The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Even Putin understands that with Trump, flattery will get you everywhere

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In an excerpt of Post reporter Greg Miller’s new book “The Apprentice: Trump, Russia, and the Subversion of American Democracy,” we read this interesting tidbit:

Trump’s admiration for the leader of Russia was inexplicable and never wavered after taking office. He praised the Russian leader, congratulated him, defended him, pursued meetings with him, and fought virtually any policy or punitive measure that might displease him.
A trained intelligence operative, Putin understood the power of playing to someone’s insecurities and ego. On cue, he reciprocated with frequent praise for the president he had sought to install in the White House.
In phone conversations with Trump, Putin would whisper conspiratorially, telling the U.S. president that it wasn’t their fault that they could not consummate the relationship that each had sought. Instead, Putin sought to reinforce Trump’s belief that he was being undermined by a secret government cabal, a bureaucratic “deep state.”

President Trump himself has said many times that his affection for Vladimir Putin comes from the fact that Putin praises him. As he said once at a rally, “Putin likes me, Putin says ‘Trump is brilliant,’ I love that when he says I’m brilliant. But Putin said ‘Trump is brilliant, he’s the real leader, blah blah blah.’ Now I don’t know if he means it, if he doesn’t mean it, I don’t care, I like it, okay?” But this shows that Putin is paying close attention to what’s happening in American politics and understands that you can get even further if you reinforce Trump’s fears and resentments.

Everyone likes being flattered, and we’re all susceptible to persuasion when someone is telling us what we want to hear. Furthermore, in every administration, aides develop strategies for getting what they want from the president. Maybe you take your idea to him when he is in a good mood, or a bad one, or you develop a key ally to speak on the idea’s behalf, or you frame a proposal as benefiting a constituency you know he cares about.

But Trump is different, in that everybody, from White House staff to members of Congress to the leader of a hostile foreign nation, thinks they can play him. And they’re right. For a guy who made a living for years conning vulnerable people out of their money, he is shockingly easy to manipulate.

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Of course, doing so may require you to swallow your pride and probably your integrity, as well. Two years ago, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) ranked No. 1 on this list of “The 10 Republicans who hate Donald Trump the most” after a primary campaign in which Trump relentlessly ridiculed Graham. That May, Graham tweeted, “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it.” But now Graham has adopted a different strategy, as Lisa Miller of New York Magazine reports:

It was at this juncture, according to someone familiar with his thinking, that Graham made the strategic decision to publicly flatter Trump. … in general, it made no sense to stand on principle only to draw Trump’s petty wrath — and risk getting fired in the next cycle by hard-liners back home. Better, Graham thought, to praise him in public in order to influence him in private. Graham understood that “all Trump really cares about is being celebrated,” this person said. By genuflecting to Trump, Graham could seem to be in collaboration with him — the impression probably most important to the president — and “move mountains behind closed doors.”

Those mountains may involve policy, or they may be personal — I’m sure Graham would love to be secretary of state one day, and in this administration, you never know when a position will open up. But Graham has decided to swallow whatever personal distaste he has for the president and shower him with praise, even if it requires taking a bath afterward.

President Trump's news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin was a disastrous capitulation, says Democracy Post editor Christian Caryl. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

It works in the other direction too: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, by many accounts perhaps the sanest person in Trump’s orbit, has seen his relationship with the president deteriorate. Why? Because, as the New York Times reports, “he has batted down multiple requests from the White House to go on ‘Fox & Friends’ to praise the president’s agenda,” and “while he does not want to publicly disagree with his boss, he is also uncomfortable with showering false praise on Mr. Trump.”

We have known about Trump’s insatiable need for adulation for a long time, but that shouldn’t make us accept it as ordinary in a president when the truth is that it is utterly appalling. A person with even a shred of insight would realize that when someone is being obsequious toward you, that doesn’t necessarily make them smart or right; it just means they have an agenda. You would think that any president would be particularly wary, because occupying that office means that everyone wants something from you and people are going to constantly kiss your butt.

But not Trump. His need for validation has, if anything, only increased since he became the most powerful person on Earth, and he shows no signs of skepticism when people with an obvious agenda deliver the praise he yearns for. When everyone — friends, foes, the self-interested and the schemers — knows exactly how to manipulate the president, and he never seems to realize it’s happening, the results can’t be good.