Trump Is Colluding With Putin in Plain Sight

Donald Trump has an understanding with Vladimir Putin that Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter imprisoned by Russia on bogus charges of espionage, will be released if and only if he wins the presidency.

This is not a charge being made against Trump. It’s Trump’s own claim. He has boasted several times of this arrangement. In a video, he holds the prospect of Gershkovich’s release as an inducement to elect him:

Trump, characteristically, abstains from saying Gershkovich is being wrongly held. His release is simply a gift to the United States that Putin will offer up if Trump wins the election. “Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, will do that for me, and I don’t believe he’ll do that for anyone else,” he says.

You might wonder why Putin is willing to cash in the bargaining chip he grabbed when he seized Gershkovich, and why he would choose to spend it as an inducement to the American people to elect Trump. You might also wonder what communications with Putin have led to Trump being able to communicate this offer. Is there an innocent explanation?

It’s obviously possible Trump is making this whole offer up out of thin air. But his own account is that he and Putin are colluding to influence the campaign!

Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia was and is a gigantic scandal. In the public mind, it has been lodged as something else: a nothing burger, or even a conspiracy against Trump by his enemies in politics, the media, and the deep state.

There are many reasons for this misperception, ranging from the debunked Steele dossier setting the bar for scandal too high, inflated expectations for Robert Mueller, Trump successfully stonewalling the investigation by dangling pardons to his co-conspirators, and the sheer volume of suspicious activity making it difficult for any single one of them to break through.

Perhaps the biggest single reason, though, is that the notion that Russia would corrupt an American president struck Americans as fantastical and exotic. When skeptics of Trump’s ties to Russia invoke the case, they generally mock the idea that he was or is a “Russian agent.” And, of course, no serious person ever said Trump is a Russian agent — that is a spy-novel idea easily dismissed, and it has stood in the public mind for the general scandal.

But you don’t need to turn to fiction to find a working model of the actual Trump-Putin relationship. You just need to turn to Europe. There are numerous, well-documented cases of Russian intelligence forming covert alliances with right-wing politicians overseas.

The Washington Post this week published yet another long, detailed report about Russian foreign political influence. A Czech probe uncovered a Russian front organization “used to funnel hundreds of thousands of euros — up to 1 million a month — to dozens of far-right politicians in more than five countries to plant Kremlin propaganda in Western media that would sow division in Europe and bolster the position of pro-Russian candidates in this week’s European Parliament elections, according to interviews with a dozen European intelligence officials from five countries.”

These sorts of operations have been going on for more than a decade. American intelligence officials and foreign-policy analysts were familiar with them, which is why they reacted with such alarm to Donald Trump’s behavior toward Russia in 2016. It fit a pattern of a covert relationship in numerous particulars, from the people Trump surrounded himself with (a handful of Russophilic oddballs) to his widespread but undisclosed business dealings with Moscow to his strangely sympathetic takes on Russian subjects.

Some aspects of the pattern were dead ends or coincidences. But other parts were proven out — the most damning example being Putin’s secretly dangling a branding deal with hundreds of millions of dollars at no risk, which Trump denied in public, making him subject to Russian extortion and leverage. That proposed payoff closely resembles other payoffs Russians have made to right-wing allies, in which payments are sometimes disguised as investments.

Trump managed to escape any legal consequences, largely because he pardoned the two advisers (Paul Manafort and Roger Stone) who had responsibility for dealing with Russia during the campaign. It is a testament to his success in getting away with it that he is now flaunting his closeness to Putin.

Here is a gift to America that his friend Vlad will present to us if we make Trump president. What is Putin getting in return? What happens to Gershkovich if Trump loses the election? Trump obviously doesn’t care. Indeed, he seems to assume nobody else will care, either.

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