Does Russia Have Leverage Over Trump? Mueller Didn’t Say
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Whether or not the U.S. president has been compromised by a hostile foreign power is one thing the Mueller report might have answered. Yet 448 pages of documentation and analysis of the many connections between the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and various Russians linked to their country’s government do little to illuminate what inspires Trump’s public subservience to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nor does the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller reveal what inhibits Trump from addressing the Russian attack on the 2016 U.S. election or protecting against future attacks.
The report doesn’t even tip the scales much.
After the election, when questions persisted about possible links between Russia and the Trump Campaign, the President-elect continued to deny any connections to Russia and privately expressed concerns that reports of Russian election interference might lead the public to question the legitimacy of his election.
That’s the gist of the “legitimacy” theory. The idea is that the terminally insecure Trump has fixated on the Russia investigation because he fears it makes him appear illegitimate. Trouble is, Trump has always seemed less concerned with disputing the sabotage that advanced his candidacy than disputing that the sabotage was specifically Russian. As he said in April of 2017, it “could’ve been China, could’ve been a lot of different groups.”
Why not Russian? Why never Russian?
Here’s a scene from the Mueller report about a briefing of Trump that included deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland.
During the briefing, President-elect Trump asked McFarland if the Russians did "it," meaning the intrusions intended to influence the presidential election.
When McFarland answered yes, Trump “expressed doubt that it was the Russians.”
So Trump can acknowledge that “it” happened — that his election was tainted by an act of sabotage – he just can’t acknowledge, either in public with Putin or in private with his own aides, that the sabotage was Russian.
The Mueller report gives readers few tools for understanding why. It documents a presidential campaign that was lousy with Russian contacts, and equally lousy with lies denying such contacts existed. Russians no doubt targeted the campaign in part because it was overstocked with inexperienced, incompetent and unethical staff. But was it also compromised in a more profound manner?
Noting Trump’s myriad efforts to obstruct the Mueller investigation, Marcy Wheeler writes on her national security blog Empty Wheel:
But the most significant thing that doesn’t show up in this report is whether Trump was undercutting the investigation as a favor to Russia, reportedly one of the concerns [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein had when he first hired Mueller.
The Mueller report explores the 2016 softening of the Republican platform toward Russian aggression in Ukraine, but the narrative manages to sidestep the central question.
On July 11, 2016, a GOP convention delegate submitted a proposed platform amendment supporting armed support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. A Trump aide named J.D. Gordon watered down the proposal. Here’s how he explained the events to the special counsel.
Gordon stated that he flagged this amendment because of Trump’s stated position on Ukraine, which Gordon personally heard the candidate say at the March 31 foreign policy meeting — namely, that the Europeans should take primary responsibility for any assistance to Ukraine, that there should be improved U.S.-Russia relations, and that he did not want to start World War III over that region. Gordon told the Office that Trump’s statements on the campaign trail following the March meeting underscored those positions to the point where Gordon felt obliged to object to the proposed platform change and seek its dilution.
So the platform was softened regarding Russian aggression to make the platform consistent with Trump’s position. But why was Trump’s position so sympathetic to Russia in the first place — especially after it was known that Russia had hacked American institutions?
Despite granular details that confirm the operational madness of Trumpworld, the Mueller report leaves us not very far from where we started. It tells us that the dossier compiled by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele was wrong in placing Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in Prague for a meeting, which further undermines the dossier’s already shaken credibility. But it doesn’t parse the document or address its thesis of compromise.
We merely learn more of what we already knew: We have a president who was elected with the aid of coordinated Russian cyber and disinformation attacks. Once elected, the president refused to acknowledge the nature of the attacks and resisted punishing the aggressor. He has done nothing to prevent a recurrence. He has publicly sided with the aggressor against his own intelligence agencies. And he repeatedly sought to undermine the investigation into the attacks. (The Mueller report all but shouts that Trump obstructed justice.)
As Trump’s one-time Republican rival Jeb Bush pointed out, Trump was a “chaos candidate” who was destined to be a chaos president.
Yet Trump’s chaos nonetheless has a consistent Russian vector. And as we near 2020, Trump and Putin once again share a dangerous confluence of interests.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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