by Garry Kasparov
For autocrats, angry denial is the first phase of responding to accurate charges against them. “No! Never! A complete fabrication!”
As evidence accumulates, this shifts to feigning ignorance and claiming misunderstanding, along with attempts to distract by slandering the accusers, blaming others for similar sins and discrediting the concept of knowable truth. “I didn’t know it was wrong! The media is out to get me! Others have done worse! Who knows what really happened?”
When even this proves insufficient, it’s time for the final step, confession. Not the kind that is said to be good for the soul, but the aggressive, defiant boasting of someone who is sure that they won’t be punished in this life or the next for the crime they denied for so long. “I did it, but so what? There’s nothing wrong with it! What are you going to do about it?”
After many months of denials, lies and distractions in an effort to dismiss the mounting evidence that the Trump campaign knowingly worked with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election, the Trump train is approaching the final station. What else is left after it was revealed last week that Donald Trump Jr. eagerly took a meeting on June 9, 2016, to receive supposedly damaging material about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government?
Last week, as the New York Times prepared to publish an exposé on the meeting, Trump Jr. released excerpts of an email chain in a bizarre effort to claim transparency. It was as if a robber was caught red-handed in the jewelry store, surrounded by police, and then asked for leniency for turning himself in.
Among other things, the emails showed that top Trump aides Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner also participated in the meeting and knew about its scurrilous content in advance. Instead of refusing the meeting or contacting the FBI, they went ahead with it. It’s almost as if such an arrangement did not come as a surprise.
As usual, when news from the Trump-Russia front looks bad, it soon turns out to be even worse. On Friday, the list of attendees of the June meeting was expanded to include Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist who just happens to be an alleged former Soviet counter-intelligence agent.
Other reports later added a translator and at least one other person from the Russian side of the equation to the cast of characters Don Jr. must have forgotten to mention in his burst of transparency.
Mark Twain wrote that if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. Ironically, this profound phrase was tweeted by none other than Donald Trump Jr. in 2013.
The Trump team has made a full-time job of forgetting things. To be fair, it must be difficult to keep so many difficult Russian names straight, along with so many changing stories.
The next wave of revelations about collaboration between the campaign team and administration of Donald Trump and Russia will surprise only in their specifics, not their character. That treasonous nature, of collaborating with a hostile foreign power, has been exposed once and for all.
There will almost surely be more names, more meetings, more smoke and more fire, but the raw truth of collusion is now undeniable. Further evidence will decide if it’s also legally actionable.
This steady drumbeat has served one useful purpose whether it leads to Trump’s early departure from the presidency or not. It has exposed a class of pundits, politicians and supporters for whom nothing is too foolish, too sleazy or too un-American to defend him from. Every time you imagine the lines of good conscience cannot be drawn any lower, they slide under the bar like a subpoena slipped under an office door.
Their constant excuses for Trump’s behavior are nearly as outrageous as his statements and actions.
The countless personal insults and offensive statements Trump made during the campaign were just his blunt personal style, they said. His unprecedented praise of dictators like Vladimir Putin was either geopolitical naivete or clever brinkmanship. (Why not both?)
Trump would change once in office, we were told. He would rise to the level of the presidency, hire competent communications experts and foreign policy advisors — and listen to them — and run the country like a business.
In his six months in office, Trump has lowered the American presidency to his level, speaking directly to America and the world in mangled exclamations on social media. When his top national security official, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, turned out to be working for foreign governments, Trump did hire a few competent advisors.
The formidable duo of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis spend much of their time quietly reassuring America’s allies by contradicting Trump on American policy, military strategy and basic geography.
As for running the country like one of his businesses, we have been reminded vividly that Trump filed for six bankruptcies. His undeniable commercial success was a TV show in which he played a businessman, exploiting his brand name and his ability to sound tough while following a script. Now that he’s the President of the United States, Trump is unwilling or unable to follow a script, leaving the world trembling anxiously each morning for his arrival on Twitter.
Through it all, Republican leaders like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have stayed loyal to Trump’s increasingly incoherent agenda. The pundits of Fox News either defend Trump’s latest outrages or, since many are indefensible, simply ignore them in favor of running more attacks on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — neither of whom, it should be pointed out, is the President of the United States.
It is painful to do so, but Trump’s critics must admit that his clownish character and hateful demagoguery have substantial support in the American electorate.
Still, it has been startling to find that defending Trump on these emotional and nationalist grounds extends readily to matters of national security. It is here that we see the real impact of 18 months of demonizing the media and attacking every investigation and critique as fake news.
There is no other explanation for the partisan defenses of the latest developments in the Trump-Russia storylines, one past and one present.
To start with current events, Trump met with Putin a little over a week ago in Hamburg, Germany. That two-hour-plus meeting was the culmination of a public dance between the two men that has been carried on in their interviews, speeches and remarks to the news media for well over a year.
Their personal relationship, which has been alternately touted and denied by Trump numerous times, has faded into the background as more Russia connections between Trump’s staff and family have fueled the daily news cycle.
The Hamburg encounter brought their strange bromance back to the front page, despite a lack of anything substantial coming out of the meeting. The White House had already admitted that there was no real agenda from the American side — which makes sense because there is nothing the United States really needs from Putin’s Russia. That fact has frequently been overlooked as Trump’s camp defended its many Russian connections as vital engagement.
There is no significant official business between the United States and Russia unless you include Putin’s sustained propaganda and cyberwar against the United States as official business, but Trump said he accepted Putin’s claims of innocence and was eager to put that behind him.
Every national security department and expert is warning about the next Russian attack, but Trump says to forget about it, let’s just move on. Of course he does, since the hacking and misinformation campaign were both in his favor during the campaign. This is the clearest example of how Trump always puts what benefits him personally over U.S. interests and his oath to defend the Constitution.
There is a clear parallel here to what we have experienced in Russia for the past 17 years under Putin: the intentional conflation of the private interests of the few with the public good. When Putin talks about what’s best for Russia, he always only means what is best for him and his cronies — what keeps them wealthy and in power.
There is now a similar dynamic with Trump, especially where Russia is concerned. His Hamburg meeting with Putin was a great gift to the Russian dictator, who needs prominent photo-ops to reassure his gang back home that he’s still a big boss who can protect their investments abroad.
Meanwhile, the U.S. needs nothing from Russia. No, despite Trump claims to the contrary, we’re not really on the same side in Syria. And U.S. sanctions are locked to Russia’s exit from Crimea, which is not going to happen any time soon.
So why the meeting? It’s a case of “Ask not what Russia can do for America, ask what Putin can do for Trump — and what has he been doing for him already?”
Trump also loves photo ops and feeling like a big man on the international stage, especially with his domestic agenda of health care, tax reform, infrastructure and immigration foundering.
Immediately after the Putin meeting, Trump boasted about potential U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria and, laughably, in cybersecurity. It revealed Trump’s desperate desire to be seen as a global dealmaker — a desire easily exploited by Putin. Ukraine and other key topics for Putin will likely now become areas of focus for Trump’s State Department — led, lest we forget, by Rex Tillerson, a favorite of Putin’s while Tillerson was the Exxon-Mobil CEO.
Collaboration during the campaign is making the headlines today, and that investigation must continue. But any cooperation between Trump and Putin in the future will be even more dangerous, both for Russians and Americans.
Trump has no international agenda and Putin is happy to fill in the blanks. Trump can follow a script, after all, and right now it looks like that script is being written in Moscow.
Kasparov is the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and the author of “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.” His latest book is “Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins.”