Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the fallout from Trump’s summit meeting with Putin, the GOP’s professions of powerlessness to change the president’s behavior, and the case of Maria Butina.
Donald Trump, reportedly surprised at the bipartisan criticism of his press conference with Vladimir Putin, has been able to deflect attention from past crises by going on the attack, especially against targets on the left. Will it be different this time?
Now that Trump has failed to pin his historic calamity on a misplaced “double negative” and turned the confusion of the words “would” and “wouldn’t” into an international punch line, scapegoating will inevitably be his next tactic. In tweets Wednesday morning he was already back to bragging about what a triumph his Putin meeting was, and essentially disowning yesterday’s “clarification” (a.k.a. “lie”) about what he meant to say while standing beside the Russian thug in Helsinki. But, truly, only his base will believe that it’s all Crooked Hillary’s fault or Obama’s or Comey’s or Mueller’s or Rosenstein’s. Nor will history now go on holiday while he marshals whatever foolish defense he alights on next.
The question that’s not going away is “Why?” Why is an American president openly colluding with an enemy dictator who’s out to subvert Western democracy in general, and America in particular? As James Fallows has put it, Trump is either a “useful idiot” or “conscious tool” of Russia. Trump’s Vichy defenders pick the former, arguing that the president is a case study in psychological defensiveness: He thinks that if he concedes the intelligence on Russia’s continuing assault on American elections he is also conceding the legitimacy of the 2016 election that put him in the White House. In the real world beyond Trumpworld, most believe he is a conscious tool. Perhaps, he is indeed being blackmailed by Putin — not over the pee tape, which would presumably be either applauded or excused by Trump’s voters and his Evangelical Christian amen chorus — but over his murky financial dealings in Moscow. It’s also quite plausible, as Jonathan Chait has strongly argued, that Trump has been a Russian asset for over three decades.
I’d argue that Trump’s motivation for advancing Putin’s interests is not just because the Kremlin likely has the goods on him but also because Trump genuinely believes in the Russian Way. The more we’ve seen of him in office, the more it’s apparent that he does have a consistent ideology, after all, albeit one that aligns more with Putin (and at times Kim Jong-un) than America’s major political parties. Trump’s embrace of nationalist and white-supremacist authoritarianism can be found in his public statements and actions dating back at least as far as the incendiary racist newspaper ads he took out during the 1989 Central Park Five rape case. Each day this president stays in office advances his mission further. As a consequence, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, much cited as a prescient and chilling prophecy of Trump, may yet be viewed as a rather optimistic fairy tale. Charles Lindbergh’s effort to impose America First fascism on World War II–era America, as imagined by Roth, does end with the restoration of democratic order. We cannot vouchsafe that Trump’s unchecked plot against America will have that salutary an ending. The Mueller report, whatever it is and whenever it lands, is likely to trigger an aggressive White House pushback that will make Richard Nixon’s efforts to defy the Constitution during Watergate’s endgame look like amateur night.
Several prominent Republicans were quick to issue statements condemning Trump’s actions, while reportedly, in private, complaining that there isn’t anything tangible they can do to change his behavior. Are they right?
No one can change Trump’s behavior — probably not even Putin. What history wants from the Republicans now are tangible acts that can save their country. Their record remains one of utter failure. Most of the Republican heavy hitters speaking out sharply about Helsinki are either about to leave office or already have: John McCain, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Mark Sanford, Newt Gingrich. But let’s remember that Flake and Corker — as well as another Republican Trump critic in the Senate, Ben Sasse — do remain in office for the rest of this session and could actually do something if they had an ounce of bravery. A single additional Republican Senator (in addition to the ailing and absent McCain) could bring crucial Trump business, including court nominations, to a halt and legislate a more sustained and punitive response to Russian criminality.
Dream on. Despite Corker’s claim this week that “the dam has broken” in the GOP, there’s zero evidence that’s the case in terms of concrete actions, including from Corker. Republican “leaders” are more in fear of the wrath of Trump voters than they apparently are of Putin. Witness this pathetic Tweet from Marco Rubio in response to the Helsinki press conference:
Say this about Trump: He had it right when he branded this gutless wonder “Little Marco.”
At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps the strongest response from any Republican to Trump’s European surrender tour came from Trump’s own director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats. Invoking 9/11, when “the system was blinking red,” Coats said, “I’m here to say the warning lights are blinking red again.” He warned that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack” and a “crippling cyberattack on our critical infrastructure” is a real possibility. Republicans who are standing idly by don’t seem to understand that Putin holds the cards now; an American president handed them to him behind closed doors in Helsinki. If America is felled by another 9/11 attack — the taking down of, say, the nation’s electric grid — these GOP Quislings will be accused of even greater betrayals of national security than they are now. Though that will be the least of our country’s problems.
The FBI has arrested Maria Butina, who is charged with carrying out a Russian influence operation via conservative organizations like the National Prayer Breakfast and the National Rifle Association, and trying to use them for back-channel communications with American politicians. How would a broader idea of “collusion,” if proven, upend the conservative political machine?
If proven, it could upend the conservative political machine by sending some of its prime operatives to prison. Butina’s patron was the Putin crony and gangster Alexander Torshin. Her American circle included David Keene, who was not only the NRA president from 2011 to 2013 but also a former chairman of the American Conservative Union. She penetrated the Trump Inaugural, the National Prayer Breakfast, and the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) alike. There will be much more to learn.
What’s also fascinating about this case is that it was not brought by the Mueller investigation but by the Department of Justice. Who knows what other American-Putin collusion is under scrutiny at Justice? Who knows what additional efforts Trump may take to undermine it and other federal law-enforcement agencies to protect Putin and his gang? Much as Trump’s behavior is ratifying the alternative history speculations of Philip Roth, so the Butina subplot lends further credence to Richard Condon, whose Cold War masterpiece, The Manchurian Candidate, posited that Russia’s most sustained attack on America would be cloaked in right-wing rhetoric and fronted by right-wing politicians.