President Donald Trump is succeeding wildly in one clear, if unannounced, objective: to Make Russia Great Again.
Trump’s summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin went a long way toward achieving Putin’s most cherished goal, which is to return his vast and complicated nation to the exalted geopolitical status it long enjoyed as part of the Soviet Union.
That should be a tall order. Russia’s economy, measured by gross domestic product, is about the same size as that of Texas. Moscow retains a nuclear arsenal that enjoys mutually assured destruction status, but its conventional military forces no longer have the global reach of the Soviet years. Former president Obama once dismissively called Russia a “regional power” – a slight that Putin appears to have never forgotten.
Trump, however, treats Putin as an equal – a “good competitor,” Trump said Monday, clarifying that he means the term as a compliment. This only strengthens Putin at home, where he wants to be remembered as Vladimir the Great, while minimizing his attempts to undermine Western democracies, including ours.
The most charitable analysis is that Trump, for Putin, is simply a useful idiot. Trump bolsters this view with his breathtaking ignorance of history and context. “Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago,” Trump said in Helsinki at his joint appearance with Putin -- apparently never having heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis or even the decades-long Cold War.
What Trump does know and care about is his own titanic ego, which was on display Monday as usual. He did raise the issue of Russia’s election meddling in his lengthy private meeting with Putin, both leaders agreed, but Putin obviously played him like a violin.
On Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed an extraordinarily detailed indictment naming 12 Russian intelligence officers and specifying their roles in “large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.”
In copious and specific detail, Mueller laid out how Moscow’s spies allegedly hacked the email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and rummaged through the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – then leaked “tens of thousands of the stolen emails and documents” in a way that was designed to help Trump’s candidacy.
The fact that Mueller could name individual Russian agents – for example, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Osadchuk, “a colonel in the Russian military and the commanding officer of Unit 74455 ... located at 22 Kirova Street, Khimki, Moscow, a building referred to ... as the ‘Tower’” – must have impressed Putin, a career intelligence officer. He maintained his poker face, however, saying Monday that “I will look into it” and knowing that Trump is eager to accept his “powerful” denial.
Putin countered with what Trump, unbelievably, called “an interesting idea.” Mueller could come to Russia and question the indicted agents, Putin offered, if Russian authorities were given similar access to U.S. spies. Of course, Putin knows this will never happen. As for Trump’s comprehension, we just have to hope.
The other, more sinister explanation for Trump’s fanboy behavior is that Putin knows something that Trump desperately does not want revealed – something, perhaps, about Trump’s attempt to build a skyscraper in Moscow, his business dealings with wealthy Russians, his behavior on Russian soil or his actual collusion in the election meddling.
In Helsinki, Trump described the Mueller probe as nothing but a search for “a reason why the Democrats lost an election.” Trump went on to declare, “There was no collusion. I didn’t know [Putin]. There was no one to collude with.”
Yet the Mueller “witch hunt” continues to find witches. Judging by the frequency and vehemence of Trump’s denials, I wonder if he worries the investigation is getting uncomfortably close to him or his family.
Look at what Trump “accomplished,” and I use the word ironically, in a brief foreign trip. He weakened the NATO alliance, bashing other member countries at a contentious meeting in Brussels. He undermined British Prime Minister Theresa May, saying she was taking the wrong approach to Britain’s exit from the European Union. He showed up late for tea with Queen Elizabeth II. He parroted and amplified the racist anti-immigration views of the European far right. He described the EU as a geopolitical “foe.”
It was fitting, then, that he ended his journey by kowtowing to Putin. It is not paranoia to point out that no world leader benefits more from Trump’s foreign policy. Someday, and I hope it’s soon, we will learn why.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.