Trump has a real Russia problem
May 28, 2017 | Administrator
In the homestretch of the 2016 presidential campaign, I attended a Donald Trump rally in Loudoun County, Va. The campaign had ticketed some 4,000 people for a venue that comfortably fit about 350, meaning that most waited in long lines in the hot sun for a candidate they wouldn’t see.
Talking to a couple dozen of them, I learned that, contrary to the Trump ruffians featured on television news, these supporters were pleasant and well-spoken — and philosophical about getting shut out of the event. There was one thing, though: Several of them raised the issue of Russia and Vladimir Putin.
They weren’t talking about WikiLeaks or anything nefarious. It was Trump’s odd affinity for Putin and the gushing way he spoke about Russia. “We’re not with him on that,” one nonplused man told me as his wife nodded in agreement. “I don’t get his thing for Vladie,” a woman said. Meanwhile, two Trump supporters told an anti-Trump demonstrator toting a sarcastic “Make Russia Great Again” that his sign was funny.
Today, Trump is president and public opinion polling backs up my anecdotal experience in Loudoun. In a recent Fox News Poll, 64 percent of Americans now consider Russia “an enemy” of the United States, up from 40 percent four years ago. To be sure, there are partisan differences in the poll, as Hillary Clinton supporters have embraced Russia-bashing as an excuse — offered by Clinton herself — for why she lost the election. But Trump isn’t in sync with his own supporters on this topic, either. Only 39 percent of Trump voters consider Russia an “ally” of the United States, while 59 percent of Trump voters believe that the president considers Russia an ally.
In other words, that man with the “Make Russia Great Again” sign? It’s less funny to Trump supporters than it was last September. To be sure, his supporters want to give him the benefit of the doubt. The mainstream media carry daily leaks, presumably from Obama administration moles and “Deep State” bureaucrats designed to undermine the president. Trump and his supporters have concluded that elements in our government’s intelligence services are guilty of the very sin they accuse Russia of practicing: furtively trying to compromise confidence in American democracy by undermining elected U.S. government officeholders. It’s not an unreasonable view and it’s not only Trump supporters who share it.
“You have a politicization of the agencies … resulting in leaks from anonymous, unknown people and the intention is to take down a president,” former Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich said recently. “This is very dangerous to America. It is a threat to our republic. It constitutes a clear and present danger to our way of life.”
Yet there are troubling aspects to the Trump-Russia relationship. Let’s discuss two of them, starting with how he talks about the subject.
From Russia With love
In 2014, while lauding Putin for being accommodating to him during the Miss Universe contest in Moscow, Trump said “you have to give him credit” for raising Russia’s “world prestige” and seemed to heap praise on Putin for annexing Crimea.
In 2015, Trump pronounced his relationship with Putin as “great” and said it would be even better “if I had the position I should have.” Later that year, Trump predicted that if he were president, Putin would turn Edward Snowden over to the U.S.; he blamed President Obama for the hostile relationship between Moscow and Washington; called Putin “a nicer person than I am”; gave him “an A for leadership,” and ended the year in interviews on ABC’s “This Week” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” by scoffing at allegations the Putin regime has murdered journalists. “I think our country does plenty of killing also,” he told Joe Scarborough.
During the campaign year of 2016, there was more such praise, even as Putin became a partisan issue. But then, a month after taking the oath of office, in an interview with Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host interjected, “Putin’s a killer.” In response, Trump doubled down on what he’d told Joe Scarborough. “There are a lot of killers,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
This was an astonishing thing for a U.S. president to say: propaganda for America’s enemies, and incredibly tone deaf for a domestic audience, especially those in Trump country. Russia is a nation run by a former KGB official who jails political opponents. And it’s not how any American president has talked about Russia in the last 80 years — including the time when the two countries were allies against Nazi Germany.
This is not about dubious news stories that Trump shared anti-terrorist intelligence with Russian officials. As the commander-in-chief, he’s entitled to do that if he believes it’s in our national security interests. This is about something else. The presidency is a communications job. And Trump’s many statements are radically at odds with U.S. history and American public opinion. That’s his right, too, but he is obliged to tell his fellow citizens why this is so and to do so carefully and persuasively, not in goofy tweets about how Putin has called Trump a “genius” or in ill-considered attacks on America’s character.
Follow the money
Leaving aside the evidence-free claims from Trump’s enemies that he colluded with Russia to get elected, it’s telling how often Trump has mentioned how nicely Putin treated him during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. The question naturally arises: Did Trump profit from it personally? The Watergate-era phrase “follow the money” comes to mind.
During that era, Texas Gov. John Connally, then a member of Richard Nixon’s Cabinet, was indicted on bribery charges for allegedly accepting a $10,000 bribe from the nation’s largest dairy consortium. A spin-off of Watergate, the “milk scandal” was a weak case and Connally was found not guilty by a Washington, D.C., jury.
Even before his acquittal, there was widespread skepticism in Texas that Big John would be caught in something so petty. When the indictment was announced and Connally faced the cameras, a Texas television reporter wheedled, “Governor, isn’t it absurd to think that a man of your means would accept a $10,000 bribe?” This gambit was a trap, even if the obsequious TV guy didn’t intend it that way, and Connally easily slipped it.
“No,” he replied. “I didn’t take it, but I think $10,000 is a lot of money.”
So how much did Donald Trump make from the 2013 pageant? Owing to his refusal to release income tax returns, voters didn’t know the answer in 2016. Thanks to Trump’s lawyers, we know now. “With a few exceptions,” his lawyers told Trump in a letter to him, “your tax returns do not reflect any income of any type from Russian sources.”
The letter then listed the exceptions, which made the “any income of any type” assertion laughable. Here they are:
• A cool $12 million for the pageant held in Moscow.
• The $95 million sale in 2008 of a Florida estate to an unnamed Russian “billionaire,” a property purchased for only $41 million in 2005.
• Sales of merchandise at Trump properties and the rental of hotels and resorts to Russians.
To paraphrase John Connolly, maybe these weren’t bribes, but the average Trump voter would consider $12 million a lot of money — not to mention a $54 million capital gain in only three years.
Finding out if Trump felt beholden for any of this money is hardly, to use the president’s words, “a political witch hunt.”
Carl M. Cannon is executive editor and Washington Bureau chief of RealClearPolitics.