Of the many crazy weeks of the Trump presidency, this one certainly ranks near the top. I wish I were a clever enough wordsmith to do full justice to the level of craziness. On the other hand, anyone looking at things honestly already feels it in their gut.
On international affairs alone this week we had Cambridge Analytica/Facebook, the tariff switcheroo (exemptions for most of our allies on steel and aluminum, after Trump’s initial announcement that the tariff would apply across the board, and then $60 billion in new tariffs on China), the news that the guy who hacked into the Democratic National Committee in 2016 wasn’t a “lone hacker” but was instead a Russian military intelligence officer who created a false persona to cover the tracks of his government, and, most recently, the exchange of H.R. McMaster for John Bolton as national security adviser. Only a week earlier we saw Trump’s unceremonious sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Seems like longer than that, doesn’t it?
I’d already been thinking about writing a post exploring the question of whether Vladimir Putin really is blackmailing Donald Trump, or perhaps whether Trump merely fears that Putin has something devastating on him—either of which might explain our president’s seeming unwillingness to personally confront his Russian counterpart over his many misdeeds. But rather than merely offer my own personal take, let’s instead focus on the thoughts of someone with a lot more expertise who was wondering exactly the same thing.
John Brennan was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency for most of President Obama’s second term, and was the top adviser to Obama on counterterrorism during his first term. It’s important to note that serious concerns have been raised about Brennan’s role while he worked for President George W. Bush, in a program that led to the torture of C.I.A. detainees by foreign governments. Having said that, the man knows international affairs and American foreign policy.
Brennan was asked on Wednesday if it seemed to him that Trump in some way feared Putin. He responded by speculating that the Russian president “may have something on [Trump] personally,” and continued: “The Russians, I think, have had long experience with Mr. Trump, and may have things that they could expose.”
As Matthew Rosenberg, who wrote the New York Times article on Brennan’s comments, pointed out, Brennan was one the people best positioned to know the degree to which the Steele dossier—which included claims that Putin had all kinds of leverage over Trump—was true. Later in the day Brennan further clarified his remarks:
“I do not know if the Russians have something on Donald Trump that they could use as blackmail,” he said in a written response to questions from The New York Times.
“When asked the question, I have pointed out the perplexing submissiveness of Mr. Trump toward Mr. Putin — despite continued evidence of malign Russian activities,” Mr. Brennan added. “I do not know why he refuses to call out Russia; that is a question that can only be answered by Mr. Trump.”
The latest incident that added to this perception that Trump goes weak in the knees when it comes to Putin was his phone call to the Russian president after last Sunday’s election victory. Our fearless leader described it as “a very good call.” John McCain offered a different take:
An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election. https://t.co/lcQTBi7CA1
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) March 20, 2018
Some Trump supporters then pointed to Obama’s congratulatory call to Putin after the 2012 Russian election as vindication. Of course, the difference here is that Trump’s own national security advisers thought it was wrong to congratulate Putin, who, when Obama called him in 2012, had not yet engaged in an attempt to undermine our democratic elections, had not yet violently annexed Crimea, had not yet invaded eastern Ukraine, had not yet infiltrated our electric grid, and had not, only days before Trump’s fawning phone call, poisoned two people living within the borders of one of our very closest allies.
Unlike Trump, Obama in his call did not contradict the advice of his foreign policy advisers. Trump went against his own experts, who had prepared a briefing for him that specifically urged him to bring up the poisoning incident and which had “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” (yes, in all caps) printed on it.
After the call, Trump’s people offered that their guy hadn’t actually read the briefing cards, and that national security adviser (for another day or two, at that point) McMaster didn’t speak the words “don’t congratulate Putin.” So the Orange Julius Caesar actually didn’t reject the carefully-crafted advice of his team, it’s that he just didn’t receive it (maybe the proverbial dog ate the briefing notes). What’s more pathetic: That they think these excuses cut it, or that they think anyone believes anything this White House says, in particular after Trump was caught bragging about having lied to the prime minister of Canada, on top of all the other lies he’s told?
As for the new national security adviser, literally the only thing he may not be uber-hawkish on is—wait for it—calling out Russia for interfering with our election process. This is in contrast to McMaster, who only last month stated clearly that we now had “incontrovertible” proof that they did. Putin—uh, I mean Trump, didn’t like that one bit, which led to this gem of a tweet:
General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
And one baby zebra! Kudos to any of you Daffy Duck fans who get that reference.
The stalwart Rep. Adam Schiff reminded everyone, after Bolton was announced as McMaster’s replacement, that he had already made statements that showed he’d fit right in with his new boss on this matter:
John Bolton once suggested Russian hack of DNC may have been a false flag operation by Obama Admin. He joins Joe diGenova, another Fox contributor, who thinks the FBI conspired to frame the President. Glad to see @POTUS surrounding himself with rational thinkers. Heaven help us.
— Adam Schiff (@AdamSchiffCA) March 22, 2018
Going forward, Trump doesn’t seem to be worried about future election meddling on the part of Putin, either. At least that’s what his (lack of) action shows.
Do we have hard evidence proving Trump is essentially a Russian stooge, a Manchurian Candidate? No. But we do know that his behavior when it comes to Putin is so unexplainable that pretty serious people are scared enough to openly voice their concern that he might be. Mark that down as one more thing about the Trump presidency that should scare every one of us, and as one more thing we should never have to worry about when it comes to the leader of our country.