Behind the avalanche of terrible policies and indignities being inflicted on the nation by Donald Trump and his minions, three festering question remain unanswered:
- Why did Donald Trump so strenuously refuse to accept the judgment of the American intelligence community that Russia had intervened in the American Presidential election to help him win?
- Why does Trump still resist establishing an independent investigation to clear up allegations that his campaign may have colluded with the Russians in this attack?
- Why has Trump made statements and taken actions that consistently align with the interests of Russia, at the expense of longstanding traditions and policies of the United States and its allies?
With so much noise emanating daily from the White House and the Congress, it is hard to keep our eye on these fundamental questions, but they are the most important questions facing the United States today. Although there are investigations under way, it is unclear whether they are independent and high-level enough to reach a satisfactory conclusion. The stakes are unbelievable high, perhaps as high as any our nation has ever faced.
In thinking about this challenge, I started wondering if it might be helpful to explore it in a slightly unconventional way – not searching for new evidence to prove what happened, but evaluating existing evidence to dismiss what most likely didn’t happen. This is the classic method of Sherlock Holmes:
“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
One difference from the Holmesian methodology is that we may not be able to dismiss alternative explanations as impossible, but only as highly improbable, given other evidence available to us. My favorite measure of this what I call Thoreau’s Conjecture:
“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”
So we are dealing with probabilities, not certainties. If we consider all possible explanations for a known outcome, and we find all but one of them to be highly improbable and inconsistent with the known facts, then the remaining explanation, even if it appears unbelievable on its face, is most likely to be true. Not certain to be true, but extremely more likely to be true than any of the other possible explanations.
What is the mystery?
The mystery that faces the American people today is this:
Why would a President-elect of the United States side with a foreign adversary against his own government when that adversary has just been caught engaging in an act of cyber-warfare against American democratic institutions?
Donald Trump’s resistance to supporting a full, independent investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential election, including any collusion with his campaign is, to say the least, strange. The truly puzzling aspects of Trump’s response go on and on.
- To defend himself, he has cast doubt on an intelligence establishment that Americans have relied on for decades to keep us safe from foreign threats.
- He has stated that he has more faith in Vladimir Putin and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange than he does in the professionals in his own government.
- He has cited as evidence against the American intelligence community the denials of an adversarial foreign leader who opposes the interests of the United States.
- He has openly broken with decades of Republican orthodoxy about Russia dating back to Ronald Reagan.
- He has drawn fresh attention to the fact that during the campaign he publicly asked Russia to engage in further espionage against his opponent, while regularly disseminating Russian propaganda and misinformation in his speeches and tweets.
- He has provided a nefarious motive for recently exposed contacts between the Trump campaign and transition teams and Russian officials.
- He has reopened uncomfortable questions about his business dealings in Russia and his refusal to release his tax returns.
- He has reopened uncomfortable questions about his oddly consistent pro-Russian policy positions on numerous issues.
For all these reasons, and probably more, Trump’s behavior and statements about Russia and the hacking of the American election raise many questions about both his motives and his loyalty to the United States.
The situation becomes even more peculiar when we consider what a “normal” President-elect would do if confronted with a similar situation, including the insinuation that the attack was launched to help him and harm his opponent. Any Washington veteran could recite the automatic series of responses that would be required and expected:
- Acknowledge that an attack on American democracy has occurred.
- Declare, preferably in a joint statement with the sitting President, that America was unified in condemning this interference.
- Praise the intelligence community for its professionalism and expertise in identifying the culprit and the motives.
- Assure the American people that the President would get to the bottom of this, including fully uncovering any American involvement in the attack, from whatever source.
- Threaten to impose additional costs and sanctions on Russia, proportional to the severity of the attack.
- Enthusiastically support the establishment of an independent investigation with full subpoena powers and bipartisan leadership, to determine exactly what happened, how, who was involved, and how to avoid such attacks in the future.
