To Donald Trump, Jr., from Russia with Love
The tangled explanations offered for why Donald Trump, Jr., agreed to a meeting last June with a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya have observers reciting once again the political truism that it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup—except when it’s actually the crime. It’s not clear whether any laws were broken with regard to that meeting, which was also attended by Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, and at which Trump, Jr., hoped to receive politically damaging information about Hillary Clinton from a person who he had been told had ties to the Kremlin. But plenty of other questions remain to be answered. When Trump, Jr., released his e-mails about that meeting—after he was told that the Times was going to publish their contents—President Trump said that his son is a “high-quality person,” and thanked him for his “transparency.” Given the President’s usual hyperbolic lexicon, “high-quality” sounds like faint praise, but “transparency” is precisely the issue. Setting aside the fact that the Trump team seemed fine with accepting sensitive information from a Russian source, it’s worth considering why Donald Trump, Jr., was chosen to be the recipient of it.
His blithe defense—that nothing about the meeting matters because it turned out that there was no intel to share—is only more damning. Veselnitskaya does not seem to have any formal connection to the Russian government, but, if she had, as Trump, Jr., apparently believed, then the overture should have been seen as a feint, a head-fake to gauge the level of sophistication of the Trump team, and possibly to compromise the son of a potential future President in order to extract concessions at a later date—the kinds of machinations that would’ve been instantly recognized during the Cold War.
The implications of this level of ineptitude on Trump’s team have been alarming ever since Trumpism became a viable political force, but it also points to a lack of understanding of what Russia may be seeking to achieve with the Trump Presidency. In the fall of 2015, after Trump defended Putin against accusations of murdering journalists, and praised his leadership, it was easy to draw superficial comparisons between them: two image-conscious men hostile to independent institutions and fixated on restoring their respective nations to what they perceived as their former greatness. Since then, the differences between them have become more apparent. Russian resurrection is Putin’s raison d’être, an objective that explains his various military interventions. It is an agenda that resonates deeply in a nation that remains both bitterly aware that it lost the Cold War and sensitive to the subsequent decline of its significance in world affairs. A few years ago, on a fellowship in Russia, I was discussing the work of Hunter S. Thompson with a student on a Moscow trolley, when an older man watching us began shouting angrily. The student translated his complaint: “There was a time when Americans knew better than to come to Russia and dare to speak English loudly in public.”
Trump, too, speaks the language of national grievance. He persuaded his followers that they had been suckered globally, and, in the most alarmingly messianic of his statements at the Republican National Convention, warned that he alone could save the nation. He has dissed long-standing allies, sabre-rattled our enemies, and made a show of wrangling job concessions out of American manufacturers—but none of that reflects a coherent world view beyond the will to power that has driven him since he appeared on the New York real-estate scene more than forty years ago. The grimiest business practices might approve cementing a lucrative international deal with a corrupt foreign regime, but nations, at least in theory, operate on a broader set of principles. Were Trump’s nationalism anything more than self-serving theatrics, his associates would have rejected any suggestion of foreign assistance in the election on the principle that, hated or not, Hillary Clinton represented someone to whom they were bound by ties of citizenship.
Putin seems to have recognized these contradictions and weaknesses from the outset. His interest in Trump’s candidacy appears driven not simply by transactional concerns, such as the removal of sanctions in exchange for reauthorizing the adoption of Russian orphans, or the prospect of a hands-off foreign policy that will ignore Russian human-rights violations. Trump may see himself as an American Putin, but Putin likely sees Trump as an American Boris Yeltsin—floundering in the complexities that surround him. Before Trump was pressured into raising the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election with Putin at last week’s G-20 summit in Hamburg, he had continued to downplay it. This was despite the fact that his own Justice Department is prosecuting Reality Leigh Winner, a twenty-five-year-old intelligence contractor, for leaking a National Security Agency report on attempts by Russian military intelligence to hack local election officials and voter-registration software.
All this points to problems that extend far beyond the June meeting to the nature of this Administration and its inability to understand the world that it is supposed to be leading. My colleague John Cassidy has pointed out that Trump, Jr., increasingly looks like a fall guy for a White House whose senior officials are increasingly compromised. When Richard Nixon saw that the resignations of his aides John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman had done nothing to diminish the inquiry into Watergate, he told Henry Kissinger, “I cut off two arms and then they went after the body.” Even if Trump, Jr., does take the fall, Trump, like Nixon, may soon realize that it will be insufficient to stop the Russia investigation.