President Trump met privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin for two hours in Helsinki in the summer, and we still don’t know what the two men discussed. The White House has also made a habit of not providing details of Trump’s calls with world leaders. When it comes to Trump’s private chats with Putin — an antagonistic foreign leader who our intelligence community says subverted the U.S. electoral system in the hope of electing Trump — we’re dealing with a black box.
We just got a little glimpse inside the box, though, thanks to an excerpt from Washington Post reporter Greg Miller’s book, “The Apprentice.” And it will confirm plenty of people’s fears about the former KGB officer playing Trump.
In his book, Miller cites White House officials saying Putin whispers to Trump that the people around him are thwarting their efforts to build a relationship:
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.”
“It’s not us. We get it,” Putin would tell Trump, according to White House aides. “It’s the subordinates fighting against our friendship.”
We’ve gotten a few peeks behind the curtain on Trump’s talks with Russia, thanks to dogged reporting like Miller’s. In March, we learned that Trump ignored his national security advisers' all-caps, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” directive not to praise Putin on his reelection win. Last year, we heard about Trump blurting out highly classified information in a meeting with two senior Russian officials. (Putin was not present.)
In the absence of more detail from the White House, it paints a pretty deferential picture — one in which Putin is playing to Trump’s vanity, and Trump is anything but tough on Putin.
And there are other details in Miller’s book, like previous reports, that suggest Trump is very reluctant to hold Putin accountable for Russia’s nefarious actions. When Western leaders planned a coordinated response to the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in Britain, for example, Trump wanted more assurances that Russia was behind it. He also wavered even after the United States had agreed to expel 60 suspected Russian operatives:
When British Prime Minister Theresa May told Trump by phone that British authorities were 95 percent sure that Moscow was responsible, Trump replied, “Maybe we should get to 98 percent.”
During a weekend retreat at his Mar-a-Lago estate, Trump’s advisers persuaded him to support a plan to expel 60 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the United States, telling him that Washington’s move would be matched in magnitude by allies in Europe.
Trump acquiesced, but his commitment unraveled on the trip back to Washington.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” he said to deputy national security adviser Ricky L. Waddell during the short helicopter flight from Andrews Air Force Base to the White House on March 25.
The expulsions were set to be announced the next day in coordination with allies in Europe — an international show of resolve — and Trump was balking. Late that evening, Waddell scrambled to pull together a Situation Room meeting to confer with other top advisers on how to salvage the plan. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who called in on a secure phone line, said that he would phone Trump at his residence. “I’ll convince him,” Kelly said.
Kelly succeeded. But when the expulsions were announced, Trump erupted. He had expected France, Germany and other countries each to match the U.S. total, rather than for the cumulative response from Europe to be roughly equal to that of the United States. Trump worried that Putin would see him as the aggressor and accused aides of misleading him.
“There were curse words,” one official said, “a lot of curse words.”
This all echoes Trump’s very public reluctance to sign Congress’s sanctions bill, among other episodes. It’s not entirely shocking. But the Skripal incident was one in which Trump was on board with the West’s get-tough stance on Putin, at least publicly. And now we find out he still resisted it and didn’t like that his hand was forced.
The idea that he’s fighting this battle with aides and losing also isn’t a new one. It’s exactly what was described in that anonymous New York Times op-ed from a senior administration official two weeks ago.
But Putin’s conspiratorial whispering fills out the picture even more. And it suggests the Russian leader is seizing upon the discord in the Trump administration to drive a wedge through it.