What's behind Trump inviting Putin to the White House?

The president keeps saying and doing things which create the suspicion that he is beholden to Russia. Depending on one’s point of view, this is either coincidence, or it is complicity

Kim Sengupta
Friday 20 July 2018 19:12
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TIME's new cover merges Trump and Putin's faces

It is, of course, far better that the leaders of the two most heavily nuclear armed states in the world should talk to each other and try to arrive at understandings, rather than be locked in endless acrimony and confrontation.

That is what Donald Trump says, and he is right. And in that vein, a summit in Washington just months after the one in Helsinki should be lauded as a good thing.

The problem is that this outreach to Russia is being carried by Donald Trump, a man whose presidency has had the shadow of Vladimir Putin hanging over it from its beginning. The incendiary charge that it was the Kremlin’s dirty tricks that put him so unexpectedly in the White House is also worth noting.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether or not there is a Trump-Russian connection is still continuing and expanding. It is possible that he will find at the end that the allegations are false.

It could be the case that although people around Trump, like his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and personal lawyer Michael Cohen have been arrested and charged, the president himself will remain untouched. That certainly is the view of some, like John Bolton – who subsequently became the latest National Security Adviser – when I asked for his opinion at a conference in Kiev last year.

But Trump keeps saying and doing things which create the suspicion that he is beholden to Russia. It had been forecast ever since he became president that he would try to create a new world order. The combination of senior administration officials and the Republican Party hierarchy had kept him in line so far.

But now, with most of those moderating voices gone from the administration, and the Republican Party being moulded to his image rather than the reverse, Trump is theoretically in a position to pursue his aims.

In the last couple of months alone, the president of the United States started a trade-war with allies, demanded that the G7 group of countries re-admit Russia, which had been expelled after the annexation of Crimea, has done his best to destabilise the G7 and Nato, undermined Theresa May’s attempts to reach a deal with the EU and asked Emmanuel Macron to leave the EU in return for a good trade deal with the US.

All these actions just happen to be those which broadly suit the Kremlin’s policies. Depending on one’s point of view, this is either coincidence, or it is complicity.

Then we have Trump’s extraordinary performance at the Helsinki summit, in which he appeared to accept Putin’s denial that Russia had interfered in the US elections, rather than the unanimous view of the US intelligence agencies that it is culpable of doing so.

He also appears to be in favour of letting Moscow get access to people it considers to be enemies in the West, including, it later transpired, a former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul.

It should also be noted that while Trump, in his industrial size outpouring of tweets, has insulted and attacked people around the world, the one person he has been extremely careful not to criticise is Putin. In fact, in his 18 months in office, Trump has publicly praised the Russian leader 11 times.

This has led, inevitably, to Trump’s many critics asking: “Just why is the Donald so afraid of offending Putin?” Nothing which came at Helsinki dispelled those suspicions. The question was repeated by the Democrat Senator Nancy Pelosi in the aftermath of the summit: “Seriously, what does Putin have on Trump that he’s so afraid?”

The theme was raised after the news broke of Putin’s invitation to Washington. Steve Hall, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, said: “Before the Helsinki summit, I was not prepared to go to the darkest corner in the room and say there is ‘kompromat’, compromising information, on Donald Trump.

“After I saw Donald Trump treat Putin in a fashion that is just inexplicable, the only conclusion that I can come to is that there is information and data out there that implies there is indeed compromising information that Vladimir Putin has on Donald Trump. Why else would he treat him that way?”

But this is a man who got into White House despite advocating “grab them by the pussy” when talking about women, and has been relatively unscathed in office from allegations of sexual assault, and claims of paying off a prostitute. So would revelations along the lines of the allegation in former MI6 officer Christopher Steele’s dossier, about Trump and prostitutes and a golden shower in a Moscow hotel room, affect his popularity in his support base?

Proof of financial corruption involving Russians and others, another part of the Mueller inquiry, would be far more dangerous for Trump. There is a school of thought that, like Al Capone, he will be got on money, rather than any other alleged crimes and misdemeanours. But we shall have to wait for the Special Counsel’s report on this.

No dates have been set yet for Putin’s visit, but it is likely to take place before the November midterms. And there is a chance, one might think, that a similar show as at the Helsinki press conference will damage his standing among conservative Republicans with their historic antipathy to Russia.

The dismay shown by senior Republican senators and congressmen after Helsinki would support that view. But what about Republican voters – would they desert Trump?

Not according to the latest polls. Around 79 per cent per cent of Republicans, an Axios/SurveyMonkeypoll found, approved of Trump’s handling of the Helsinki press conference, while 85 per cent feel the investigation into the Russian election interference is a needless distraction.

An NBC survey found that just 10 per cent of Republicans now see Russia as a threat to the United States, and a Gallop poll found that 40 per cent of Republicans now think Russia is an ally compared to 22 per cent who thought so only a couple of years ago.

Donald Trump may have some way to go before creating a new international status quo, but the president is certainly reshaping the view of Russia back home among the people who matter to him most. Their votes may ensure that the Democrats do not get both the Congress and the Senate in the midterms, and thus save him from possible impeachment over the claim that he was the Muscovian candidate for the White House.

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