(Bloomberg Opinion) -- So here we are again, back where this presidency began: Trump and Russia. Russia and Trump.
News that Russian President Vladimir Putin was paying bounties for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and that President Donald Trump was briefed about it and took no action, is the latest shocking/unsurprising twist in a long and sordid saga. Some day, perhaps, the American people will learn why Trump is so subservient to Putin. Meanwhile, another important question is how far Putin is willing to go to help Trump get re-elected.
It’s perplexing that, four years after Trump was privately pleading for Kremlin approval to build a tower in Moscow while publicly insisting that he had no business dealings in Russia, the exact nature of his Russian passion remains a mystery. American intelligence agents are said to know a great deal about Putin’s hidden wealth. It beggars belief that they don’t know quite a bit about Trump’s, too.
Even Trump’s astonishing humiliation before Putin in Helsinki in 2018 did not shake the details of his subjugation loose from some knowledgeable quarter. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” said the late John McCain in a candid assessment.
Whatever Trump so desperately needs from Putin, he needs far more of it now. Trump’s re-election campaign is a travesty on par with his shambolic 2016 effort. (His campaign was both boorish and victorious.) This time, however, the political context is less cooperative. His peculiar incompetence is killing tens of thousands of Americans while keeping the economy in suspended animation.
Trump’s crude instincts are no different than in 2016. But he is proving incapable of adapting to new political realities, just as his lies are failing to fool a virus. Meanwhile, he faces a candidate less easily caricatured than his 2016 opponent.
Polls are dismal. Without a dramatic turnaround, Trump will need serious help to win. Attorney General William Barr has made it clear that he won’t sound an alarm if Putin pulls another electoral burglary. In a rare appearance before Congress last year, Barr refused to commit to defend the election even if North Korea intervened. In case Putin is hard of hearing, on Tuesday Senate Republicans blocked a provision to require campaigns to report offers of foreign assistance.
So what does Putin do this time? The context is different for him as well. On the one hand, his preferred candidate is flailing. If Putin goes all in for Trump and Democrats win the White House, Russia, and Putin personally, may face a blistering blowback from the new administration. On the other, having Trump in the Oval Office is a strategic asset of incalculable value. How far is Putin willing to go to secure it?
It’s difficult to mitigate risks to an election when the greatest risk is the incumbent in the White House and a party that accepts foreign interference and views voting as a threat to its power. Likewise, the perils of foreign sabotage go far beyond Russian hacking and coordination with the bumblers in the Trump campaign.
In his book “Election Meltdown,” election law expert Richard Hasen raises the harrowing possibility of targeted electrical outages on Election Day. It’s easy to imagine: Russia targets the power in Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia (you can add Miami too, if you like). Chaos ensues. Large numbers of Democrats concentrated in those cities are unable to vote. Trump wins those states. Barr’s Justice Department and the Supreme Court refuse to act. The tainted vote stands. Trump is re-elected.
After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in 2017, the FBI opened an inquiry into whether Trump was working on behalf of Russia. It was a glaringly obvious question then. In the years since, Trump’s haphazard foreign policy — damaging NATO, acceding to Russia in Syria and Kurdistan, promoting oil and attacking green technology, undermining Ukraine, advocating Russian membership in the G-7 — has included an uncanny litany of Kremlin victories.
Over the next four months, Americans will find out what Putin is prepared to do to sustain his winning streak. What we are unlikely to learn, in a systemic political failure unparalleled in American history, is why Trump is so very keen to enable it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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