On Thursday, The Washington Post published a long article about how Donald Trump is dealing with Russia as president. It wasn't exactly reassuring. The reason is not that he's poised to start a war, as he seems to be with North Korea, but that he's giving away the store to the other side. It's disturbing because Trump doesn't seem to be capable of even thinking about America's relationship with Russia like a president at all. He gets so upset by the investigation into election interference and his subsequent actions that intelligence briefers reportedly don't mention it as a priority, slipping it into the written material -- which he's said in the past he doesn't need to read -- or sliding it far down the list of items of concern to avoid provoking his ire.
The upshot is that the president isn't able to focus on relations with Russia at a time when it couldn't be more important to do so. Trump's insistence that there was no election interference has taken on the character of a bizarre fixation that is inhibiting the rest of the government from doing its job. And it seems nobody has a clue what to do about it.
The article is full of interesting details about the inner workings of Trump's national security team and how they deal with this mercurial boss. For instance, he once assumed his highly qualified Russia expert Fiona Hill (the co-author of a major biography of Vladimir Putin) was a clerical worker. Trump asked her to retype a memo, became angry when she seemed confused by the order and demanded that national security adviser H.R. McMaster reprimand her -- which, astonishingly, he did.
But then, none of that should be too surprising. Trump is no more respectful of world leaders with whom he doesn't feel that personal kinship. He reportedly got bored in the middle of a briefing about Angela Merkel and went into the bathroom, leaving the door open and telling his aides to speak up while he primped in front of the mirror. We all saw his refusal to shake Merkel's hand in front of the press and this derisive tweet from a couple of years ago:
He apparently doesn't consider her an equal on par with strongmen like Putin or China's Xi Jinping, both of whom he shows a deference that verges on obsequiousness.
The article is a portrait of a man-child, so deeply over his head that you wonder if he isn't literally going to hold his breath until he turns blue before it's all over. In that sense, it tracks with the recent New York Times article that depicted Trump tweeting from his pillow in the morning, wandering around in his bathrobe, drinking two six packs of Diet Coke and watching up to eight hours of cable news a day.
After reading both of these articles, you get the sense that somebody in the White House has decided that the best defense against charges that Trump colluded with Russia is for people to believe that he behaves as he does because he's a narcissistic simpleton who can't deal with the fact that he didn't win the popular vote. While that description may be accurate, it doesn't let him off the hook.
The Post's reporters vaguely examine the possibility that there could be some blackmail material or kompromat hanging out there, or that Trump has some serious financial exposure somewhere in his past. But the article primarily relies on his aides' portrayal of him as someone who believes in the power of his personality to bond with Vladimir Putin, and believes that together they will solve the world's problems.
Furthermore, the authors seem to take at face value the assertion that Trump's insistence that the Russians played no part in the election is because "the idea that he’s been put into office by Vladimir Putin is pretty insulting.” Trump is essentially depicted as a juvenile egomaniac who lacks the capacity or imagination to have done anything as sophisticated as collude with a foreign country.
This is spin that I often see reporters and pundits regurgitate on TV, as if this can all be explained away by the proposition that Trump is a buffoon who is constantly frustrated by people saying he didn't really win. But this fails to account for all the sucking up he did toward Putin during in the campaign and his continued inability to say a bad word about him ever since. It's not as if Trump is usually at a loss for a well-timed insult.
It also fails to account for the fact that Trump has shown not even minimal interest in doing a "deal" with Russia that would benefit the United States. While he repeatedly insults our allies and crudely demands that they pay protection in return for the U.S. living up to its treaties and commitments, he asked for nothing from Putin in return for lifting sanctions and putting up barriers to NATO expansion, other than a vague promise that everyone "gets along."
The idea that Putin is the only man on earth Trump sees as a partner in bringing peace on earth just doesn't pass the smell test. That the self-anointed master negotiator has not seized the opportunity to use the knowledge we have about election interference as a bargaining chip, and instead seems inclined to grant Putin his wish list for nothing in return, does not give one much confidence.
Trump lies about everything, so there is no reason to take him at his word on any of this. Of course he is upset about the Russia investigation, and of course it bothers him that people might think he didn't legitimately win the election. But it's hardly likely that he behaves this way because he's an innocent man. In fact, it's ludicrous. Everything we know about him suggests the opposite.
Whether it's about Trump's past financial exposure or the rumored salacious kompromat or some agreement over dirt on Hillary Clinton or a big hotel deal, there is definitely more to this. He doesn't act like a man who has been unjustly accused. He acts like a man who's hiding something and thinks if he blusters and blames he can hide his guilt from his staff and even from himself. He can't.