Okay, Sergei, now it’s my turn: Stop laughing at my country.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov once chided me in Moscow for chuckling at the claim that Russia possessed unique virtue in international affairs. He returned the favor this week in Washington by openly mocking, in the presence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.
Tillerson offered no visible disapproval of Lavrov’s feigned shock at Comey’s firing. Trump manifested the same forbearance toward Lavrov by then meeting with the self-assured Russian diplomat, who has shown extraordinary survival skills in serving for 13 years as Vladimir Putin’s interface with the world.
Lavrov in fact practices his trade with the same smugness and confidence in his ability to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses that mark Putin’s approach to the human race in general and to Trump in particular. They laugh as Trump and Tillerson show what has become this administration’s greatest problem — its lack of any trace of self-respect. How otherwise could a U.S. president let himself be played for a fool by Putin, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and others of that ilk?
This will simply feed Putin’s cynicism, which I described in these pages on Sept. 20, 2009, this way:
MOSCOW — The world’s economic crisis does not seem to have been unkind to you, Vladimir Putin notes as we sit down to a lunch that begins with calf’s tail in aspic. “You all look well fed, well dressed.”
It is a spy’s gambit, one of several that the Russian prime minister advances subtly to compromise or co-opt 45 foreign academics, think-tank experts and journalists gathered in his opulent dacha at Moscow’s outer edge. Don’t be hypocrites, he is saying without saying. Don’t try to trap me with do-good, abstract questions. We’re in this together.
This attitude helps explain Putin’s campaigns to convince Americans and Europeans that their media are as corrupt and as much in the pockets of those in power as are Russia’s. And his meddling in Ukraine is to Putin simply a more visible version of what Americans have tried to do there, however ineptly.
Again, Comey’s firing demonstrates that this president has no self-respect. Worse, Trump is quick to implicate others in his misdeeds, as Putin does, to bring them down to his level. Tillerson, the rest of the Cabinet, the GOP congressional leadership and particularly the person who will replace Comey have been put on notice and in Putinesque terms: We are all in this together. You are no better than I am, and if you pretend otherwise, I will fire or destroy you.
The Trump presidency now poses an existential threat to many of America’s most vital institutions. He has tried to tear down to his own tawdry level the intelligence community, the FBI, the media and the federal judiciary. (Congress has been spared only because the Republican leadership lacks the moral courage to draw Trump’s fire.) Just as he is at war with himself, Trump is at war with the nation he is supposed to lead.
I had never particularly credited the idea that Trump or his campaign operatives openly colluded with Putin’s effort to draw them into the muck of the corruption the Russian leader inhabits and seeks to spread. They could not have been that stupid, I have been telling myself. Nor could I imagine that Trump was so dependent on Russian money that he could be compromised by Moscow.
But it is hard now to find other credible explanations for the president’s serial misbehavior and shameless, reckless actions. He seems eager to provoke moral outrage that will confirm his self-image of excelling by being the worst of the bad boys. (Recall his infamous conversation with Billy Bush.)
The kind of controversy he has ignited with the Comey firing raises another possibility, it now seems to me: Trump is willing to be a one-term president if that is the price of doing things his way, which primarily involves enriching himself and his family.
Given that he will be 74 at the end of his mandate, Trump may even prefer to go out in a blaze rather than a whimper. I of course can’t be sure that is his intent. But his actions almost guarantee that result, whatever his intentions may be.
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