The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why does the ‘America First’ president keep putting Russia first?

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. (Susan Walsh/AP)

At the heart of the Trump administration resides “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”: What is it with President Trump and Russia? Why does the “America First” president so often put Russia first?

That question has surfaced yet again after the New York Times first reported that a Russian military intelligence unit had paid bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Post reported that those bounties had resulted in the deaths of Americans.

A normal president would have canceled his golf outing and made clear that there would be hell to pay if the reports are true. Not Trump. Instead, he lashed out at the news media, denying that the intelligence community had briefed him on its findings, as the Times and other publications had reported. Unfortunately, it’s hard to credit anything said by a president who has lied to or misled the public more than 19,000 times.

The U.S. government reportedly had this information since January, and the National Security Council even debated what to do about it. During that time, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at least five times and issued a joint declaration celebrating the “Spirit of the Elbe” in honor of the meeting between U.S. and Soviet troops in Germany on April 25, 1945. Trump also invited Putin back to the Group of Seven and gushed that “we have this great friendship.”

Columnist Max Boot walks through the evidence he says shows Russian meddling pushed President Trump over the finish line in 2016. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

As Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton recently said: “Putin thinks he can play him like a fiddle.” There is a long history of Trump’s dancing to Putin’s tune. Trump refused to accept that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election and instead sought to pin the blame on Ukraine. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” he simpered at the 2018 Helsinki summit.

Follow Max Boot's opinionsFollow

The Trump administration did impose sanctions on Russia for various reasons, but, as Bolton notes, “almost all of them occasioned opposition, or at least extended grumbling and complaining, from Trump himself.”

Trump has shown deference to other dictators, including China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, but even by his standards, his record of obsequiousness to Putin stands out. Trump has never engaged in any tough-guy talk with the Russian strongman, as he has with Xi and Kim. Why? Bolton writes that he didn’t ask Trump what he thought of Putin, because he was “afraid of what I might hear.”

The only thing we can say with confidence is that Trump’s partiality toward Russia is likely spurred by self-interest, not national interest. As Bolton notes: “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.”

It is possible that “financial calculations” were also involved. Trump and his sons have bragged in the past about the money they made from Russians and were pursuing a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign. But Trump has fought hard to keep his finances secret, so we still don’t know much about his financial dealings with Russia.

What we do know is that Trump might not be president were it not for Russia’s election interference — and Trump surely knows that, too, despite his angry denials. He insists that allegations of Russian collusion are a “hoax,” but the Trump campaign’s high command welcomed an offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton from a Russian emissary, and Trump himself publicly urged the Russians to hack her emails on the very day they attempted to do so.

Unredacted portions of the Mueller report make clear that Roger Stone was Trump’s emissary to WikiLeaks, the website used by Russian intelligence to disseminate stolen emails. Stone informed Trump in advance of WikiLeaks releases, and, instead of calling the FBI, Trump reportedly said, “Oh good, all right.” But special counsel Robert S. Mueller III could not get to the bottom of the story because Stone refused to cooperate. Trump praised Stone for not cooperating, and the Justice Department recommended an unusually lenient sentence for him on charges of lying under oath and witness tampering. A prosecutor told the House Judiciary Committee last week that this was because of Stone’s “relationship to the President.”

So here we are: We know that Trump is willing to sacrifice America’s national interests to Russia, but we don’t know why. That’s in part because Mueller kept his inquiry so narrowly focused. As Jeffrey Toobin writes in the New Yorker, the special counsel did not “examine the roots” of Trump’s “special affinity for Putin’s Russia.”

Does Trump think that if he calls out Putin for his misdeeds — including the alleged bounties on U.S. soldiers — Putin may be less eager to help him win reelection? Or that it might sour future Russia deals for the Trump Organization? Those are the most likely explanations I can come up with, but that’s only conjecture. All we can say for sure is that Trump is again putting America last.

Read more:

Max Boot: The unraveling of the rule of law under Trump is picking up speed

Jennifer Rubin: Trump is out of excuses

Greg Sargent: As Trump’s corruption gets worse, some Democrats want a tougher response

Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman: Bolton’s new book blows apart one of Trump’s biggest reelection arguments

Josh Rogin: The most tragic story in John Bolton’s book