Trump’s too many com­rades

The Times-Tribune - - Op-ed - NI­CHOLAS D. KRISTOF NI­CHOLAS D. KRISTOF writes for The New York Times.

In 1972, Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s White House dis­patched burglars to bug Demo­cratic Party of­fices. That Water­gate bur­glary and “dirty tricks,” such as pay­ing a woman to strip naked and shout her love for a Demo- cratic can­di­date, nau­se­ated Amer­i­cans.

Now in 2016 we have a po­lit­i­cal scan­dal that in some re­spects is even more stag­ger­ing. Rus­sian agents ap­par­ently broke into the Democrats’ dig­i­tal of­fices and tried to change the elec­tion out­come. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama sug­gested that this was di­rected by Rus­sia’s pres­i­dent, say­ing, “Not much hap­pens in Rus­sia with­out Vladimir Putin.”

In Water­gate, the break-in didn’t af­fect the out­come of the elec­tion. In 2016, we don’t know for sure. It’s pos­si­ble that Rus­sia’s theft and re­lease of the emails pro­vided the mar­gin for Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory.

The CIA says it has “high con­fi­dence” that Rus­sia was try­ing to get Trump elected, and the di­rec­tors of the FBI and na­tional in­tel­li­gence agree with that con­clu­sion.

Nixon and Trump re­sponded badly, Nixon by or­der­ing a cover-up and Trump by de­nounc­ing the CIA and, in­cred­i­bly, de­fend­ing Rus­sia. I never thought I would see a dis­pute be­tween Amer­ica’s in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity and a dic­ta­tor in which an Amer­i­can leader sided with the dic­ta­tor.

This was an attack on Amer­ica, pro­foundly dam­ag­ing to our sys­tem. Rus­sia ap­par­ently was try­ing to elect a pres­i­dent who would be not a pup­pet ex­actly but per­haps some­thing of a lap dog — a Rus­sian poo­dle.

In Bri­tain, Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair was widely (and un­fairly) mocked as Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s poo­dle, fol­low­ing him loy­ally into the Iraq War. The fear is that Putin may have in­ter­fered to ac­quire an ally who will roll over for him.

Frankly, it’s mys­ti­fy­ing that Trump con­tin­ues to de­fend Rus­sia and Putin, even as he ex­co­ri­ates ev­ery­one else, from CIA of­fi­cials to a lo­cal union leader.

Now we come to the most reck­less step of all: This Rus­sian poo­dle is act­ing in char­ac­ter by giv­ing im­por­tant gov­ern­ment posts to friends of Moscow, in ef­fect re­ward­ing it for its attack on the United States.

Rex Tiller­son, Trump’s nom­i­nee for sec­re­tary of state, is a smart and ca­pa­ble man­ager. Yet it’s no­table that he is particular­ly close to Putin, who had dec­o­rated Tiller­son with Rus­sia’s “Or­der of Friend­ship.”

How can we pos­si­bly want to re­spond to Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in our elec­tion by putting U.S. for­eign pol­icy in the hands of a Putin friend?

Tiller­son’s close­ness to Putin is espe­cially trou­bling be­cause of Trump’s other Rus­sia links. The in­com­ing na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Michael Flynn, ac­cepted Rus­sian money to at­tend a din­ner in Moscow and sat near Putin. A ledger shows $12.7 mil­lion in se­cret pay­ments by a pro-Rus­sia party in Ukraine to Trump’s for­mer cam­paign man­ager Paul Manafort. And the Trump fam­ily it­self has busi­ness con­nec­tions with Rus­sia.

It’s true that there will be coun­ter­bal­ances, in­clud­ing Gen. James Mat­tis, the for­mer Marine com­man­der who has no illusions about Moscow and is ex­pected to be con­firmed as de­fense sec­re­tary. But over­all it looks as if the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will be re­mark­ably pro-Putin — as­ton­ish­ing con­sid­er­ing Putin’s Rus­sia has killed jour­nal­ists, com­mit­ted war crimes in Ukraine and Syria and threat­ened the peace­ful or­der in Europe.

So it’s crit­i­cal that the Se­nate, the me­dia and the pub­lic sub­ject Tiller­son to in­tense scru­tiny. There are other is­sues to ex­plore as well, in­clud­ing his role in en­abling cor­rup­tion in Chad, one of the poor­est coun­tries in the world. The same is true of his role in com­plic­ity with the gov­ern­ment of An­gola, where oil cor­rup­tion turned the pres­i­dent’s daugh­ter into a bil­lion­aire even as chil­dren died of poverty and dis­ease at a higher rate than any­where else in the world.

Maybe all this from Rus­sia to An­gola was just Tiller­son try­ing to max­i­mize his com­pany’s rev­enue, and he will act dif­fer­ently as sec­re­tary of state. Maybe. But I’m skep­ti­cal that his ide­ol­ogy would change in fun­da­men­tal ways.

This is not only about Tiller­son just as the 1972 breakin was not only about the Water­gate build­ing com­plex. This is about the in­tegrity of Amer­i­can democ­racy and whether a for­eign dic­ta­tor should be re­warded for at­tack­ing the United States. It is about whether we are led by a pres­i­dent or a poo­dle.

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