The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Donald Trump is lucky. Vladimir Putin is luckier.

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands before a meeting in Helsinki last July.
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands before a meeting in Helsinki last July. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ever since Richard M. Nixon boarded the helicopter in August 1974, Americans passionate about politics have considered scandal a viable alternative to winning elections. The figure of the relentless independent or special counsel — Lawrence Walsh , Kenneth Starr , Robert S. Mueller III — is a staple of contemporary government, the Godot on whom out-of-power Estragons are always waiting in vain.

Those who want a new president will have to get one the old-fashioned way. And beating President Trump will not be easy. Mueller, unlike some of his predecessors, has done the nation a patriotic service by sticking to his mandate, excavating it fully and laying out the results for everyone to digest. The Trump thus revealed is not my cup of tea; he’s impulsive, insecure and drawn to shady characters. But he’s a survivor.

What ought to worry his opponents even more: The man is lucky. All the schemers, crackpots and opportunists drifting through Trump’s ragtag campaign — the Michael Cohens, the Roger Stones, the Steve Bannons, the Jerome Corsis, the Paul Manaforts — try as they might, could not mire him in a prosecutable felony. Even Trump appears to have figured that this team of jamokes would be his doom. How else to explain his reported initial reaction to the Mueller appointment as special counsel: “I’m . . .” well, you know.

Even so, Trump is not half as lucky as Vladimir Putin, who is revealed in the report to be as charmed as a Powerball winner with five aces and a four-leaf clover. Picture a homeless man digging through a garbage can and plucking out the Hope diamond.

Though Mueller is not heavy on backstory, the context here is important. When Putin entered this drama, Russia was a flat-out basket case. Between 2012 and 2015, its economy shrank by more than a third.

The world was oversupplied with oil, with natural gas, with pornography — all the gems of Tsar Vladimir’s Potemkin empire. What could he do to shore up his tattered strongman shtick?

A little computer hacking, that’s what. One of his cronies controlled an outfit called the Internet Research Agency. Beginning in 2014, according to the report, the IRA “conducted social media operations targeted at large U.S. audiences with the goal of sowing discord in the U.S. political system.”

Fortunately for Putin, plenty of discord already existed. In fact, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were algorithmically optimized to stoke their users’ narrow interests and personal biases. And the networks made ideal targets for the Russians: large, vulnerable and poorly policed. The IRA created fake identities to spread divisive messages among America’s gullible groupthinkers.

One can only imagine Putin’s delight when, a year or so into the IRA project, Trump entered the race for president and quickly gained a following. The man had a genius for discord, making Americans of all stripes feel bad about the country. Trump offered his supporters a litany of national weaknesses and failures, pledging, “I alone can fix it.” To his opponents, the leading symptom of civic decline was Trump himself.

Even better for Putin, despite the train wreck of Russia’s fortunes, Trump was an admirer. And he shared Putin’s goal of limiting the U.S. role in world affairs. It must have seemed incredible to Moscow that a candidate given to praising Putin and attacking NATO was, by the summer of 2016, on his way to the Republican presidential nomination.

As Mueller shows, Putin doubled down on his unlikely wins. The Russian military went to work hacking into the files of the Democratic National Committee, the Hillary Clinton campaign and election offices across the country, looking for ways to help Trump along. What mayhem and discord might flow from an actual Trump presidency!

I don’t see much in Mueller’s report to convince me that emails stolen by the Russians and published through WikiLeaks actually tipped the balance in 2016. Clinton lost, in my opinion, because her campaign was a lackluster exercise in entitlement. But Putin came away the huge winner, nonetheless, thanks to the deep-seated insecurity of the new president.

A number of Trump’s loyalists told Mueller that the president felt he could not acknowledge the Russian hacks without making his presidency appear illegitimate. Confidante Hope Hicks, for one, said Trump viewed the revelation of Russian involvement by U.S. intelligence agencies “as his ‘Achilles heel’ because, even if Russia had no impact on the election, people would think Russia helped him win, taking away from what he had accomplished,” Mueller reports.

Having meddled deeply in the U.S. election — using the Russian military to do it — Putin wasn’t even held to account. No dictator of a troubled petro-state has ever pulled off such an audacious outrage against the world’s superpower (not even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the unpunished author of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi).

How’s that for strength?

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

Michael McFaul: Russia attacked us. The Mueller report still doesn’t give us the full story.

John Yoo: It’s now impeachment or bust. As it should be.

Randall D. Eliason: William Barr’s incredibly misleading words

Megan McArdle: Both Republicans and Democrats could use some serious post-Mueller introspection

Max Boot: To impeach or not to impeach? That is now the question.