Reporters and pundits covering the presidential campaign of Donald Trump have been torn between two conflicting narratives: The first is that Trump is a reckless amateur and, as president with his finger on the nuclear button, he would bring the world to the brink of catastrophe. The second is that Trump is a cat’s paw for Russian President Vladimir Putin and, as president, he would, advertently or inadvertently, work to implement Moscow’s agenda for world domination.
The first narrative is a familiar one. Past Republican presidential candidates—Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan—have all had to fight off accusations that, if elected, they would waste no time before launching World War III. The second narrative however is somewhat unusual. It is not often that Republicans are accused of acting as witting or unwitting tools of the Kremlin—at least not by so-called liberals.
For it is liberal media outlets that are the most enthusiastic purveyors of this tale of Putin, the manipulative mastermind, and Trump, his would-be hand puppet. Most of these stories depict Trump as a buffoonish narcissist, easily susceptible to the empty flattery doled out by a predatory Putin. In a story titled “Putin’s Puppet,” Franklin Foer in Slate claimed that Putin “has a plan for destroying the West—and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump.” Foer set the Red-baiting tone by announcing that Trump’s campaign is “the moral equivalent of Henry Wallace’s communist-infiltrated campaign for president in 1948….A foreign power that wishes ill upon the United States has attached itself to a major presidential campaign.” Trump’s ambition doesn’t go beyond fulfilment of a “longtime dream of planting his name in the Moscow skyline.” Putin’s dream is far more sinister:
If Putin wanted to concoct the ideal candidate to serve his purposes, his laboratory creation would look like Donald Trump. The Republican nominee wants to shatter our military alliances in Europe; he cheers the destruction of the European Union; he favors ratcheting down tensions with Russia over Ukraine and Syria, both as a matter of foreign policy and in service of his own pecuniary interests. A Trump presidency would weaken Putin’s greatest geo-strategic competitor. By stoking racial hatred, Trump will shred the fabric of American society.
“Trump is Vladimir Putin’s stooge,” Jonathan Chait claimed in New York in a story headlined “Why Is Donald Trump a Patsy for Vladimir Putin? The New York Review of Books also chimed in: Under a Trump presidency, “American policy to [sic] Europe will be guided by Russian interests,” wrote its resident “Russia expert” Timothy Snyder. Until “the rise of Trump the idea of an American who would volunteer to be a Kremlin client would have seemed unlikely. Trump represents an unprecedented standard of American servility, and should therefore be cultivated as a future Russian client.” Putin likes “weakness, which is what Trump offers…. an American president who shuns alliances with fellow democracies, praises dictators, and prefers “deals” to the rule of law would be a very easy mark in Moscow.” For Putin, “Trump is a small man who might gain great power. The trick is to manipulate the small man and thereby neutralize the great power. In another article, Snyder claimed that the Russian elite is rooting for Trump because of “their conviction that Trump will destroy U.S. power.”
Most media outlets however didn’t waste time hiring experts. Standard-issue political operatives sufficed. Time ran a column titled Meet the Tyrant Donald Trump Loves the Most by Elise Jordan, speechwriter to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who now serves as MSNBC’s in-house Republican, ready at the drop of a hat to express the appropriate outrage at the latest pronouncement of Donald Trump’s. The Russian leader, according to Jordan, “senses that Trump’s rise portends weakness for America. No wonder Putin is openly excited by the prospect of facing off against an ignorant reality star whom he could easily dominate in the international pecking order.” Trump’s “attacks on strong women, [echo] Putin’s pathetic attempts at machismo.” Jordan’s fact-free rant culminated in the prediction that “It’s not too far-fetched to imagine Trump going full Putin and starting a war with Mexico, like Putin’s Crimea grab, if they don’t build the wall.” (Well, actually, it is too far-fetched. Trump has explained in some detail how he would persuade Mexico to pay for the wall. He said he would threaten to cut off the flow of money immigrants send back to Mexico via remittances. He would rescind the threat if Mexico made “a one-time payment of $5-10 billion” to pay for the border wall. Whatever one might think of the advisability or feasibility of this plan, it involves no threat of war.)
