Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Trump Asks Putin to Smear Joe Biden Again

Five takeaways from his latest “Russia, if you’re listening” request.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

Donald Trump asked Vladimir Putin to bail him out once again. In a new interview with right-wing pseudo-journalist John Solomon, Trump claimed President Biden received millions of dollars from a Russian, and that his friend Vlad would get to the bottom of it.

This is not exactly a paradigm-shattering event in terms of understanding Donald Trump, but it does draw out a few important points about the former president and his current role in the political ecosystem.

The allegations are wild

Trump is claiming that the wife of a former Moscow mayor gave the Bidens $3.5 million. The source of this allegation is a report from his ally, Ron Johnson, a right-wing conspiracy buff who holds a seat in the U.S. Senate. Johnson released a report in 2020 alleging that Elena Baturina, the former mayor’s wife, hired a firm called Rosemont Seneca Thornton, linking that to Hunter Biden, who founded a firm with a similar name, Rosemont Seneca.

Hunter Biden is definitely a major sleazeball, and it’s possible his efforts to cash in on his family name included this deal. However, Hunter Biden’s lawyer has denied both that he received the money and even that he is linked to Rosemont Seneca Thornton, so the allegation about the president’s son is at best completely unsubstantiated.

Trump is going farther, alleging not only that Hunter Biden did get this money, but that his father did, too. “Why did the mayor of Moscow’s wife give the Bidens, both of them [italics added], three and a half million dollars?,” he asked Solomon.

The allegation that Joe Biden somehow got paid off is not even made by Johnson’s wild report, and Trump simply threw it in there. Because Trump broke precedent by refusing to release his tax returns, we have grown accustomed to speculating about the sources of politicians’ income. But Joe Biden has released his tax returns, so we know the sources of his income. Now, it is theoretically possible he is taking payments under the table and not reporting them on his tax returns, but this would require him to have engaged in truly serious financial crimes for which there is not a shred of evidence.

But Trump is ironically able to float such possibilities about his rivals because he personally normalized the idea that a president might be taking secret bribes the public doesn’t know about.

The smear could work anyway

One lesson Trump drew from his two campaigns is that allegations don’t have to be substantiated in order to be effective. The media will generally amplify charges that are unproven or even disproven: Trump spent 2016 floating all sorts of wild claims about Hillary Clinton, many centering on the idea that her State Department emails contained “horrible” revelations. The mainstream media’s coverage of those allegations helped spread the idea that her “emails” represented a major scandal.

To the extent the media decides not to cooperate with this effort, it can also help Trump. In 2020, reporters and social media went out of their way to avoid amplifying Trump’s attempt to spring another October surprise by alleging that Hunter Biden’s stolen laptop contained evidence of wrongdoing by his father. Trump supporters used the cautious behavior by traditional and social media to depict the Establishment as a censorious danger.

Trump is unpatriotic

The most telling line in Trump’s interview was the reason he gave for why Putin might release this allegation: “As long as Putin is not exactly a fan of our country …”

This is an extraordinary construction. Trump is not merely saying Putin is not a fan of President Biden, he is saying he is not a fan of the United States (no doubt because it is arming and training the country Putin is invading). And Trump just casually presents this as a reason Putin would want to help him. Even for Trump, it is shocking to see the casual assumption, If you hate America, you’re my friend.

Yes, collusion

One irony of his request is that Trump is claiming Putin has secret info that would reveal a sweetheart deal for an American politician, which is exactly the position Trump was in. During his first campaign for president, Trump was secretly negotiating a deal to build towers in Moscow. Robert Mueller concluded that this sweetheart deal offered to hand Trump hundreds of millions of dollars at no risk. He also testified that, because he was lying about his lack of contacts with Russia, Trump was subject to blackmail by Putin, had Putin any reason to break with Trump.

Trump is probably thinking about Biden being in the situation of Putin having compromising information about bribes he took, because he absolutely has been in this position himself.

Trump has learned a lesson

After every Senate Republican except Mitt Romney voted to acquit Trump in his first impeachment, Susan Collins said he had learned a “pretty big lesson” and would “be much more cautious in the future.”

That scandal was not exactly the same thing — Trump was abusing his power as president to smear a rival. But the general category of amplifying Russian propaganda and enlisting foreign countries as his domestic allies is one he has no cause to regret. The lesson Republicans have taught Trump over and over is that nothing he does can be so immoral as to make them endure the political pain of breaking with him and his supporters. They may scold him once, but will ultimately lose interest, and will eventually turn their energies against whoever is trying to hold him accountable. Trump feels perfectly safe in enlisting Putin as an ally again on the grounds that Putin’s hatred for America makes him a natural ally. Conservative media won’t cover it, the Republican base won’t care, and if Trump wins the nomination again, the party will support him.

Donald Trump Asks Vladimir Putin to Smear Joe Biden Again