At home and abroad it is be­com­ing more dif­fi­cult to trust the pres­i­dent’s word

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion -

Ear­lier this week Don­ald Trump stood on the south lawn of the White House and ridiculed Theresa May’s Brexit agree­ment as a “great deal for the EU”. He is likely to make the same con­temp­tu­ous case dur­ing the G20 sum­mit in Ar­gentina this week­end, although point­edly there is no planned bi­lat­eral. Given the po­lit­i­cal stakes fac­ing her back home, Mrs May must feel as if 14,000 miles is a long way to travel for the week­end merely to be trashed by sup­pos­edly her great­est ally.

When this hap­pens, though, who does Mrs May imag­ine is con­fronting her? Is it just Mr Trump him­self, Amer­ica First pres­i­dent, sworn en­emy of the in­ter­na­tional or­der in gen­eral and the Euro­pean Union in par­tic­u­lar? That’s a bad enough re­al­ity. But might her ac­cuser also be, at some level, Vladimir Putin, a leader whose in­ter­est in weak­en­ing the EU and break­ing Bri­tain from it as dam­ag­ingly as pos­si­ble out­does even that of Mr Trump? That prospect is even worse.

Such spec­u­la­tion would nor­mally seem, and still prob­a­bly is, a step too far. The idea that a US pres­i­dent is in any way do­ing the Krem­lin’s busi­ness as well as his own is the stuff of spy thrillers and of John le Carré TV adap­ta­tions. Yet the icy fact is that the con­spir­acy the­ory may now also con­tain an el­e­ment of truth.

On Thurs­day, Mr Trump’s long­time lawyer, Michael Co­hen, pleaded guilty – in a court fil­ing by the spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller – to ly­ing to the US congress about Mr Trump’s Rus­sian in­ter­ests and con­nec­tions dur­ing the months when the New York prop­erty mag­nate was run­ning for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion in 2016. It was not true, Mr Co­hen has now ad­mit­ted, that the Trump or­gan­i­sa­tion ended its in­ter­est in Rus­sian deals in Jan­uary 2016; not true that there were no plans for Rus­sian vis­its by Mr Trump later in 2016 to make prop­erty deals; not true that the Rus­sian govern­ment did not re­spond to the deal over­tures. In­deed, as late as May 2016, Mr Co­hen was in in­di­rect con­tact with Mr Putin’s of­fice about the pos­si­bil­ity of a meet­ing with Mr Trump in St Peters­burg in June.

Days before he took of­fice in 2017, Mr Trump said that “the clos­est I came to Rus­sia” was in sell­ing a Florida prop­erty to a Rus­sian oli­garch in 2008. If Mr Co­hen’s state­ment is true, Mr Trump was telling his coun­try a lie. What is more, the Rus­sians knew it. Po­ten­tially, that raises is­sues of US na­tional se­cu­rity. If Mr Putin knew that Mr Trump was con­ceal­ing in­for­ma­tion about his Rus­sian busi­ness in­ter­ests, this could give Moscow lever­age over the US leader. Mr Trump might feel con­strained to praise Mr Putin or to avoid con­flicts with Rus­sia over pol­icy.

All this may in­deed be very far-fetched. Yet

Rus­sia’s ac­tiv­i­ties in the 2016 elec­tion against Hil­lary Clin­ton and in favour of Mr Trump are not fic­tion. They prompted the set­ting up of the Mueller in­quiry into links be­tween the Rus­sian govern­ment and the Trump cam­paign. An­other doc­u­ment this week sug­gests a long­time Trump ad­viser, Roger Stone, may have sought in­for­ma­tion about Wik­iLeaks plans to re­lease hacked Demo­cratic party emails in 2016.

There is noth­ing in the doc­u­ments re­leased this week that proves that Mr Trump con­spired with Rus­sian ef­forts to win him the pres­i­dency. Yet those ef­forts were real. For two years, Mr Trump has gone to un­prece­dented lengths to at­tack the spe­cial coun­sel. After Novem­ber’s midterms, he seemed on the verge of fir­ing Mr Mueller. He may yet do so. But this week’s charges sug­gest that there is plenty more still to be re­vealed. Mr Trump still has ques­tions to an­swer from the in­ves­ti­gat­ing author­i­ties, from the new Congress – and from Amer­ica’s long-suf­fer­ing al­lies.

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