A compromised president

The White House is vaunting the President’s positive chemistry with Russian President Putin at their meeting yesterday in Hamburg, on the margins of the G20. Secretary of State Tillerson says Trump raised allegations of Moscow interfering in the US election, but Foreign Minister Lavrov says Trump accepted Putin’s denials. The meeting lasted far longer than planned.

This is precisely the outcome Putin wanted: a “clean slate” with Washington, which acknowledges Moscow as a major world power. Sad!

What might a stronger and more capable president have achieved? He would first off have reminded Putin that the US has not and will not accept the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian intervention against the moderate opposition in Syria, the constant harassment of NATO allies and non-NATO friends by Russian war planes and ships, the attempted coup in Montenegro, and above all hacking intended to affect the outcome of US elections. Only then, if Putin pressed, would my hypothetical president (or imagine pretty much any of those who have served since World War II) have consented to discuss cooperation in Syria, provided that Putin was prepared to acknowledge that a political transition there is necessary and desirable.

Trump can’t do that. First, because he likes Putin. Witness their open mic joking about offensive journalists. Trump either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that dozens of them have been murdered in Putin’s Russia. I would argue our President has even incited violence against American journalists who are critical of him. Putin is the kind of strongman that Trump aspires to be: autocratic, nationalist, and narcissistic.

More important: I suspect there is ample Russian investment in Trump’s real estate ventures in the US and elsewhere. Trump has never denied this. He keeps his denials to property and ventures inside Russia. After his Atlantic City bankruptcy, Trump was on the financial ropes. No one would loan him money. Deutsche Bank is believed to have stepped in.

My guess is that Moscow did too, with hot money that needed laundering. Accepting investment of ill-gotten gains is a violation of US law as I understand it, but Trump never seems to have done the due diligence required. He and the Kushner companies just don’t worry about money laundering.

Trump has made it absolutely clear that he intends for his companies to make lots of money while he is president. This is the likely reason he has refused to make his tax returns public. They would show, far more clearly than the financial disclosure forms all US Government employees fill out, the sources of his wealth. Challenging Putin would have been a sure formula for drying up “hot” Russian oligarch purchases of real estate.

Fortunately, this is the kind of illicit activity that Special Counsel Mueller is particularly well-equipped to handle, not least because he is hiring lawyers experienced in financial crime, as well as related cover-ups. But there is no telling how long it will take for the sleuths to get to the bottom of Trump’s massively complex business arrangements. Even then it will take time to build a case that will hold up in court. Documents and witnesses will be hard to come by, especially on the Russian end of any shady deals.

In my view, the Russians have what they need to ensure, as Tillerson put it, that Trump would not “relitigate” the past: компромат. Compromising material–financial I imagine rather than sexual–will keep Trump emphasizing the positive with Russia. Thus it is that a declining regional power with an economy the size of Spain’s and severe financial pressure due to lower oil and gas prices, puts the President of the United States in a subordinate and compromised position. I thought I would never see the day. But it has arrived.

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