Donald Trump is not endorsed by Putin – but he understands the Russian leader far better than Hillary Clinton

Branding Trump an apologist for the Kremlin is a set piece of the Clinton campaign, even though the pair have never met. But he has a handle on what drives Putin – one hardscrabble bruiser, perhaps, recognises another

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 13 October 2016 17:16 BST
Some went as far as to accuse Trump of treachery over his lauding of Putin’s leadership against Obama’s
Some went as far as to accuse Trump of treachery over his lauding of Putin’s leadership against Obama’s (Getty)

As the US presidential race enters its final month, two themes have emerged to blight the ambitions of Donald Trump. One, to skate over the reprehensible language, is his unreconstructed attitude towards women. This may relate to years far in the past, but it is a particular liability at a time when political correctness rules (in the public, if not always the private, domain) and his rival for the White House is a woman.

The other is his apparently indulgent view of Russia. And while he seems to have recognised the damage from the woman in question – apologising for the remarks caught on videotape and fiercely denying the latest allegations about “inappropriate touching” – he has given no hint of a retreat on Russia. On the contrary: Trump seems positively to revel in challenging the consensus about Russia’s general badness that prevails not just in the US but across the Western world.

For the sake of accuracy, it is worth noting what Trump actually says – and does not say – about Russia. He does not say that it is a wonderful place brimming with human rights and democracy, or that such things do not matter. “It’s a very different system,” he told NBC viewers before the presidential candidates’ debate, “and I don’t happen to like the system.” Nor does he describe Putin as likeable, still less a friend. There is no suggestion that he has ever even spoken to him.

What he says is that Putin exerts “strong control over his country” and “has been a leader... far more than our president has been a leader”. In echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s early appraisal of Mikhail Gorbachev, he believes he could do business with Putin and that he could secure a relationship that would be to mutual benefit. Even this, however – a classic “realist” approach to Russia – has landed him in enormous trouble.

Trump’s lauding of Putin’s strong leadership against Obama’s prompted Hillary Clinton to call him “unpatriotic” and warn that he would be a pushover for Putin. Others went so far as to accuse him of treachery. Branding Trump an apologist for the Kremlin is now a set piece of the Clinton campaign.

An early example was the accusation that Russian intelligence was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computers before the party convention. This allowed the Clinton campaign to kill two birds with one stone – a culprit other than the Democrats’ own negligence had been found that deflected the story from Clinton, while Trump could be scolded for making common cause with Putin. When Trump jokingly responded by inviting Russian hackers to find Hillary’s missing emails, he reinforced that idea. Sarcasm and irony are not strong points of the US voting public.

The claims of Russian responsibility for the DNC hacking conveniently resurfaced a week or so ago, with US intelligence cited as confirming that Russia had – in all likelihood, but, note, not absolutely definitely – done it. After this came an expose (by Kurt Eichenwald in Newsweek magazine) about Trump taking his speech lines direct from the Kremlin – which was subsequently shown to be conspiratorial rubbish by The Washington Post.

In between there have been claims about Trump’s business interests in countries of the former Soviet Union, though not actually in Russia. He also parted company with a campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was pilloried for having once advised the supposedly pro-Russian Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yanukovych – something that says more about the promiscuity of the political PR business than about any link between Donald Trump and Russia. In sum, no one has so far tracked any money or support trail to the Kremlin, and you can bet your bottom dollar this is not for want of trying.

As for the idea that Putin is backing Trump for president, there is as little evidence for this as there was for the claims during the UK referendum campaign that the Kremlin was rooting for Brexit. As then, the interests of the accusers are clear: references to Russia and Putin are used to discredit the other side by association.

Such claims are also implausible. The Kremlin’s ingrained preference, always and anywhere, is for stability. So far as can be verified, Putin has used only two words of Trump: “talented”, which he subsequently denied, and “colourful”, which can be read many ways. It is highly unlikely that any Russian leader, least of all Putin, would support a candidate who has stated openly that he regards “unpredictability” as a tool of policy.

Putin calls for stronger Russia at parliament opening

In the throes of this very strange election, however, facts and logic seem to count for little. With Russia increasingly seen again as the enemy, and much of the US media finding latter-day reds under every bed, the “Russia card” is a potent weapon in the Clinton armoury. Which is unfortunate, because a rethink about Russia policy is sorely needed – in the US, as elsewhere – and in his conclusions about Russia, Donald Trump is at least a little bit right.

Let me clarify here. I hold no candle for many of Trump’s views. I reject in particular his Obama-Putin comparison. The US President, it seems to me, has been a stronger leader than he is often given credit for while Putin is in many respects weaker than his reputation would suggest.

But being wrong about some things, even a lot of things, does not make someone necessarily wrong about everything. And what Trump has said about Russia and Putin indicates to me that he has a better handle on what drives the Russian leader and how to deal with him than many of those whose well-paid job it is to know.

This may come from Trump’s being a big character himself. It may come from his travels and his rollercoaster career in business. It may just be a matter of instinct – one hardscrabble bruiser, perhaps, recognises another.

What he crucially appears to understand is that not everyone sees the world in the same way and that it is worth trying to see the world as Russia sees it. This is the mark of an astute businessman, but also of any diplomat, soldier or politician worth his salt.

As of now, the Clinton campaign’s efforts to paint Trump as a “useful fool” of the Kremlin seem to be having the desired effect. Add the torrent of misogyny charges, and it would appear that his presidential goose is cooked. In the event of an upset, however, Donald Trump might be the very President to show that the US and Russia can again do business, and in so doing contribute to a safer world.

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