It was widely assumed that Robert Mueller’s investigation would uncover what, if anything, lay at the bottom of the bizarre and sometimes creepy level of deference Donald Trump extends to Russia. Mueller found some clues, the largest of which was a campaign negotiation to give Trump rights to a Moscow building project that stood to hand him hundreds of millions of dollars in profit at zero risk, and the secrecy of which gave Russia blackmail leverage over Trump.
But Mueller never uncovered the full extent of Trump’s financial ties to Moscow. “Neither Mueller nor the Southern District prosecutors sought out Trump’s financial records or obtained his tax returns,” Jeffrey Toobin reports. The mystery of Trump’s solicitousness to Putin remains unresolved. And he continues to give reasons for suspicion.
Earlier this week, Trump announced a pullback of 12,000 troops stationed in Germany. He framed the decision as punishment for a long and amorphous list of offenses over a quarter century, including both unspecified trade deals and alleged delinquency on “bills.”
“We don’t want to be the suckers anymore,” Trump said. “The United States has been taken advantage of for 25 years, both on trade and on the military. We’re protecting Germany, so we’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills.”
The “bills” do not exist. But even assuming Trump is referring to Germany’s military expenditures, how exactly is Germany supposed to meet these demands, given that he also added unspecified economic offenses to his list of provocations? It seems much more likely that his intent was to punish Germany, and trade and “delinquent bills” was the pretext.
Also this week, Trump gave a surreal interview to Axios reporter Jonathan Swan about his most recent phone call with Vladimir Putin. Swan asked Trump if he raised any questions about reports, which had been included in his President’s Daily Brief, that Russia had paid bounties to the Taliban for killing American soldiers. Trump said he hadn’t. He insisted the intelligence “never reached my desk,” which is false.
Swan asked Trump about the fact that Russia supplies weapons to the Taliban, which has obviously been fighting American troops in Afghanistan. “Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia, too,” he explained.
The distinction between how Trump processes Germany’s self-interest and Russia’s self-interest is telling. If Germany has done something Trump deems contrary to American interests — sell us too many high-tech goods, or fail to maintain a large enough army — he treats it as an offense requiring punishment. If Russia has done something against American interests — arm a radical militia we’re fighting — he simply accepts it as natural. Self-interest is an excuse for Russia, but not for Germany.
Trump’s decision to pick a fight with Germany has two curious aspects. One is that it doesn’t come from the normal channels that usually drive his policy moves. His policy advisers haven’t been pushing for a German troop drawdown, nor have any talking heads on Fox News made this a priority. It is one of the very few Trump initiatives that seems to have sprung fully formed from his own brain.
The second aspect is that, of course, driving a wedge between the U.S. and Germany is a long-term Russian foreign-policy goal. And Trump could have merely framed his decision as a budget-saving move, or a desire to increase the troops’ presence elsewhere in Europe. Instead he presented his decision specifically as a punishment for America’s ally.
Again, none of this proves Trump has some kind of corrupt ongoing relationship with Putin. Maybe he just likes Putin and happens to agree with a lot of his views. But the notion that he has been cleared of any untoward ties, that Mueller proved that Trump’s stream of lies and obfuscation about his connections with Russia turned out not to hide anything, is simply not the case.
If Trump wanted to demonstrate his innocence, he would follow every previous president for the last 40 years and release his financial information. He might be innocent after all. But he has never acted like an innocent person would.