Putin, Trump: the art of the backfire
When my son was little, I used to read to him from a book called "The Stupids." This decidedly un-P.C. series was about a family of incompetents who managed to screw up the simplest of tasks. I no longer remember what they look like, so pardon me if I envision Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. They fit the bill.
The measure of Trump was taken recently by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who reportedly called his boss a "moron." This assessment is so beyond quibble that it will go down as the signal − and maybe only − achievement of Tillerson's time at Foggy Bottom. It ain't much, but maybe in the recounting of how he wrecked the State Department, it will get a winking footnote.
Tillerson's argument hardly needs elucidation. Just look at two recent events. By opening his big mouth, Trump seems to have ensured that Bowe Bergdahl, late of the U.S. Army, was not given life imprisonment or, as Trump unrealistically demanded, the death penalty for desertion. The military judge had to take into account command interference − this certainly was that − and might have had to give Bergdahl a lighter sentence than expected; he was dishonorably discharged but given no jail time. This was not exactly an acquittal, but it was a long way from a drum roll and a last cigarette.
Or consider Trump's stated determination to have the FBI investigate Hillary Clinton. This Venezuelan exhortation has got to be counterproductive. Even if there were reason to believe that Clinton had committed a crime − only the evidence is lacking − the FBI would bend over backward to avoid looking like a presidential lackey. If Trump really intends the criminal prosecution of a political opponent, then he has more in common with Putin than a penchant for self-adoration.
Yet in this fierce competition, Putin has managed to outdo Trump when it comes to boneheaded plays. If we conclude − as we must − that Russia's interference in last year's election was authorized by the Kremlin and was intended to help Trump, then we must also conclude that it was just plain dumb. Not only is there no proof that Russia's industrious hackers materially affected the election, but there is abundant proof that in the long run they did Trump no good. They managed to plunge him into hot water from which he may never emerge.
Russian interference has triggered numerous investigations, including the one by Robert Mueller, the special counsel. It has resulted in the indictment of Paul Manafort and his longtime business partner Rick Gates. In addition, Mueller arrested the phenomenally obscure foreign policy expert, George Papadopoulos. He is clearly cooperating with Mueller, and while he may not know much about foreign policy, he surely knows enough about Trump et al to warrant special treatment. Additional indictments are surely coming. In the end, the Mueller investigation may wind up costing Trump his job. How's that smart for Putin?
Even without that salubrious outcome, the Kremlin's interference in the election has made it impossible to lift the sanctions already imposed on Russia. These are not negligible. Sanctions have exacerbated Russia's economic woes. (The Russian economy, which is now rebounding, contracted by 3.7 percent in 2015.) The assets of some oligarchs remain frozen and the Russian financial system remains hampered. Putin has been outraged by these sanctions but his clumsiness has all-but ensured that they will not be lifted anytime soon.
There is more, of course. Both Trump and Putin are authoritarians, vaunted strongmen who are revered by people who have little patience for process or consultations. Putin is the stronger of the two, admired as such by Trump. But the Russian leader has leaped into a no-win war in Syria, retaining his cherished warm water port at Tartus but burdening an economy that is heavily dependent on the price of oil. The average Russian may take pride in his country's assertiveness, but while his government has retained a far-off port, it cannot keep him alive much past the age of 70. His American counterpart lives almost a decade more. On the average, a 75-year-old Russian is a dead Russian.
Trump and Putin are a two-faced Janus with the same face. They ran on the same platform − make (America/Russia) great again. They both are conspiracy buffs − Putin because he once toiled for the KGB, Trump because reality is too complicated for him. Both men are captives of a recent past they loathe and consider shameful. They have much in common − just like that family in the book I read to my son.
Richard Cohen's column is distributed by the Washington Post News Service.
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