn’t care. On Feb. 13, 2017, Flynn resigned for lying about his pre-election talks with Russia’s ambassador. Three weeks later, under pressure from investigators, Flynn filed papers acknowledging that while working for Trump, he had been an unregistered foreign agent for Turkish interests. Trump defended Flynn’s talks with Russia and expressed no concern about the foreign-agent declaration. On March 31, Trump tweeted that Flynn “should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt.” When congressional leaders rebuked Flynn for concealing payments he had received from Russia and Turkey, Trump sent Flynn a private message to “stay strong.” Trump didn’t care whether Flynn was loyal to the United States. He cared that Flynn was loyal to Trump.

In April 2017, Erdogan won a referendum to abolish Turkey’s parliamentary system and consolidate power under its presidency. Election observers warned that the referendum had been stacked and that Turkey was sliding into authoritarianism. Nevertheless, Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him. Weeks later, Trump welcomed Erdogan to the White House. And that’s when their partnership crossed a line: Erdogan’s thugs brought their political violence onto American soil. And Trump did nothing.

The meeting at the White House took place on May 17. Shortly after it ended, Erdogan’s bodyguards broke through a police cordon outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence and assaulted protesters. This was in Washington, in broad daylight. Video showed Erdogan looking on and conferring with his head of security just before the attack began. Congress and the State Department condemned the incident, and a grand jury indicted 15 Turkish officers. But Trump said nothing. When Erdogan complained about the indictments, Trump, in a phone call, expressed regret and told Erdogan he would follow up. The charges were later dropped.

In the following year, Turkey tangled with the United States over steel tariffs and the imprisonment of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson. Then, in the fall of 2018, Erdogan went after Gülen again. He released Brunson and offered to ease up on Trump’s ally, Saudi Arabia, in the Khashoggi case. In exchange, Erdogan asked for help in getting at Gülen. Trump obliged him. The White House ordered the Justice Department to look for ways to expel the cleric. Even after being told there were no legal grounds, the administration pressed DOJ for options. Trump told reporters that he wasn’t extraditing Gülen, but he added: “That is something that we’re always looking at.” He said of Erdogan: “He’s a strong man. He’s a tough man. … He’s a friend of mine. And whatever we can do, we’ll do.”

Trump was good to his word. It turned out there was something he could do. Erdogan wanted to send Turkish forces into Syria to attack the Kurds. But he couldn’t do that with American troops—who were there to fight ISIS—in the way. So, in December, he arranged a phone call with Trump. Trump’s national security team prepared talking points, instructing the president to tell Erdogan to back off.

The conversation didn’t go as planned. On the call, Erdogan pointed out that ISIS had lost nearly all its land. He assured Trump that Turkey would finish the job if the United States got out. Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, was on the call, too, and he reminded Trump that even without control of territory, ISIS remained a potent guerrilla force and terrorist network. Trump listened to the debate between the American position and the Turkish one. And he made his decision. He told Erdogan, “You know what? It’s yours. I’m leaving.”

Trump’s advisers were horrified, particularly at his betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies. Defense Secretary James Mattis, in protest, submitted a letter of resignation. So did Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition. Trump responded by savaging both men and aligning himself with Erdogan. On Dec. 23, Trump announced that he was pushing Mattis out of his job. Minutes later, Trump tweeted that he had just spoken with Erdogan. Trump said Erdogan had pledged to eradicate ISIS, “and he is a man who can do it.”

In effect, Trump had just fired Mattis, sidelined Bolton, and transferred their responsibilities in Syria to Erdogan. The move was indifferent to nationality, and therefore perfectly Trumpian. A Turkish agent in his campaign; Turkish security thugs beating up protesters in America; the Turkish president replacing the American defense secretary. Trump was fine with all of it.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, standing, shake hands.
Donald Trump and Xi Jinping shake hands during a press conference in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.
Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 29, the heads of several U.S. intelligence agencies appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee to present their annual report on threats to the United States. None of the witnesses disputed Trump by name, but they contradicted him on every point. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, testified that North Korea’s ongoing work on nuclear weapons and deception was “inconsistent with full denuclearization.” Gina Haspel, the CIA director, agreed. When Haspel was asked whether North Korea had changed its behavior in the preceding two years—that is, during Trump’s presidency—she said it hadn’t.

