A good title for the entire Trump-Putin saga might be “The Naive and Sentimental Dictator.” Assuming, that is, that it all plays out as farce — certainly the direction events are trending in the White House.
What did Vladimir Putin think he was getting? Is it possible that he mistook an egotistical buffoon like Donald J. Trump for an apprentice strongman? If so, he badly misunderstands America. It’s not simply Russia with better plumbing. Granted, Trump himself lacks the self-discipline for autocracy. But he also lacks the servile population.
Putin is known to regard Western ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy as sentimental illusions. Trump disdains all laws that impede him. But if Congress accomplished nothing else by imposing new sanctions against Russian meddling in our politics, it proved that Putin’s best American friend has become the weakest president in living memory.
Not that Trump can’t still do enormous damage. But sentimental illusion or not, he won’t be able to undo the Constitution.
For all his bluster, Trump’s increasingly becoming a figure of fun — almost as laughable as his comic opera mini-me, The Mooch. His falsehoods expire overnight, often due to his own foolish tweets.
Nobody fears Trump, not really. See, he can’t have me thrown into prison for mocking him. Also unlike Putin, he can’t have Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican, shot dead in the street for denouncing his own party’s “Faustian bargain” with Trump.
“Silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication,” Flake writes in Politico, “and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.”
Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, he’s talking to you.
OK, so that makes a total of four Republican senators with spines. A few others have also made noises. Ultimately, this country isn’t going to be run like a World Wrestling Entertainment spectacle.
But back to Vladimir Putin. No, we definitely don’t need another Cold War with the Russians. Never did. But it’s the Russian dictator who badly overplayed his hand — possibly why his diplomats are already hinting that mutual accommodation might still be possible.
Meanwhile, Trump might like to undo the sanctions, but he hasn’t got the power. He’d also like to rid himself of Robert Mueller, the investigator systematically probing exactly what Putin’s got on him. However, Trump can’t make that happen.
Another Republican Senator with at least a vestigial backbone: South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham: “Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency unless Mueller did something wrong.”
One theory is that Putin never really imagined that his efforts would bring about a Trump presidency — that his real motive was sowing confusion and Russian-style cynicism about democracy itself. Certainly, Russian operatives’ approach to the amateurish schemers in Trump Tower last June was like something out of a Donald Westlake comic crime caper.
(My favorite Westlake novel is “Bank Shot,” in which crooks haul off a temporary bank housed in a mobile home, realizing too late that cops have blockaded every bridge off Long Island. Oh, it’s an island? Who knew?)
Writing in The New York Times, former CIA chief of station Daniel Hoffmann argues that what looks like incompetent Russian tradecraft indicates a baited mousetrap Donald Trump Jr. clumsily jumped into. An email from an intermediary vowing Russian government support for the Trump candidacy and promising to deliver dirt on Hillary Clinton?
An email? Permanent, ineradicable evidence?
So naturally Trump Jr. copied and forwarded the incriminating message with the helpful subject line “Russian-Clinton-private and confidential.”
Not the sharpest tool in the shed, Junior.
Has anybody ever not read a message so marked? Except we’re expected to believe that boy genius son-in-law Jared Kushner never did, although he attended the meeting with five Russian operatives anyway. A big bust, he claims, a real nothingburger.
Although two days later, candidate Trump promised a blockbuster speech detailing Hillary Clinton’s many crimes — a speech he never did deliver.
So now the Washington Post reports that the president himself drafted a deceptive statement after word of the suspect meeting first materialized in the press. The meeting was about Russian orphans, not Clinton dirt.
Followed, as day follows night, by the appearance of the aforementioned “private and confidential” emails.
So which is more incompetent, Team Vladimir or Team Trump?
The CIA’s Hoffman thinks he knows: “To me, the clearest evidence that this was a Russian influence operation is the trail of bread crumbs the Kremlin seemed to have deliberately left leading from Trump Tower to the Kremlin. This operation was meant to be discovered.”
But why? The commonest use of kompromat, as the Russians call incriminating evidence, is blackmail.
Too late now. Russians commonly say that Putin’s a cunning plotter, but a strategic dope. If he wanted Trump in his pocket, looks like he’s got him.
But the end result is chaos.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com