Another political operative who weighed in on the Putin-Trump relationship, this time at Politico, was one Evelyn Farkas, a former official in Obama’s Pentagon. Her screed, Trump and Putin: Two Liars Separated at Birth?, was notable in that she appears to hold Americans in as much contempt as she holds the Russians. The Russian people’s indifference to truth, she wrote, has enabled Putin “to secure and retain power, to run the Russian Federation as an autocratic, Mafia-style capitalist state, to pursue a neo-imperial foreign policy for its own sake.” As for Trump, “he is fostering and exploiting indifference toward truth in the service of fear, hatred and a mishmash of poor foreign and domestic policy ideas.”
Not terribly sophisticated but media outlets that make their living through clickbait were even less sophisticated. Salon, for example, has run innumerable stories suggesting a homoerotic relationship between the Russian leader and the American businessman. Donald Trump’s revealing man-crush on Vladimir Putin screamed a typical headline. The man-crush is mutual apparently. On another occasion, we were told that Putin has a “man-crush on Donald Trump.” On yet another occasion, Salon spoke of a “bromance”: “Donald Trump is a big fan of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Big fan. Huge fan.” Just in case readers still didn’t get the message, two days after the appearance of that story, Salon ran yet another story on this theme, headlined Donald Trump’s got Putin fever. This was soon followed by yet another story telling us that “Russian president Vladimir Putin has continued to sing Donald Trump’s praises.” Trump “can’t help but gush with praise at those who use violence to oppress their people,” Salon claimed more recently, “At the top of the list, of course, is Vladimir Putin, who Trump repeatedly swoons over like he’s a 12-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert.” Putin is aware that “Trump goes to sleep snuggling a photo of the Russian dictator every night, and are seeking ways to support Trump’s run, knowing that nothing would destabilise the United States and strengthen Russia’s position like a Trump win.”
Even the New York Times has picked up on the bromance” theme, running a story titled “Vladimir Putin Praises Donald Trump, Sealing a Long-Distance Bromance.” “Bromance” also featured on CNN. Many of the articles prominently feature a recently-painted mural on the wall of a bar in Vilnius, Lithuania, showing Putin and Trump locking lips.
The $1-a-word-anti-Putin-diatribe crowd would not be left out of the mix. The ubiquitous Julia Ioffe offered her usual venomous observations, this time laced with erotic suggestions: Russians were supposedly “salivating at the prospect” of a Trump presidency. There is “something Russian about Trump the man: he likes gold-plated opulence and surgically-perfected Eastern European women.” Anna Nemtsova wrote in The Daily Beast that “The Kremlin hates everything about America except for Donald Trump.” Ivan Krastev in a New York Times op-ed titled “Why Putin Loves Trump,” explained that Putin’s “enthusiasm” for Trump was “rooted in the fact that they both live in a soap-opera world run by emotions rather than interests.”
What is remarkable about this abundance of lurid verbiage is the flimsy foundation on which it is based. Trump and Putin have in reality exchanged nothing more than a few pro forma compliments. Trump’s “man crush” is nothing more than an acknowledgment of something that even Putin’s critics don’t dispute: The Russian is a strong leader. “I’ve always felt fine about Putin. He’s a strong leader. He’s a powerful leader,” he told a TV interviewer. In addition, Trump has said many times that he believed—or hoped—that he would get on well with Putin. During the second presidential debate in September 2015, Trump declared that he “would get along with Putin.” But then, he added, “I would get along with a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with.” He returned to this theme in another presidential debate: “Wouldn’t it be nice if actually we could get along with Russia?”
It is extraordinary that a statement promising improved relations should cause so much fury. In his National Interest-hosted foreign policy speech on April 27, 2016, Trump again reiterated that the United States and Russia “are not bound to be adversaries. We should seek common ground based on shared interests. Russia, for instance, has also seen the horror of Islamic terrorism. I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only is possible, absolutely possible.”
