The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump goes full circle on the politics of embracing Putin

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a one-on-one meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki in July 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
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One of the effects of President Trump’s flat refusal to acquiesce to standard presidential behavior is that of making his opponents seem like delusional scolds. There’s a sort of fatigue that settles in over time about issues such as his tax returns: Sure, every president since Richard Nixon released his, but Trump hasn’t and won’t, so why do you keep going on about it? Trump, of course, is happy with this shift: It’s his critics who are the ones misbehaving, simply by introducing a subject that he has effectively resolved by ignoring calls to action.

On the subject of Russia, Trump goes further. Not only are those who question overlap between his campaign or his administration with Russia beating their heads against a wall, but they are moreover advancing a wild conspiracy theory (to hear Trump tell it) that originated with “deep state” actors looking to destroy Trump politically. To talk about Trump and Russia in the same sentence is anathema to the president, and the ferocity with which he attacks any questions about his interactions with that country and its president, Vladimir Putin, seeks to push such questions to political purgatory.

So, it is that Thursday night in Michigan, Trump embraced his positive relationship with Putin without any sort of qualification.

“You know, getting along with foreign powers, is not a bad thing,” Trump said at a rally. “We're trying to teach that to the media, these idiots that ran our government for so many years. These fools, these fools. You know, you got nuclear weapons, you got big armies, big navies."

“ ‘He gets along with Putin! That’s a terrible thing!’ ” he continued. “No, it’s a good thing! If I get along, that’s good, he likes me. I like him, not so bad."

Four years ago, Trump was scrambling to distance himself from Putin. After years of claiming to have a personal relationship with the Russian leader — an obvious attempt to inflate his stature — he began to backtrack as his presidential campaign drew new scrutiny.

“I never met Putin, I don’t know who Putin is,” Trump said during a news conference July 27, 2016. “He said one nice thing about me. He said I’m a genius. I said thank you very much to the newspaper and that was the end of it. I never met Putin.”

The reason for Trump’s sudden reluctance to claim Putin as an ally was twofold. First, that WikiLeaks had begun releasing material stolen from the Democratic National Committee, material that even at the time was understood to have been obtained by Russian actors. Second, Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns was spurring questions about his investments. The day before the news conference, Trump had publicly denied having any investments in Russia.

Trump’s denials of overlap with Russian interests would continue through the 2016 election and into his presidency. Over time, his denials calcified, and inquiries about Russia in any form were swept into his broad “witch hunt” dismissiveness. With remarkable dexterity, Trump flipped the questions that hounded his campaign into an attack on his critics — a reversal that was at least very effective with the base of his support.

It was at the aforementioned news conference, by the way, that Trump publicly asked Russian hackers to obtain and produce emails his opponent Hillary Clinton had deleted from her private email server. Later that day, we would eventually learn, Russian hackers attempted to access the domain where the emails had been hosted.

We learned that from the investigation into Russian interference and possible overlap with Trump’s 2016 campaign that was conducted by then-special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. That little detail was one of numerous things we’ve learned about what Trump and his team were doing over the course of the campaign and in the months since that show the extent to which Russian interests and Trump’s interests were enmeshed.

Since the 2016 campaign ended, we have learned that:

  • Russia launched a multipronged effort to bolster Trump’s candidacy and undermine national comity, including the aforementioned hacks and engaging in a disinformation campaign on American social media platforms. Again, Russia’s role in the release of WikiLeaks information was understood at the time, but Mueller’s report suggests they “showed interest in WikiLeaks’s releases of documents and welcomed their potential to damage candidate Clinton.”
  • Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was sharing internal campaign strategy and polling with an individual who a bipartisan Senate committee identified as an agent of Russian intelligence. The committee’s report further suggested that there may have been some overlap between that man, Konstantin Kilimnik, and the Russian hacking effort, though it’s not clear what evidence supports that assertion.
  • Trump’s private business was looking to close a deal to build an office tower in Moscow well into 2016 — until the month before Trump’s tweet denying any investments in Russia, in fact. That effort included his personal attorney Michael Cohen having an extended conversation with a member of Putin’s staff in January 2016.
  • At least one campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had been told by someone connected to the Russian government about the hacked material before its release. There’s no evidence that Papadopoulos shared that information with others in the campaign, though the Senate report indicates that it was “implausible” he didn’t.

Since Trump was inaugurated, the universe of questions has expanded:

  • Trump’s repeatedly downplayed or denied Russia’s by-now well-documented interference effort. A whistleblower complaint made public this week accuses senior administration officials of attempting to curtail ongoing research into Russia’s current efforts to interfere in American politics.
  • One of Trump’s denials came immediately after a one-on-one meeting with Putin for which only an interpreter was present. Trump took the interpreter’s notes from the meeting, and the White House has refused to release them.
  • Trump’s current personal attorney, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, has recently worked with an identified agent of Russian intelligence to promote information aimed at undermining Trump’s general election opponent, former vice president Joe Biden. That’s included connecting that individual, Andriy Derkach, with a pro-Trump cable news network for an interview.
  • There have been repeated, documented examples of Trump seeking to avoid criticizing Russia or holding Russia accountable for its actions. The most recent examples are his failure to condemn the apparent poisoning of a Russian opposition figure and his ongoing dismissal of reports that Russia offered a bounty for the killing of U.S. soldiers.
  • A New York Times report indicates that a counterintelligence investigation focused on Trump and Russia was dropped in mid-2017 after the firing of then-FBI Director James B. Comey.

This is an incomplete list, excluding details such as the meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 between campaign staff and two individuals who had “significant connections to the Russian government, including the Russian intelligence services,” according to the Senate report. The list neither includes the unresolved question of what Trump’s adviser Roger Stone knew (if anything) about the WikiLeaks releases, and how, nor the question of timing of the releases that began Oct. 7, 2016. It doesn’t include repeated efforts by a Russian official named Alexander Torshin to make contact with the Trump campaign, resulting in his meeting Donald Trump Jr. (apparently briefly) at an event in May 2016. It excludes a trip to Moscow by another campaign adviser, Carter Page, during which he spoke with a senior Russian official.

None of this offers definitive proof of an effort by Trump personally to have Russia aid his election, as Trump will be the first to tell you. It does help serve as a counterweight to assertions that the investigation into Russian interference was politically motivated or unwarranted, particularly when considering Manafort's background of working for pro-Russian actors.

But, again, this is the terrain on which the debate now occurs. Those noting that there are more, not fewer, questions about Trump’s relationship with Russia and the Russian president than there were four years ago are placed on rhetorical ice floes and set out to sea. They’re hoax purveyors or sufferers of Trump Derangement Syndrome. We’ve been over all of this so many times before, and yet people still ask about it!

So, Trump’s back to shrugging at it. During a Republican primary debate in November 2015, before it was untoward for him to claim to know Putin, Trump claimed that he “got to know [Putin] very well because we were both on ‘60 Minutes,’ we were stablemates.”

Interviews with the two aired during the same program. They didn’t meet. Now they have, in private — and expressing curiosity about Trump’s claims is now, to his supporters, somehow less warranted than it was then.