President Trump could have saved himself a lot of grief if he had been able to utter even a couple mild words critical of Russia and Vladimir Putin last Monday.
So why didn’t he?
By most accounts, the president was perplexed and angry that virtually no one shared his enthusiasm for his meeting with Putin and subsequent news conference. Instead, the White House got bogged down in preposterous clarifications, and an even sharper debate ensued about the basis for Trump’s views about Russia: that Putin’s blackmailing him; that he can’t bear to think that without Russian meddling he wouldn’t be president; that he loves strongmen and wants to be one; that he sincerely just wants to get along with the Russians; that he’s in way over his head.
One strong theory, courtesy of Adam Davidson in the New Yorker, combines a sophisticated understanding of power and money in many countries of the former Soviet Union and Trump’s business conduct in recent years.
It revolves around two quintessentially Russian concepts, one of which (kompromat) has been well aired in the States, and one (sistema) that is relatively unknown. The theory suggests that Trump has reason to fear someone possesses evidence of serious financial misdeeds; they’ve let Trump and Putin know they have it and are willing to use it. That’s kompromat. But it’s more subtle than simple blackmail.
By cutting lucrative deals with wealthy figures from Central Asia or the Caucasus without asking where their money came from, Trump might have helped — inadvertently or not — launder money. In doing so, he would have become subject to sistema: overlapping networks of power and money in which information is weaponized and has roughly the same role as nuclear arms had in the Cold War. It is the means to Mutual Assured Destruction. Everyone is constantly looking over his shoulder.
Davidson quotes experts as saying that even Putin wouldn’t be able to get his hands on all the information. But he could get some of it.
Davidson, who has done some great reporting on those business deals, says evidence of sexual misconduct probably wouldn’t be enough to keep Trump in line. But financial misconduct could ruin his presidency, his business and his family.
Even if Davidson is right, his theory doesn’t answer every question. It would be important to know when Trump found out about the threat. Did he run for president, knowing he could be blackmailed? What do his tax returns show? How much did the Russians factor in his vulnerability as they crafted their influence campaign?
But the theory doesn’t have to encompass every aspect of the Russian effort to influence U.S. politics. The Russians were trying many things to see what would work. We know a lot about the disinformation effort. We know that they were interested in making contacts with the Trump campaign. Now, from the criminal charges filed against Russian national Maria Butina, we’re also getting a feel for how they were trying to make inroads into the Republican Party via the National Rifle Association.
If Trump, for personal reasons, can’t bring himself to criticize Putin, he isn’t going to be able to completely reverse U.S. policy toward Russia. The U.S. president obviously has a lot of power, particularly in foreign affairs, but Trump is isolating himself on the question from much of the U.S. government.
Trump argues that he actually has been much tougher on Russia than Obama was. Yet it took the White House six months to implement sanctions after Congress voted nearly unanimously last August to impose them. We don’t even know what Putin and Trump discussed. At this point, most of the information still is coming from the Russians, and appears aimed at pushing their agenda.
Meanwhile, Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller keeps indicting Russians. Butina was charged with conspiracy and failure to register as a foreign agent. After White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders equivocated about the issue, the Senate voted unanimously against allowing Russia to question former U.S. diplomats. The Defense Department just announced another $200 million in aid to Ukraine.
Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, says evidence is everywhere that the Russians are intent on messing with the 2018 election, too. A Microsoft official said last week that at least three congressional candidates had been targeted by hackers, and cybersecurity officials said the hackers probably were Russians.
Still, resistance from the White House makes every measure to counter Russian meddling that much more difficult.
According to the Wall Street Journal, administration officials pressed Trump to confront Putin with Mueller’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers. It quoted a White House official as saying the idea was to “shove it in Putin’s face, and look strong doing it.” Trump “did the exact opposite.”
The White House also had been developing plans to make Trump the face of efforts to prevent interference in the November election, the Journal reported. That doesn’t look like a great idea any longer.
On the other hand, maybe he and Putin can go on a joint promotional tour if the Russian president accepts Trump’s invitation to come to Washington in fall.