Donald Trump’s press conference with Vladimir Putin of Russia on Monday has sparked uproar across the US. Senior political and intelligence figures from both parties have described Trump’s pro-Putin performance as a betrayal of US values and the acquiescence of US interests to an ardent American enemy. They are right to do so.
But why is Trump so obviously deferential to Putin?
There is the question of whether Russia holds financial leverage over Trump, as I believe it does. There’s also the question of whether Russia is in possession of video-based compromising material on Trump. I believe it is.
But here’s the thing: Trump has shown such vigorous disregard for external personal pressure that it would be a mistake to assess his deference to Putin as solely blackmail driven. I think Trump’s affection for Putin runs far deeper than that; into a realm of personal alignment and preferential regard. In Putin, Trump sees someone who has reached the pinnacle of power and respect. And for all the crimes Putin has committed, Trump views the Russian leader as someone to be envied: someone who must always be listened to with respect and rightly feared.
For Trump, who regards the American media and US security services to be on a vendetta against him, the appeal of Putin’s stature is reflexive. The Russian leader isn’t just treated with deference by the Russian media; he enjoys their overt submission. Largely ignorant of the tradition of democratic scrutiny in the United States and having triumphed in the 2016 presidential election against all the odds, Trump believes he is entitled to that same deference.
Putin sees this admiration in his American counterpart and uses to manipulate the American president. That is what happened in their press conference yesterday. Putin went out of his way to praise Trump as a leader of vision and confidence, feeding the US president’s ego in a way that he most desires. Then, teasing the assembled press with grins and laughs and repudiations, Putin moves to the next step: silently cultivating Trump’s belief that he shares his view that the media is a ridiculous mass of bias rather than a serious threat. That must be comforting for Trump, who is accosted on US editorial pages every single day.
Putin knows that anything negative he says to the press will earn Trump’s gratitude for another reason. Few leaders are willing to so openly attack or delegitimatise the media while standing alongside Trump. That makes Putin’s efforts all the more special in Trump’s mind.
This flattery and manipulation serves Russia’s foreign policy interests.
Putin realises that achieving his geopolitical goals requires shaping Trump’s conception of Russian interests. Putin’s first objective here is to defray and dilute new and existing sanctions by persuading Trump that he really isn’t much of an adversary. Wooing Trump also allows the former KGB colonel to present ongoing Russian hostilities against the US — such as cyber-activity — as responses to American aggression rather than acts of Russian aggression.
This, Putin believes, will weaken those around Trump such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who say Russia must be challenged on what it does around the world.
The strategy seems to work.
As yesterday’s conference went on, Trump took an increasingly unapologetic stance against obvious US interests. As soon as the press conference was over, the US media and politicians of all stripes jumped on Trump with a rare fury. That is exactly what Putin wanted.
But there is likely more to his plan. Ultimately Putin knows that as Trump grows ever more isolated at home and abroad, he’ll also grow ever closer to Putin and seek support from his Moscow counterpart. Putin also suspects that European fear that America is no longer a reliable ally will stop them from standing up to Russia.
And what Putin really wants is more influence over Trump’s deliberations in relation to policy challenges like those in Ukraine and Syria, while simultaneously earning Trump’s added gratitude. Putin gets Trump in his corner and Trump sees Putin as an increasingly rare friend. And when the Mueller indictments start hitting overdrive, it’s likely that Putin’s influence will be boosted even further.
It’s a very clever ploy straight out of Putin’s KGB days in Germany. And one that Trump should wake up to, and soon.