We have by now grown so inured to the sight of Donald Trump treating Vladimir Putin like a trustworthy source it was only moderately shocking when he dismissed his own country’s intelligence analysts as “political hacks” while refusing to consider the possibility that Russia’s dictator might have political interests of his own. Still, Trump made another comment in passing that deserves more attention. Speaking of Putin, and expressing his fear that continued investigation into Russian election interference would upset relations between the two countries, Trump said, “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
Consider how unusual a statement this is, especially coming from Trump. Trump is assuming that Putin is a sensitive soul who might be personally wounded by unflattering portrayals in the American media. He is further asserting that Putin’s emotional distress might cause him to lash out at the United States or harm its foreign-policy interests in some way. Trump is speaking to his country like a cowering mother warning her children not to upset their father.
Needless to say, this is the opposite of the imagery Trump uses to discuss almost everybody else. He is famously obsessed with dominance. Everything he does, he does “strongly.” (In his clean-up remarks, Trump walked back his dismissal of American intelligence like so: “I believe in our agencies. I’ve worked with them very strongly.”) Trump portrays every relationship as a negotiation in which he is the figure holding leverage. When Republicans said during the primary they might not support him, he warned that they better treat him right or he would refuse to help them. He has threatened American allies to contribute more or he would abandon NATO. When he confronts adversaries, Trump insists they ought to be careful not to make him angry.
The prevailing theory used to explain Trump’s Russophilia is that he gravitates toward figures who praise him and lashes out at those who criticize him. That would account for Trump’s general friendliness toward Putin, which is in keeping with his cozy relations with all sorts of erstwhile allies. It does not explain his very unusual submissiveness.
What would explain it is the analysis supplied by Christopher Steele, the British intelligence agent turned private investigator who last year wrote an explosive memo on Trump’s connections to Russia. In it, he reported that Russia had obtained compromising information on Trump over the years — including, but not limited to, a now-infamous and possibly apocryphal episode in which he allegedly hired prostitutes to defile a bed on which President Obama had slept:
It’s been well established that Russia habitually seeks out and collects compromising information on famous Americans who visit. “I have no doubt that most every journalist and diplomat who has worked in Russia has such a file in his or her name, just waiting to be put to good use,” reported Julia Ioffe earlier this year.
One might wonder what kind of information could compromise a figure as notorious as Trump, who has flaunted his extramarital affairs. Possibly something financial, showing that Trump has either engaged in illegal activity or has less money than he claims? (Trump is clearly secretive about his finances and has gone to great lengths to avoid disclosing them.) It is also possible that some forms of sexual activity would embarrass him. Michael Gross reported for the Daily Beast last year that Trump had hosted sex parties in which men were connected with younger and often underage girls. A man who is happy to be whispered about in connection with famous models might not be happy about stories like this.
It is also entirely possible that none of this is true. But the possibility that Russia has leverage over the president of the United States is both plausible and terrifying in its implications. In the back-and-forth over the Mueller investigation, we have lost sight of one of the most important questions in need of resolution.