Trump has done none of these things. On every point he has either done the opposite or nothing at all. When a political figure acts in a way that seems so totally at odds with his own self-interest and the expectations of the country, we are faced with a situation much like Thoreau’s “trout in the milk.” Something is seriously amiss.
Solving the mystery: Six theories
Perhaps we can bring some resolution to this question by attempting to identify all possible theories that might explain Trump’s denial of the Russian hacking allegation and his consistent support of pro-Russian, anti-American policy positions. I believe there are only six theories that exhaust all the possibilities for why Trump is acting the way he is.
- He literally doesn’t know what he is doing.
- His resistance has nothing to do with Russia, he is psychologically fixated on his legitimacy, which is threatened by the intelligence community findings.
- He is following a simple “enemy of my enemy is my friend” rule.
- He wants to reward Russia for its assistance in the election, or for other favors received, but is doing so voluntarily.
- He has a grand strategic plan that requires maintaining good relations with Russia.
- He is being blackmailed by Russia and is supporting its interests and ambitions to avoid a Presidency-ending disclosure.
Obviously, the bombshell accusation that concerns everyone, Trump friends and foes alike, is #6, the possibility that Trump has been compromised and is acting in the interests of the Russian government in opposition to the interests of the United States.
Using our Holmesian approach, if the first five theories seriously contradict known facts and are therefore highly unlikely to be true, then the likelihood that the sixth theory is true rises exponentially – and the absolute necessity for an independent inquiry into this issue becomes inescapable.
Let’s examine each theory in turn.
Theory #1. Trump doesn’t know what he is doing
The basic idea here is that Trump, with his limited knowledge of world politics, his rejection (or ignorance) of traditional leadership norms, his reliance on a few (often discredited) conspiracy theories, and his limited access to only a few foreign policy advisors with relatively fringe beliefs about America’s role in the world, is unaware that he is undermining American institutions he will soon as President need to rely on (the intelligence agencies of the US government) and advocating positions that are antithetical to American interests around the world (weakening the EU and NATO, questioning American military alliance commitments, support of right-wing, anti-immigrant movements in Europe, and so on).
In other words, Russia is a lucky bystander in this story. What we have here is just another example of Trump being Trump.
Although a case can be made, and indeed has been made repeatedly and persuasively, that Trump is unfit for office – citing his ignorance, narcissism, belligerence, serial lying, misogyny, pettiness, vengefulness, racism, etc. – there are at least two reasons why these deficiencies do not adequately explain his behavior with respect to Russian involvement in the US election and his pro-Russian positions in general.
First, Trump knows that his views on Russia and Putin have been publicly questioned and rejected, in particular by several powerful anti-Russian Congressional Republicans, including Senators McCain and Graham, who have both called for a full investigation of the electoral hacking, “wherever it leads.” Trump may indeed be willing to contradict these leaders – he was quite comfortable insulting them both during the campaign – but it is extremely unlikely he is unaware of their positions and the potential costs he is incurring by defying them and other Republicans who find his pro-Russian positions and appointment troubling. These contradictory positions by leaders with whom Trump must interact on a regular basis make it very hard to claim that Trump doesn’t know what he is doing with regard to this issue.
Second, Trump’s positions on pro-Russian policies do not feel randomly thrown together, they have a coherence and persistence unlike his positions in any other policy issue, even those that are much more central to public and Congressional concerns. On Obamacare, for example, Trump’s positions are inconsistent and mutually contradictory. On China, he cannot decide what he wants to do or when he wants to do it. On immigration, he wants to build a wall but has no idea how to pay for it and seems unaware of physical and legal obstacles to building a wall along large sections of the border. And most of his Cabinet picks seem to hold views that contradict his own public statements, creating a cacophony that could easily be attributed to not know what one is doing.
But when it comes to Russia, his foreign policy positions and actions hang together with surprising consistency, all tied together by a single coherent thread – improving relations with Putin and Russia at the expense of just about any other, longstanding American foreign policy commitment currently thwarting Russian ambitions. Consider Trump’s record of interconnected statements, actions, and appointments:
- Trump endorsed Russian intervention and its bombing campaign in the Syrian civil war.
