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Analysis

Why Putin Is Smiling

Even if Russian intelligence didn’t orchestrate the near-total political dysfunction that led to Tuesday’s impeachment articles, things sure have gone the Kremlin’s way.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, left, speaks with ranking member Doug Collins
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, left, speaks with ranking member Doug Collins during the House Judiciary Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 9. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited the White House on Tuesday—no doubt savoring the political dysfunction surrounding him on the day Democrats announced impeachment articles against Donald Trump and Republicans cried “coup!”—one wonders whether Lavrov asked the U.S. president: “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?”

There is no evidence, of course, that Trump is a real-life Manchurian Candidate—a Muscovian candidate if you will—controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his actions triggered by a code as with that solitaire line in the darkly satirical 1962 movie. But it is hard to avoid thinking that Trump is behaving much as the Kremlin would like him to and that, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi never tires of saying, “All roads lead to Putin.”

An impenetrable welter of conspiracy theories has descended upon Washington, whipped into a froth by  Kremlin operatives. The Democrats, backed by the entire U.S. intelligence community and the FBI, say that Russia has been orchestrating virtually all the interference in U.S. politics. Trump and his Republican minions—the entire party in lockstep, actually—have been saying Ukraine is the culprit, which also happens to be the Kremlin line. Many observers are hoping the American electorate will sort all this out themselves in 2020: FBI Director Christopher Wray, in remarks that many interpreted as an attack on his boss, the president, on Monday urged “the American people to be thoughtful consumers of information and to think about the sources of it.”

But it is unreasonable to expect ordinary voters to figure things out if their representatives can’t—or won’t.

If Trump isn’t a Russian agent, he is proving to be close to a perfect president from the Kremlin’s point of view. He refuses to criticize Putin personally, embraces a fiction that Putin peddles about Ukrainian interference, and is ever sowing civic discord, making Western democracy look ugly and unworkable, and undermining the stature of the lone superpower (and Moscow’s chief rival) around the world.

“Vladimir Putin, once again, must be popping champagne in the Kremlin as he enjoys such extreme homegrown assistance in doing what our Intelligence Community warned publicly in January 2017 that he was trying to do: ‘influence the 2016 US presidential election’ as ‘the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order,’” said David Kris, a former assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. 

“The remarkable thing here is not that Russia is doing all it can to undermine us—we should expect that—it is instead how much receptivity and support from segments of American society that Russia has enjoyed in that effort,” said Kris. He noted that Wray, the FBI director, “said just yesterday that we have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election.”

The Republicans, who are terrified of crossing Trump, don’t seem to care. Nor did they pay any heed to the Democrats’ star witness, Fiona Hill, a Russia expert on the National Security Council who has made a close study of Putin’s thinking during her career. “President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a super PAC,” Hill testified. “They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives. When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each another, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.” 

Hill added that Trump’s Republican defenders in Congress were embracing a “fictional narrative” about Ukraine being involved in election meddling that was also likely part of a disinformation campaign by Russian security services. 

Trump also doesn’t seem to care. As “Anonymous,” the putative Trump insider, writes in his or her new book, A Warning, the president exists in a continuum of conspiracy theories and can even credit his political rise to one: birtherism. All the crazy conspiracy theories about Ted Cruz’s dad and “foul play” surrounding Antonin Scalia’s death were only harbingers of what of what would later become Trump’s fantasy about the Democratic National Committee conspiring with Ukraine and Joe Biden’s “corruption.”

Trump is thus a dream mark for Putin, the old KGB colonel, who must be thinking this could go down as his intelligence services’ finest hour.

“Putin wanted Trump elected in 2016 and wants him reelected in 2020, but that doesn’t mean he wants a powerful President Trump steering America,” said Scott Horton, a human rights lawyer who over the years has studied Kremlin tradecraft by representing clients from former Soviet republics. “Just the opposite. Support for Trump would have been driven by a Kremlin analysis suggesting he was receptive to Russian interests (Crimea, Ukraine, North Korea, dismantling NATO, weakening the European Union) and would be a fractious leader rather than a uniter.”

“Hence the situation is optimized in their view with Trump in control but weakened and menaced by domestic strife. So an impeachment struggle is wonderful. And a civil war in America, which Russian propaganda outlets constantly foreshadow, would be ideal,” Horton said.

Almost comically, as happened in the 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate—and the Richard Condon novel it was based on—the Republicans on Tuesday sought to obstruct the process by declaring repeatedly, “Point of order!” And when a Democratic majority on the House Judiciary Committee finally votes Thursday to impeach, and the Republicans vote no on a party line, it becomes all but foreordained that Trump will be formally impeached in the full House and exonerated by the Republican-majority Senate. That in turn ensures that U.S. politics will be tied in conspiracy knots right up until Election Day 2020, when Trump (and perhaps the Kremlin) believes he can win by prevailing with his conspiracy theory over that of the Democrats—and smear his most formidable Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in the process.

No doubt to Putin’s delight, Trump’s loyalists keep feeding the Ukraine conspiracy beast, aided by a strange assortment of mysterious players who all seem to be—or in the past were—beholden to Putin. And listening to them eagerly is Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who was just back from another trip to Ukraine even as the impeachment drama was playing out, adding to the conspiracy-theorizing that was being peddled to him by Ukrainian rogues aligned with the Kremlin. Among them: the indicted oligarch Dmitry Firtash, one of several Ukrainian billionaires who made a fortune thanks to Russian connections and were former backers of Putin’s puppet president, Viktor Yanukovych.

It must be noted that Trump too became financially beholden to Russia and former Soviet officials during his long, rocky career in real estate. According to a Foreign Policy investigation late last year, at a time when the nearly bankrupt Trump was anathema to U.S. banks, foreign money played a large role in reviving his fortunes. Much of that money came from in the form of investment from Russia and the former Soviet republics. In September 2008, at the “Bridging U.S. and Emerging Markets Real Estate” conference in New York, the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., said: “In terms of high-end product influx into the United States, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. Say, in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo, and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

But as is almost always the case, there are no fingerprints that trace any of this money directly to Putin or the Kremlin. It also defies reason to think that Putin and his intelligence services could have foreseen and orchestrated everything that is going on now in Washington. 

They have proved adept at fanning the flames, however, with their guy in the White House. And so the country is heading into a conflagration in 2020.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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