The Trump-Putin revelations tell us what we knew all along

  • By
  • Anne Applebaum

The brain of Homo sapiens has a fatal attraction to secrets. What we see before our eyes is never sufficient; we want to know what lies behind it, what explains it, what’s the deeper meaning. The compulsion to get beneath the surface of things lies at the heart of what makes some people scholars or scientists. It’s also at the heart of what makes some people conspiracy theorists. More to the point, it explains why so many are excited by recent “revelations” about President Trump and his relationship with Vladimir Putin, even though they are telling us nothing new.

The reporters’ diligence is to be commended, and every detail adds nuance. But the truth is that Trump’s connection to Putin has been out in the open for years, long before he decided to run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He has lavished praise on the Russian leader, in many forms of media, since at least 2013, when he speculated on Twitter that Putin might become his “new best friend.” His business relationships with Russia and Russians go back even further, to a 1987 trip to Moscow, which Trump said he made at the invitation of the then-Soviet ambassador. Kremlin state media has been openly promoting him and his political views since at least 2014, when Trump gave an interview to Fox News extravagantly praising the Sochi Winter Olympics.

During the election campaign, Trump openly hired, as his campaign manager, a man who had spent most of the previous decade promoting Russian interests in Ukraine. He openly called for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email. He openly echoed the Russian state media’s slogans and conspiratorial language all the way through the latter part of his campaign, claiming, for instance, that President Barack Obama created the Islamic State terrorists and that Hillary Clinton would start World War III.

Throughout this period, Russia backed him with a sophisticated online campaign designed to inspire his voters and put others off from voting at all. Some of that campaign has been revealed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, but some of it was visible to anyone who read English-language Russian state media such as Sputnik or RT. Since his inauguration, Trump has shared U.S. secrets with the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office, appeared cowed by the Russian president at a Helsinki news conference, if not frightened of him, and repeatedly sought to meet Putin without officials present or even, at one point, his own translator.

The question, then, is not why the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation into Trump in the days after he fired James B. Comey as FBI director, as the New York Times revealed Friday, but why are we surprised? And why did it take so long? Why didn’t it begin in 2013 or 2014? Why didn’t it begin, for that matter, in 1987? Nor should anyone be surprised to learn, as The Washington Post reported over the weekend, that Trump has failed to give a proper accounting of his meetings with Putin to any of his State Department officials, any of his intelligence officers, anyone at all. Of course he hasn’t: His relationship with Russia is perverse and peculiar — we can all see that — so he doesn’t want anyone to learn anything more about it.

Still, the vigil awaiting Mueller’s final report continues, as if it were going to tell us something revolutionary and new. The human brain loves secrets, and we trust “confidential” information from hidden sources more than information that appears before our own eyes. So, yes, bring on more evidence, which will reveal more of what we already know.