David Frum

The enigma of the Trump-Putin story

The enigma of the Trump-Putin story
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Donald Trump’s Washington is a city of many secrets, but no mysteries. So much about the Trump-Putin story remains unknown, and possibly will never be known. But the fundamentals have never been concealed. In order to help elect Trump as US president, Russian operatives engaged in a huge and risky espionage and dirty tricks operation. Trump and his team publicly welcomed and gratefully accepted help from WikiLeaks, widely regarded as a front for Russian intelligence. Trump surrounded himself with associates and aides, including a campaign chairman and a national security adviser, who had in the past received pay from Russian state TV and pro-Putin oligarchs.

In the wake of the election, US foreign policy has radically deviated from its post-1945 norms — and aligned itself instead with Putin’s preferences on a troubling range of issues. Trump’s fundamental political idea is that the best defence is a thumb-in-the-eyeball offence. His team argues (and powerful pro-Trump media have taken up the argument) that the real scandal is not anything they did, but that the outgoing Obama administration spied on them. It’s a bold update of the old joke about the man who kills his parents and pleads for mercy because he is an orphan: Americans are entitled to privacy when they communicate with hostile foreign espionage organisations.

It’s a defence that raises another set of troubling questions. Team Trump’s self-defence seems to be built on yet another impropriety — or worse. It looks as if one of the Trump political appointees to the National Security Council used his access to state secrets to spy in his turn on the FBI investigation of Team Trump’s communications with Russia. If true, a new abuse-of-power scandal may overtop the pre-existing espionage scandal. What one can say definitively is there is no near-term prospect of the administration settling into normality. Washington for the visible future will be consumed by a John le Carré-style ‘mole hunt’, in which the hunters are also the hunted — and amid thickening suspicion that the chief mole occupies the Oval Office.

This is an extract from David Frum's Diary, which appears in this week's Spectator