MOSCOW – US President-elect Donald Trump seems determined to revive a forgotten Hollywood genre: the paranoid melodrama. Perhaps the greatest film in this genre, The Manchurian Candidate, concerns a communist plot to use the brainwashed son of a leading right-wing family to upend the American political system. Given the fondness that Trump and so many of his appointees seem to have for Russian President Vladimir Putin, life may be about to imitate – if not exceed – art.
To be sure, the attraction for Putin that Trump, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn share is not the result of brainwashing, unless you consider the love of money (and of the people who can funnel it to you) a form of brainwashing. Nonetheless, such Kremlinophilia is – to resurrect a word redolent of Cold War paranoia – decidedly un-American.
Consider the derision shown by Trump and his posse for CIA reports that Kremlin-directed hackers intervened in last month’s election to benefit Trump. In typical fashion, Trump let loose a barrage of tweets blasting the CIA as somehow under the thumb of his defeated opponent, Hillary Clinton. His nominee for Deputy Secretary of State, John Bolton, went even further, suggesting that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, was a “false flag” operation designed to smear an innocent Kremlin.
The idea that a US president-elect would take the word of the Kremlin over that of CIA officials and even the most senior members of his own party is already bizarre and dangerous. But the simultaneous nomination of Tillerson – the long-time CEO of ExxonMobil, America’s most powerful energy company, which has tens of billions of dollars invested in Russia – to be America’s top diplomat takes this love affair with a major adversary to a level unprecedented in US history.
For Tillerson, taking Russia’s side against the US is nothing new. Consider the sanctions that the US and Europe imposed on Russia in response to the country’s annexation of Crimea – a blatantly illegal act – in 2014. Instead of supporting US policy, Tillerson belittled it. Instead of fully honoring President Barack Obama’s call for ExxonMobil not to send a representative to the annual Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum after the annexation, Tillerson cynically sent the head of one of ExxonMobil’s international operations. And instead of returning the Order of Friendship that he received from Putin months before the invasion of Crimea, Tillerson continues to celebrate his status as a “friend of Vladimir.”
Flynn, like Tillerson, has also been feasting at the Kremlin trough. After being fired by Obama for his incompetent management of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn immediately began to cultivate Russian business contacts. And Putin seems to have been more than happy to see that commercial doors were opened to Flynn. There is a now-infamous photograph of Flynn seated next to Putin at a banquet for RT (Russia Today), the Kremlin-backed cable news network that was a prime source of the slanted, and even fake, news that inundated the US during the recent election campaign.
As for Trump, statements made by his sons suggest that, if the American public ever got a look at his tax returns and business loans, they would find that he has also been feathering his nest with Kremlin gold for some time. He has undoubtedly taken money from countless Russian oligarchs. In 2008, he unloaded one of his Palm Beach mansions on Dmitry Rybolovlev, a fertilizer oligarch, for $95 million. Sergei Millian, who heads the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, is said to have facilitated countless investments from Russians into Trump projects. For Trump, no money is too tainted to pocket.
Trump’s adoration of Russia – or, more accurately, Russian riches – was apparent well before Americans went to the polls, as was his habit of surrounding himself with likeminded advisers. For months, Trump’s presidential campaign was run by Paul Manafort, a political operative who had worked to secure the disgraced President Viktor Yanukovych’s victory in Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election. Trump severed public ties with Manafort only after Ukraine’s current democratic government revealed documents that hinted at the millions of dollars that Yanukovych had paid Manafort, in cash.
As Trump’s inauguration draws near, Americans must confront three big questions. One, in a sense, is a take on a question that Trump raised about Clinton during the campaign: what happens if the FBI finds evidence of criminal conduct by the president? Or, perhaps more likely in Trump’s case, what happens if the president tries to shut down FBI investigations into his commercial activities involving Russia, or into the actions of cronies like Manafort?
The second question, which the US Senate should ask before confirming Tillerson as Secretary of State, concerns the extent of his and ExxonMobil’s financial interests in Russia. The Senate should also probe how closely Tillerson has cooperated with Igor Sechin, the chairman of Rosneft and a notorious ex-KGB operative, particularly in renationalizing much of the Russian oil industry and placing it under Sechin’s personal control. (Similar questions should be asked about Flynn, though, because the National Security Adviser doesn’t need to be confirmed by the Senate, little can be done about his appointment.)
The biggest question of all concerns the American people. Are they really willing to accept a president who denounces men and women who risk their lives to defend the US, and equally quick to praise and defend Putin and his cronies when their reckless, even criminal, conduct is exposed?
At the end of The Manchurian Candidate, another brainwashed character – Frank Sinatra’s Marco – escapes his programming to foil the communist plot. But that was Cold War Hollywood: of course the good guys won. Trump the Movie is unlikely to end so well.
Nina L. Khrushcheva is Professor of International Affairs and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at The New School and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.