So, for a few days I’ve been mulling over Jon Chait’s epic piece making the case that Trump has possibly been a Russian asset since 1987, trying to figure out how I figure it. The piece has gotten surprisingly little attention, partially because Chait is anathema on left-wing social media, but also because the whole thing just seems ludicrous, and to the mainstream access-friendly media, downright impolite.
Chait’s article boils down to one essential element: Trump being a Russian asset would explain a lot of things that are otherwise inexplicable. It would explain both the recent and lifelong actions of a man who is being pressured, cajoled, flattered, induced, and otherwise beset by both positive and negative pressures from a foreign state.
Of course, that’s the great thing about conspiracy theories. They make sense of a crazy world, tie everything together in a neat little package. They tie strings between disparate elements, creativing a cohesive story out of the fractured wooziness of modern life. They are actually a source of great comfort, which is why people cling to even the most far-fetched ones.
So how far-fetched is this, really?
(Warning: this piece is super long, even for this blog)
The argument is based around a few facts. I’ll present them here as Chait does, and reserve counter-arguments, of which there are many, for below.
To start with, it is important to understand what is meant by “asset”. An asset is very different than an agent. No one thinks that Trump is a mole, planted by the KGB, or that he has willingly agreed to by a spy for Russia (at least, no one credible has tried to make a credible case, as far as I know). If you watch The Americans, he certainly isn’t Phillip or Elizabeth, or any of the Americans who willingly work for them (like Gregory).
But that’s not what an asset is. An asset is someone who for, whatever reason, is useful. This can be a defense contractor with a drinking problem or a State employee who feels disrespected at work or a lonely FBI secretary or a brash millionaire who gets into money trouble, a lot.
In short, an asset is useful because they can be used.
Chait’s case revolves around this. Trump made his first big visit to Russia in 1987, and since then, has seemed somewhat intent on making sure that America doesn’t pay to upkeep global protections against the Soviet Union and later Russia.
Here are the key paragraphs.
It is often said that Donald Trump has had the same nationalistic, zero-sum worldview forever. But that isn’t exactly true. Yes, his racism and mendacity have been evident since his youth, but those who have traced the evolution of his hypernationalism all settle on one year in particular: 1987. Trump “came onto the political stage in 1987 with a full-page ad in the New York Times attacking the Japanese for relying on the United States to defend it militarily,” reported Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The president has believed for 30 years that these alliance commitments are a drain on our finite national treasure,” a White House official told the Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin. Tom Wright, another scholar who has delved into Trump’s history, reached the same conclusion. “1987 is Trump’s breakout year. There are only a couple of examples of him commenting on world politics before then.”
What changed that year? One possible explanation is that Trump published The Art of the Deal, which sped up his transformation from an aggressive, publicity-seeking New York developer to a national symbol of capitalism. But the timing for this account does not line up perfectly — the book came out on November 1, and Trump had begun opining loudly on trade and international politics two months earlier. The other important event from that year is that Trump visited Moscow.
As Chait explains, the Russians, like spy services everywhere, want to create relationships with people who are influential in their home countries. In Trump, it is easy to see how he could be useful. I don’t need the timing of his book to line up perfectly; Trump had always thought he was a world-historic figure, and knew the release of his book would make him even more famous. Of course he was going to start opening on everything.
It doesn’t go very far beyond the pale to think that the Russian intelligence services, which seemed to understand American culture far more than we understood theirs, could see this. He was the gross avatar of everything decadent and stupid in American capitalism, all flash and unearned bravado. Why wouldn’t they think he could have an impact on American life?
It was also pretty easy to tell that this was a dumb and vapid man who was ludicrously susceptible to flattery. You tell him how great he is, and hint that he’s right, Americans are getting screwed. They make terrible deals. Why isn’t he making the deals? If he isn’t, they are by definition terrible deals. It’s simple fucking math, man.
We see here that they don’t need to actually convince Donald Trump of something he doesn’t already believe, just give him flattery and encouragement, and let his absurd (in every sense) fame do the rest. It costs nothing. That’s what an asset is.
The case is that, as the years go on, he remains on file, essentially. It’s possible they have compromising material on him; that’s what spy services do. And as Chait point out, for all his sexual bravado, Trump has always been very strict about NDAs and even about paying out to cover up affairs. He’s old-fashioned in that way.
