Comment: Donald Trump is Vladimir Putin's man in the White House
In 1962 the Oscar-winning film The Manchurian Candidate scared us with a right-wing US politician controlled by the Communists.
In 2018, in real life, in real time, we have a right-wing US politician who is now effectively controlled by the Kremlin.
The film ended after 126 minutes. Until Republican legislators turn against Trump, or until Robert Mueller saves the world, this drama will run and run.
Whether because of his ego and concern that his election victory in 2016 is seen as legitimate, whether because of his admiration for Putin, or whether because he knows of links between Russian officials and his campaign, Trump is now compromised. He now serves the Kremlin's interests, rather than those of the US Government, its long-time allies, or its people.
The headline from Monday's press conference in Helsinki --- after a two-hour, one-on-one meeting with only translators present --- was Trump's choice of Putin over US intelligence services. Asked about Moscow's interference in the election that handed him the Presidency, Trump fumed about Democrats and the FBI and then made his decision clear. "I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."
The endorsement was bolstered by Trump's exaltation of Putin's proposal for his personnel to question the 12 Russian military intelligence officers, indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller last Friday, over hacking and dissemination of Democrat e-mails to aid Trump's campaign --- the equivalent of the chief suspect investigating his crime.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who days ago compared Russia's cyber-threat to that of terrorists before 9-11, replied with a statement that was not cleared by Trump's staff: "We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security."
But Trump's siding with Putin over the election interference was only the start of his alliance with the Russian leader. Asked by Jeff Mason of Reuters, "Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything?", Trump preferred to talk about the election, "There was no collusion at all."
On issue after issue, Trump was silent or echoed Putin's line. The US President said nothing about Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, its support of the Assad regime in a Syrian conflict in which 100,000s have been killed and displaced. He did not refer to the suspicion of Kremlin involvement in the March nerve agent attack in southwest England, or to Moscow's role in the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet --- the fourth anniversary of which was on Tuesday --- over eastern Ukraine.
Trump's focus was on a partnership with Putin, the man he has long lionized: "[The US-Russia] relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed, as of about four hours ago.
For Helsinki was only the third act in a mission by Trump and his advisors which had also taken in the NATO summit in Brussels and a visit to London. This was a mission to unsettle NATO and to break up the European Union.
In Brussels, Trump responded to flattery of his "leadership" by denouncing Germany --- saying Berlin, rather than he, had the damaging links with Russia --- and other NATO members. Even before reaching London, he criticized UK Prime Minister Theresa May for being soft in her negotiations with the EU, demanded that her Government choose between the US and Europe, and endorsed May's rival Boris Johnson as the next Prime Minister. At a Friday press conference alongside May, Trump on four occasions blasted Germany and the EU, with the Prime Minister intervening at the end to usher Trump away from the podium.
Meanwhile, Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who is still a part of Trump's inner circle, worked out of an operations room in London. He met right-wing European activists, anti-EU British politicians, and UK media outlets. The campaign --- including Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) who is the British figure closest to the Trump camp --- spread across newspapers, the BBC, and other TV outlets. May's proposals were unacceptable, only a "hard Brexit" would do with a European Union which should be curbed if not dismantled.
Bannon summarized last Sunday on Farage's radio program, "Whether it's Italy, France, England, or the United States....this is war."
All of which fits perfectly with a Kremlin strategy which for many years, and increasingly since 2014, has pursued political warfare and propaganda to disrupt NATO and weaken the EU.
Special Counsel Mueller is accumulating the evidence which, having already produced a series of indictments and convictions, is approaching the conclusion of Russian ties with the Trump campaign. Dossiers, corroborated in part already by public revelations, set out Russian financial links with Trump's inner circle and Trump's vulnerabilities because of his personal behavior. Analysts such as Jonathan Chait have presented a case that Trump may have been compromised as early as 1987 by Moscow.
But even setting aside the likelihood of a direct connection, Trump's ego and worldview make him a commander-in-chief --- in one-on-one meetings, in public nudges from Putin, and in his sensitivity to criticism --- who can be maneuvered by Moscow into the proper place on issues of international security.
Pressed by Republican legislators and by his own White House staff on Tuesday, Trump took a half-step back by claiming he "misspoke" when he denied Russian interference in the 2016 election. But in the next breath, he was veering off-script with the assertion that, while US intelligence blamed Moscow, it "could have been other people". And he put his defining statement on top of the prepared text with a black Sharpie pen: "THERE WAS NO COLUSION [sic]."
By last night, Trump was back to his mark, using Twitter to hail Putin and assail the "fake media".
Scott Lucas is a Professor of American Studies, University of Birmingham, UK.
A professional journalist since 1979, Professor Lucas is the founder and editor of EA WorldView, a leading website in daily news and analysis of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and the wider Middle East, as well as US foreign policy.