Donald Trump’s attitude toward Russia is the great enigma of our political moment.
Why does the president stubbornly refuse to acknowledge Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and hold it accountable for its actions? Why does he never say a negative word about Vladimir Putin? Why does he keep trying to end the Russia investigation? After special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals for election interference on Friday, why did he spend the weekend attacking Barack Obama, Adam Schiff, the FBI, his national security adviser, and Hillary Clinton — and never once mentioned Moscow or Putin?
Trump’s most strident opponents would argue it’s because he’s guilty as sin. His tweets are the political equivalent of flop sweat. As the argument goes, Trump actively colluded with the Russian government to win the 2016 election. His efforts to stymie the FBI and special counsel’s investigation into the Russia matter are direct evidence of his guilt. Some — like Jonathan Chait of New York magazine — argue that the Russians have blackmail leverage over Trump.
I don’t dismiss any of these suppositions, but I still have doubts. At Politico, Blake Hounshell captures some of my skepticism — the “slapdash” nature of the Trump campaign, the mediocrities like Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, who appear to have been involved in the collusion effort, and the fact that, in a remarkably porous Trump inner circle, no information that suggests that an active conspiracy was afoot has leaked out. There’s also my belief in Trump’s Razor, which posits that, when it comes to the president and his cronies, the dumbest, most corrupt, least ethical explanation is probably the best one.
Sarah Kendzior, who writes on US politics, perhaps put it best on Twitter: “One doesn’t need to be a genius to engage in corruption or crime. There is a gray area between mastermind and fool, and Trump inhabits it.”
But I can’t shake the notion that there’s a simpler explanation for Trump’s behavior: ego.
Consider the president’s angry tweetstorm over the weekend, in which he once again suggested that the Russia investigation is simply an excuse that Democrats use to explain losing the 2016 election. Then he said this: “But wasn’t I a great candidate.”
Back in January Trump said something very similar, “You always say she was a bad candidate,” Trump said to reporters in reference to Hillary Clinton. “You never say I was a good candidate. I was one of the greatest candidates.”
So much of Trump’s ego is wrapped up in his having won the presidency when no one thought he could.
When you consider that everything Trump does or says is about inflating, validating, or affirming his outsized image of himself it’s not hard to imagine that he views the Russia investigation as an attack against him personally — and as a direct effort to delegitimize his win. If Russia meddled in the campaign, it means that he didn’t necessarily win because he’s a great candidate with a great strategy. For Trump, anyone questioning the crowning achievement of his life is a stinging blow.
Along the same lines, maybe the Russians are blackmailing Trump or maybe he doesn’t want to upset a key source of financial support. But it’s also possible that Trump decided early on that he would take a more conciliatory position toward Moscow and that all the criticism he receives for it makes him dig in even deeper. To get tough with Russia would, in effect, prove he was wrong about Putin.
Of course, Trump not recognizing Russia’s election meddling because it would delegitimize his win doesn’t mean he didn’t actually collude with the Russians. With Trump, reality is fleeting. Even if there was a conspiracy with Russia, would any of us truly be surprised if Trump has convinced himself that it didn’t actually happen?
Still explaining away Trump’s obstinacy on Russia as merely a function of his ego is hardly a defense. In some ways it’s actually worse, because it means that Trump’s sole reason for failing to hold Russia accountable and protect US elections from future meddling is that doing so would give him a sad.
By this “defense,” which again is the most charitable possible take on Trump and Russia, the president’s insecurity is a greater predictor of policy than little things like upholding the Constitution, safeguarding elections, and protecting US national security. This is perhaps what is so troubling about Trump and Russia: No matter where the truth lies, and no matter if Trump is somehow exonerated in the Russia probe, he will always allow US policy toward Russia to be dictated more by his ego than what’s best for America. One doesn’t have to believe that Trump colluded with Russia to realize that’s a serious problem for America.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.