President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017 and his subsequent defenses of the move by invoking the investigation into Russian interference reportedly surfaced an unprecedented question among officials at the FBI: Was the president actively working to advance Russia’s interests?
When the New York Times first revealed the existence of an FBI investigation meant to uncover evidence related to that question, it served as validation to many of Trump's fiercest critics. Questions about Trump's loyalties predate his inauguration; Hillary Clinton actively raised the question during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Trump's infamous response during the third presidential debate: “No puppet. You're the puppet.") There's a cottage industry built around demonstrating Trump's ties and indebtedness to Russia, proved or imagined. That the FBI had formally joined that concern seemed, to many Trump critics, to significantly weight the scales in their direction.
There’s no question that Trump’s interactions with Russia have been, to understate it, unusual. Over the weekend, for example, The Washington Post reported that Trump had declined to fully brief government officials on his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and, on one occasion, had confiscated an attending interpreter’s notes. This news is tossed onto the pile of other odd or suspicious actions, the most significant of which has been Trump’s insistence that Russia may not have been the entity that tried to interfere in the 2016 election. (An indictment obtained by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III suggests otherwise.)
Trump’s defense of his interactions with Russia involves two separate and somewhat contradictory parts. First, he believes that a stronger relationship with Putin and Russia is possible, and he’s not afraid to buck convention to achieve that goal. Second, as he put it to Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro on Saturday, “I’ve been tougher on Russia than anybody else, any other — probably any other president, period, but certainly the last three or four presidents, modern day presidents.
"Nobody’s been as tough as I have from any standpoint,” he continued, “including the fact that we’ve done oil like we’ve never done it, we’re setting records in our country with oil and exporting oil and many other things.”
Trump’s interest in expanding the oil industry is generally independent of his approach to Russia, and his administration’s toughness on Russia is generally a function of actions taken by non-Trump parts of the administration. When, for example, the government imposed new penalties against Russia in response to the attempted poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom, Trump was reportedly angry that the United States reacted more forcefully than did our allies. These are, nonetheless, his defenses.
There are, essentially, three possible explanations for Trump’s behavior, two of which are articulated indirectly above. Those exist at the poles: Trump is a witting actor on Russia’s behalf *or* Trump has a strategy for improving U.S. relations with Russia that is at odds with — and therefore fiercely disparaged by — the D.C. establishment.
The third option, between those two, is that Trump is groping his way forward in the dark, encumbered by vanity, unencumbered by history and surrounded by experienced geopolitical actors looking to steer him in various directions.
The appeal of the theory that Trump is and, perhaps, has long been an agent of the Russian government is that it’s dramatic. It’s a Bond film that rewards people’s pattern-seeking nature by providing a surfeit of links, suspicious characters and weird actions. But, with a theory that often relies on cherry-picking, there’s a weak spot: For a guy who’s supposedly working to advance Russia’s interest, Trump’s awfully clumsy about it. If, for example, Trump were working actively on Putin’s behalf, would this have been his response to Pirro when she asked whether he was?
"I think it's the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked.”
He might perhaps have said, “Of course not.”
His response on the Russian-agent question is also evidence against the theory that Trump is a brilliant strategist who has figured out how to bring Russia to heel. Were he building a new relationship with Russia in defiance of D.C. expectations, it seems possible that he would have the foresight to avoid fostering the idea that he’s simply doing Russia’s bidding. This is, broadly, the least believable theory simply because Trump himself undercuts it both by actively touting how tough he is on Russia and by personally not being tough on Russia.
Consider the three options in the context of the other recent comments that some lifted up as evidence of Trump’s being beholden to Russia: his untrue words about how the invasion of Afghanistan was driven by Russian concern about terrorism. It’s hard to believe that, if Russia had a U.S. president in its sway, it would tip its hand by having him espouse something so comparatively trivial and unimportant. It’s similarly hard to believe that a president who had a well-considered plan for building a stronger relationship with Russia would be unaware of the actual history of one of Russia’s most important Cold-War geopolitical actions.
There are scores of ways in which Trump has tipped his hand that his efforts to deal with Russia are ad hoc and scores of ways in which, were he working actively at Putin's behest, he would have tipped his hand to that effect. If Trump fired Comey to appease Russia, why, for example, would he then have told Russia's foreign minister in the Oval Office the next day that firing Comey relieved pressure he was facing from the Russia investigation?
It's certainly the case that Trump's interactions with Russia might have exposed him to being leveraged by the Russian government, as during that period in late 2016 and early 2017 when the administration was publicly denying a conversation involving national security adviser-designate Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador. That others in the administration don't know what Trump and Putin talked about (per our report this weekend) might add additional points of leverage for the Russian president.
This brings us back to the other theory: that Trump is stumbling forward, buffeted by competing desires and unanchored to any particular philosophy. He clearly wants to be seen as a historic actor and doesn’t want the validity of his election to be called into question, two impulses that would prompt him to crow about his intent with Russia while downplaying the country’s role in 2016. U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly believed that Putin backed Trump in 2016 not because he was under Putin’s control but because he would serve to disrupt U.S. political priorities and alliances. If that’s the case, Putin has largely gotten what he wanted.
Trump was told, time and again, that he wouldn’t and couldn’t win the 2016 election. He moved forward anyway, trusting his instincts and, however sincerely, disparaging pundits as not getting it. Then he won — serving to reinforce the idea that his political instincts trumped those of the so-called experts. How much that has influenced his decision-making as president is hard to determine, but it’s clear it has played some role.
There's a moment from the campaign that seems salient three years later.
Trump was sitting down for an interview hosted by MSNBC. Mika Brzezinski asked him a question that was such an obvious setup, any listener might have rolled his eyes.
"I wanted to describe a candidate to you,” she said. “The candidate is considered a political outsider by all the pundits. He’s tapping into the anger of the voters, delivers a populist message. He believes everyone in the country should have health care, he advocates for hedge fund managers to pay higher taxes, he’s drawing thousands of people at his rallies, and bringing in a lot of new voters to the political process. And he’s not beholden to any super PAC.”
Mind you, this was in February 2016, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was proving to be an unexpected challenger to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination. Brzezinski made clear that she was leading Trump into a trap with her ultimate question: “Who am I describing?”
"You’re describing Donald Trump,” Trump said with enthusiasm.
She corrected him. Brzezinski got Trump to head exactly where she wanted him to go, despite how obvious the end result might have been.
Trump is president, and he’s either playing next-level chess on manipulating Russia, working actively and directly on Russia’s behalf, or feeling his way forward while trying to manage some of the most effective manipulators in modern geopolitics.
Which seems most probable?