NEWS
21/07/2018 07:30 BST

An Attempt To Understand Donald Trump's Comments On Putin and Russian Meddling

Could he actually be a stable genius?

Chris McGrath via Getty Images

Even by his own chaotic standards Donald Trump has had a rough few days.

His administration has repeatedly tried to clarify his stance on Russia, after he appeared to tell a press conference in Helsinki that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own security agencies on whether the Kremlin may have hacked the US election in 2016. 

On Tuesday, Trump said he had actually misspoken at the Helsinki news conference when he appeared to absolve Putin of blame, telling reporters: “In a key statement in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’.”

Later in the week, when asked by a journalist before a morning Cabinet meeting whether Russia was still targeting the United States, Trump looked at the reporter, shook his head and said, “No.”

Trump also deviated from his prepared notes to say “it could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there”.

The fallout has been explosive. Even the former director of the CIA has accused Trump of “treason” for his comments. 

Trump responded to the widespread criticism from across the political spectrum to saying that “people HATE” that he “got along well with President Putin of Russia”, and said instead the press characterises it as “Trump Derangement Syndrome”. 

But which is it? Why does Trump seem so reluctant to criticise Putin, yet so willing to undermine the people who work for him, at the CIA and the FBI, both of which have in the past confirmed that they believe Russia has meddled in US democracy. 

Here are five explanations ranked from incredibly unlikely to really, really bad.

INCREDIBLY UNLIKELY: Trump Is A Genius

By his own admission, Donald Trump is indeed a genius. A “stable’ one at that.

So could Trump actually be masterfully playing the role of puppet master and skilfully bending Putin to his will?

The experts think not. Mark Galeotti, a fellow at the Institute of International Relations, told HuffPost UK: “Oh God, I think that’s absolutely laughable. People have proven that, for example, if he had taken the money he had inherited and invested it he would be richer now than he actually has become through his business ventures.

“The point being, if you inherit vast amounts of money you can get away with being pretty stupid.

“Likewise, if you’re POTUS you can get away with being pretty stupid because you have the full weight of the US behind you. In some ways he achieves because he has America and all its clout at his back, not because of his own genius.”

Undeterred Trump has since insisted that only people “at the higher ends of intelligence” could see what he is up to.

BAD: He’s Completely Winging It

In an attempt to enforce an image of competency, Trump has made various statements both in public and on Twitter to the effect of “I know exactly what I’m doing”.

“We’re doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. And there’s been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia,” Trump said before the Cabinet meeting, adding that Putin “understands it and he’s not happy about it. 

But this doesn’t exactly wash with what we know about Trump.

Mathieu Boulègue, research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, told HuffPost UK: “Of course he does not have a plan. He’s still rambling about the fact that he won an election two years ago.”

Speaking of the constant revisions the Trump’s original statement, he added: “I don’t think it’s backtracking - the way he sees it is just making sure that he keeps the balance between looking super-friendly with Putin and looking more hawkish on Russia because he was probably scolded back home for his statements on the “would” and “wouldn’t”.

Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

REALLY, REALLY BAD: He Has A Dubious Relationship With The Truth

This works in two ways – firstly with what he himself projects as the truth.

“To him, truth is infinitely malleable. He them seems to think he can just rewrite reality by claiming it is something other than it is,” said Boulègue.

“We saw this with the whole Theresa May thing – he gives an interview to The Sun and trashes the PM and talks up Boris and then claims it’s “fake news” - even though he’s on tape.” 

Boulègue is referring to a bombshell interview published in The Sun in which Trump said Theresa May’s Brexit plan will “kill” any future US trade deal.

The very next day he attempted to clean up his criticism of the British PM by blaming the “fake news” - despite it all being on tape.

And Trump has more than a little form in the mistruth department - at the last count the President had told 3,001 lies in 466 days.

Secondly, there’s the alarming tendency for the truth to change depending on who Trump last spoke to. So, if Putin tells Trump he’s a good guy, he’s a good guy until someone else says otherwise.

This was apparent in Helsinki when Trump said: “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

Boulègue said: “He has a tendency to believe the last person he speaks to and no other leader in the Western world would get away with it but he does.

“One thing is certain - Trump has his own agenda when it comes to Putin.”

IMPEACH HIM BAD: He’s A Narcissist Who Genuinely Admires Dictators

Trump’s jovial encounter with Putin came just hours after he’d publicly trashed the leaders of nearly every Nato country.

“It’s clear that Trump has this bizarre fascination with Putin, indeed all autocrats. He has yet to meet a dictator he doesn’t like, whether we’re talking about Duterte, Xi, Kim Jong-un... you name it,” said Galeotti.

“He has this fascination with people who don’t have to worry about legislatures and laws and constitutions.

“This is an element of the narcissistic insecurity of the man, he wants to think of himself as one of them, he wants to think of himself as a tough, CEO-type emperor of the world and on some level he’s aware that he’s not. So he wants to pal-up with the bullies and the tough guys.”

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

SEND HIM TO JAIL BAD: He’s A Treasonous Traitor 

So what about the nuclear option – that Trump really is some kind of Russian agent.

In June, in an article in New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait laid out the hypothetical scenario that Trump has been an asset of Russian intelligence since as far back as 1987.

Chait writes:

“In 1986, Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin met Trump in New York, flattered him with praise for his building exploits, and invited him to discuss a building in Moscow.

“Trump visited Moscow in July 1987. He stayed at the National Hotel, in the Lenin Suite, which certainly would have been bugged.”

But Galeotti said he was sceptical of this theory. “Not least because frankly, if the Russians were running Trump they would do it in a much smarter way,” he said.

“If I was a case officer running ‘Agent Donald’ I would get him to tone down all this ridiculous flattery of Putin because what that does is it ties his hands.

“Yes it’s useful in terms of dividing and alarming and aggravates the West but increasingly it means Congress is basically closing ranks on Russia. What I would say is “look, you need to lay into Putin at every opportunity, present him as the epitome of all evil”.

“Because then, when we get you to something like recognise the annexation of Crimea, no one can then charge you with being some kind of Russian crony.”