I’ll posit that President Trump is not a Manchurian candidate, prepped and lodged in the highest office to betray America. That said, his behavior is really no different from what one would expect — or Russia would expect — from a planted agent. It does not mean Trump is a planted agent; it means Russia has been so successful in getting the results it wants without accomplishing any cinematic-worthy spy escapade as to mark this as among the most successful intelligence schemes in history.
Former FBI special agent Clint Watts, whose testimony in March laid out the most comprehensive look at the array of tools Russia used to influence our election, has a handy chart that explains a spectrum of individuals who may be of use to Russia’s intelligence services. The continuum ranges from “natural ally” (“Trump’s alignment with nearly every Russian foreign policy objective grew in increments, eerily coinciding with the entrance of key aides and advocates into his campaign, not through his own study”) to “useful idiot” (“Russian intelligence for decades identified and promoted key individuals around the world ripe for manipulation and serving their interests. Trump, similar to emerging alternative right European politicians, spouts populist themes of xenophobia, anti-immigration, and white nationalist pride that naturally bring about a retrenchment of U.S. global influence”) to “compromised” (this would match the latest news leak that Russians thought they had compromising information on Trump’s finances) to “Manchurian candidate” (“a deliberate plant commanded by the Russian government, aided during the campaign with both a hacking-influence campaign – equipped with key Russian advisors – and funding to help him take the White House”).
Just in the last couple of weeks we saw:
- Trump create a flap by lecturing our European allies and refusing to confirm our Article 5 obligations in public.
- Trump attack Germany for its trade (which is entirely legitimate and benefits both countries), a practice he continued after he returned from Europe.
- Trump give Russian officials code-word classified intelligence, thereby creating doubt among our allies as to our reliability and impairing information sharing.
- No one in the Trump administration deny the basic outline of the blockbuster story, namely that he had not disclosed secret contacts with Russians that involved the potential for a secret channel, which Russia, but not U.S. intelligence services, could monitor.
- Trump’s chummy interchange with Russian officials in the White House, which could not have been more different than his awkward, frosty meetings with European allies.
The more help Trump extends to Russia’s interests and the more inexplicable conduct comes to light (e.g., Jared Kushner looking for a Russian-secured channel) the harder it is to believe Trump isn’t, at the very least, a useful idiot. Months before the revelations over the last two weeks or so, Watts wrote: “Trump’s loose style of alliances and tactical actions make him ideally suited for the “Useful Idiot” scenario of Russian influence as he takes on advisors and positions based on perceived loyalty, yet without a clear understanding of his advisors connections to Russia. Any traditional politician would have sensed the danger implicit in surrounding oneself with people so closely connected to Putin’s intelligence agents.”
By whatever means, Russia has reaped unexpected and unparalleled benefits from Trump’s presidency. One can attribute all these individual actions to luck or coincidence, I suppose. But Trump has yet to take a single action nor have a single public interchange that harmed Russia’s interests. You’d think by the law of averages he’d once in a while stumble into a position that put him fundamentally at odds with Russia. That, however, has not occurred. Nor has it been possible for respected advisers to keep him from giving Russians intelligence data, sowing discord with allies and employing his son-in-law, whose contacts with the Russians seem curiouser and curiouser each day.