Coats told the committee that Russia was meddling throughout Europe. He cited “issues with Turkey”—apparently a reference to his written report, which warned of Turkey’s “growing authoritarianism” and its “regional ambitions.” And he cautioned that although ISIS had lost control of territory, it continued to command “thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria,” had returned to guerrilla warfare, and was “moving to other ungoverned spaces” and “continuing to plot attacks” against the United States and other targets. Haspel made the same points.

The directors’ testimony infuriated Trump. On Twitter, he lashed out at “the Intelligence people” and insisted he was right about ISIS and North Korea. “Caliphate will soon be destroyed,” the president tweeted. “North Korea relationship is best it has ever been … Decent chance of Denuclearization. … Progress being made.” The next day, Trump said the intelligence chiefs had told him privately that reports about their testimony—which was broadcast on live TV—were “fake news.” He fawned over Kim (“We have a fantastic chemistry”), second-guessed Coats’ assessment of North Korea, and boasted that he had fired Mattis.

That clash in late January underscores our country’s predicament: Congress, our intelligence agencies, and our national security officials know the truth about Trump’s authoritarian friends. But Trump stands by his friends. He repeats their lies and attacks any American, even a dead war hero, who tells the truth. He’s a traitor.

Go back and watch Trump’s remarks at the White House on Jan. 10, during the government shutdown. At the time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer were refusing to fund Trump’s border wall. But Trump was getting love from Chinese President Xi Jinping. So Trump declared that the Chinese government was better than the Democratic Party of the United States. “I find China, frankly, in many ways, to be far more honorable than Cryin’ Chuck and Nancy,” said Trump. “I think that China is actually much easier to deal with than the opposition party.”

That’s how Trump sees the world. Xi isn’t the opposition. Nor is Putin or Kim. The opposition is Americans: Schumer, Pelosi, and unruly intelligence officials. These troublemakers contradict Trump and threaten the dictators with whom he enjoys warm “chemistry.” When Trump negotiates with men like Kim or Erdogan, he claims to do so on behalf of Americans. But in truth, he sees himself as part of a club of CEOs: heads of state. In that club, little people like Khashoggi and the Kurds don’t count. And helping your fellow CEO by hacking the Democratic Party of the United States—in Trump’s view, the real opposition—isn’t an assault on democracy or American sovereignty. It’s a favor.

Trump sides with his fellow authoritarians over his countrymen, even in disputes about other authoritarians. Consider a story from The Threat, the new book by Andrew McCabe, the former acting FBI director. In July 2017, a U.S. intelligence official reported to McCabe that he had just briefed Trump on Russian espionage inside the United States. Trump wasn’t interested. Instead, Trump wanted to talk about reports of a recent North Korean missile test. “The president did not believe it had happened,” McCabe writes. “The president thought it was a hoax. He thought that North Korea did not have the capability to launch such missiles. He said he knew this because Vladimir Putin had told him so.” The briefers explained to Trump that his assertions were inconsistent with U.S. intelligence. But Trump refused to budge. “I believe Putin,” he said.

Late last week, Trump defied the U.S. government again. He intervened to protect China and North Korea from American sanctions. The Treasury Department had just announced penalties against Chinese shipping companies for helping North Korea evade the sanctions.
Trump, in a tweet, replied that he was personally withdrawing the penalties. Former Treasury officials were aghast that an American president, on behalf of foreign powers, would undercut his own administration’s sanctions. But the White House, in a statement, declared: “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”

Yes, Trump likes Kim. He likes Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Mohammed bin Salman, and many other authoritarians. Trump doesn’t want sanctions on any of these fine fellows. He just wants trade deals, arms deals, and some help in the Middle East. In exchange, he’ll defend their assaults on American citizens and residents, and he’ll attack any American who challenges their lies. You don’t need Mueller’s report to tell you that. You just need your eyes.