We’ve heard story after story about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his affinity for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Trump compared Putin’s resolute character with a supposedly waffling President Obama, mistaking the latter’s deliberation, broad-based knowledge and cool intellectual calmness with weakness. With regard to the former, the man who needn’t worry about the consequences if he crosses his political opposition seems to embody the kind of serious-minded, tough leader that Trump aspires to be. Forget the details, so what if I flout international norms and a bunch of liberal cry babies get offended? Why, I’m Donald Trump and we are going to make America “great” again, at least for my (mainly white and resentful) supporters. Nations will not cross us, as “we” will build walls, arm freedom fighters and defeat extremism through our military might (never mind that it has never worked!). And yes, just because I’m from the USA means I can condescend to everyone else, right? Trump is the embodiment of an arrogant blowhard with no knowledge of and little interest in the world of international relations or diplomacy.
So it is no surprise that Trump is being played so handily by Russia and its intelligence services in their attempt to discredit Hillary Clinton and favor him to succeed President Obama next January. Any good secret service will collect intelligence, both verified and raw, on a country’s potential future leaders during a political campaign. They will look for weaknesses, vulnerabilities, or personality traits and try to identify issues that can be useful to them in achieving their policy goals with the foreign government and its new leader. Preferably, such collection activity will start long beforehand, as the politician wins local or regional posts and interfaces with the government, think tanks, universities, the court system, etc. Political “maturity” is usually decades in the making for those seeking a senior post. Any aspiring politician will look at past elected officials and take note of failures in communicating with the media or with the public as well as instances of putting out a muddled message, exaggerated claims and poorly executed policy proposals. That is how one learns, but one needs a good degree of humility to do that and humility is not in the Trump playbook.
Through no fault of his own, Donald Trump lacks a political CV, hence his attraction to many as an outsider. But so clear is his sense of self-righteousness, so self-absorbed his character and so convinced he is that everyone is out to get him that an intelligence service would be remiss if it were not leveraging these personality traits to its benefit. Trump is a veritable treasure trove of controversy, paranoia and half-baked policy proposals all wrapped up into a despot-like figure, convinced of his own grandeur. Don’t like what he said? Don’t worry, he will tell you in a matter of days that he never said it and you can be sure that he will accuse opponents of mischaracterizing him.
Trump has invited the Russian government to hack into Hillary Clinton’s email accounts to recover deleted content. He also has dismissed the Russian annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support of Ukrainian rebels as not something to be concerned about-music to the ears of the Putin regime but not very comforting to the Ukraine or European governments. In yet another show of bravado and knee-jerk defensiveness, Trump is now threatening to sue each and every woman who has accused him of inappropriate or unwanted touching. That is a typical statement of a man who is not only prone to uncontrolled outbursts but by someone who seems genuinely shocked that his own behavior could ever be the subject of scrutiny.
An unwitting co-optee, in intelligence agency parlance, is someone who by virtue of employment, membership in an organization or personal associations and actions helps the hostile service get its job done. There is no formal relationship in these cases between the agency and the co-optee for the precise reason that the co-optee is unaware of the agency’s interest in him. To show the agency’s hand is to muddy the waters. Why not let the co-optee rant or keep up a routine that helps achieve the agency’s objectives? That is just what Trump is doing.
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For years the Soviet Union and subsequently Russia would try to drive a wedge between the US and its European NATO members. Now, Donald Trump is doing it for them by going on about how they are “stingy” in their military budgets, singling out Germany. Russia would appreciate a US strategic withdrawal from its military alliance with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Japan. That makes those areas less likely to contest Russian military or heavy-handed diplomatic moves. With Trump advocating for a drawdown on US military engagement with these nations, he is assisting Moscow with its policy objectives. The hacked and likely doctored emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign find wide echo in Trumpland because the Russian services have meticulously studied the candidate and know what makes him tick (or explode). The strategically released emails, with the assistance of likely Russian cut-out entity Wikileaks, were of the tone and tenor that Moscow knew would cause Trump to short-circuit. By keeping the email scandals in the headlines, the Russian government achieves its goal of manipulating the election process and hopes to tilt it in favor of their candidate.
How does Moscow’s alleged favoritism toward Trump help it achieve its policy goals? We mentioned above some specific geopolitical issues. On the campaign trail, it causes Trump to put on display his entire personality, educating Moscow on what it can expect should he win the presidency on November 8. Conversely, Hillary Clinton is seen as a strong, well-informed and learned figure who surrounds herself with like-minded diplomats and heads of think-tanks. She dealt with the Russian foreign ministry while she was Secretary of State. She also knows as both a former cabinet-level official and US senator what intelligence agencies do and how they operate. She would be a tough interlocutor with Moscow and the Russians know it. Why not take the safer route and aim to promote a bombastic stooge who is incapable of understanding a complex intelligence briefing and has no clue about how to navigate treacherous international waters?
For Moscow, the choice is clear. They seem to have chosen the candidate who embodies all three descriptors we use in the title of our article.
The video below is one of Donald Trump’s greatest hits…