The editor of Politico Magazine writes that recent events have “nullified” his previous skepticism of the claim that President Trump “secretly colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 election.” Now he is willing to assign a much higher probability to the thought — the closing thought in his article — that Trump “can’t admit that Moscow tried to put him in the Oval Office because he’s under strict instructions not to.”
Hounshell’s case against skepticism deserves consideration. But it also deserves some skepticism of its own. So, for example, Hounshell has abandoned his previous argument that the Trump team would have been unable to keep a secret as big as that it had colluded with Russia. Among his reasons for abandoning it: “How about the fact that Brett Kavanaugh’s name didn’t leak out as Trump’s latest Supreme Court pick until minutes before the announcement?”
This is a bad comparison. The fact that Judge Kavanaugh was a leading contender was known before Justice Anthony Kennedy had even announced his retirement. During the selection process, any time any plugged-in reporter named the contenders, he was one of them. (He was the only potential nominee who was consistently in the list.) Trump seems to have gotten firmer in his preference for Kavanaugh in the day or two before the July 9 announcement, but nobody would have been shocked if he had changed his mind — or changed it and then changed it back — on July 8 or even 9. So what failed to leak was the certainty that it was going to be Kavanaugh, and that certainty may not have existed for more than a few hours. Keeping “secret collusion” secret would be a much more complicated undertaking.
Hounshell also thinks that Trump’s pro-Putin line has inflicted great political damage to him, which “suggests either that he is possessed by an anomalous level of conviction on this one issue, despite his extraordinary malleability on everything else — or that he’s beholden to Putin in some way.” Yet President Trump says and does things that seem to cause him political damage all the time. His first few takes on the violence in Charlottesville, and his failure to do a quick clean-up, hurt him in the polls for a while and drew widespread condemnation from people who are usually allies. His tariffs are complicating his messaging about the good economy, inflicting damage on a significant part of his base, and dividing him from a lot of his fellow Republicans. Yet he has (alas) been pretty consistent on the issue, because it is one of the issues on which he seems to have pretty strong predispositions.
What makes Hounshell’s argument especially odd is that he seems to lose track of what it is. He allows that Trump might not be an asset of Russian intelligence or be subject to some kind of sexual blackmail by the Kremlin. He writes, “As Julia Ioffe posits, the kompromat could well be the mere fact of the Russian election meddling itself.” Here’s how Ioffe concludes her article: “Putin knows his subject and his supple psychology, the nooks and crannies of his insecurities and obsessions. Why threaten him when you can get him to do your bidding with simple flattery: Of course we didn’t interfere, Donald. You won fair and square. You did it all by your genius self” (emphasis in original). And now we’re back to . . . the election-pride theory that Hounshell was just discounting a few paragraphs before! Ioffe presents the pride theory, reasonably, as an alternative to theories that include secret collusion. The relevant information, she explains, has been out in public all along.
My own judgment of the probabilities at the moment is that Trump’s Russia-related policies reflect a mix of motives that heavily features his unwillingness to concede that anything other than the brilliance and appeal of his campaign explains his election. I could be wrong and the possibilities Hounshell mentions could be right. But I am unconvinced by his argument for them.