Adding some Sanity to the Trump-Putin Relationship Scandal

I know I've been on a Trump streak lately. (Not a Trump Steak, luckily.) But a lot about Trump and Russia has come out in the past two weeks. Just as every bit of news about Trump inspires some quite excitable reactions from just about everyone, this has, too. 

There's a bit of a spectrum on how people are interpreting what's coming out. On the one hand, there's a Witch Hunt, which may or may not involve everyone from the Deep State to most news organizations to George Soros. On the other hand, Trump is actually whole-cloth puppet of Putin--either by bribing or blackmail, he actually works for Russia and anything that is not Putin's personal agenda is a distraction. I'm going to make the case that both of these are fairly popular positions. See:

Perhaps reality is a little more complicated than either of these.

Let's break it down a bit.

There Are Two Separate Narratives to Understand

Instead of one unified narrative with either Witch Hunt or Siberian Candidate (that was a cute one I saw on Facebook, can't take credit) dominating the entire saga, we can get a little more sense of what's going on by breaking the story down into two parts:

  1. Before the election
  2. After the election

Why might we do this? For a few reasons. First, incentives change. When you want to win the election, you'll focus on that. Once you've won, your agenda changes. I'm not sure of Trump's agenda, but it's no longer winning the election. We see this repeatedly as President after President alters, abandons, or flip-flops on positions they spoke about in their campaign. They say what they need to say to get elected, and then they go govern. They have some, but far from total, accountability to what they claimed.

Second, power changes. When you want to win an election and someone has something they can give you to help you win, your incentives are one way. When you've won and that person can't help you anymore, your incentives are different.

This means it's possible that Trump's relationship with Putin had one aspect before the election, and that it changed after the election. It's not necessary that it changed, but because the incentives are different, it can change, so it may have.

Similarly, There are Two Questions to Ask

The most relevant questions on the table about Trump's relationship with Putin are (both edited thanks to feedback you'll see in comments):

  1. Did Trump or his campaign knowingly coordinate Russian meddling in the election to help Trump win?
  2. Is Trump's loyalty compromised in some way such that he is prone to help Russia at the expense of US interests?

Again, those are two separate questions. One can be a yes, the other can be a no. Both can be yes, both can be no. I won't tell you what I think about either of them other than it seems difficult to decisively prove any answer about either question with the knowledge that is public.

Certain hypotheses have these questions more linked than others. Let's see some common examples:

  • Putin wanted Trump to win in order to weaken/disrupt US foreign policy: This could make "yes, no" and "no, no" both plausible--in this hypothesis, Putin helps Trump win. Perhaps Trump knows about it, or some of his campaign did but Trump didn't, or they don't know about it. But then Putin does not have leverage over Trump after the election.
  • Trump has been blackmailed by Russia: this would link the two, and if it's true, "yes, yes" becomes more plausible. We would need to assess how likely this is based on evidence.
  • Trump's primary motivation is monetary gain, and Russia is providing that piecemeal: This would also make "yes, yes" more likely.
  • Trump promised something to Russia but lied. This makes "yes, no" very likely, if true.
  • The Russians did their own meddling to cause the US to have a divisive election that tore the nation apart and distracted it from Russia's own plans: This would make "no, no" more likely.

Perhaps there are some other plausible hypotheses, but we're going to leave out the Illuminati or Lizard People for now.

But All of These Hypotheses Must be Tested by Evidence!

Did Trump or his Team Work with Russians to Manipulate the US Election?

To answer the first question about the nature of the election, Special Counsel Mueller is conducting an investigation. He has (along with other private investigations) found many connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian Government. A number of people close to Trump and who worked on his campaign have been indicted--a few have plead guilty--to lying about their interactions with Russians or Ukrainians at different times, along with some money laundering, fraud, and other stuff. 

This is smoke. Not like "smoke and mirrors" but "smoke and maybe fire." However, there are no indictments relating specifically to Trump or even any of his associates working directly with the Russians in order to disrupt or meddle with the US election. At least not yet. Of course, Mueller has more work to do. If you really know more about what's going on than has been revealed by the Special Counsel--regarding Trump's innocence or guilt in the matter of meddling with the 2016 election--then please do drop us a line. Until then, the jury is very nearly literally out, and we can't know with much certainty what Trump did or knew. It does seem that we'll learn more as time passes.

Is Trump Personally Loyal to Russia?

How do we test this question? The best we can do, as far as I can tell, is look at what Trump is doing with respect to Russia as policy. Perhaps we can use other presidential behavior as a sanity benchmark, assuming that our recent Presidents themselves were not loyal to Russia.

Early in his term, Trump considered choosing not to enforce sanctions on Russia, but then Congress changed the wording of the bill and forced him to. Why might he do this? Good question. If you've already decided Trump's loyal to Russia, then bingo--he's guilty, because you haven't bothered to think about alternative hypotheses. If you think it's all a Witch Hunt, then you're probably already certain it's all those other alternative hypotheses.

But let's look at some of Trump's more recent behavior with respect to Russia:

I think the Wall Street Journal takes a fairly reasoned approach to summarizing and critiquing Trump's Russia foreign policy, though I don't agree with everything in the article.

If Your Mind is Made Up, the Facts No Longer Matter

Perhaps you think Trump is the Siberian Candidate, and for some reason or another his loyalty is to Moscow. You could explain Trump's foreign policy so far as an elaborate, coordinated cover-up, meant to shake off any suspicion of his true plans to help Russia in the future in some way. You might end up being right, but you fall into the common fallacy where any evidence can be twisted to support your claim, even when it would seem to refute your claim. 

Or perhaps you think that all of this is a big Witch Hunt, and there is a conspiracy by the Deep State to go after Trump. You'd be able to explain away the indictments as corrupt and falsified. The guilty pleas related to lying about contact with Russian/Ukrainian agents were perhaps forced out, or also involved blackmail and bribing, also by said Deep State. Trump's own condemnation of and sanctioning over Russian election meddling somehow shows nothing happened, as well.

I'll maintain my contention that you can only really form a particularly strong opinion on both of the questions above if you have substantially more evidence at your disposal than the rest of the public. But if you're going to stick to your guns on the Siberian Candidate or the Witch Hunt, here's what I want you to reconsider: is there evidence, plausibly available at some point in the future, that would get you to change your mind? What evidence will get you to question the conclusion you made, long ago, before there was much to go on?

If you can't think of much, I've got a book for you to read.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.