It's hard to know what to say after a day—a week—like the one we've just experienced. On one hand, none of it should've come as a surprise. The full frontal assault on our closest allies in the EU and NATO, like the assault on the free press and the pointless flattery of Vladimir Putin, stretch back two years to the 2016 campaign. Donald Trump has spent this past week doing exactly what he said he would do before his election, and doubling down on the denials that anything but his own genius helped him win that election. And yet, no matter how many times we've heard “NO COLLUSION!,” there's something about watching it unfold in real time that stuns in a way that—like catching a cheating partner after months of suspicion or seeing a loved one die after a terminal illness—no amount of intellectual knowing, understanding, or expecting can prepare you for.
After Trump and Putin met in Helsinki, many pundits and politicians struggled to understand what it is they saw, to rationalize it, to explain it away, to speculate on what kinds of kompromat the Russians could have on Trump, when the answer—like infidelity or death—was staring them, us, in the face. Yes, Putin has something on Trump: He helped him win. That's the kompromat.
Facing the press after his meeting with Trump, Putin admitted—openly, arrogantly—that yes, he had wanted Trump to win in 2016. But we had known that as early as...2016. His state-run media didn't do much to hide their boss's preference: anyone but Hillary Clinton. I remember constantly explaining that summer why Putin preferred Trump to Clinton. Through the spring of 2016, Kremlin TV was clear that it wasn't that Putin wanted Trump to win, it was that he wanted Clinton to lose. The propaganda machine—and, as we now know, the covert influence machine—got behind Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Jill Stein—anyone who wasn't Clinton.
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By the summer of 2016, after a well-timed dump of stolen DNC e-mails nonetheless failed to prevent Clinton from clinching the Democratic nomination, there was only one person who wasn't her. And—as we then suspected and now know—the Kremlin was working to help elect that person, Donald Trump. Trump spoke glowingly of wanting to be friends with Putin and resetting relations with Russia; Clinton, long described as a hawk, was a realist on Russia. She understood Putin well, and Putin knew that. Not only had Clinton publicly questioned the integrity of Russia's rigged elections when she was Secretary of State; she was also a representative of the Obama administration, which Putin loathed. Obama had imposed sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea. Obama had sent Michael McFaul, a well-known scholar of democratization in Russia and color revolutions, to be ambassador to Russia just before Putin's 2012 elections, something Putin came to see as a form of meddling. Kremlin TV went with the line that McFaul was there to overthrow Putin, and according to McFaul's new memoir, Putin drank the Kool-Aid.
Donald Trump today described his campaign as “brilliant,” but those of us who were there remember it for what it was: lurching, volatile, scraping the bottom of the barrel for even remotely competent staff. As we now know, the campaign, in the form of Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone, was willing to take all the help it could get. The trickle of indictments from Robert Mueller make it increasingly difficult to believe that there's no there there, that the Russians didn't meddle, that the Trump campaign didn't know about it, let alone actively welcome it, that all this stolen information just happened to coincide with Trump's statements and the campaign's ad buys and didn't change any votes.
Of course, Trump denies it now. It's hard to imagine even a politician less thin-skinned and prideful than him saying, essentially, “Yes, you're right. My victory was illegitimate, and therefore so is my presidency.” There is no other way to frame this: This is, and has always been, about the legitimacy of his presidency. And no one, especially not a sitting president who values the idea of himself above all else, would cede that ground.
And of course Putin denies it. Going into the summit, friends in the White House pool and TV hosts asked what Putin would do to Trump in their meeting. Would he try to intimidate him, like he did by bringing his black Labrador Konni to his meetings with the notoriously dog-phobic Angela Merkel? Would he push on all those financial ties Trump's sons have bragged about over the years? Of course not. In the end, the only approach that works with Trump is flattery. Trump wants Boris Johnson to be prime minster of England not just because he likes his position on Brexit, but because “he has said very nice things about me.” He likes Putin not just because he's an authoritarian Trump clearly wants to emulate, but because he believes Putin called him a “genius.” (The actual word used, “colorful,” was more of a backhanded compliment, but Putin wisely let the mistranslation stand.) And if Putin were smart, which he clearly is, he would have flattered Trump exactly the way he needed to be in their tête-à-tête: by echoing his denials. Of course we didn't interfere, Donald. You won fair and square. You did it all by your genius self.
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All he ever wanted was to make his dad proud, but things have never turned out quite right for Donald Trump Jr. Even now, despite finding his purpose as a bombastic star of the far right, Junior’s personal life is in shambles and the specter of Robert Mueller looms large. As Julia Ioffe discovers in talking to old friends and Trump World insiders, it’s never been trickier to be the president’s son.
I was always skeptical of the idea that Putin had kompromat on Trump that was something akin to the rumored pee-pee tape for two reasons. First, because the operative element in blackmail is shame, and as we saw with his reaction to another embarrassing tape, the one from Access Hollywood, Trump is un-blackmailable on that front. I also assumed that Trump would lash out at anyone who tried to pressure him openly: Do this, or we release the tape. No one puts Trump in a corner.
What didn't occur to me was the most obvious option, the one we saw revealed in Helsinki. When Putin was asked if he had compromising materials on Trump, Trump interjected and said, “I have to say, if they had it, it would have been out long ago.” And it’s true. It’s been out for ages, since the October 2016 warning by the intelligence community, then the January 2017 report from the Director of National Intelligence, then the drip-drip-drip of revelations in the press, and indictment after Mueller indictment, the last installment coming just three days before the Helsinki presser. Trump was right. It is out there.
The kompromat is the election result itself, and Trump is lashing out at the people who are trying to get him to do something on its basis: the press, the Democrats, the intelligence community, Robert Mueller, and Trump's own Department of Justice. We are the ones saying, Do this or else. And Trump is, predictably, lashing out. The only person, it seems, who knows how to use the blackmail to his advantage is Putin. True to the intelligence training he spoke about today, Putin knows his subject and his supple psychology, the nooks and crannies of his insecurities and obsessions. Why threaten him when you can get him to do your bidding with simple flattery: Of course we didn't interfere, Donald. You won fair and square. You did it all by your genius self.
Julia Ioffe is a GQ correspondent.