President Trump’s consistent obsequiousness to Russian President Vladimir Putin has spawned a cottage industry around a simple—but monumentally consequential—question: What gives? In other words, what explains the American President’s unflinching refusal, even at a high political cost, to criticize, contradict, or even distance himself from his Soviet-styled Russian counterpart.
We’ve heard no shortage of theories. On one extreme is the notion that Trump is a formally recruited asset of the Russian Federation—a clandestine relationship that, in some tellings, could extend back decades. On the other is the suggestion that Trump merely prizes the prospect of Russian cooperation on shared challenges over standing up for America’s institutions, values, and democracy.
But here’s what the speculation has largely failed to appreciate: in the end, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a distinction without much difference.
Whether Trump is a foreign agent or a hapless naif on the international stage, the implications for America’s foreign policy and national security are largely the same. Given what we already know about Trump’s financial interests in Russia—past, present, and potential—his personal interests are misaligned from our national interests in a way that’s largely indistinguishable regardless of whether he’s a sap or a spy.
Take, for example, what would it mean for Trump to be a recruited asset of the Russian government. Professional intelligence services the world over, including our own CIA, where I worked for over a decade, have devoted untold resources to understanding what makes would-be assets susceptible to a recruitment pitch from the world’s second oldest professional class. The U.S. intelligence community has boiled it down to a simple framework: money, ideology, compromise, and ego, or “MICE.”
These are the inducements and character traits most likely to predispose a potential recruit to turn against his or her own government. There’s been no shortage of speculation—fueled in large part by the so-called “Steele Dossier”—that Trump may have fallen victim to “compromise” through a videotaped encounter between himself and representatives of the world’s oldest professional class.
Others, meanwhile, have postulated that the allure of even more money initially pushed Trump into Russia’s embrace. Even House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy at one point suggested as much, remarking during a 2016 Republican House leadership meeting that Trump was on Putin’s payroll. When greeted with laughter, McCarthy insisted: “Swear to God.”
But whether or not Trump has ever been on the Kremlin’s official payroll, he has been on the receiving end of Russian money for decades.
Trump years ago was more open about the role of Russian money in his life. In his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal,” he bragged about building a large luxury hotel “in partnership with the Soviet government.” In the ensuing three decades, Trump often spoke of his desire to expand his brand in the Russian market—ultimately stymied by Russia’s economic collapse and his own financial duress. Roadblocks notwithstanding, Trump, among other deals, brought his Miss Universe empire to Moscow, and in late 2015, four months after launching his presidential bid, signed a letter of intent to build Trump Tower Moscow.
In addition to seeking funding from Russia, Trump received a financial lifeline from deep-pocketed Russian citizens, who poured cash into Trump properties around the world. In perhaps the best known case, a Russian oligarch purchased Trump’s Palm Beach property for $95 million (to the shock of no one, that same oligarch was just detained in Monaco as part of an international corruption investigation). One of Trump’s business partners estimated that Russians invested “hundreds of millions” of dollars into Trump’s ventures over the years. Trump himself put it this way: “Russians love the Trump brand.”
These funding streams are problematic for America’s foreign policy and national security because Trump has treated the presidency as an avocation rather than the capstone of his career. The fig leaf of separation between Trump and his namesake corporation—that his sons now handle the day-to-day—may help to mitigate against present conflicts of interest, but it does nothing to keep Trump from currying Putin’s favor in order to preserve his corporation’s future earnings potential in Russia.
Through this lens, Trump’s approach to Putin makes perfect sense. Trump will again be a private citizen in the coming years, while Putin and his wealthy oligarch allies will continue to wield enormous influence over Russia’s public and private sector, along with their investment decisions. Trump understands that Russian money largely bailed him out once before, and it may well be indispensable once again. That’s why when Americans have looked to Trump to speak up for the United States—on-stage with Putin in Helsinki, for instance—Trump has consistently let us down and left Putin smirking.
All of this puts those who have devoted their careers to America’s national security, including my former intelligence community colleagues, in a difficult spot—to put it mildly. Never before has there been such a tension between these professionals’ oaths to protect the Constitution and their commitment to serve the Commander-in-Chief, who in this instance may not be serving us. The election of a Democratic House of Representatives will for the first time during the Trump administration provide real executive branch oversight—which presumably will be aided by the intelligence community’s tendency, at all levels, to formally document its findings and concerns. While Trump’s taxes almost certainly would tell a fuller story of his conflicted allegiances, this paper trail will be a key resource for congressional investigators—with Robert Mueller’s investigation providing a last line of defense.
In the end, Trump may not be a Russian asset. Personally, I find the idea that he is rather far-fetched. In the end, however, it doesn’t really matter because Russian money—the same incentive responsible for forging some of America’s most notorious turncoats—appears to have purchased Trump’s allegiance, at times pitting his personal financial interests against the national interest of the country he leads.
When that’s happened, Trump—just as a recruited asset should—has always followed the money.
Ned Price is Director of Policy and Communications at National Security Action. He previously served as a Special Assistant to President Obama on the NSC and as a CIA analyst.