So he’s on file, although both sides are in chaos through much of the 1990s. And then they realize how much they can help each other. Russian oligarchs need money laundered, Trump needs a steady supply of cash, and he gets drawn further and further into a web of complicity. He has always played fast and loose with the law, thinking it doesn’t apply to him, so why wouldn’t he get further in bed with Russia. After all, no one is a commie anymore.
None of this requires a lot of imagination. The Trumps have long boasted about how much investment they get from Russia, hiding behind closed books. And for the last 15 years or so, there is no money that isn’t essentially state money.
Blackmail, money laundering, who knows what else: the Russians have Trump, and know that he is someone who could be manipulated. They didn’t tell him to run for President, but when he did, because he’s a flamboyant, desperate, pathetic individual who thinks he should be President despite not knowing anything about anything, it was a huge gift to them. Here was someone they could control, who owed them, who they could bring down.
So why not help him? And why bother doing so subtly? What was he going to do, blow the whistle on them? Not without bringing down everything. And so collusion wasn’t incidental to his campaign; it was the swirling center.
That’s the case (simplified, read the whole piece). Now let’s break it down, shall we?
What the Theory Explains
At the NATO Summit in Brussels, Trump behaved exactly like someone who was being told to break up the Western Alliance would behave. Be pouted, he scolded, he cajoled allies. He said outlandish things accusing others of being too weak on Russia in an attempt to sew confusion and dissent.
It’s more than that, of course. Trump’s entire campaign has been about accusing the US of “being taken advantage of by” our traditional allies. I say “accusing the US” because he essentially does: he blames other Presidents for being weak and stupid. But in doing so, he of course paints NATO and EU countries as being cruel bullies, rapaciously picking on the dumb soft-hearted Americans. But no more.
Throughout the three years he has been absolutely ubiqutious, he has managed to insult just about everyone in the entire world, save for Vladimir Putin. This has been widely remarked, but it is still remarkable. There is nothing Putin can do that Trump seems to take as an insult, and this is a man who takes everything as an insult. He’s probably still complaining that a doorman was rude to him once in 1979.
This would also explain how everyone tied to the campaign is basically in the thrall of Russia, and how so many people so deeply compromised by Russia and other foreign powers came to be part of the campaign.
Take Paul Manafort, lately of federal prison. When he was brought aboard the campaign, it was hailed as a return to normalcy for Trump, since Manafort had been known as an expert delegate counter. That’s what people were saying; he was involved in running the nitty-gritty of conventions in 1976, 80, 88, and 96. That’s some experience!
Of course, in politics, 1996 was 1000 years ago. Hiring Manafort to run a 21st-century campaign was crazy, unless it was done because he was tied to Putin through the Ukraine and knew how to steer conversations in both directions.
That would explain the Trump Tower meetings, the server weirdness, and of course the myriad collusion attempts between the two sides. And honestly, there is really no other reason to hire Paul Manafort.
There was no reason to get in bed with Michael Flynn. There was no reason to have George Papadapolous in the campaign. There was never any reason to have a dude like Carter Page anywhere near a campaign.
They either did zero vetting, and somehow coincidentally ended up with like 1000 guys connected to Russia in a campaign that just kept having contact with Russian agents offering collusion, and have been running a Presidency tailor-made to serve Russian interests, or it is just a coincidence.
Again, this isn’t the behavior of an agent, but an asset: someone who is materially compromised and doesn’t dare speak up. Someone whose movements are basically being controlled. Not everything he does, of course. Putin isn’t actually pulling strings. But he holds the cards, and knows how to play them.
It explains so much of what has happened over the last three years. But does that have to be the case?
Objections and Counterpoints
Almost two years ago, in late July of 2016, a period in which I was approximately 35 years younger than I am today, I tried to explain why Trump’s foreign policy statements were the way they were. When he said that he wouldn’t automatically protect the Baltics from Russian interference, I said he was cruel and evil, but more stupid than anything.
That, to me, is probably the best counter-argument to Chait. A lot of what Trump does can be explained by his manifest disqualifications: his insecurity, his idea that he’s the only smart person in the room (indeed, the smartest, the best, have you heard about his uncle who tought at MIT?). He is basically ignorant of everything, and so he says and does dumb things.