Putin, for his part, has also not gone beyond expressions of hope that the next U.S. president would seek better relations with Russia. To be sure, Putin has expressed himself positively about Trump. In December 2015, after pledging to work with “whomever the American voters choose,” Putin described Trump as “a very lively man, talented without doubt.” Putin went on, “He’s saying he wants to go to another level of relations—closer, deeper relations with Russia. How can we not welcome that? Of course we welcome that.” Of course, they do. After enduring years and years of verbal abuse from U.S. politicians and pundits, particularly at election time, Russians are understandably happy to hear that there is one political candidate who appears to be free of the usual animus toward Russia. Trump responded to Putin’s words by saying that it was “a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond. I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”
In June 2016, Putin again pointed out that “We don’t back anyone, it’s not our business.” He however welcomed Trump’s promise to “restore relations with Russia.” While Russia would work with anyone the U.S. voters choose to lead them, his hope was that “this individual will want to improve relations with Russia and help build a more secure world.”
Interviewers have repeatedly baited Trump over his positive words about Russia. How could Trump not be appalled by a man who “kills journalists that don’t agree with him”? Trump responded, not unreasonably, that “our country does plenty of killing too.” This comment led to predictable spluttering and howls of outrage. Failed 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney tweeted: “Important distinction: thug Putin kills journalists and opponents; our presidents kill terrorists and enemy combatants.”
The terrorists and enemy combatants to whom Romney referred evidently include members of the media. At least 16 journalists have been killed by U.S. armed forces in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Trump could have mentioned—but didn’t—the April 2003 bombing of Al Jazeera’s Baghdad headquarters that led to the killing of its correspondent Tareq Ayyoub. That same day, the United States shelled the Palestine hotel in Baghdad, home to most of the foreign correspondents in Iraq, killing two cameramen, Reuters’ Taras Protsyuk and Jose Couso of Spain’s Telecinco. The Committee to Protect Journalists has listed many other such incidents: There was Mazen Dana, a Reuters cameraman, who was killed by machine gun fire from a U.S. tank on Aug. 17, 2003, while he was filming near Abu Ghraib prison. There was cameraman Ali Abdel Aziz and reporter Ali al-Khatib, both of the United Arab Emirates-based news channel Al-Arabiya, who were shot dead near a U.S. military checkpoint in Baghdad in March 2004. Then there was Asaad Kadhim, a correspondent for the U.S.-funded Al-Iraqiya TV, and his driver, Hussein Saleh, who were killed by gunfire from U.S. forces near a checkpoint close to the Iraqi city of Samara. There was also Maha Ibrahim, a news producer for Iraqi television station Baghdad TV, who was shot and killed on June 25, 2005, by U.S. forces as she drove to work with her husband, also an employee of the station. Then there was the notorious videotaped 2007 Apache helicopter attack that led to the deaths of two Reuters news correspondents.
Moreover, in 2015, the Pentagon published a law of war manual in which it declared that “journalists may be members of the armed forces, persons authorised to accompany the armed forces, or unprivileged belligerents.” In other words, not only are journalists to be considered legitimate military targets but, if captured, they would not be entitled to any protections under the Geneva Conventions.
To return: While Trump has promised to seek better relations with Russia, he has not yet indicated awareness of Russia’s security concerns, particularly those arising from NATO’s eastward expansion. On Ukraine, for example, Trump has not addressed the 2014 armed overthrow of the legitimate, elected government in Kiev and the role this played in the subsequent conflict in Ukraine. While Trump has eschewed the usual noisy Washington bluster that blames Putin for the spectacular failure of the policy of trying to muscle Ukraine into the Western alliance, Trump’s criticism of Washington’s Ukraine policy has not gone beyond demands that other countries take the lead: “I think maybe we should do a little following and let the neighbors take a little bit more of an active role in the Ukraine.” Americans have been the most aggressive on Ukraine, he complained in on another occasion. Why can’t others do a little more? “I never hear any other countries even mentioned and we’re fighting constantly. We’re talking about Ukraine, get out, do this, do that. And I mean, Ukraine’s very far away from us. How come the countries near the Ukraine, surrounding the Ukraine, how come they’re not opening up and they’re not at least protesting? I never hear anything from anybody except the United States.”
