The Collusion With Russia Is in Plain Sight

What did Donald Trump say to Vladimir Putin when no one else could hear them?

Editor’s Note: This article is one of 50 in a series about Trump's first two years as president.

Perhaps even President Donald Trump is susceptible to the emotionalism of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He listened to the piece surrounded by his fellow G20 summiteers, the leaders of the world who had gathered in Germany in the summer of 2017. Sitting in a balcony, he leaned forward and seemed to listen intently to jocular chitchat from the Macrons. A good rendition of the Ninth—and it’s hard to top the Hamburg Philharmonic—is the musical equivalent of a venti Red Eye, a thunderous jolt to the circulatory system. When Trump joined his colleagues for a post-concert dinner, he seemed unable to stay put in his chair.

More specifically, he roamed the banquet hall and gravitated to an empty chair next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was likely not a maneuver that Trump had discussed with his aides in advance. Protocol permitted him to bring one translator to dinner—and his interpreter of choice spoke Japanese. Part of the peril of the improvised conversation was Putin’s cunning, his skill at rewriting reality by cleverly insisting on his own pattern of facts. There was also Trump’s strange tendency to genuflect in the direction of the Russian leader.

Because there was no U.S. official eavesdropping on the conversation, we have no record of what was said during this hour of kibitzing. And for several days, there was not even an official acknowledgement of it. Despite the many witnesses who saw him sidle up to Putin, Trump dismissed various reports about it as “fake news.”

Even at this earlier moment in his presidential biography, the cloud parked over the Trump presidency was the Russia scandal. All political logic suggested that he should avoid furtive meetings with the Russian leader, since the official line in Democratic talking points, buttressed by the Steele dossier, described him as “Putin’s puppet.” Trump’s willingness to ignore this political logic can be read as willful defiance, incompetent optics, or confirmation of a nefarious alliance. But the consistent fact is that Trump places himself in situations where he manages to bolster both the prestige and the tactical advantages of a man who hopes to weaken the country Trump governs and the alliance of democracies that he theoretically leads.

The dinner scene in Hamburg was followed by Trump’s mad soliloquy in Helsinki the next summer. Trump stood next to Putin at a pair of podiums. The American president implied that he trusted the Russian president’s denials of interference in the U.S. election more than he believed the conclusive findings of his own intelligence community. It doesn’t take terribly sophisticated psychology to see how he could arrive at such a profoundly patriotic conclusion. To concede Russian meddling in American elections would call into question the legitimacy of his own victory.

To deny Russian meddling, however, is to grant Putin his wish. Putin has repeatedly used social media to try to sow discord in the United States and eastern Europe. He believes that he can tip elections and stoke resentments, weakening his rivals without paying any real geostrategic price. Indeed, Trump’s denial of the nefarious Russian role in the election furthers the suspicions that Putin hopes to encourage. It creates the impression of a biased, conspiratorial “deep state”; it makes the obsession with Russian influence seem like a partisan delusion.

One of the great discoveries of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is that the Russians and the Trump campaign allegedly began talking about “political synergy” back in November 2015, long before anybody expected the reality-television star to win the Republican nomination. Even before Mueller launched his probe, the FBI reportedly believed that the president was worthy of a counterintelligence investigation, because the evidence it possessed suggested there was a reasonable possibility that Trump was an agent working on behalf of Russia. Very little in his presidential record makes this incredible assumption any less plausible.

Whatever the ultimate truth about Trump’s relationship with Russia, it has been a supremely rewarding one for the Kremlin. Trump has downplayed the assassinations of Kremlin critics. He has seemed ready to accept the Russian occupations of Crimea and Western Ukraine as either established facts or nuisances not worth American bother. Syria is a theater of influence that he has conceded to the Russians by withdrawing troops. Even sanctions against Putin’s cronies are now being rolled back. We may never find evidence of covert collusion; but the collusion that is sitting in plain view is one of the worst scandals in American political history.