Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at UCLA and the author of “The Return: Russia’s Journey From Gorbachev to Medvedev,” and director of the Russia Political Insight project. This op-ed appeared on CNN.com.
In the 1962 political thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” a hostile government uses covert measures and secret agents in an elaborate plot to get its favored candidate elected president of the United States. The scenario seemed fanciful even at the height of the Cold War.
Today, the idea seems strangely topical.
To be clear, nobody has suggested that President-elect Donald Trump and his team are secretly working for Moscow. Law enforcement officials who investigated the campaign’s Kremlin ties last summer said they found no conclusive evidence of a direct link between Trump and the Russian government.
Indirect links are another story. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, resigned last August after his work helping a Putin-connected billionaire buy Ukrainian television assets attracted scrutiny. According to Newsweek, “American and European intelligence” investigated another campaign adviser, Carter Page, who was allegedly channeling messages from the Kremlin — a charge he denies.
Trump’s pick for national security adviser, Lt. General Michael Flynn, boasts of having made a high-level briefing to Russia’s military intelligence staff (GRU). He was paid to be interviewed live at a gala dinner marking the 10th anniversary of RT, the television channel that is Russia’s main international purveyor of propaganda.
Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil CEO reported to be Trump’s favorite for Secretary of State, has no public diplomatic experience. But he does have an “Order of Friendship” medal awarded him by Vladimir Putin. Five years ago, he signed an energy deal with Russia that is expected to bring in $500 billion.
Tillerson told reporters in 2014 that he and colleagues had lobbied in Washington against the sanctions placed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Lifting those sanctions would mean a bonanza for his company. It would also give Putin a green light — so many experts believe — for potential further aggression against Russia’s neighbors.
Trump’s own business dealings in Russia remain a mystery, in part because he has refused to publish his tax returns. His son, Donald Trump, Jr., said to a reporter in 2008 that he’d made six work trips to the country in the preceding 18 months. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” he claimed, particularly into the group’s holdings in Dubai and New York.
The same year, Trump made an unusually profitable real estate sale. Having bought and renovated a 17-bedroom mansion in Florida for $41 million, he was having trouble finding a buyer. His salvation came in the form of the Russian fertilizer tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev, who paid $95 million for the beachfront estate.
Rybolovlev was apparently not the last Russian to come to Trump’s aid. According to the Washington Post, CIA officials have concluded that the release of hacked emails by individuals tied to the Kremlin last summer aimed not just to undermine faith in U.S. elections but specifically to help Trump win.
Meanwhile, Trump has stunned foreign policy experts — both Democrats and Republicans — with a series of pronouncements that echo or applaud Kremlin positions. He has said that Putin “is doing a great job” and has pledged to “get along very well with” him. Rather than Putin being behind the cyberattacks disrupting the U.S. election, Trump has suggested the culprit may be “some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
He assured an interviewer that Putin would not “go into Ukraine,” only to be told that the Russians already had. He has said he’d “take a look at” recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and has cast doubt on whether he would assist NATO members if attacked. No act by Moscow could have done more to undermine confidence in the alliance.
All this is quite unprecedented. No previous incoming president has had such a dense and murky network of indirect ties to leading circles in a power hostile toward the U.S. Potential conflicts of interest need to be thoroughly examined during Senate confirmation hearings for Trump’s cabinet appointees, and law enforcement must investigate suspicious leads whenever the evidence merits.
Still, the greatest concern about Trump’s relationship with Russia is not that he is being secretly influenced by the Kremlin. Two other issues are taking greater precedence.
First, even if he wishes to bargain hard for U.S. interests, Trump enters the contest with Putin at a disadvantage, having given away his strongest cards. He has already granted Putin’s first goal — to be brought out of isolation — without asking anything in return, and has shown that he has little stomach to continue sanctions. On Syria, he has backed away from demanding Assad’s ouster.
By making unrequited concessions and raising expectations of rapprochement, he has placed Putin in the driver’s seat. The Russian leader will likely view him as naïve and seek to exploit his inexperience, vanity and desire for quick results. The danger is that Trump will concede even more U.S. interests in return for insignificant gestures.
The second danger arises from Trump’s famed temperament. Putin, who has lately cultivated a reputation for unpredictability, may have finally found his match in this regard. With two leaders improvising recklessly, the risk of miscalculations rises.
Not only are both leaders prone to gamble, each has surrounded himself with colleagues with a conspiratorial view of the world. Putin’s intelligence service aides are known to exaggerate the influence of the CIA in world events. Trump’s national security advisor designee, according to several news organizations, has used social media to push fake news stories.
The combination of inaccurate information and impulsive decision making is deeply troubling when found in a single leader. In two, it is downright dangerous.