From Russia with love for Donald Trump

Hisham Melhem
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It is the stuff of fiction. The plot is extensive, if outlandish. The theatre on which the protagonists play is as huge as the egos of some of them. By now we know most of the characters, but we have no idea where the narrator is leading us. This is a Russian novel, but certainly it is not in the tradition of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, for while there are many scheming, one-dimensional and diabolical characters, one cannot encounter a single sympathetic hero. The protagonists roam in the underworld but work mostly in the virtual world. Most of the protagonists are driven by deceit, and hubris; their world is one of ceaseless quest for self-aggrandizement, raw power and material riches. The main American protagonist is a Septuagenarian Vulgarian narcissist, more than willing to enter into Faustian deals, who through sheer guile, lies, and thuggery reached the pinnacle of power in his country. The main Russian protagonists is a strong believer and practitioner of hard power, a cold man with boundless ambition, who possesses the kind of brutal cunning that one can only gain by spending long years as a spy lurking in the underground, manipulating people and exploiting their foibles.

The main protagonists play high stakes in New York, Moscow and Washington. Their relationship is partially symbiotic, since it seems the American Protagonist cannot survive without his Russian counterpart. Our man in Moscow plays a complex shadow game of deception; spying and the planting of fake stories to help his counterpart in the United States win a tough contest against an experienced but deeply flawed and uninspiring female opponent. This is in part a spy novel, and a fast paced action thriller, in which enemies are watched, trapped, and their secrets are stolen then leaked for the purpose of defaming them, before the coups de grâce is delivered when their characters are virtually assassinated. The novel explore a new not so brave world, in which a post-truth reality is manufactured, where anti-intellectualism is celebrated as the will of the multitudes, where humanist values are replaced by identity politics and where reason, moderation, and self-control are seen as the values of the weak.

Reality as fiction

Except that this synopsis is the reality of America today.

The least that one could say about the current political landscape in the United States is that it is a surreal tapestry, animated by almost fictional characters capable of dragging the country into nihilistic times. What can one say about a president-elect who is deeply flawed morally and bereft of political maturity and experience, who is being celebrated not only by his disgruntled supporters who want to disrupt the domestic status quo, but also by the leaders of Russia, America’s main and mean adversary, which is bent on changing America’s status quo as the strongest democracy in the world?

Mr. Trump’s affection for Russia and his praise of President Putin has been consistent. Mr. Trump, who is not known for his erudition praised Russia as “hot stuff” and described president Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 as “so smart”

Hisham Melhem

This week was by any measure, a pivotal week in the post Cold War life of the Republic. The nation’s top intelligence agencies issued a remarkably detailed report asserting that Russian president Vladimir Putin has directed a comprehensive campaign of cyberattacks, overt propaganda to spread fake news and lies, the creation of online Guccifer2.0 “persona” and a website, to release the hacked emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and other covert means aimed at enhancing the chances of Donald J. Trump of winning the presidency and vanquishing his opponent Hillary Clinton. The classified version of the report was presented to the president-elect on Friday. It was the first time that Mr. Trump who has been denigrating and mocking the competence of America’s intelligence agencies for months, had the chance to face their leaders. But few hours before he met them, Mr. Trump claimed that the focus on Russian hacking is “a political witch hunt” carried out by his mostly Democratic adversaries.

After the two hour meeting with the most senior intelligence officials in the land, the president-elect appeared to soften his position, conceding in a statement that : “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyberinfrastructure of our governmental institutions, business and organization, including the Democratic National Committee,” but that “ there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.” However, the report which reflected the unanimous assessment of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) stopped short of supporting Mr. Trump’s claim that the Russian hacking activities had no effect on the election. The report was clear in stating that “we did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election”, and concluding that it was beyond the mandate of the intelligence agencies to analyze the “political processes” in the country or the views of public opinion.

To leak or to tweet, that is the question

The report confirmed the cooperative relationship between Russia and WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange who lamely denied that Russia was the source of the DNC emails. The report concluded “with high confidence” that Russia’s military intelligence unit known as the GRU “relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic leaders to WikiLeaks. The report described how Russian intelligence deployed online “trolls” who spread fabricated and damaging news stories to the media particularly through Russia’s propaganda arm RT its English-language news organization which operates in the United States, and to conspiracy theory sites online. The role of RT resurrect the old embarrassing questions about General Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s national security advisor, who was a regular guest on RT’s news programs, and who gave a paid speech in Moscow at RT’s anniversary party, and sat near president Putin.

