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Why can’t Trump say anything critical of Putin?

REUTERS/Leah Millis
If President Donald 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.

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.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/23/2018 - 10:08 am.

    More than sex tapes, it’s the money.

    The looting of Russia by the oligarchs with the assistance of Putin, pushed a lot of money through Trump’s properties after US banks pretty much red-lined Trump for his history of bankruptcies. The theft of Russia was Trump’s rescue.

    By the way, did you know that Putin, in some estimates, is the wealthiest person in the world ?

    So for Trump, Putin would be the pinnacle–the richest person in the world with absolute power over a country.

    Putin IS Trump’s hero.

    So, “Why can’t Trump say anything critical of Putin?”

    Because Putin is everything Trump wants to be.

    It’s as simple as that-everyone else is a loser.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 07/23/2018 - 11:36 am.

      I tend to agree

      with your assessment, its one I’ve read on other sites as well, but there is another part to Donald’s funding. All the banks and all the Oligarchs that have been funding him are controlled by Putin. All he has to do it tug lightly on the right thread and Donald’s financial house of cards will come tumbling down. In my opinion that is what keeps Donald from criticizing Vlad.

      FYI: I’ve seen Putin’s wealth listed as 85 billion somewhere.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/24/2018 - 10:08 am.

      Occam’s Razor

      I think you’ve hit it on the head. Trump has always–even before he ran for President–come across as a bundle of insecurities. If he could be richer, and not have to deal with any niceties of constitutional government to get in his way, he would be the coolest kid on the planet.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/23/2018 - 11:05 am.

    My 2¢

    I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Rovick on this one. In fact, I think he’s spot-on with the line that “…Putin is everything Trump wants to be.” Trump’s despotic tendencies are well-documented and plain to see for anyone who cares to look, and people with that kind of money are not generally accustomed to having to negotiate to get their wishes fulfilled. Democracy is slow and messy, and doesn’t always get the oligarch what s/he wants. An autocratic state works much better – if you’re the autocrat.

    Yes, I’d very much like to see the U.S. and Russia get along better instead of constantly being at each other’s throats. The best moment to make progress toward that would have been decades ago, shortly after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. dissolved marked the end of the Cold War, when American aid (I personally thought a modern-day version of the Marshall Plan would have served both our interests and those of the Russians) might well have prevented the takeover of Russia by the oligarchs. But “conservative” anti-communist propaganda killed that idea before it could get off the ground, and by now it’s water that’s gone under the bridge and flowed out to sea.

    It’s to our advantage, I think, to see (and treat) Russia as a **rival** rather than an **enemy,** at least in some circumstances. Election-meddling is not one of those circumstances, however, and Trump appears to very much have a vested interest in not looking too closely at how the 2016 campaign was conducted.

  3. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 07/23/2018 - 12:13 pm.


    Many assumptions have been made as to the why or how, but the fact remains, that in their ‘summit,’ Trump was totally and brilliantly played.

    Hopefully Trump will learn that Putin is not his buddy but will pose as such as long as Putin remains King of the Hill (Summit).

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/23/2018 - 06:51 pm.

    Loss Aversion

    As a psychologist I’m a bit leery of over-psychologizing.
    I’m sure that Trump is jealous of Putin, But that’s not enough to account for some of Trump’s behavior. He’s acting like someone who’s afraid of something; and like a beta dog to Putin’s alpha.
    So there’s a power imbalance someplace in the equation, and Trump’s on the wrong end of it.
    All this despite the fact that by any measure besides nuclear weapons Russia is now a third rate country (remember that it’s population is less than half that of the former Soviet Union, and that included the industrial powerhouses of East Germany and Czechoslovakia), which provided the Soviets a captive source of industrial strength.

  5. Submitted by Wes Davey on 07/23/2018 - 05:50 pm.

    A spoiled little rich kid

    It is one thing to have courage from afar, such as calling Kim Jong-un a “Little Rocket Man” by tweeting, and a totally different thing to express those views in person.

    Our President has no physical or moral courage whatsoever, and he’s undoubtedly physically afraid of Putin. Put another way, Trump is nothing more than a spoiled little rich kid with a big mouth.

    And the transgender service members Trump is so eager to kick out of the military? They have a thousand times more courage Trump could ever dream of having.

  6. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 07/23/2018 - 06:43 pm.

    I’m glad to see that the left is finally admitting our electoral system is vulnerable to fraud. Now maybe we can all agree that voting in person, with valid ID, using a paper ballot is necessary to secure the security of our franchise.

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