The last time President Donald Trump met in person with senior Russian officials, he ran down FBI Director James Comey as a “nut job” whom he’d fired to relieve the “great pressure” of the sprawling investigation into the Kremlin’s efforts to subvert the U.S. election. He also disclosed code-word classified intelligence, which may have jeopardized an Israeli infiltrator of the Islamic State.
What Trump reportedly did not do was chastise Russia for attacking American sovereignty. Nor, according to Comey, did he ever show interest in U.S. government efforts to disrupt Russian cyberattacks.
For all these reasons, there is extraordinary public interest in how Trump will conduct himself when he meets Friday morning with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. And, perhaps for the same reasons, there are no indications that Trump will comport himself with greater statesmanship, and at least one indication that he will try to keep a lid on what actually transpires.
In the days and hours leading up to Friday’s meeting, we learned that Trump tasked White House aides with identifying “deliverables”—including diplomatic facilities the Obama administration confiscated from the Russian government after the elections—that Trump can offer Putin in negotiations over god knows what.
We learned that Trump is unlikely to broach the topic of Russian election interference with Putin.
We learned that Trump continues, on the world stage, to cast doubt on the plain fact that the Russian government engaged in active measures to tilt last year’s election toward him. “It could have very well been Russia but it could well have been other countries and I won’t be specific but I think a lot of people interfered,” he said during remarks in Poland. “Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”
This development pleased Kremlin flacks.
And we learned that Trump will limit U.S. attendance at the Putin meeting to himself, his Kremlin-friendly secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and a translator—in accordance with Putin’s preferences.
It is frequently suggested that Trump’s solicitousness of Russian interests reflects his long-held affinity for strongmen, and that his imperviousness to the consensus that Russia meddled in the election reflects insecurity about the legitimacy of his victory in an election where he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by millions. But this analysis, attractive and safe in some ways, is too generous. Matt Yglesias’s slightly harsher assessment in Vox, that Trump is behaving like an accessory after the fact, is closer to the mark but incomplete. Based on everything we know, it is less of a reach to assume not just that Trump is helping Russia cover up past crimes, but that he appreciated Russia’s meddling on his behalf, and is sending strong signals that he would welcome more of it in the future.
Trump apologists from the anti-anti-Trump school aren’t the only ones who dispute that his suspicious behavior is a manifestation of underlying guilt; many on the left do, too. It will be the scandal of the century if it turns out members of Trump’s campaign coordinated efforts with Russian hackers (directly or through intermediaries) to inflict maximum damage on Clinton’s campaign. And though there is a growing body of evidence to support the collusion theory, it would be irresponsible to discard plausible sets of facts that might explain Trump’s peculiar antics in more benign ways.
But it is also a mistake to interpret everything Trump says and does through the lens of how he hopes to shape perceptions of the past. We can bracket the 2016 campaign entirely, and ask instead how Trump’s words and deeds aim to shape future events. And through that lens, he appears in almost every way to be courting Russian operatives as if they were just more political dirty tricksters working for favors in America.
In the past month, we have learned that Trump’s initial plan was to undo all of the overt penalties the Obama administration imposed on Russia for its interference in the election. The diplomatic facilities in the U.S. that Trump wants to return to Russia—and which Russia is impatiently demanding from him—were impounded as part of that response. And, according to Michael Isikoff, it was only the efforts of alarmed current and former State Department officials that stopped Trump from unilaterally rescinding sanctions Obama had imposed on the Kremlin. These penalties were conceived as disincentives to future meddling—reminders that the U.S. has tools at its disposal to extract a price for subverting its democracy—and Trump has at least signaled his view that he would like the disincentives removed.
Trump’s discussions with Comey likewise point to a kind of malign disinterest in whether the next election is similarly sabotaged. It is plausible that Trump’s public word games about who is responsible for the election interference merely reflect a reluctance to boost the public’s sense that Russia tipped the election to him. But it would be perfectly feasible for Trump to privately support robust law enforcement and intelligence responses to election meddlers. Instead, in all their interactions, according to Comey, Trump never brought it up. Trump separately pressed other intelligence community leaders to intervene against the FBI’s Russia investigation. And, as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted, there is no sign that the Trump White House is taking any heed of the “urgent warning” that Russia might reprise its subversion campaign in 2018 and beyond. To the contrary, Tillerson reportedly wants to collaborate on new cybersecurity strategies with Russia.
These facts strain the generous explanation of Trump’s behavior in obvious ways, and in a more indirect one. If Trump were truly driven by an obsession with burnishing his own political legitimacy, his optimal strategy would be to downplay the effect that Russian actions had in 2016 while taking steps to assure that his re-election campaign doesn’t become tainted with the same stench as his first one. It is far more parsimonious to assume that the man who asked Russia to intervene against his opponent at a press conference a year ago is, in a subtler but more insidious way, inviting a repeat performance next year and in 2020.