By David Leonhardt, The New York Times,FEB. 21, 2017
The mystery at the core of the Trump-Russia story is motive.
President Trump certainly seems to have a strange case of Russophilia. He has surrounded himself with aides who have Russian ties. Those aides were talking to Russian agents during the campaign, and some are now pushing a dubious peace deal in Ukraine. Trump recently went so far as to equate the United States and Vladimir Putin’s murderous regime.
It’s not a simple question. In their Russia-related inquiries, the F.B.I. and the Senate Intelligence Committee will need to focus first on what happened — whether Trump’s team broke any laws and whether the president has lied about it. Yet the investigators, as well as the journalists doing such good work reporting this story, should also keep in mind the why of the matter. It will help explain the rest of the story.
The United States has never had a situation quite like this. Other countries have tried to intervene in our affairs before, sometimes with modest success. Britain and Nazi Germany, for example, tried to influence the 1940 presidential election, financing bogus polls and efforts to sway the nominating conventions. But never has a president had such murky ties to a foreign government as hostile as Putin’s.
I count five possible explanations for Trump’s Russophilia, and they’re not mutually exclusive.
The first is the justification that Trump himself gives, and you shouldn’t dismiss it simply because he has an open relationship with reality. He saysthat fewer tensions with Russia would benefit the United States, which is a reasonable position. It’s not so different from the position of John Kerry, President Barack Obama’s secretary of state.
Kerry saw Russia, the key ally of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, as necessary to ending Assad’s slaughter. Many other Obama administration officials believed that seeking Putin’s help was a fool’s errand. But remember that Obama never came up with an effective approach to Syria. Any successor would be wise to see if Russia could help moderate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Of course, Syria can’t explain all of Trump’s Russia ties. There are too many, and they’re too ominous. Together, they point to the next three explanations — the conspiracies.
The second explanation is the business conspiracy. Because many American banks wouldn’t lend money to Trump’s debt-soaked company, he had to look elsewhere, like Russia. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008, specifically mentioning projects in SoHo and Dubai.
Trump could clear up this issue by releasing his tax returns. That he has not, unlike every other modern presidential candidate, means that he deserves no benefit of the doubt. The fairest assumption is that he has Russian business ties he wants to keep hidden.
The third explanation is a political conspiracy, and it’s at the center of the legal inquiries. The facts are certainly worrisome. Trump campaign advisers had close links to Putin’s circle, and some of them spoke with Russian officials during the campaign. Meanwhile, Putin’s government was directing pro-Trump cyberattacks. If there was coordination — and there has not been any evidence to date — it would indeed be a worse scandal than Watergate.
The fourth explanation is the flimsiest: the idea, contained in a dossier compiled by private investigators, that Russia has compromising material on Trump. Unless real evidence emerges, I’d encourage you to ignore this theory.
The final possible motive — an ideological alliance — is in some ways the most alarming. Putin isn’t only a leader with “very strong control over his country,” as Trump has enthused; Putin also traffics in a white, Christian-infused nationalism that casts Islam and “global elites” as the enemies.
He does not go as far pursuing these themes as hard-core Russian nationalists, much as Trump merely flirts with the alt-right. Either way, the themes are undeniable. As Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia, says, “The inauguration speech sounded like things I’ve heard from Russian nationalists many times.”
Stephen Bannon, who has emerged as the White House’s most influential adviser, clearly believes in ideological alliances, and Trump seems open to them. After winning the election, he met with Britain’s leading nationalist, Nigel Farage, before Britain’s prime minister.
In recent days, Trump has tempered his pro-Russia comments and even criticized its actions in Ukraine. So it would be a mistake to imagine that we know the full story of Trump and Russia. But based on what we do know, it represents a shocking risk to American interests.
The Republicans who run the Senate and the F.B.I. need to pursue their investigations without the friendly deference they have generally shown to Trump so far. If they don’t, it will be left for patriotic leakers, and journalists, to make sure the truth comes out.