- His campaign demanded only one change in the GOP Party platform: to weaken the Party’s anti-Russian stance with regard to Putin’s military actions in Ukraine.
- He suggested that he might as President recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
- He has openly talked about ending economic sanctions against Russia imposed after the Crimea annexation.
- He called NATO “obsolete” and questioned America’s commitment to defend NATO allies.
- He further questioned American’s willingness to defend Japan and South Korea.
- He repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin as a great leader, despite clear evidence to the contrary and a significant amount media criticism.
- He repeated declared “I want to get along with Russia” without specifying any requirements from Russia in return, a statement he has made with regard to no other country.
- His campaign team was in contact with Russian officials during the election campaign, according to a high-level Russian diplomat.
- He publicly acknowledged and tacitly approved Russia’s cyber-attack on the US election when he “requested” in a July 2016 news conference that Russia steal and release emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server (he later said he was joking).
- He selected as his campaign manager Paul Manafort, a consultant who previously worked for the pro-Putin President of the Ukraine and had to resign from the campaign after being linked to a $12 million secret payoff from the former Ukrainian President.
- He selected as his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, a former Director of National Intelligence with strong pro-Russian policy views and paid ties to RT, Russia’s state-run television network.
- He selected as his Secretary of State former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, a “friend of Russia” with close personal ties to high-ranking Russian officials, financial investments in Russia, and a record of pro-Russian policy views.
Given the consistency and singular focus of these stated views and actions, especially when compared to the complete lack of coherence and reality-based thinking in other policy areas, it seems inconceivable that Trump’s unwillingness to hold Russia accountable for its cyber-attack on the American election can be attributed to merely stumbled into this position as a matter of political expediency without any prior awareness of exactly what he was doing.
If Trump did know what he was doing, then it follows that he must have had a reason for doing it. This takes us to the next five theories.
Theory #2. Trump’s resistance has nothing to do with Russia, he is psychologically fixated on his legitimacy, which is threatened by the intelligence community findings
Trump began denying that the election hacking could be attributed to Russia long before the intelligence community (IC) came out with precisely that conclusion in early January 2017. In response to that report, Trump stated (and tweeted) that he still did not believe Russia was behind the cyber-attack, because the intelligence agencies of the United States could not be trusted to make an accurate assessment. Trump tweeted that he believed this because they were “the same people” who incorrectly said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) prior to the Iraq War in 2003.
Although Trump’s stated reason for rejecting the intelligence report was nonsensical, reporters were also being told at the time that Trump believed the nation’s top spy agency had become “bloated” and “politicized.” A reasonable inference from this reporting is that Trump believed the intelligence report was not fact-based, but a politically motivated direct attack on the legitimacy of his election victory and his Presidency. On January 11, Trump accused U.S. intelligence agencies of leaking an unsubstantiated report that Russia had damaging information on him. He claimed the leak was done to take “one last shot at me,” and compared it to “living in Nazi Germany.” The Director of National Intelligence immediately denied that “the leaks came from within the IC.”
According to Theory #2, it is not Russia that Trump fears, but his own intelligence community and the aspersions they have cast on the legitimacy of his election and, by extension, his Presidency. Certainly other Presidents have had their doubts about the motivations and actions of the nation’s spy agencies. So is this a plausible explanation for Trump’s refusal to blame Russia for interfering in the 2016 election?
One part of Theory #2 makes good sense. Donald Trump is demonstrably obsessed with the legitimacy of his election as President. Just as he has gone ballistic about inauguration crowd sizes and TV ratings, and has made outrageous claims about millions of illegal voters accounting for Clinton’s popular vote margin, Trump’s vehemence in denying the Russian hacking claim may simply be a function of his desire to refute any implication that he won because a foreign power tilted the election in his favor. Since the IC report does invite that implication, Trump’s denunciations of its authors may essentially be defensive, a case of attacking the messenger to impugn the message he does not like (a common Trump tactic – see New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Gold Star family Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Miss Universe Alicia Machado).
