Trump Is (Probably) Not a Russian Pawn

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “But if Trump were in Putin’s pocket, why would he be so nice to him in public? Wouldn’t a real KGB pawn keep a proper distance and play a subtler game?”

So goes one of the most common explanations for U.S. President Donald Trump’s behavior at his press conference this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Using economic game theory, I’m going to test this argument. In the end, I find the Trump-is-a-Russian-pawn explanation less convincing than the Trump-is-just-being-Trump argument — though the implications of that are still deeply disturbing.

The simplest explanation for cozying up to dictators, economically speaking, may also be the most hopeful: As a way to make gains from trade. But it is far from clear what concessions the U.S. is getting from Russia or Putin, or how it might be possible (even in principle) to make an enforceable deal with them.

Another possibly relevant economic notion is countersignaling. Founders of Silicon Valley startups, for example, tend to favor casual dress rather than suits and ties. It’s a way of showing that their work speaks for itself, that they don’t need to impress anyone with their attire. But if Trump’s press conference was meant as a countersignal — showing he is a powerful man who doesn’t need to court the favor of the establishment — then there are less risky ways of doing so. Another round of golf or more rude tweets, like an untucked shirt in Palo Alto, can send a message without putting the whole enterprise in jeopardy.

Then there is the “hiding in plain sight” theory. If you know you did something wrong, and people are searching everywhere for evidence of it, then you also know they will eventually find it. So you might as well put it somewhere obvious. For one thing, it might take them longer to look in the middle of the room, so to speak. And when they do find the incriminating evidence, you can argue that it can’t be that bad because you never tried to hide it.

But that hypothesis doesn’t work either. Trump’s embrace of Putin hasn’t exactly put people off the scent, for one. And if Robert Mueller’s team does present serious evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, an “I was open about our friendship at that press conference” probably won’t serve as a workable defense.

Another hypothesis: Sometimes people engage in compromising behavior — even, or maybe especially, in public — to induce their allies and compatriots to be complicit in their misdeeds. That might give them a broader coalition of support when it comes time to mount a defense. But Trump hasn’t lured many Republicans into an outright embrace of Putin, even though he has managed to stifle a lot of potential Republican criticism of his behavior. So scratch that theory off the list.

All this said, what are we left with as explanations for Trump’s bizarre behavior? One possibility is that he is in fact in cahoots with the Russians. It then would follow that Trump is criminal and reckless and furthermore his openness with Putin is another sign of that ongoing recklessness, even when it comes to his own self-interest. In this case you have to conclude Trump isn’t rationally selfish, but rather deluded.

Another hypothesis is that, as my colleague Noah Feldman suggests, Trump regards criticism of Putin as an attack, either implicit or explicit, on his legitimacy. That pushes him toward accepting Putin’s assertions of innocence and downplaying the impact of any election-related hacking. Add to this Trump’s lack of interest in human-rights issues and view of China as a bigger threat to the U.S. than Russia, and you get a plausible rationale for cozying up to a dictator — or at least no big reason not to.

Finally, there is something that doesn’t quite amount to an explanation of Trump’s behavior but may certainly be a contributing factor. Maybe he has noticed that being open with Putin and Russia causes his Democratic opponents to fixate on this issue and crank up the hyperbole about treason, rather than focusing on bread-and-butter issues such as health-care policy or the tax increases also known as tariffs. Talk of Russian collusion turns American politics into a kind of brutal, depressing circus. Perhaps Trump feels most comfortable, politically at least, in that kind of polarized and highly emotional atmosphere.

I lean toward explanations that have Trump behaving at least somewhat rationally, albeit in idiosyncratic ways. But those narratives are hardly comforting. They still leave Americans with a president willing to sacrifice reputation of the nation, and the stature of his office, for his own reasons.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

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