In November 1916, in the 27th month of World War I and one year before Lenin came to power, Paul Miliukov, the leader of Russia’s liberal party (the Cadets), addressed his country’s Duma (lower legislative body.) What he asked what was the main explanation for the tsarist government’s catastrophic conduct of the war, was it “stupidity or treason?” (Rumors of treason were rife, but unfounded, because of Empress Alexandra’s German ancestry.)
Now, a century later, that same question, “stupidity or treason?” comes to mind when we read Donald Trump’s latest tweet claim: “Nobody briefed or told” him that Russia had apparently offered bounties to Taliban-linked rebels if they killed U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. On 30 June, Washington Monthly (WM) ran an article entitled “Is Trump Projecting When He Accuses Others of Treason?” Although the Media Bias\Fact Check site lists WM as having a Left-Center orientation, it also rates “them High for factual reporting due to excellent sourcing and a clean fact check record.”
The WM article, by Nancy LeTourneau, begins by stating, “Anyone as sociopathic as Donald Trump engages in projection when attacking their opponents.” It then quotes a Washington Postreport that “Trump has accused no fewer than 12 people and entities of treason over the past three years.” It then asks, “Is the president accusing others of a crime for which he is guilty?” LeTourneau then cites the U.S. Constitution’s definition that “treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” She adds that “sitting back while an adversary targeted the killing of our soldiers on the battlefield would be a classic example of “giving aid and comfort to our enemies.” And then concludes, “If Trump knew about Russia’s bounty on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and did nothing but grant more gifts to Putin, that should trigger an investigation into whether the President of the United States is guilty of treason.”
Reinforcing the suspicion that there is more to Trump’s toadyism to Putin than just sheer stupidity is his record of past behavior toward Putin and Russia.
Reinforcing the suspicion that there is more to Trump’s toadyism to Putin than just sheer stupidity is his record of past behavior toward Putin and Russia. One of the most recent examples of detailing a Trump pattern of toadying up to Putin comes from the web site of Mother Jones (MJ), about which Media Bias\Fact Check writes, “Overall, we rate Mother Jones strongly Left-Center [but] High for factual reporting due to thorough sourcing and a clean fact check record.”
On 29 June the MJ web site featured an article by David Corn entitled “A Question That Won’t Go Away: Why Does Trump Love Putin So Much?” The piece begins by pointing to the obvious answer that in 2016 Putin “ordered a multi-front covert attack on the presidential election that year that was designed in part to help Trump win,” and that “the Kremlin is at it again, attempting to interfere in the 2020 campaign—an action that Trump has not publicly acknowledged or taken measures to thwart.”
But Corn, a respected journalist, who in 2018 co-authored Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, observes that “Trump’s fondness for Putin” was evident already in 2013 when Trump tweeted, “Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant (run by Trump’s Miss Universe Organization)–in November in Moscow–if so, will he become my new best friend?” After commenting on “Putin’s thuggishness,” Corn adds, “Through all the years of his tweeting, Trump has not once referred to any person besides Putin as an actual or possible ‘best friend.’”
Although Putin did not meet Trump at the 2013 Moscow pageant, the Russian leader did send Trump a black lacquered box with a sealed letter inside, the contents of which Trump has never revealed, although commenting “Putin even sent me a present, beautiful present, with a beautiful note.”
Corn speculates that perhaps Trump’s continuing courting of Putin has been “ purely a business matter.” Having unsuccessfully tried to build a Trump tower (skyscraper) in Moscow since 1987, and also failing to sell Trump Vodka in Russia, “Trump may have been buttering up Putin to get his tower in Moscow. But it has often seemed that Trump has a psychological affinity for him—as he does for autocratic rulers around the world.”
After detailing more of “Trump’s fanboy approach to Putin” since 2016, Corn once again mentions Trump’s possible motives including “ many people…saying that Putin has something blackmail-ish on Trump.” Or, Corn asks, “Does Trump believe he can forge some grand geostrategic accord with Putin?” But then he seems to dismiss the possibility—”Trump certainly doesn’t seem to have the attention span or vision for that.” Finally, the journalist concludes, “there is no one key for cracking the Putin code,” but he concludes that “with his refusal to decry Russia’s bounty program, Trump is once again standing by his man.”
Thus, treason remains a possibility. But even more certain is stupidity, which one dictionary defines as “behavior that shows a lack of good sense or judgment,” and provides “foolishness” as a synonym. In mid-2016, I wrote “The Main Problem with Donald Trump: He's a Fool,” and his behavior as president has just reinforced my belief. Seldom as president has he displayed “good sense or judgment.” The main impediment that blocks any sound judgment from him is his collosal egotism. As columnist David Brooks has written, “His vast narcissism makes him a closed fortress. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and he’s uninterested in finding out.”
A biography of him, Trump Revealed (2017), quotes him as writing, “Narcissism can be a useful quality if you’re trying to start a business. A narcissist does not hear the naysayers.” It also indicates that he reads very little and is unconcerned about literature, history, or the arts. Except for his business interests abroad, he evidences little interest in foreign countries or their cultures. More recent revelations, for example in The Room Where It Happened, by Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, confirm much of what the 2017 book revealed. He reports, for example, that Trump did not seem to know that Great Britain was a nuclear power and inquired if Finland was a part of Russia.
Especially pertinent to whether or not Trump was briefed about Russia apparently offering bounties to kill U.S. soldiers is what Bolton says about such briefings. “As it was, Trump generally had only two intelligence briefings per week, and in most of those, he spoke at greater length than the briefers, often on matters completely unrelated to the subjects at hand.” Bolton did not “think these briefings were terribly useful, and neither did the intelligence community, since much of the time was spent listening to Trump, rather than Trump listening to the briefers.”
Perhaps Trump’s mind just refused to accept intelligence reporting that indicated Putin’s Russia paying bounties for killing American soldiers.
Based on reports of how Trump gets his intelligence information—he does not seem to read the President’s Daily Brief, but instead relys on oral summaries—it is certainly possible that he overlooked or dismissed any mention of Russia’s paying bounties to kill U. S. soldiers. (Bolton states that he personally told the president in March 2019 about the accusation.) As one article reported, “getting Mr. Trump to remember information, even if he seems to be listening, can be all but impossible, especially if it runs counter to his worldview, former officials said.” As Corn reported in Mother Jones, Trump is overly inclined to view Putin favorably, and perhaps Trump’s mind just refused to accept intelligence reporting that indicated Putin’s Russia paying bounties for killing American soldiers.
Thus, in answer to our main question—“stupidity or treason?”—Trumpian stupidity (“behavior that shows a lack of good sense”) is certainly a yes. Treason? Maybe! Perhaps our title should read, “Trump’s Russian Policy: Just Stupid or Also Treasonous?”
In Miliukov’s 1916 speech to the Russian Duma, he asked his fellow delegates, “Does it matter, gentlemen, as a practical question, whether we are, in the present case, dealing with stupidity or treason?” In Trump’s case, it does matter in that he could be prosecuted for treason after leaving office—as unlikely as that might be. But stupidity, though perhaps tragic in a president, is not a crime. On the practical level, however, whatever the causal mix, the result should be the same—the defeat of Trump in November 2020.
Walter G. Moss