That he’s a toxic dummy could also explain why he needed a guy like Manafort: he wasn’t surrounded by geniuses, and until he actually won, nobody respectable would come near him. Why throw away your career? Even after he came President of the United States, there have been far more Millers and Omarosas than Mattises. It makes sense that his was a ramshackle and vulgar campaign where dimwits and corrupt stooges could find a home.
By these lights, Trump is all instinct and snarling hatreds. Of course he hates Europe: it’s weak and sniveling and multicultural. Of course he likes Russia: Obama didn’t. Of course he hates NATO: women run some countries and people respect Merkel more than him. Most of his actions, home and abroad, could be explained by his essential white nationalism.
He isn’t into the liberal order because, being an insecure tyrant-wannabe, it constrains the strongman appetite. His insecurities line up with a politics of pipelines, managed democracies, and ethnonationalism.
None of this is to say that Russia didn’t vastly favor Trump, work on his behalf. It certainly isn’t saying that the Trump team didn’t collude. There’s actually proof his son and campaign manager met with Russian agents to get dirt on Hillary! They’ve all admitted it. Saying “they didn’t have good stuff” is not exculpatory!
But what I am saying is that a lot of these behaviors can be explained by the essence of Trumpness, and Russia’s desire to 1) break up the liberal world order and 2) shakedown American democracy. That they have been using active measures to do so over the last half-decade is not a question. Their role in Brexit is coming to light, and they’ve done so in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and more.
As I said, last July I tried to explain why Russia favored Trump, and it was because of all the behaviors mentioned above. He was perfect. But that might have just been Russia’s luck, and their ability to play up the worst in American culture, the same way that Trump does. It’s sobering, and certainly doesn’t require Trump to be an asset to do so.
What Russia Does Next Will Show A Lot
So where do I land on Trump being an asset? Honestly, it explains a lot more than the other option, especially because his view of the world could be explained by being an asset.
Trump is easy to play. You don’t need a PhD in Spyology to know that he is easy to flatter and easy to manipulate once he has been flattered. It’s easy to make him believe something if you can make him believe it is his idea. His racism and hatreds made taking a right-wing Putinish vision of the world more possible, and his vision of himself as a world-historic figure and the man most Americans admire more than anyone allow him to undermine our democracy.
So if Trump is an asset, they got super lucky with him. You hope that those you own can become useful, and will do anything to keep secrets hidden and debts uncollected. Trump ran for President because he wanted to avenge himself against Obama. This wasn’t a Manchurian thing; Putin didn’t activate him. But when he did, he became Russia’s greatest weapon. As Trump played on our darkest impulses and brought the forces of hatred out, he became more powerful, and more and more valuable to Russia. They wanted him to win.
Either explanation, asset or not, makes sense, and the end result is the same. But I think that what Russia does in the 2018 election will go a long way toward explaining the past.
For a while, I had been sure that when Russia interferes in this election, which they are and will, they would overtly and fake-clumsily aid the Democrats. After all, if they just wanted to destroy American democracy, what better way? Why not have evidence that they are helping Democrats after two years of evidence they helped Republicans? Can you imagine the bloodbath? The fighting? Republicans who lost would refuse to give up their seats. Trump would order the arrest of every victorious Dem. The Justice Department would Captain Renault all over themselves. FOX would be outraged. We’d be sputtering about how it was a trap. To me, that is the smart Russian play.
So what does it mean if they don’t?
But if they help solidify the Republican majority and continue to help Trump? Well, of course that can be explained by the fact that he is still really really good to them, and is doing what they want. Why not help establish minority rule and make the US a non-democracy ruled by a tyrant. Won’t that break the West?
I don’t know, though: were I Putin, I would understand how erratic Trump could be. He could invade Lithuania himself. Trump, on his own, could do anything. And there’s no guarantee of victory, either. The Dems could still win and blow the whole thing open.
Knowing that they have Trump absolutely under their thumb, and knowing that the base is now pro-Russia and anti-EU/NATO, and knowing that the party is essentially Trump’s…well, why not keep that going? If you have a controllable asset, and there is nothing in Trump’s actions or rhetoric to suggest otherwise, then you keep the game going as long as possible.
So to me, Russia’s behavior this year will go a long way toward telling us what is going on, albeit not definitively. While I find Chait’s case compelling, and don’t think it is impossible, it doesn’t need to be true. But it is far from certain that it false, and that might be the most disquieting part of our thunderous and violent moment.