If this is true, then Trump’s attack on the intelligence community might be covering up a deeper source of his discomfort with Russian hacking accusations, a fear that he is in fact not a legitimate President. This fear of illegitimacy has been identified by multiple Trump biographers as a driving force behind his anti-social behavior since childhood and may be a relevant factor in this case.
However, even if Trump’s reaction has deep psychological roots that are not consciously available to him, he has still chosen to express his concern with a rather astonishing accusation: that the intelligence agencies of the United States – a massive government apparatus employing thousands of operatives and analysts and costing billions of dollars per year – have either (1) made a colossal miscalculation and failure of judgment or (2) engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to delegitimize and destabilize a sitting President of the United States. What is the likelihood that Trump really believes either of these possibilities?
Here is where we find the fundamental problem with Theory #2. If Trump truly believed the intelligence community is either incompetent or engaged in a massive conspiracy against him, then why would he be opposed to an investigation that would prove once and for all that these allegations were in fact true?
If Trump’s honest motivation is a belief that the IC has gone rogue in a spectacular and unprecedented way, then his opposition to an immediate investigation makes no sense at all, especially when compared to other, similar controversies. Take, for example, Trump’s recent claim that the only reason he didn’t win the popular vote was because 3-5 million people voted illegally for Clinton (a convenient number that just happens to cancel out Clinton’s 2.8 million vote advantage). This allegation bears a superficial resemblance to the rejection of the Russian hacking report: it relates to the legitimacy of his election victory, it is completely self-serving, Trump is adamant in defending it, and it only has credibility if one is willing to believe in the existence of a massive conspiracy.
In the illegal voting case, Trump immediately demanded an investigation, even going so far as to declare he would launch one himself. But in the Russian hacking case, he doesn’t seem to feel an investigation into his allegation is warranted. How do we reconcile these completely opposite responses? Only one explanation seems to fit. In the illegal voting case, he is either bluffing or actually confident an investigation will prove him right (even though the claim is demonstrably false). But in the Russian hacking case, he is signaling to the world that he doesn’t really believe his own rhetoric. He doesn’t expect an investigation to find that the intelligence agencies are either incompetent or treasonous, so he has no interest in supporting one.
We can infer from this line of reasoning that it is not only the impact of the intelligence community findings on his legitimacy that Trump fears. Rather, he must want to avoid the spotlight of an investigation for some other reason.
Theory #3. Trump is following a simple “enemy of my enemy is my friend” rule
According to a recent analysis in The Atlantic, Trump’s rejection of the Russian hacking charges and his statements of admiration for Putin may be based on a simple calculation that Putin is an enemy of both Obama and Clinton, Putin has said nice things about Trump (as Trump reminds us over and over again), so therefore Putin must be a friend of Trump and is being treated accordingly.
This calculation might explain some things, such as Trump’s recent embrace of Julian Assange as a trustworthy reference for Putin’s denial of any hacking involvement – when a few years ago Trump was suggesting that the founder of WikiLeaks should be subject to the death penalty. But it falls far short of explaining Trump’s consistent policy positions and Administration appointments that go well beyond statements of admiration to support most of Putin’s foreign policy interests, often at the expense of the interests of much closer American allies like the European Union and Japan.
Also, Trump is a showman who is exquisitely sensitive to his ratings and his popularity. Trump’s embrace of Putin has been costly in terms of public opinion. Most Americans, including Trump supporters (not to mention Republican Senators) have an extremely negative opinion of Russia and Vladimir Putin. Since Trump’s inauguration, opinions have continued to decline. In late January, only 10% of Americans had a favorable view of Putin, and this number rose to only 15% among Trump voters.
