Among the thousand bizarre aspects of the presidential campaign has been the Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin axis. But who figured that it would become a big story line?
It started as a novelty, the Kremlin boss and the rising Republican star flattering each other. In 2013, as he was contemplating a run for the presidency, Trump took his Miss Universe Pageant (it's the one that features pulchritude, not talent) to Moscow. He had expressed his admiration for the Russian president and he tweeted: "Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow — if so, will he become my new best friend?"
Putin was busy that week, but when the presidential campaign got earnest, they connected. In a Fox-sponsored debate, Trump said he could negotiate with Putin because he got to know the Russian very well when they were "stablemates" for a "60 Minutes" TV show. "We did very well that night," he said. When someone pointed out later that Putin was taped in Moscow and Trump at a different time in his New York penthouse and that they never met, Trump said maybe so.
At a year-end session with reporters in 2015, Putin called Trump "a really brilliant and talented person," adding "he's the absolute leader in the presidential race." Trump had said he wanted a new strong relationship with Russia. "Of course, we welcome that," Putin said. Russia was suffering through a recession, caused partly by Obama-led sanctions after Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Trump responded on the "Morning Joe" show: "When people call you brilliant, it's always good, especially when the person heads up Russia." The host noted that Russian journalists who had been critical of Putin were killed. Trump replied, "He's running his country, and at least he's a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country."
Then there is the similarity of the Trump and Putin political strategies: national victimhood. America's problems, as Trump summarized them in his acceptance speech, arose from national leaders who let other nations push them around in international diplomacy and trade negotiations and who allowed antagonistic groups such as immigrants, Muslims, terrorists and angry blacks have their way at home.
Putin runs a stagnant economy and a country that now has two friends in the world, the leaders of North Korea and Syria. He wants to rebuild the empire that collapsed when Mikhail Gorbachev declared economic and individual liberation and told satellite countries they were free to go. They democratized and fled to NATO. Gorbachev, who might have been the Soviet empire's George Washington, lives out his days uneasily under the threat of treason.
For 14 years, Putin has told Russia all its problems are owing to U.S. leaders who interfere in his country's affairs. When Putin won re-election in 2011 in an election marred by massive fraud and it was followed by huge street protests, Putin blamed Hillary Clinton. He said the secretary of state signaled the protests to begin. When Clinton compared Russia's intervention in Ukraine in 2014 to Hitler's moves in the 1930s, Putin burned publicly.
By the GOP convention week, the Putin issue was starting to boil. In a recorded interview with The New York Times, Trump said that he might not defend the Baltic countries if Russia invaded (it has organized threatening military exercises nearby), even though the treaty obligates us to defend them.
Meantime, some of the media focused on the past of Paul Manafort, Trump's top adviser and national chairman. A lobbyist and political consultant for Republican presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan forward, Manafort has had heavy financial and political dealings with business and political leaders in Russia and Ukraine. Manafort was the hired strategist for the Russian president of Ukraine, who was overthrown and fled to Russia in the 2014 uprising. Putin retaliated for the overthrow of Manafort's man by seizing Crimea. Some of Manafort's Russian business dealings were detailed in 2011 in a lawsuit filed by the chief rival of the soon-to-be-ousted Ukrainian president. Another top Trump adviser, Carter Page, was a consultant for Gazprom, Russia's state-owned energy giant. He gave a college graduation speech early this month in Moscow urging a close Russia-USA alliance.
Then, days before the Democratic convention opened, Wikileaks dumped thousands of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee's server, which showed the party had actively thwarted the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. That was already obvious, but it was a massive embarrassment to the party and its nominee. Who would hack into the DNC computer? Maybe the same people who hacked into the State Department's computers in 2010?
Cybersecurity experts tracked the hacking to the same Russians. Putin's paranoia aside, can you really blame him for a bit of quid pro quo, if it might help land a new ally? He needs one.