As I have noted previously, the question about collusion is no longer whether Trump officials had untoward contacts with Russians—two have already pleaded guilty to concealing meetings with Russians from the FBI, for reasons that are not entirely clear—but the scale of the collusion, and whether Trump himself was involved. So far, there’s no public evidence that the president himself was involved. A new CNN report, saying that Mueller aggressively pursued former Trump aide Rick Gates because he wanted Gates to speak about collusion, seems to suggest that Mueller hasn’t found concrete evidence to implicate Trump either. In the absence of evidence Trump colluded, the simplest explanation for the president’s actions is that he reacts hysterically mostly to stories that he thinks bring his election into question.
Consider McMaster, who angered Trump not by staking a hardline position against Russia per se (after all, he was replaced by the even harder-line Bolton), but by stating that evidence of Russian meddling in the election in particular was incontrovertible.
NBC News and The Washington Post both have stories Friday that go inside the White House process of deciding on the expulsions. NBC’s item has two particularly interesting details. One is that Trump was reportedly particularly upset about Putin claiming to have powerful new nuclear weapons. It’s tempting to read this as some sort of phallic showdown, or a clash of two performatively masculine leaders, but Trump has not responded similarly on other occasions when Putin has mocked the U.S. and Trump himself, so it’s hard to know why this time has produced different results.
The second is that although Trump has sometimes signed off on measures punishing Russia, he’s been reluctant to be seen as doing so. In August, for example, Trump finally acceded to a plan to arm Ukraine:
Yet when the president finally authorized the major policy shift, he told his aides not to publicly tout his decision, officials said. Doing so, Trump argued, might agitate Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the officials.
“He doesn’t want us to bring it up,” one White House official said. “It is not something he wants to talk about.”
That reticence is mystifying. On the one hand, it doesn’t fit the theory that Trump is a pawn of Putin, since it’s a material blow against Russia; on the other hand, refusing to discuss it deprives Trump of a talking point to rebut claims that he’s a pawn of Putin.
Trump’s fear of delegitimization doesn’t explain why Trump was so friendly to Putin before the election, but there are other plausible reasons for that. Trump clearly respects strongmen and was surrounded by campaign advisers like Rudy Giuliani who had publicly venerated Putin. Moreover, all evidence suggests Trump expected not to win the election, but did have a long-running interest in doing business in Russia. The campaign offered Trump a months-long opportunity to cozy up to the Kremlin in preparation for what he expected would be a return to the real-estate business.