In addition, as noted above, Trump’s denial of the IC report findings has drawn fresh attention to several uncomfortable topics that arose during or after his campaign, such as the strange pro-Russian plank change in the GOP platform, the Manafort resignation and Ukrainian payoff scandal, the nature of his business connections in Russia, and his failure to release his tax returns.
So Trump’s refusal to accept the reality of Russia’s involvement in the US election, along with his refusal to support a full and independent investigation, come at a cost. Unlike his other policy positions, most of which were wildly popular with his base throughout the campaign, his embrace of Putin has always been a vulnerable spot. The question is, why would this showman obsessed with popularity embrace a long list of unpopular policy positions that benefit a country most Americans see as a dangerous adversary? Citing an adherence to “enemy of my enemy is my friend” thinking doesn’t seem adequate to answer this question, because most Americans do not buy the equation.
Theory #4. Trump wants to reward Russia for its assistance in the election, or for other favors received, but is doing so voluntarily
Perhaps Trump is aware and secretly thankful that Russia helped him win the election, wants to reward Putin for that assistance, maybe even believes that doing so will open up possibilities for further cooperation during his Presidency, but is innocent of any complicity in the operation itself.
The key difference between this theory and Theory #6 is that here we assume Trump’s pro-Russian positions and actions are all voluntary and freely offered, not coerced. Trump is resisting an investigation of the Russian hacking because he expects it to reach a positive conclusion (because he believes it is true) and he does not want to give his political opponents, or the public, another reason to question the legitimacy of his Presidency. As in Theory #2, Trump’s behavior is explained by either his unconscious fear of illegitimacy or his political power calculations, not by any external compulsion imposed by Russia.
One problem with this explanation is its inability to account for the extent and specificity of Trump’s unilateral concessions to Russia that accompany his refusal to accept the intelligence report findings. Trump’s policy positions and appointments don’t simply reward Russia, they essentially acquiesce to every Russian hope and dream for a complete American policy turnaround. Allowing Russia greater influence in the Middle East, rescinding sanctions that are crippling the Russian economy, hinting at recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, implying he might not defend NATO members who come under Russian attack – these positions go far beyond “thank you gifts” for an effort that certainly helped Trump win the Presidency, but was hardly the only factor that contributed to his narrow victory.
A second problem with this explanation is that if Trump is really under no further obligation to Russia, then why is he continuing to show such deference and favoritism to Putin? One thing we know about Trump’s business practices is that he is notorious for reneging on payments to contractors once the work is done. As was documented extensively during and after the campaign, once Trump has gotten what he wants from you, you may have to sue to get what he owes you. This willingness to renege on deals appears to be a standard operating procedure of the Trump Organization.
If Putin’s value to Trump, or his sway over Trump, are all in the past, it is difficult to imagine Trump continuing to bestow praise and concessions on Putin and Russia. Yet this is exactly what he is doing.
Finally, as noted with regard to Theory #2, Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community and his pro-Russian statements and actions all come at a political cost, diminishing the currency he cares about most, his popularity and favorability. Why would Trump continue to accept this cost if he didn’t feel he had to?
Given these considerations, there must be additional reasons why Trump is resisting a conclusion and investigation that might complicate his ability to carry out his pro-Russian agenda. Only two possibilities are left: either he fears an investigation will disrupt some great plan he has for the future, or he fears it will expose something nefarious from the past.
Theory #5. Trump has a grand strategic plan that requires good relations with Russia
If President Trump has some grand plan for world order that involves a new kind of relationship with Russia, he hasn’t revealed it to anyone. On the contrary, it is very telling that once we look beyond Trump’s statements of deference to Russia’s current policy preferences, Trump’s foreign policy statements become just as jumbled, contradictory, and unhinged from reality as they are in every other policy area he has touched. For example, the overwhelming response to Trump’s signature effort to articulate his foreign policy views during the campaign was astonishment at the number of contradictions and inconsistencies he managed to cram into one speech.