On the question of Ukraine’s membership of NATO, Trump has not gone beyond saying that he doesn’t care about the issue. “Whether it goes in or doesn’t go in, I wouldn’t care. If it goes in, great. If it doesn’t go in, great.” On Crimea, Trump has been non-committal, declaring it to be Europe’s, rather than America’s, problem. Trump has not been an enthusiastic about providing arms to Ukraine. Recently, the Trump campaign succeeded in making sure that the Republican platform rejected calls for sending lethal weapons to the government of Ukraine.
Trump’s approach toward Russia is in line with the general thrust of his proposed foreign policy. The only question he deems worthy of asking is: “What’s in it for us?” In his 2000 book The America We Deserve, he wrote that “Pulling back from Europe will save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous, and these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.” These days, the gravamen of his complaints about NATO is that its members are getting a free ride. Only four NATO member-countries, besides the United States, are “spending the minimum required 2% of GDP on defence.” The United States spends “trillions of dollars over time on planes, missiles, ships, equipment, building up our military to provide a strong defence for Europe and Asia. The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defence, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
However, there are more serious problems with NATO than other countries not pulling their weight. NATO’s reckless policies such as involvement in the war in Syria, overthrow of the legitimate government of Libya and the provision of weapons and training for the government of Ukraine, have seriously jeopardized the security of Western nations. Trump has studiously avoided asking the more fundamental question whether it is the continued existence of NATO that poses the most serious threat to world peace.
To be sure, alone among today’s politicians, Trump has urged a reconsideration of NATO’s mission. NATO is obsolete, he has argued, unwilling to address the issues of today such as migration and Islamic terrorism. “We have the threat of terrorism and NATO doesn’t discuss terrorism,” he has said. “NATO’s not meant for terrorism. NATO doesn’t have the right countries in it for terrorism.” NATO needs to change. It will either be “readjusted to take care of terrorism or we’re going to have to set up a…new coalition, a new group of countries to handle terrorism because terrorism is out of control.”
Trump follows the unthinking consensus on missile defence. He has echoed the familiar neo-conservative complaint that Obama has supposedly “gutted” the program and “abandoned our missile defence plans with Poland and the Czech Republic.” Trump appears to be unaware of the components of the U.S. missile defence plans that have been implemented in recent years. In 2009, Obama announced the deployment on AEGIS warships of interceptors against short- and medium-range missiles. The following year NATO announced deployment of SM-3 missile interceptors. This land-based missile defence system became fully operational in May 2016, much to the annoyance of Moscow. NATO has already begun construction of an additional anti-missile platform in Poland. Today, NATO defensive shield includes a command-and-control center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, a radar installation in Turkey and four ships capable of identifying enemy missiles and firing their own SM-3s based in Rota, Spain.
Trump, in other words, has deviated fairly mildly from Washington foreign policy orthodoxy. That is has elicited such a frenzied response illustrates the extent to which the U.S. foreign policy elite, especially its liberal wing, is committed to continuing, and even escalating, the conflict with Russia. Not only that, given the elite’s almost hysterical animus toward Putin, it is likely to be working overtime under a Clinton presidency trying to effect regime change in Moscow. Trump as a businessman has imbibed none of the pathology of the U.S. policymaking elite. Before entering politics, Trump was a builder who naturally saw Russia as an enticing source of business opportunities. As a neophyte politician, he is understandably baffled why he is expected to begin mobilising the nation to confront Russia. Trump may not have fully grasped that for U.S. policymakers the natural order of things is U.S. hegemonic rule over the entire planet. The role of the much-touted U.S. “friends and allies” is to serve as cheerleaders for U.S. rule. Russia however stands in the way. Hence, the extraordinary vitriol directed at Moscow.
As far as U.S. policymakers and their media acolytes are concerned, the goal of a liberal, rational foreign policy is to contain Russia and to sponsor opposition to its government. However, this policy, consisting as it does of NATO expansion, missile defence systems on Russia’s borders, growing NATO military presence in Eastern Europe, regime change operations in Russia isn’t terribly rational. In fact, it’s downright dangerous. Trump is one of the few politicians in the United States who has expressed concern about where this policy is leading. However, now that Trump is the official Republican presidential nominee, will he have the strength to resist the entreaties of his new Republican allies to provoke conflict with Russia?