Hours after his meeting with the intelligence leaders, Mr. Trump went back to true form, and sought to put the blame for the hacking on the Democrats. He posted a twitter message late in the evening claiming that “Gross negligence by the Democratic National Committee allowed hacking to take place.”. Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that the Russian state was waging a cyber campaign against American institutions, Mr. Trump refuses to criticize Russia and continues to act as the aggrieved party, saying in another tweet that the “only reason the hacking of the poorly defended DNC is discussed is that the loss by the Dems was so big that they are totally embarrassed!”.

A day after the release of the intelligence report establishing president Putin’s culpability in the cyber campaign against his country, the Russophile Mr. Trump took to twitter to tout the virtues of Mother Russia as a potential ally to solve the world’s problems. “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only "stupid" people, or fools, would think that it is bad!”

The Russian Romance

Mr. Trump’s affection for Russia and his praise of President Putin has been consistent. Mr. Trump, who is not known for his erudition praised Russia as “hot stuff” and described president Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 as “so smart”. This was long before his race to the White House, during which he welcomed the release of the hacked emails and had the audacity to call on Russia publicly to hack the emails of his Democratic opponent. But why is it that in the face of Russia’s egregious violations of American institutions, Mr. Trump continues to insist that we should ignore these violations and to just “move on”? Some argued that the reasons may be found in Mr. Trump’s admiration of ruthless autocrats like Putin, a man he would like to emulate. Another charitable explanation excuses his views on the grounds of lack of political experience and sophistication. But these explanations are groundless. Mr. Trump’s consistent defense of Russia’s depredations in the Ukraine and Syria, his praise of Putin’s suppression of political dissent inside Russia, and the jubilation of the Duma after Trump’s victory cry out for another interpretation for this strange and sordid love affair. And as the Washington Post said in a recent editorial “darker suspicions persist”.

There are persistent reports in the U.S media that Mr. Trump, who visited the Soviet Union in 1987, has established in the following years relations with Russian oligarchs some of them are close to president Putin, who came to rescue Mr. Trump’s business empire when it was on the verge of collapse on a number of occasions and after U.S. banks refused to provide him with loans. We know that Mr. Trump’s eldest son and namesake has stated on the record that a substantial amount of the family’s business is conducted with Russian entities. We know very little about the nature of the Trump family businesses in Russia, because Mr. Trump still refuses to release his tax returns. According to the New York Times Mr. Trump owes hundreds of millions of dollars to foreign banks. Another dimension of the Russian enigma is the fact that Mr. Trump surrounded himself with advisors and aides who have questionable dealings with Russia and its allies, from General Michael Flynn, to Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and other lesser known aides. One of the president-elect most senior appointees is Rex Tillerson, Trump’s designated secretary of State, who developed a friendship with president Putin during his long tenure as the chairman of Exxon-Mobil, which had extensive business investments in Russia. Mr. Tillerson has opposed economic sanctions on Russia and the president- elect has hinted that he is open to lifting them. President Putin knows that both the President elect and his designated secretary of state will not wax sanctimoniously about the preservation of human rights in Russia or the sanctity of civil society. Mr. Trump’s support for the Brexit initiative in Britain and his criticism of the NATO alliance can only deepen Putin’s appreciation of the president-elect.

The questions and doubts about the president-elect strange attachment to Russia and its president will persist and become more urgent with the passage of time. As the Washington Post asked: are there loans and deals with Russian businesses? Are there hidden communications with Mr. Putin or his representatives? The Post’s editorial concluded “we would be thrilled to see all the doubts dispelled, but Mr. Trump’s odd behavior in the face of a clear threat from Russia, matched by Mr. Putin’s enthusiasm for the president-elect, cannot be easily explained.”

Mr. Trump came, saw and conquered by unorthodox means. There is no reason to believe that he will rule according to established customs and traditions. He will remain faithful to Putin and Russia will continue to shower him with love, at least for the foreseeable future. He will address Americans and the world through twitter storms, and he will not give the Democrats or their leader in the Senate Chuck Schumer whom he called a “clown” the olive branch. We know all that for certain. We also know that Americans and the rest of the world are beginning a season of migration into unknown geography fraught with uncertainty, fear and loathing and that no one knows how long the journey will last.

Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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