What Does It Mean to Call Trump Vladimir Putin's Puppet?

He ran an 'America First' campaign, but Russia may be a close second.

Getty Images / Sean Gallup

Hillary Clinton, during the third presidential debate between herself and Donald Trump, levied the suggestion that Trump was actually functioning as a political puppet for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It came along with an exchange in which Trump vehemently denied that Russia was behind the hacking of the DNC and subsequent leaking of information to WikiLeaks, which occurred over the summer. Trump’s stubbornness in the face of Clinton’s repeated condemnations became one of the debate’s more memorable moments. Clinton’s words were, in response to Trump saying that Russian leader Vladimir Putin had no respect for her, that Putin would “rather have a puppet as president.”

At the time, it was a decent debate zinger for Clinton to throw out, and it of course drew denial and deflection from Trump. But suddenly, in light of recent developments, Clinton’s words have taken on a disturbingly prophetic quality. The notion that Trump may in fact be a “puppet president” is gaining traction amidst his refusal even to acknowledge the possibility that Russia was behind the hacks. As former CIA chief Michael Morell put it, “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” Whether he knows it or not, Trump is acting in Russia’s best interest.

Over the weekend, news heated up once again about alleged Russian interference in the presidential election. Spurred on in large part by a new CIA report in which the agency concludes that Russia meddled in order to help Trump win, President Obama has ordered a full review of possible Russian hacking in American elections. Trump’s camp, meanwhile, has doubled down on its assertions that all claims of Russian interference are debunk. This despite what multiple federal agencies are calling overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Trump’s strategy of denial has done little to bolster the argument that he is, as he said in the debate, “No puppet.”

Looking back, the idea itself that Trump may actually be Putin’s puppet, isn’t all that new. Back in July, Slate published an in-depth look at the history of Trump’s relationship with Putin and the country of Russia at-large. It’s one that turns out to be fraught with praise and lavish business deals. On multiple occasions, Trump has taken the opportunity to express his admiration for Putin and disdain for the current position of the Untied States. He did so in 2013 when Putin penned an op-ed for The New York Times in which he addressed the American people and issued sharp criticism of American exceptionalism.

This wouldn’t even be the first time Trump has sought to do business with America’s rivals. BuzzFeed reported that, in 2009, Trump made attempts to become friendly with the late Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. That he would try to cozy up to Putin should come as no surprise.

Throughout his business and political career, Trump has shown little regard for established norms in international relations — evidenced even now by his recent phone call with the Taiwanese president, and statements that he doesn’t “know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” Consequently, he also displays a lack of concern for why America should be interested in preserving those norms. To disagree with them is one thing. To disregard them is another.

Putin, meanwhile, has a history of propping up political groups in rival countries that express little interest in things like international aid or the NATO alliance. Leaders who fit that bill, like former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, have benefited personally from gifts and praise from Putin. In exchange for that support, Putin gets a government that is, whether by intentional collusion or conveniently aligned perspectives, disinterested in pursuing a foreign policy that conflicts with Russia’s goals.

Much the same could be said of President-elect Trump. To say he is Putin’s puppet is not necessarily to accuse him of full-on collaboration with the Russian president, but to point out the likelihood that Putin has identified him to be another such individual who may inadvertently advance Russian interests. If Trump was serious in his campaign about promises to draw down U.S. involvement in NATO, it would mean less opposition to Russia in places like Syria and Eastern Europe. In effect, with his distrust of organizations like the CIA, Trump is playing right into Putin’s hands.

Over the weekend, still more evidence was presented that points to this eventuality. It was included in the CIA’s report that Russia also hacked the RNC, but did not release any emails or information. ABC News reports that the hack could be “an attempt to look like Russians are bipartisan in their espionage.” They could also be saving that information for manipulation later on. Reince Priebus, former head of the RNC and Trump’s new chief of staff, continued to deny that the U.S. Intelligence Community was certain that Russia was behind the hacks. While in fact, all 17 intelligence agencies signed on to a statement which said definitively that Russia was behind them.

There was also the announcement that, in an apparent snub of Mitt Romney, Trump has chosen Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. Tillerson, The Wall Street Journal reports, is a “a seasoned deal-maker whose close ties to Vladimir Putin and other world leaders could redefine American interests abroad.” Trump’s transition team has once again poo-pooed these connections as merely circumstantial. But Tillerson’s nomination casts yet another layer of suspicion that America may indeed be facing a President Puppet, with Putin holding firmly to his strings.

As of this week, even the Electoral College has taken notice, and is demanding to be be kept abreast of the investigation as it unfolds. Trump may say he has no problem with Russia, but, increasingly, American politicians from both parties beg to differ.

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