Trump Is a Flat Circle

The former president knows by now that no one can or will stop him from soliciting and receiving illicit help.

Donald Trump
Mark Peterson / Redux

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the ancient proverb goes. Less known is the Trump corollary: Even when my friend’s enemy is also an alleged war criminal and my country’s geopolitical enemy. It’s harder and harder to be shocked by Donald Trump, but asking Russia’s leader to interfere in American politics to help him, in the midst of a brutal and illegal war condemned by most of the world, might just do it.

Trump’s comment was no gaffe under gotcha questioning. He made the remarks Tuesday in a cozy interview, airing on the Real America’s Voice network, with the pro-Trump disinformation site Just the News. The subject was a $3.5 million payment in 2014 from a Russian oligarch to a company that Senate Republicans claim was owned by Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son. (Hunter Biden denies involvement in the company; he founded another with a very similar name.)

“I would think Putin would know the answer to that. I think he should release it,” Trump said. “I think we should know that answer.”

If you’re feeling déjà vu, you’re right. In July 2016, then-candidate Trump infamously asked Russia to hack the U.S. government to obtain emails sent by Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state. “I will tell you this: Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said.

Russia may well have been listening. As the Mueller report revealed, Russian hackers attempted to access Clinton’s email server the very next day. Later on in the campaign, emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign officials were leaked by WikiLeaks and a hacker calling himself Guccifer 2.0. American intelligence has traced those leaks back to Russia.

Back then it was possible (though naive) to write off Trump’s Putin fanboying as an expression of his ignorance of the Russian autocrat’s true character. After all, Trump showed little interest in the world or the details of his job as president. In February 2017, Bill O’Reilly pressed him on his professions of “respect” for the Russian, saying, “Putin is a killer.” Trump was unbothered: “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”

But this detached view of Putin, if it was ever genuine, is no longer tenable. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Trump has seemed unsure of how to talk about Putin. At the outset, he both praised Putin’s supposed smarts (“I mean, he’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart”) and insisted that the invasion would never have happened while he was president—ignoring the inconvenient facts that Russia occupied parts of Ukraine throughout his presidency and that Trump had at the time suggested the seizure of Crimea was reasonable. In more recent weeks, as the Russian war machine struggled, Trump turned to boilerplate condemnations of “senseless” violence in Ukraine. More recently, however, he has once again praised Putin. Trump doesn’t pass out compliments without expecting something back, though: He wants Putin to give him a hand in an expected 2024 rematch between Biden and Trump.

“As Putin bombs civilians in Ukraine and the world condemns him as a war criminal, Trump is… once again asking him for help besting his political opponents,” Hillary Clinton tweeted today.

“What is wrong with him?”

As is so often the case with Clinton, she almost got it right. One is tempted to say that Trump hasn’t learned anything from his past errors, but in fact he’s grasped the lessons far better than his critics. He knows by now that no one can or will stop him from soliciting and receiving illicit help.

In 2016, he sought help from Russia, not only in his public remarks but also privately. He got away with that: He won the election, aided by Russian hacking, and faced no tangible consequences. In 2019, he tried to blackmail Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into boosting his presidential campaign by announcing an investigation into Hunter Biden. He got away with that, too: He was impeached by the House but was not convicted, and although he lost the 2020 election, the impeachment was probably not a decisive factor. After that loss, he attempted to overturn the results and steal the election. It didn’t work either, but he got away with that, as well. A second impeachment also ended without a conviction, and Trump is now the favorite for the Republican nomination in 2024.

Just last week, Trump filed a laughable lawsuit accusing Clinton, the Democratic National Committee, and other officials of a criminal racket in the 2016 election. “The Defendants maliciously conspired to weave a false narrative that their Republican opponent, Donald J. Trump, was colluding with a hostile foreign sovereignty,” the suit claims. Why would his opponents need to concoct a false narrative, though? He’s doing the collusion with a hostile foreign sovereign right there in the open.