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Donald Trump’s fishy behavior on Russia is bigger than possible email collusion

He keeps pushing a Moscow-friendly policy that almost nobody supports

A Glimpse Into Life In Russia Today Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On June 18, 2013, when he was already well-known in political circles for his birther attacks on then-President Barack Obama, Donald Trump made an exciting announcement.

“The Miss Universe Pageant will be broadcast live from MOSCOW, RUSSIA on November 9th,” he tweeted. “A big deal that will bring our countries together!”

Doing business with Russia was in no way illegal at the time (this was before the invasion of Ukraine that triggered the current level of Western sanctions) and wasn’t even particularly unusual. The stated aspiration that a tacky pageant would help bring the countries together was somewhat odd, especially given the then-overwhelming consensus in Republican Party circles that the Obama administration was too soft on Russia. But Trump is nothing if not a self-promoter, and pretending that his upcoming television special would have important diplomatic ramifications seems like a bit of harmless puffery.

But the follow-up tweet was genuinely weird.

By this time, the Putin regime was already infamous for its crackdown on domestic dissent, brutal war in Chechnya, the murders of journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov at home and Alexander Litvinenko in London, and the ultimately failed poisoning of former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko.

That year’s State Department human rights report documented “several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings,” while Human Rights Watch concluded that “Russia’s cooperation with international institutions on human rights appears perfunctory.”

There’s nothing particularly unusual about the United States enjoying cordial diplomatic or even business ties with authoritarian regimes that are also geopolitical allies. But Russia was not an ally of the United States, and Putin wasn’t someone average Americans — especially average Republicans — tended to like. For Trump to express his desire for a friendly, personal relationship with the brutal and autocratic ruler of a hostile foreign country was odd.

But it proved to be the beginning of what’s become, over the years, a signature element of Trump’s thinking. He’s attached — much more stubbornly than he is to any of his various heterodoxies on domestic policy — to the idea of a Russia-friendly foreign policy that almost nobody else (including Republican lawmakers and key members of his own administration) believes in.

That’s the great mystery looming over all of the growing Trump/Russia scandals. Firmly disavowing Putin would be just about the lowest-hanging political fruit imaginable. Why won’t Trump pluck it?

Trump used to say he knew Putin. Now he says they’ve never met.

Soon after Election Day, it became clear that the question of Russian meddling in the 2016 election was going to be a substantial political problem for Trump. It also became clear that, as president, he was going to have to find a way to work with Republican Russia hawks in Congress and with an American military and intelligence community that’s profoundly skeptical of Russia.

But before the election, he was considerably less restrained, and claimed to have a direct line to the Kremlin back in 2013, 2014, and even through much of 2015:

Later, of course, Trump’s story changed. The current line from the president and his team is that any talk of him having anything to do with Russia is fake news and that he never met Putin before taking office. And, of course, Trump has lied about many things over the years. It’s entirely possible that the year he spent insisting that he’d been in contact with Putin and the broader Russian governing elite was just another example of Trump lying.

But it’s a strange thing to do. Stranger still is Trump’s willingness to publicly defend Putin’s dismal human rights record.

Putin’s a killer and quasi-dictator. Trump’s fine with that.

Lots of American businessmen make money in countries with deplorable human rights records, and lots of American politicians are advocates for strategic alliances and commercial ties with countries that have deplorable human rights records.

But while overlooking abuses is common, it’s fairly unusual to straightforwardly deny them — and especially to do so in a situation where there isn’t any clear political, business, or strategic rationale for doing so. But Trump spent a good deal of time acting as a Putin spokesperson in the American press:

  • In an October 13, 2015, interview with the Guardian, Trump defended Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, arguing that Putin is “going to want to bomb ISIS because he doesn’t want ISIS going into Russia and so he’s going to want to bomb ISIS.”
  • When Joe Scarborough asked about Putin’s habit of murdering critical journalists on December 18, 2015, Trump replied with a weird form of whataboutism: “I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know. There's a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing going on, a lot of stupidity."
  • “I haven’t seen any evidence that he killed anybody in terms of reporters,” Trump said in a December 20 interview with The Week on ABC.
  • "Have they found him guilty?” Trump asked rhetorically when Fox Business News’ Maria Bartiromo pressed him about Litvinenko’s murder in a January 26, 2016, interview. “I don't think they've found him guilty.”
  • “There are a lot of killers,” Trump said during a Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly in February 2016. “Do you think our country is so innocent? Do you think our country is so innocent?

The eagerness to make excuses for Putin’s conduct seemed linked, rhetorically, to a somewhat half-baked notion that under Trump the United States and Russia would enjoy warmer relations.

