Trump wanted to col­lude, but did Putin?

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Leonid Ber­shid­sky Leonid Ber­shid­sky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the found­ing edi­tor of the Rus­sian busi­ness daily Ve­do­mosti and founded the opin­ion web­site Slon.ru,

P olit­i­cal mem­o­ries are short, but they shouldn’t be this short. Amid all the out­rage about Don­ald Trump Jr.’s will­ing­ness a year ago to find out what dirt the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment may have had on Hil­lary Clin­ton, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing his fa­ther’s press conference on July 27, 2016.

“I will tell you this, Rus­sia: If you’re lis­ten­ing, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are miss­ing,” Trump told re­porters in Florida. He was talk­ing about Clin­ton’s emails from her time as sec­re­tary of state that she had re­port­edly failed to turn over to the gov­ern­ment. “Let’s see if that hap­pens. That’ll be next.” Trump also made it clear that he con­sid­ered any for­eign med­dling in the elec­tion a sign of dis­re­spect for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion — some­thing that should play in his fa­vor with vot­ers.

Trump’s op­po­nents were as in­dig­nant then as they are to­day.

“This has to be the first time that a ma­jor pres­i­den­tial can­di­date has ac­tively en­cour­aged a for­eign power to con­duct es­pi­onage against his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent,” said Jake Sul­li­van, pol­icy ad­viser to Hil­lary for Amer­ica. For­mer CIA Di­rec­tor Leon Panetta said Trump’s com­ments were “be­yond the pale” be­cause he was “ask­ing the Rus­sians to en­gage in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.”

The U.S. pub­lic has known for a year that Trump would have no scru­ples about us­ing the spoils of Rus­sian spy­ing against Clin­ton. (He tweeted later that he’d en­cour­age the Rus­sians to turn out any Clin­ton emails to the FBI, but that was just an at­tempt to di­vert the crit­i­cism.)

So the pub­lic hasn’t found out much that is new from the de­ci­sion of Don­ald

Trump Jr. to take a meet­ing with a Rus­sian lawyer who had been de­scribed to him in an email as a Rus­sian gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive bear­ing anti-clin­ton gifts for his fa­ther. In the sum­mer of 2016, with Trump far be­hind in the polls, the fam­ily would have ac­cepted that kind of help from the devil him­self, not just Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. The can­di­date wasn’t mak­ing much of a se­cret about it. More­over, un­like his son, he ex­pressed will­ing­ness to ac­cept Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence as a cam­paign tool af­ter the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee hack was re­ported. Pres­i­dent Obama and Clin­ton made clear they would treat this as a na­tional se­cu­rity breach rather than another part of win­ning the race for the White House. Trump made no such dis­tinc­tions.

Al­most all Trump sup­port­ers I talked to at ral­lies across the U.S. last year ex­plained their pref­er­ence by prais­ing Trump’s per­ceived frank­ness. “He tells it like it is,” I heard again and again. In this case, too, he unashamedly spoke his mind, do­ing just what his vot­ers ad­mired. Many of them liked Putin more than Clin­ton, too, so ac­cept­ing his help against her didn’t look all that un-amer­i­can to them.

Thanks to those peo­ple, Trump is now U.S. pres­i­dent. It’s only nat­u­ral that his only com­ment on his son’s de­ci­sion to pub­lish what many saw as in­crim­i­nat­ing emails — and still more saw as a gi­gan­tic lapse in judg­ment — was to praise his open­ness and trans­parency. It was another way to pro­tect his brand’s strong­est sell­ing point to his base.

I find a dif­fer­ent as­pect of the Rus­sian lawyer episode more in­trigu­ing than Don­ald Trump Jr.’s will­ing­ness to ac­cept Rus­sian help.

It’s prob­a­bly safe to say that lawyer Natalia Ve­sel­nit­skaya de­liv­ered no such help — not be­cause both Trump Jr. and Ve­sel­nit­skaya say so, but be­cause the Trump cam­paign never re­vealed any kom­pro­mat, to use a Rus­sian word, on Clin­ton’s ties with Rus­sia. Mu­sic pro­moter Rob Gold­stone, who ar­ranged the meet­ing, emailed the can­di­date’s son that this is what Ve­sel­nit­skaya would bring, but he was clearly wrong, in­ten­tion­ally or not.

It prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been hard for the Krem­lin to use Trump’s Rus­sian busi­ness part­ners — such as the Agalarov fam­ily, in­volved in ar­rang­ing the Ve­sel­nit­skaya mes­sage — to pass on in­for­ma­tion. It missed the op­por­tu­nity, how­ever. Months into the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sian elec­tion med­dling, no in­for­ma­tion has come to light sug­gest­ing that Rus­sia ac­tu­ally pro­vided any am­mu­ni­tion to the Trump cam­paign, even though we know the Trumps would have wel­comed it and a Repub­li­can op­er­a­tive, Peter W. Smith, also tried to so­licit it, per­haps act­ing on the cam­paign’s be­half.

It takes two to col­lude. The Trumps and other peo­ple on their side were ready to dance. But the part­ner, ap­par­ently, was a no-show. At most — and that is still not proven — the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment pro­vided the spoils of sev­eral hacks to Wik­ileaks, not to the Trump cam­paign.

If it’s true that the Krem­lin did not want to col­lude with the Trump camp — and it cer­tainly looks that way — its pos­si­ble rea­sons are the most in­ter­est­ing part of the story. An ob­vi­ous ex­pla­na­tion that comes to mind is that Putin didn’t be­lieve in his ul­ti­mate vic­tory and so didn’t want be caught help­ing him be­cause of pos­si­ble re­tal­i­a­tion from Pres­i­dent Clin­ton. The only thing for Putin to like about Trump is the chaos he can cause with his over­con­fi­dent novice’s ways, but it can also be a threat. The Krem­lin ul­ti­mately likes pre­dictabil­ity and is it­self pre­dictable.

Another pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion is that Putin’s U.S. ex­perts thought help­ing Trump di­rectly could have harmed his cam­paign. Where Trump was openly care­less, the Rus­sians are crafty enough to an­tic­i­pate the po­lit­i­cal fall­out. Wik­ileaks dam­aged Clin­ton with­out di­rectly in­volv­ing Trump in the dirty busi­ness of hack­ing and col­lud­ing.

This, of course, is only guess­work. Yet I wouldn’t com­pletely give up hope that we’ll know one day. Putin waited a year be­fore he re­vealed the de­tails of his plan­ning for the 2014 Crimea an­nex­a­tion. Per­haps a mo­ment will come when he feels free to talk about the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in a sim­i­lar way, and we’ll be able to piece to­gether the story of the Krem­lin’s hopes and fears for that race.

Saul Loeb, Afp/getty Im­ages

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin takes his time to shake hands with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump dur­ing a meet­ing on the side­lines of the G20 Sum­mit in Ham­burg, Ger­many, on July 7.

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