Donald Trump's full-throated embrace of Putinism and Russian revanchism, with his comments that if the people of Crimea would like to secede from the Ukraine and become part of Russia that's an argument for letting Putin seize it by force - is a shocking flip-flop from his earlier complaints that President Obama was not resisting Russia effectively enough. Trump has now validated Putin's core theme - which was Hitler's in the 1930's - that a great power is entitled to seize from its neighbors areas inhabitated by ethnic relatives.
It is hard to beat the mind-bending reality that Trump, who, along with campaign chair Paul Manafort and advisor Roger Stone was mentored by Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy's consiglieri in the 1950's red-scare, is now cozying up to former KGB Lt. Colonel Putin.
During the Cold-War such an alliance would have provoked instant dismissal of Trump as a candidate, and heated debate over the exact nature of his alliance with the Kremlin. Fellow-traveler? Useful idiot? Agent of Influence? Mole? Or, in the case of John Frankenheimer's 1962 movie the Manchurian Candidate, a brain-washed Korean war veteran whose mission is to assassinate a President.
Since Trump never served in the military, much less in a POW camp, we can rule brainwashing out as the source of his infatuation with Putin. Is it money? Moscow recently has relied on paid agents instead of leftist ones, so if Trump is driven by profit, this would not leave him an outlier among Moscow's Western assets.
Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, raked in big dollars serving as the campaign manager for Putin's ally, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. Trump's key campaign advisor on Europe and Russia, Carter Page, has focused on investments in Russia with deep and continuing financial and employment ties to Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly through which Putin leverages Russian influence over the Ukraine and Europe. Page has taken the position that in spite of a Treaty signed by Russia, the Ukraine has no genuine right to independence, and that what Putin did in the Crimea was a "so-called annexation."
Trump has repeatedly praised Russia's state-managed, kleptocratic economy as a great place to invest, a judgment in harsh contrast to the bitter experience of most Western companies. His son, Donald Jr. also differs, commenting that in Russia "It is a question of who knows who, whose brother is paying off who. . . . It really is a scary place."
Trump does not appear ever to have landed a major Russian project. And Fortune pointed out that during most of the years Trump was trying to land hotel mega-projects in Russia, the hotel business was "sometimes quite literally-murderously competitive" with Western and Russian hotel developers alike being gunned down - not quite The Donald's cup of tea.
But Donald Trump Jr. revealed in 2008 that Russian oligarchs are a major source of finance for Trump projects in other countries. "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." For example, in 2007, heavy Russian backing flowed into the Trump Soho mega project, including, according to court records, "a $50 million investment in Trump SoHo and three other Bayrock projects by an Icelandic firm preferred by wealthy Russians 'in favor with' President Vladimir V. Putin."
Trump typically acts for his own financial bottom line. So even though Manafort this week denied that Trump had any financial interests in Russia or Russian funders, we should remain skeptical until Trump releases his tax returns.
But money is not the only possible motivation, (beyond brain-washing), for Trump to serve as Putin's lap-dog. There is social climbing and status-seeking for one thing.
Trump has lusted after a relationship with Putin for years. He mused on how marvelous it would be if Putin would reach out to him, repeatedly mentioning gifts Putin had sent. Typically, Donald cannot keep his stories straight on how close he got to Putin. In a Moscow 2013 interview Trump told MSNBC, "I do have a relationship, and I can tell you that he's very interested in what we're doing here today". In 2014 Trump reasserted, "I spoke indirectly and directly with President Putin, who could not have been nicer." In 2015 he claimed, "I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes."
But last week he demurred. "I never met Putin. I don't know who Putin is. He said one nice thing about me," And "I have nothing to do with Putin. I've never spoken to him. I don't know anything about him other than he will respect me."
Putin, of course, knows whether Trump has met him. So if Trump is currently telling the truth, and his previous comments were BS, Trump is pathetically deluded when he asserts that "Putin will respect me."
The third possibility is that Trump genuinely admires Putin's authoritarian style, cult of hyper-macho personality and chauvinistic nationalism. Trump's praise for Putin's Russia is long-standing, repeated and extensive.
In 2007 Pravda picked up Trump's praise of Putin on the Larry King show. "Look at Putin - what he's doing with Russia - I mean, you know, what's going on over there. I mean this guy has done ... he's doing a great job."
In September 2013. Trump asserted that Putin's letter urging the US to "respect the UN" on Syria showed that Putin "wants to become the world leader, and he's doing that." Trump even argued that Putin's intervention in Syria is throwing the US a life-line!
But through 2014 Trump pulled back from wholesale embracing of Putin's foreign policy line. In March 2014 Trump called for strong action on the Ukraine. "We should definitely do sanctions and we have to show some strengths. I mean, Putin has eaten Obama's lunch, therefore our lunch, for a long period of time."
On July 21 2014 just after the Air Malaysia fight was shot down. "Putin is having a field day at our expense and he clearly has no respect for our President. It has to change...Europe is doing nothing and we are doing everything. They should be doing something..."
So far no outright disloyalty to American interests.
Once Trump enters the Presidential race, his stance changes. He continues to boast how well he would get along with Putin and in December, 2015 Putin replies by calling Trump "the absolute leader in the Presidential race" and a "bright and talented person." A beaming Trump responded, "It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond."
Challenged on his embrace of Putin, and asked about charges that Putin has had journalists assassinated, Trump replies "I've always felt fine about Putin, I think that, you know, he's a strong leader, he's a powerful leader, he's represented his country...."He's running his country, and at least he's a leader...." Conceding that the Russians probably shot down the Malaysia air flight, Trump shrugged it off, noting "our country does plenty of killing also."
After Manafort joins the campaign in March 2016, Trump again embraces Putin. "A guy calls me a genius, and I'm going to renounce?" Trump said. "I'm not going to renounce him."
Trumps then begins to embrace Putinism's key tenets. He rejects the NATO commitment to defend any alliance member attacked by a foreign power, saying he would defend them only if he felt they deserved support, and that NATO is "obsolete".
Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich underscored this weakening of the collective security basis of US foreign policy by describing Estonia,a key potential of Russian revanchism, as not worth defending because it was "in the suburbs of St. Petersburg." Gingrich went on to say that America's European allies are "right to worry" about whether the US will meet its treaty obligations.
During the Republican Convention, Trump was, in general, indifferent to the Republican Party platform. The one issue on which he intervene directly, forcefully and successfully, was gutting language which would have committed the party to supporting military assistance to the Government of the Ukraine to resist Russian pressure.
Whatever the motivation - greed, flattery or honest hero worship - Trump has now become a serious security threat to world confidence in US security guarantees. Former Bush speech writer David Frum warned that Trump had turned the Republican Party into the Party of Russia, and that "Trump actually is acting to advance Russian interests." Former Republican George Will leans towards money as a motivator, saying "It is unclear whether any political idea leavens the avarice of Trump and some of his accomplices regarding today's tormented and dangerous Russia."
Trumps can resolve Will's theory by releasing his tax returns; we have Trump's own assurances that when a Presidential candidate hides such records, it is because "there is something in that document he doesn't like." Will thinks he may be forced to, or create the assumption that he is a paid Russian advocate. But the damage is perhaps even greater if Trump sincerely admires Putin - because a narcissistic and hero-worshiping junior demagogue is more dangerous than a greedy one - as Mussolini showed in 1940.
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