Trump wants a deal with Russia. That would come at a very high cost.

“There's nothing I can think of that I'd rather do than have Russia friendly,” he said in a July 27, 2016, news conference. “As opposed to the way they are right now, so that we can go and knock out ISIS with other people.”

Later that day at a campaign rally, Trump said, “wouldn’t it be a great thing if we could get along with Putin?” During the October 9 presidential debate, Trump returned to the theme that “I think it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together, as an example.”

Shortly before Inauguration Day, on January 11, 2017, Trump said, “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia. Russia can help us fight ISIS.”

Trump’s early personnel and policy moves matched up with this desire.

He quickly tapped retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, known as an outlier among American military and intelligence professionals for his pro-Russian views, to serve as his national security adviser. And he bypassed the entire range of conventionally qualified candidates to serve as secretary of state in favor of Exxon executive Rex Tillerson, a former recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship award. Early in his administration, Trump aimed to relax sanctions on Russia, only to back down in the face of congressional opposition.

In the end, Trump’s Russia policy has landed in a more conventional place than these early moves would have suggested. Tillerson toed the standard American foreign policy line during his confirmation hearings, Defense Secretary James Mattis is a very normal Republican Russia hawk, and Flynn got fired and replaced with the much more widely respected Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.

But Trump himself has acted in many ways like an outsider to his own administration’s Russia policy. But while he’s simply detached from the details on many issues, he has pushed back forcefully against both Congress and his own advisers repeatedly on Russian matters.

Trump keeps acting very strangely about Putin

This oddness begins with simply the way that Trump talks about Putin.

Obama called him a “thug.” So did Mitt Romney. Paul Ryan called him a “devious thug.” Marco Rubio called him both a “thug” and a “gangster.”

Trump fairly consistently declines to adopt this conventional language among American politicians, and he does so even though he is clearly aware at this point — and has been for some time — that suspicions about the nature of his relationship with the Russian government are a key point of political vulnerability. It would be the easiest thing on the planet for Trump to have his communications team draw up some standard-issue US-politician Putin-bashing rhetoric — he’s a thug, he murders journalists, he invades his neighbors — and at a minimum assure Republican Party foreign policy elites that he’s now down with the program.

After all, Trump used to espouse very unconventional views on things like tax cuts for the rich, Medicaid, and the importance of establishing universal health insurance coverage.

But in order to consolidate his position as leader of the GOP, Trump has dropped those ideologically heterodox views even though the heterodox position was more popular. On Russia, however, he insists on flying in the face of bipartisan consensus.

He’s reluctant to even acknowledge that Russian hacking took place, resorting even to ridiculous lies about G20 conversations to change the subject.

Perhaps most shockingly, Trump’s own team of advisers had to drag him kicking and screaming into affirming America’s commitment to upholding Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. And he did it only after humiliating those very same advisers by letting them brief the media that an affirmation was coming, only to cut it on the fly from the prepared text of his speech.

It was a bizarre thing to do, it clearly benefitted Russian foreign policy objectives, and it offered nothing but political downside for Trump.

The big picture matters along with the small

The intersection of politics and law is a funny thing.

Politicized investigations into potential presidential scandals often end up turning on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, making false statements to investigators, and other fine-grained ways in which people can get legally tripped up when they’re trying to cover embarrassing information. The much-discussed possibility of “collusion” with Russian election hacking is both vaguely defined, unproven at this point, and even if it happened may not have involved the president personally in any way.

These things end up hinging on small details, and the small details can be crucially important.

But the big picture also matters, and the big picture here is that Trump remains stubbornly unwilling to break with Putin and the Kremlin. The president used to regularly brag about his contacts with the leaders of the Russian government. The president won the election with the helping hand of the Russian government. The president repeatedly expressed his desire to change US foreign policy in a more pro-Russian direction. And though the president has, so far, been largely stymied in his efforts to do this seems to be straining against constraints imposed by the leadership of his own party and his own foreign policy team.

Perhaps Trump was lying about the contacts, ignorant about the campaign proposals, and his current attitudes reflect nothing more than bull-headedness.

Certainly that’s what his Republican collaborators on the Hill seem to be telling themselves even as the White House works to get House Republicans to block a Russia sanctions bill that passed the Senate with 97 votes. But the mystery remains. Trump has been willing to reverse himself on other policy issues, gets no political benefit from pursuing such a pro-Russian course in the face of bipartisan opposition, and could score easy points by doing a little formulaic Putin-bashing. The fact that he refuses to tells you a lot about why Trump’s presidency remains mired in scandal — and why the worst may still be to come.