On Friday, the New York Times revealed an FBI investigation whether Candidate Trump had colluded—the word he hates and denies—with Russians to help his campaign. The next day, the Washington Post probed into President Trump’s refusal to let his own government in on his sensitive conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Among other developments, Congress has renewed calls for the State Department interpreter Maria Gross, the only other American present for Trump’s two-hour private meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, to share what she knows about the contents of their discussion.
As the plot has thickened, so have fallacious distractions. Last year the transcripts of former President Bill Clinton’s numerous meetings with the late Russian leader Boris Yeltsin were declassified, leading to persistent suggestions that Trump’s relationship with Putin is much the same as Clinton’s dealings with Yeltsin in the 1990s.
Nonsense. I was the note-taker during almost all those conversations. The Clinton-Yeltsin connection shares only one similarity with the Trump-Putin one: In both cases, the American president was helping his Kremlin counterpart. Other than that, the differences are as stark as the climate in Miami and Murmansk in January.
Whether he knows it or not, Trump is integral to Putin’s strategy to strengthen authoritarian regimes and undermine democracies around the world. This unprecedented aberration defiles what America stands for at home and abroad; it alienates and dispirits our allies; and—if it is allowed to persist—it will jeopardize our security.
In contrast, Clinton worked tirelessly with Yeltsin for seven years to assist his reforms. Yeltsin wanted post-Soviet Russia to join the community of democratic nations and the circle of major powers that would chart a course for a peaceful twenty-first century. He needed Western aid and encouragement, and Clinton did his best to provide both.
The Bill-and-Boris enterprise had something else in common: The two were building on their immediate predecessors’ vision. Mikhail Gorbachev began the liberalization that led to the collapse of the rigid Soviet system followed by that of the USSR, and Yeltsin’s ascension to the presidency of the newly independent, post-communist Russian Federation. George H. W. Bush, as the American president at the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, recognized that both Kremlin leaders were committed to democratization, tearing down the Iron Curtain, and making Europe “whole and free.” Therefore, it was in the U.S. interest to support that massive transformation.
When Clinton was elected in 1992, he picked up where Bush had left off, dedicating much of his own time working directly with Yeltsin on a massive, urgent, and difficult agenda:
- bolstering Russia’s shaky economy,
- responding to requests for expertise on building a social safety net for workers as privatization replaced massive state enterprises,
- helping relocate to Russia retired Soviet-era officers living in what were now independent nations,
- sending N.G.O. experts to advise on how to organize free and fair elections,
- ensuring that Russia would be the only one of the former Soviet republics with nuclear weapons in exchange for Moscow’s assurance to respect the other new states’ territory and sovereignty,
- opening the door for Russia to join the G-8.
These undertakings were heavy lifts, particularly for Yeltsin. Hardest of all was Russia’s partnering with an expanding NATO and providing crucial diplomatic muscle to end the Balkan bloodbath. Both were necessary to stabilize Central Europe.
Under Putin as a revanchist, Russia has reinstated four key ingredients of Soviet politics and geopolitics: the Iron Fist, the Big Lie, the expansion beyond Russian borders and the subversion of Western societies. He is giving another chance to a system that ended up on the ash heap of history in the last century because of its internal failures.
The Cold War is back with several new and ominous features. The tables have turned. Putin is on a roll. Strongmen in Europe are cloning themselves after him and with his help. Democracy is under stress if not crisis. So are regional and global institutions founded under the leadership of the U.S. after World War II, notably NATO and the integration of Western Europe. And then there’s the U.S.’s pullback from the Middle East, potentially leaving Russia the only major power in the region.
Trumpism is a godsend to Putin and a nightmare for governments in his sights—including Trump’s. The U.S. commander-in-chief is out of sync with his own administration, not to mention the government as a whole. Note his stubborn yearning to lift sanctions on Putin’s pet oligarchs.
America’s 45th president has accused his twelve predecessors, going back to Harry Truman, of making Uncle Sam “a sucker of the world.” In place of that legacy, he is shutting down America’s global franchise while building up literal and virtual walls.
In Europe, Trump has made it vastly easier for Putin to bury the Gorbachev-Yeltsin concept of partnership with the West and roll back what he sees as its incursion into Russia’s sphere of domination. Instead of shoring up key Atlantic allies, Trump is bullying and belittling them, thereby making them even more vulnerable to the rise of right-wing nationalists who now have a booster and exemplar in Trump.
Trump has an affinity for dictators—as he himself reportedly acknowledged only this week during a lunch with senators, “I don’t know why I get along with all the tough ones and not the soft ones.” He actually does know why: He’s a wannabe. He envies their unchecked power, use of intimidation and penchant for operating in secret, apparently because he doesn’t trust the advisers and agencies who work for him.
This weekend’s Post article zeroed in on the Trump-Putin “one-on-one” last July in Helsinki, without aides or note-takers. Gross, the State Department interpreter, was the only American other than Trump who knows what was said, and she is under wraps. Whatever Trump told his own staff afterward, it would be likely what he wants people to believe, especially if he is hiding something. Take his claim that he “couldn’t care less” if his conversation with Putin became public for what it is worth: nothing. What’s more telling was the smug look on Putin’s face and an uncertain one on Trump’s after the meeting.
The Russian interpreter, in any event, would have probably transcribed the tête-à-tête from memory and notes immediately after the meeting. Putin, moreover, is a skilled interrogator who would have back-briefed his inner team. As a result, the Russian side has yet another advantage in its handling of Putin’s admiring would-be friend.
Future historians will have a serious handicap when the archives of this administration’s foreign policy are opened years from now since so much of the normal process for conducting American diplomacy has been subverted or eliminated. But we already know that that the Kremlin helped put Trump into the White House and played him for a sucker.
Or put it this way: Trump has been colluding with a hostile Russia throughout his presidency. We’ll see if it started before that.