What any competent Russian expert would be happy to tell President Trump if he were willing to listen is that the last thing Vladimir Putin wants is to be seen as having a friendly relationship with the United States. Painting the US as an implacable enemy of Russia has been, and will remain, critical to propping up his domestic popularity.
Any hopes for a rapprochement with Russia are likely to remain unfulfilled, so the idea that the peace offerings Trump is laying at Putin’s feet are aimed at buying some kind of American benefit down the road is not plausible. Rather, it looks like Trump’s gifts are being offered without any reasonable hope of reciprocation later on.
Put in this perspective, Trump does not appear to be conducting any kind of negotiation with Russia at all. He is freely offering unilateral concessions on American sanctions and de facto recognition of Russia’s sphere of influence along its Western and Southern borders, all without asking for anything in return. Some have speculated that Trump wants some kind of agreement on the Syrian conflict, or is looking for a partner to put pressure on China, but with all the big bargaining chips already given away, there are few incentives for Putin to cooperate. This is very strange behavior for a man who fashions himself the world’s greatest dealmaker.
This leaves one possibility, they are payments for debts already incurred, or rewards already promised.
Theory #6. Trump is being blackmailed by Russia and is supporting its interests and ambitions to avoid a Presidency-ending disclosure
Our final theory is the most devastating of all. It offers an explanation that is literally incredible: it presumes that the President of the United States has been compromised by a foreign power that intervened in our election in an act of cyber-warfare to tilt the result in his favor. According to this theory, he is denying the reality of that intervention and supporting radical changes in American foreign policy that favor Russia because he is trying to avoid disclosure of personally or professionally damaging information that is being held against him. In other words, the President of the United States is being blackmailed by Russia.
The story has been circulating in the shadows of the campaign since at least last summer, when a so-called “dossier” of intelligence memos (later identified as the work of former M16 agent Christopher Steele) first surfaced, describing a complex web of Russian operations to compromise Trump and tilt the election in his favor with cyber-hacking and targeted leaks of stolen information to damage his opponent.
The public became aware of this information after the election when CNN revealed in January that the heads of four intelligence agencies had briefed President-elect Trump on evidence they had compiled that suggested Russia had compromising information on him. That evidence, according to CNN, was based only “in part” on the Steele memos. It was this briefing (and later publication of the Steele memos by BuzzFeed) that prompted some of Trump’s most vituperative twitter outbursts, including calling the CNN report “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT” (in all caps), gratuitously blaming the BuzzFeed leak on the intelligence community, and asking rhetorically, “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
Even earlier, in April 2016, the Director of the CIA received intelligence that money was being passed from Russian banks to the Trump campaign. According to a report by the BBC, the information was considered credible enough to open a secret investigation into the allegation, including obtaining a warrant from the secret US intelligence court to intercept electronic records from two Russian banks alleged to be transferring funds to the Trump campaign. The results of this investigation have not been revealed.
Although the Republican-controlled Congress tried to ignore increasingly strident calls for a full investigation into the allegations directed against Trump and his campaign staff, their ability to deny and deflect was derailed when it was revealed that Michael Flynn, Trump’s designated National Security Advisor and former commentator on Russian state TV, held five phone calls with Russia’s Ambassador to the US on the day President Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the cyber attacks during the election. Succumbing to mounting pressure, the Republican Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee announced on January 13 that the committee would launch an investigation into “intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns” as well other allegations about Russian interference in the election. The House Intelligence Committee announced it would launch a similar probe on January 25.
Neither of these investigations can be considered fully bipartisan, as they are run by Republican-controlled Congressional committees rather than an independent special prosecutor, as was the case for the Watergate investigation in 1973. But they are a start and an acknowledgement that the legitimacy of the Trump Presidency is indeed in doubt, and can only be cleared by a thorough investigation of the many facts in dispute.
