Impeached president Donald Trump has learned a lot from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and for someone who has a personality more akin to that of Josef Stalin—the narcissism, paranoia, messiah complex fostering a cult of personality—that’s terrifying. One of the most dangerous things he’s taken from Putin is the art of disinformation, at work now as Trump moves to rewrite the history of Russian interference in his election. That’s one key part of what’s behind his current authoritarian drive, abetted by Attorney General William Barr, to interfere in the sentencing of his co-conspirators who were brought down by the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling. He doesn’t want anyone questioning the legitimacy of his election, and he wants vengeance against everyone—James Comey and Robert Mueller and the “13 angry Democrats”—who he sees as undermining him.
To be clear, there’s absolutely no question that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and that it was on behalf of Trump, and that Trump’s close associates—if not Trump himself—were in it up to their eyeballs. Trump wants to erase the mounds of intelligence proving that, in no small part to allow for it to happen again. This piece by Philip Rucker in The Washington Post lays it out in semi-terrifying clarity, with this quote from Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University and a scholar of authoritarianism, resonating: “It’s all about manipulating information and recasting the narrative to be what you need it to be. […] Even more than censoring, which is old-school, rulers like Trump—and Putin is the master at this—manipulate opinion by manipulating information.”
Rucker talks to numerous people associated with Trump and finds that he “remains haunted by all things Russia […] and continues to nurse a profound and unabated sense of persecution.” That’s the Stalin part of him—that and his “declaration of his right to meddle in criminal cases whenever he chooses” and his regular complaints “that Comey and McCabe have avoided jail time for what he is convinced is wrongdoing” and his paranoia. “Most of these items have arisen because the president doesn’t think things are fair,” one adviser told Rucker. “His reaction to Joe Biden’s son is mostly not a reaction of trying to harm a political opponent, but it’s a reaction of not believing that the treatment of the Bidens is in any way similar to how he’s been treated. His reaction to McCabe, Comey, various other enemies of the president is a reaction to what he believes is an unfair result happening to his allies.”
The dangers are urgent and extreme, starting with the 2020 election. Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg makes it clear: “As Bob Mueller said—and the entire intelligence community confirmed—Russia is still coming at us.” Trump is not only “offering a false narrative to the American people about that threat, but there is no leadership from him on this incredibly important issue. We are still being attacked. It is as if the Russians invaded Alaska and the president either said they are not actually there or that they are there but it does not really matter because we have 49 other marvelous states.”
The 2020 election is the least of our worries, though, since Barr is happily turning the Justice Department into Trump’s legal team. We’re not at the prosecutions of political enemies yet, but we’re teetering closer and closer with some of the investigations Barr has initiated. It’s made even worse by a Republican Senate that isn’t just refusing to do its job of holding Trump in check, but also all but inviting Putin in by refusing to do anything to protect our elections.