The Times-Tribune

Trump’s too many comrades

- 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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