On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA has concluded that the Russian government intervened in the 2016 U.S. election to help Donald Trump win the presidency by providing WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
The most unsettling aspect of this development is how Trump reacted to the news. On Fox News Sunday, Trump cavalierly dismissed the CIA’s conclusion that Russia had intervened on his behalf, saying, “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it.”
Is Trump a Russian Collaborator?
One theory about Trump’s dismissive response to the CIA’s conclusion is that he is collaborating with the Russian government to the detriment of America’s national interests. There is good reason to be concerned that Trump will not resolutely assert America’s interests over Russia’s: Trump has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin; defended Putin against accusations that he has assassinated political adversaries and journalists; and basked in a compliment made by the Russian president. The FBI launched an investigation into former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s Russian business connections. Trump’s National Security Advisor appointee Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn has dined with Putin and is a regular contributor on Russia’s state-owned media entity Russia Today (RT). Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, ExxonMobil Chairman Rex Tillerson, has business ties with Russia and Putin, which have raised concerns even among Republican Senators.
Trump himself has extensive financial ties to the Russian government and its people, including funding from Russian investors for his business ventures. The full extent of Trump’s financial interests in Russia is unknown, because he refuses to release his tax returns.
Trump’s cozy relationship with Russia and his reaction to the latest CIA analysis concerning Russia’s meddling in the election has outraged some Americans. Friday evening, former 2016 independent presidential candidate and CIA operations officer Evan McMullin tweeted that some Republican leaders “put party before country & power before principle[, which] has resulted in one of the worst compromises of U.S. security ever.” McMullin even charged Trump with disloyalty: “It must be clear that Donald Trump is not a loyal American and we should prepare for the next four years accordingly.” Former Congressman Joe Walsh, who famously tweeted “If Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket,” unleashed a Twitter storm calling on Congress to investigate Russian involvement in the election.
Even as some Americans’ distrust of Trump is spiking, the trust among most of his supporters is unwavering. Although there is strong circumstantial evidence that Russia was behind the DNC/Podesta hacks, Trump supporters will continue to believe whatever Trump wants them to believe—and more. More than half of Trump supporters believe it’s probably true that stories about Russian election meddling are conspiracy theories promoted by Hillary Clinton. The belief gap separating those who question Trump’s loyalty and those who are undyingly loyal to him continues to grow.
Is Trump a Useful Idiot?
If Trump is not a Russian collaborator, the question becomes whether or not he is a rube. Originally attributed to Vladimir Lenin, the term “useful idiot” refers to “a person perceived as a propagandist for a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of, and who is used cynically by the leaders of the cause.” Trump may be playing the useful idiot by dismissing questions concerning whether Russia intervened in the election, because he does not want to know the answers.
Trump does not appear to reject the Russian intervention conclusion because he distrusts U.S. intelligence agencies. When Fox News interviewer Chris Wallace inquired whether Trump believes that the intelligence agencies are attempting to undermine his presidency, Trump demurred, suggesting that there is “great confusion” among the intelligence agencies and “Nobody really knows.” Trump did not contend that U.S. intelligence agencies are tainted with political motivations.
More likely, Trump automatically disbelieves any facts or theories that might undermine his agenda or image. If voters believe that he did not win the election fairly, that belief will undermine his ability to govern. Therefore, according to this theory, Trump chooses to disbelieve the CIA’s conclusion, because it is politically inconvenient.
Trump lives in his own reality, which is guided by his ego. In the Fox News Sunday interview, he also claimed to have won a “massive landslide victory” and added that the Democrats were putting the Russian intervention story out “because they suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country.” Trump claimed he won a “massive landslide victory” (it was actually 13th-closest electoral vote margin in history) because it is what he wants to believe and what he wants others to believe. During his presidency, Trump will often make critical decisions based on incomplete information. If every nuanced decision is decided by reference to his ego, that increases the chances foreign governments will manipulate him.
Of course, it’s possible that Trump is not a devious Russian collaborator or a hapless rube. Although his brash, unpredictable, unconventional style is a Trump hallmark, in some situations (particularly the foreign policy context), that approach may prompt concerns that he either doesn’t comprehend a situation or is acting against America’s interests. A conventional response to explosive allegations may be a better path for Trump, because the approach will set minds at ease. President Barack Obama and congressional leaders are taking the conventional approach by ordering an investigation and calling for hearings. Perhaps the politicians have something to teach Trump, after all.