The question we want to consider here is not “Can this theory be proven?” Even with major investigations underway, it is unlikely a “smoking gun” will ever be found, because if Putin is indeed blackmailing Trump, exposure of his compromising information would render his leverage useless, so he will never reveal it. Only if Trump “confesses,” or circumstantial evidence mounts so high that Trump is forced to resign, or Putin is deposed and his successors reveal his secrets to discredit him, will we ever get a definitive answer to this question.
Rather, the question we want to answer is “Can this theory be refuted by contradictory facts?” Unfortunately, the answer appears to be “no.”
First, the Russia government, and Putin in particular, definitely have the means, motive, and opportunity to blackmail someone like Donald Trump, if they should choose to do so.
In terms of means, it is well known that collecting compromising material as a source of leverage – called “kompromat” in Russian intelligence parlance – is a long-standing practice going back to the days of the Soviet Union. Putin specifically has been associated with such practices, having begun his political rise in 1997 using a kompromat campaign to destroy the career a Russian prosecutor general who was an enemy of then Russian Premier Boris Yeltsin.
As to motive, even before Trump declared his candidacy for President in 2015, he had potential value to Putin’s intelligence services as a wealthy American real estate developer with social and business connections to many Russian oligarchs who regularly spent time and held property in the US. These were individuals whom Putin was highly motivated to keep an eye on.
Regarding opportunity, Putin had a perfect opportunity to set a kompromat trap for Trump when he visited Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant in 2013, which was only the most recent of many Trump excursions to Moscow.
Even when Putin denied having any compromising information on Trump, he delivered his denial with a kind of sly wink, observing that Trump was “a person who for many years has organized a beauty pageant, socialized with the most beautiful women in the world,” so would not “[run] to a hotel to meet with our girls of a low social class, although they are the best in the world.” As a defense of Trump, it was perhaps revealing that Putin chose not to say Trump would never engage in such behavior, or would never cheat on his wife, but rather cited Trump’s easy access to beautiful women as the reason why he would not need to employ Russian prostitutes while in Moscow.
Second, Trump’s proven history of reckless and irresponsible behavior, both sexual and financial, does nothing to decrease the possibility that he would be a promising target for such an operation.
With regard to sexual recklessness, we have Trump’s own words, seared into our national memory, that “I’m automatically attracted” to beautiful women, “I just start kissing them,” and “I don’t even wait.” These words have been corroborated by the testimony of many women who recounted similar experiences of sexual misconduct by a man who demonstrated little impulse control. The fact that he was caught in the Access Hollywood video speaking so profanely and thoughtlessly while wearing a live lapel microphone at an open media event also speaks volumes about how “careful” Trump is capable of being when circumstances require it.
Trump’s business record shows a different kind of irresponsibility and recklessness. After suffering multiple bankruptcies of his casinos in the early 1990s, it became difficult for him to raise money for his high-end hotel and condominium projects in the US. He soon started making numerous trips to Moscow to discuss deals and attract buyers, but little is known about what financial obligations he might have incurred there, and to whom. What is known is that he was close to personal bankruptcy in 1992, he was unable to raise money in the US, he spent significant time in Moscow, he has relationships with many Russian businessmen and bankers, and he has adamantly refused to reveal his financials debts and partnerships by releasing his tax returns.
Trump’s psychological profile also makes him a prime candidate for Russian recruitment. In his book The Plot to Hack America, intelligence expert Malcolm Nance quotes KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov on the qualities Russian intelligence look for in recruiting potential assets:
“Egocentric people who lack moral principles, who are either too greedy or who suffer from exaggerated self-importance. These are the people the KGB wants and finds easiest to recruit.”
Our conclusion with regard to Theory #6 is that Putin and Russia definitely have the capability to blackmail Donald Trump, Trump has weaknesses and needs that could easily make him susceptible to a blackmail operation, Trump’s denial of Russian interference in the US election and his espousal of pro-Russian positions are consistent with what we would expect from someone responding to Russian blackmail, and all those statements and positions appear to be inconsistent with five alternative explanations of Trump’s behavior that do not include a presumption that he has been compromised and is, in effect, working for Russia.
