Donald Trump’s Pattern of Deference to the Kremlin Is Clear

Now it’s on the president to explain his posture.

Trump and Putin standing behind podiums that say "Helsinki 2018"
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

When Donald Trump gives interviews, it’s usually to Fox News. When he gives interviews to Fox, it’s usually to the channel’s opinion side, not to tougher questioners such as Chris Wallace or Bret Baier. But there he was Saturday night, talking to the normally friendly Jeanine Pirro and receiving what he called the most insulting question in his life.

“Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?” Pirro asked, citing a New York Times article from over the weekend disclosing that the FBI in May 2017 had opened a counterintelligence inquiry into whether Trump was secretly working for Russia. She delivered the question dismissively, with a chuckle, but she asked it—and received a remarkable answer.

“I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked,” Trump groused. “I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written. And if you read the article, you’d see that they found absolutely nothing.”

The president then talked for some time, but he never actually denied working for the Russians, and “They found absolutely nothing” doesn’t sound like what you say when there’s nothing to find. On Monday, Trump was asked the question again during a press gaggle, and this time he denied it, while again protesting the question.

“I never worked for Russia,” he said. “And you know that answer better than anybody. I never worked for Russia. Not only did I never work for Russia, I think it’s a disgrace that you even asked that question, because it’s a whole big, fat hoax. It’s just a hoax.”

The FBI counterintelligence probe was passed off to Special Counsel Robert Mueller when he was appointed in May 2017. As a matter of law, it’s not clear whether Mueller is still pursuing that line of investigation, much less what new information or conclusions he might have produced. But as a matter of politics, the burden of proof is now on Trump to explain. There may well be some non-nefarious explanation, but it’s the president’s responsibility to clarify his long pattern of strange behavior toward Russia.

Consider the other big Russia-related story of the weekend. The Washington Post revealed that Trump has concealed details of his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin even from other top members of his staff, going so far as to confiscate the notes produced by his interpreter during a meeting and instructing the interpreter not to speak with other officials. As I have reported, interpreters are privy to highly secret conversations, carry security clearance, and are accustomed to keeping secrets. Nonetheless, this sort of secrecy is unusual, the Post notes:

As a result, U.S. officials said there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years. Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.

Why would Trump do this? Yes, he has a weird tendency to destroy documents (illegally). Yes, he had a vexed relationship with then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has since criticized the president’s leadership. But neither of these answers really explains why Trump has been so secretive about his interactions with Putin, and it’s silly for the public (and press) to spend a lot of time speculating when Trump can answer the question.

Until he does, the interpreter episode joins a long list of incidents where Trump was strangely conciliatory or even obsequious toward Moscow. Max Boot laid out a detailed list of questionable interactions in Monday’s Washington Post, but there are a few lowlights worth reviewing.

During the campaign, Trump repeatedly praised Putin and downplayed objections to Russia’s seizure of Crimea. In one extraordinary campaign rally, he called on Russia to hack emails from former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who happened to be his rival for the presidency. (Russian hackers made their first attempt to do so that very day.) He hired Paul Manafort as his campaign manager, despite copious warning signs including his work as a lobbyist for foreign dictators and his offer to work for free. Manafort was one of several aides who in June 2016 met with Russians who the aides believed were bringing damaging info about Clinton. (Trump would later dictate a misleading statement about the meeting.)

Several Trump advisers, especially George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, had extensive contacts with Russians, which they have attempted to downplay. The Trump Organization also claimed that it had cut off discussions about building a tower in Russia, when in fact it remained in close contact with Russian government officials about the project.

Before and after the election, Trump dismissed the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia was interfering in U.S. politics. During the presidential transition, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner (who attended the June 2016 meeting), sought to set up a secret back channel with Russia that would bypass the federal government. Meanwhile, National-Security Adviser–designate Michael Flynn had conversations with the Russian ambassador, about which he lied to FBI agents and Vice President Mike Pence. Trump only fired Flynn when his lying was revealed in the press.

During a February 2017 interview with Bill O’Reilly, Trump dismissed concerns about Putin killing dissidents and journalists. In May 2017, he abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, citing the Russia investigation as his motivation. The day after he fired Comey, he welcomed Russia’s ambassador and foreign minister to the White House—an arrangement that rattled some intelligence experts on its own—where he told them that firing the “nutjob” Comey had relieved “great pressure [on him] because of Russia.” Trump also disclosed sensitive classified information to the Russians.

During the summer of 2017, Trump continued to deny that Russia had interfered in the presidential election, despite a growing body of evidence. In July 2017, he met with Putin in Hamburg, with a tiny team of advisers; Trump greeted Putin warmly and, according to the Russians, Trump “accepted” Putin’s denials of election interference.

That meeting turned out to be only a warm-up for a disastrous meeting with Putin in Helsinki the following summer, in which Trump kowtowed to the Russian leader, openly took Putin’s side over U.S. intelligence on the interference issue, suggested allowing Russia to take part in the inquiry, and entertained allowing the Russians to question a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow.

More recently, Trump regurgitated a strange and bogus Russian assertion that the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in 1979 to fight terrorists. According to the Times, the president has also discussed the idea of withdrawing the United States from NATO, which would effectively destroy the organization and fulfill one of Putin’s greatest desires in geopolitics.

Any of these specific incidents, and many others that I have omitted, might be individually explained away fairly easily. As a pattern, they’re too weird to dismiss with a shrug or cobbled-together explanations. On Tuesday morning, Trump retweeted a pair of arguments that President Barack Obama had behaved similarly when he told then–Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2012 that he would have more “flexibility” after the election. That moment did indeed raise objections at the time, but it was notable in part because it conflicted with the Obama administration’s harder line toward the Kremlin. Trump’s indulgences toward Putin are part of a lengthy pattern, which is why they deserve, and have received, more scrutiny.

That, again, doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation. And it doesn’t mean that any of them are crimes. But the president is a politician, and he will be judged in the court of politics. The onus is not on the public to speculate about why Trump behaves so strangely with regard to Russia. It’s on Trump to explain it to the nation he was elected to serve.