What Jonathan Chait Gets Right About Trump and Russia
Thirty years of contacts with Russia are hard to dismiss as a series of disconnected events.
By TOM NICHOLS
July 10, 2018
Jonathan Chait has written a long piece on President Donald Trump’s myriad ties to Russia. The reaction is about what you’d expect: Trump’s most feverish critics see it as the indictment of a Manchurian Candidate who is now The Red President. Trump’s defenders have dismissed the piece (and Chait) as just another example of how the left can descend into the conspiracy theory fever swamps as quickly as anyone else.
Chait’s piece, however, deserves a fairer reading than it’s getting. Whatever else it may be, it is fundamentally a damning tally of the degree to which the Russian state has woven itself into the life of the current commander in chief.
I should note here that I do not write from any unique knowledge of the Trump case beyond what is available in the historical record. Rather, I am a specialist in Russian affairs with experience extending back to the Cold War, and neither Chait’s narrative nor his conclusions (with some exceptions) strike me as unreasonable.
This isn’t to say that the piece isn’t flawed in some important areas. (The title, right off the bat, suggests that Vladimir Putin is Trump’s “handler,” as though Putin is personally directing Trump. This is over the top.) Chait is also too willing to just accept “it might be true” as a good enough explanation of things like the infamous “pee tape,” which requires too much unsupported extrapolation.
There’s also the problem that the article grants far too much power and agency to the Russians, as though they merely imposed Trump on America as an act of magnificent tradecraft. The piece isn’t helped by a Glenn Beck-style chart—scores of multicolored lines connecting head shots of people in maze-like ways—which most people will likely not take the time to read. The overall effect is to encourage the view that the Kremlin installed its preferred candidate in the White House after grooming him for his big moment over the course of 30 years.
This is the wrong way to think about the entire issue. It helps instead to consider Trump not as a “recruit,” but as an investment. It is ridiculous to believe the Russians had a crystal ball, or a psychic who shook hands with Trump, like Johnny in The Dead Zone, and saw a future president. Rather, they took an interest in a wealthy American businessman with contacts throughout New York’s financial and political worlds. Indeed, as Chait notes, if the Russians hadn’t zeroed in on Trump—a man whose venality, vanity and vulgarity are like a menu of recruitable weaknesses—they’d have been guilty of intelligence malpractice.
That’s why Chait’s article is worth a careful reading: He has laid out the mind-numbing history and facts of Trump’s dealings with Russia in one place. From Trump’s first meetings with the Soviets (which apparently convinced him that he should become a voice on international security and nuclear affairs) to his numerous dealings with the world of Russian finance, to his jaw-dropping hire of Paul Manafort, a man whose résumé includes work aimed at keeping a Putin crony in power in Ukraine, the litany of direct and indirect contacts with the Kremlin exceeds all possible exculpatory explanations. Trump’s defenders over the past few years have gotten a lot of mileage by isolating each of these facts and treating them as insignificant. Chait, however, has gathered them together, and the picture they present is alarming, much in the way a lot of small debts don't look like financial ruin until you write them down and tally them up.
These facts, from the depth of Trump’s financial dealings to the personal connections of some of his top advisers and campaign staff to the Putin regime, are (or should be) undeniable. It is impossible to see the total picture and reach the conclusion that there is an innocent explanation behind it all. There’s simply too much to explain away.
In plowing through this history, three things should be kept in mind. First, the amount of contact Chait illustrates between Trump world and the Russians is simply staggering. Even by the standards of international business, this is an astonishing amount of interaction that involves not just Trump’s financial interests, but vertically deep ties that extend down into his family.
Second, too many Americans do not understand that Russia’s oligarchs, millionaires, business leaders, state officials and intelligence operatives are all part of the same ecosystem. It is not possible to shake hands with just one arm of this octopus without being enveloped by the others. If Trump was in deep with the Russian criminal and financial worlds, the Russian intelligence services knew it, and so did Russia’s top spook, Putin. Trump must know this as well.
Third, Chait’s readers should not be looking for silver bullets that either doom or exonerate Trump. Rather, they should follow the argument about a pattern of interaction that would raise the suspicions of even the most amateur intelligence analyst. Chait does not assert that Trump is a foreign agent, instead calling him an “asset.” I am not sure I agree, at least not as an “asset” in the sense of someone who is knowingly trying to help the Russians, with their explicit guidance, against the United States.
Instead, what Chait presents, without having to get too far out on a ledge about agents or assets, is a plausible case that a U.S. president is compromised by a foreign power that has damaging information about him.
But how would such compromising work in practice? Chait’s critics might be watching too much television. This is not an episode of The Americans. No one issues orders, and anyone looking for such evidence is likely to be disappointed. Rather, over time, as relationships grow, favors are asked. Friendships are pressed into service. The key is to induce the target to do what you want without telling him to do it—to be a friend, helping out friends.
Later, there’s no need to receive instruction from a “handler” in the Kremlin. If the president is worried about what the Russians have on him, he may proactively be doing things he believes will keep him in good stead with Putin. A general sense of anxiety could well produce more cooperation than any direct order. This would explain why Trump always seems fearful and defensive whenever the subject of Putin is raised, and why he seems constantly eager to impress the Russian president at every turn. After starting a trade war with U.S. allies and questioning, as he has many times, the value of NATO, Trump has told Putin that his own staff is “stupid” for trying to keep him from getting too cozy with the Kremlin boss, and that he expects his summit with Putin to be the “easiest” of his many recent meetings.
But why, critics might ask, would Trump and his cronies risk everything in an election if they were in so deep with the Russians? The key to this apparent stupidity, I think, is that no one involved in the Trump campaign, including the president, expected to win.
Indeed, for Trump and his circle, losing would have been the best outcome: Trump would become the de facto leader of the GOP, his advisers would have a direct line to the majority in Congress, and they could operate as a shadow government, dogging Hillary Clinton around the country while making scads of money in everything from consulting to merchandising. People like Manafort and Michael Flynn could parlay their time in the campaign into access and credibility among Republicans.
Winning screwed all that up. Suddenly, all those Russian contacts were a problem. This was a nightmare for Team Trump, but an accidental windfall for Team Putin. The junk stock it invested in back in the 1980s was now a blue chip.
Victory therefore required a lot of quick mobilization to limit any possible damage, and to protect the new administration from revelations no one thought would matter after November 2016. If Chait’s narrative at times seems to lean on people acting strangely, bear in mind that these might have been the actions of people who never expected to be in the White House.
Finally, whatever one thinks of Chait’s piece, the attacks from Trump defenders are no more than a reflex that reveals the exhausting double-standard that pro-Trump Republicans must now carry like a cinder block around their necks. People who once wanted to imprison Hillary Clinton for a uranium deal approved by the U.S. government are now waving away 30 years of Moscow’s personal and financial investments in Trump as though it’s nothing more than a condo purchase on an overdrawn checking account.
I do not know how much pressure the president is under from the Russians. Neither does Chait. Neither do Trump’s defenders. We may never get the full story, unless it is revealed to us by Robert Mueller or found in a future tranche of declassified documents. But there is no way to read Chait’s story—or to do any judicious review of Trump’s dealings with the Russians over years—and reach any other conclusion but that the Kremlin has damaging and deeply compromising knowledge about the president. Whether it is using such materials, and how, is a matter of legitimate argument. That such things exist, however, and that they seem to be preoccupying the president, should be obvious.