None of this evidence proves that Donald is being blackmailed by Vladimir Putin. But none of it contradicts that inference. And none of it plausibly supports any of the other five explanations we have examined.
And what do you deduce, Mr. Holmes?
Our Holmesian methodology has worked through a process of elimination. The mystery we have tried to solve has three parts: Trump’s refusal to accept the judgment of the American intelligence community that Russia intervened in the American Presidential election, his resistance to establishing an independent investigation to clear up allegations that his campaign may have colluded with the Russians in that attack, and his consistent string of statements and actions that align with the interests of Russia, at the expense of longstanding traditions and policies of the United States and its allies.
Following Sherlock Holmes’ famous advice, we have tried to eliminate explanations that are impossible, or at least highly unlikely, in order to identify an explanation that, even if appearing highly improbable, must be true, or at least most likely. We have identified weaknesses and contradictions in five initially plausible explanations:
- Trump’s pro-Russian statements and actions are too coherent and consistent to simply be the product of an ill-informed and poorly-advised rookie politician and campaign team. Indeed, Trump’s pro-Russian views stand out as more coherent and consistent than his positions and actions in any other policy area, domestic or foreign.
- Trump’s behavior cannot be explained as a response to the intelligence community alone, triggered by a belief that its report challenges his legitimacy as President. This is plausibly a source of his extreme anger with the IC, but his pro-Russian statements and actions preceded the IC report and his accusations against the IC are too incredible to be taken seriously. If he really believed these accusations, why would he still be so unwilling to call for an investigation to determine their accuracy?
- Trump does not appear to be following an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” strategy, because in this case declaring Russia as his “friend” is politically costly, and Trump cares more about his popularity than anything else.
- Trump is not simply rewarding Russia for its election assistance in the past. The rewards are too great, many have not been delivered yet, and Trump is not known for rewarding people who are no longer useful to him.
- There is no indication that Trump’s deference to Russia is part of some long-term strategic plan. On the contrary, Trump’s long-term goals for Russia, to the extent he has attempted to articulate them, are as incoherent and inconsistent as all his other policy positions. In addition, Trump has already offered to give away any bargaining chips he might have, so he has no grounds for further negotiations. It is only his embrace of current Russian interests that stands out as an exception to his generally content-free policy statements.
After rejecting these five explanations, we are left with only one explanation that fits all the facts. This is our “trout in the milk” – the initially unthinkable conclusion that Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States, has been compromised by a foreign power and is paying a kind of political ransom of pro-Russian policy positions in order to avoid exposure of negative information being held against him. No other explanation fits the known facts that are publicly available.
One final argument against this conclusion comes to mind. It is that no normal person in a position to become President of the United States would ever consider putting his or her personal interests above the interests of the country. But alas, this is what is unique about Donald Trump. Unlike any other Presidential hopeful in recent American history, he combines a malignant narcissism that enables him to put his personal interests above all else with a shocking ignorance and lack of knowledge that makes him oblivious to the disruptive and destabilizing implications of the anti-American policies he is ready to implement.
As noted, this analysis does not prove that Donald Trump is being blackmailed by Russia, it only confirms that this explanation of Trump’s anomalous behavior toward Vladimir Putin and his own intelligence community is far more likely to be true than any other explanation we have considered.
Perhaps there is some other, less damaging explanation we have missed. That remains a possibility.
But this analysis points to only one certain conclusion. A full and independent investigation of (1) the Russian election hacking, (2) any connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, and (3) the sources of Trump’s pro-Russian policies and actions, is absolutely necessary and must be convened with full bipartisan support as soon as possible. To stand in opposition to such an investigation today, in these circumstances, is an act of political cowardice that cannot be undone. America today faces the real possibility of an assault on its sovereignty that is greater in magnitude than Pearl Harbor, Watergate, and 9/11 combined.