When Donald Trump slithered down that escalator in 2015 to announce he was running for president, he brought with him two decades of connections to Russia. By the time the primaries were winding down, he’d acquired a collection of staff and advisers who were not just Russophiles, but fans of autocrat Vladimir Putin. Chief among them were Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Michael Flynn.
Manafort was brought on as campaign chair in March 2016. At the time, his most recent political experience was working to put a Russian puppet regime at the head of Ukraine. Manafort arranged fake rallies against NATO (giving Russia an excuse to seize Crimea), and rushed through a treaty on oil and gas access before his puppet leader had to run for Moscow ahead of a real uprising. As it became clear that Manafort might still be on the Russian payroll, and it became clear that Manafort had violated rules against unregistered foreign lobbyists, Trump’s campaign began to take hits. On August 17, Trump said that Manafort was there to stay. Two days later, he accepted Manafort’s resignation.
Carter Page was one of five foreign policy advisers named by Trump in March 2016—the same month Manafort came on board. Page was a frequent guest on Russian state media, a harsh critic of U.S. policy, and had a personal stake in Russian oil and gas interests worth millions if sanctions could be lifted. Page’s multiple appearances in Moscow and his effusive praise of Putin brought public scrutiny, and in September word leaked that the CIA was investigating his Russian connections. Soon after, Page decided to “take leave” of his position in the Trump campaign.
Michael Flynn was forced out of the Defense Intelligence Agency after his overbearing, chaotic management style brought him into conflict with … everyone. He then formed a consulting firm that worked for Turkish autocrat Recep Erdoğan. He began to make regular appearances on Russia’s state-controlled RT and in 2015 went to Moscow and was seated next to Putin at an RT gala. Like Page, Flynn gave a paid talk critical of U.S. policy. In February 2016, two weeks before Manafort took the helm, Flynn joined the Trump campaign as an adviser (and was considered as a running mate). Flynn frequently railed against President Obama and not only led the “lock her up” chant against Hillary Clinton, but tweeted links to fake news stories about Clinton generated by Russian sources. He was named Trump’s nominee for National Security Adviser on Nov. 18, 2016, after which he not only had his now infamous series of discussions with the Russian ambassador, but also met with Austrian neo-nazi leader Heinz-Christian Strache, whose party has signed a cooperative agreement with Putin. In January, acting Attorney General Sally Yates notified Trump that Flynn may have been acting under pressure from Moscow. Trump kept Flynn, and fired Yates. On February 13, Flynn resigned as National Security Adviser.
Manafort is gone. Page is gone. Flynn is gone.
That leaves one major figure in the Trump regime who has multiple connections to Russia, who has made multiple statements praising Vladimir Putin, who has made multiple visits to Moscow, who has appeared on Russian media, who has strong financial ties to Russia, who has talked repeatedly of lowering the sanctions that would give Russia a windfall of oil and gas profit.
His name is Donald Trump.
From the beginning, there have been those who have hurried to dismiss or even defend Trump’s connections with Russia. Trump is a businessman. Of course he crosses paths with the wealthy and powerful, which certainly includes Russian oligarchs and Vladimir Putin. Any discussion of Russia is also sure to gather eye-rolling comments on “new McCarthyism,” as if there’s some connection between Putin’s autocratic serfdom and the communist witch hunt of the 1950s.
But it’s increasingly obvious that Russia is the only story that frightens Trump. It’s been that way from the beginning. Any time the media has begun to focus too closely on Trump’s association with Russian crime bosses, his previous statements of a personal connection to Putin, or his son’s acknowledgement that a large portion of their funds were coming from Russia, Trump has tossed out a fresh outrage to divert the media.
But Trump has claimed a past personal relationship with Putin, including meeting him in person and speaking with him by phone.
Trump was saved from bankruptcy by an infusion of Russian funds that propped up his failing business and allowed him to maintain a facade of “wealth.” Afterward, Trump lied about the scope of these connections.
Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, expressing admiration for his “strength” and even his actions in Ukraine. Trump’s association with Putin was so great that he equated sanctions against Russia with an attack on Donald Trump.
Trump did intervene in the Republican Party platform to weaken language defending Ukraine against Russian aggression—the only change in the whole platform that Trump’s team made, and one that was said to come personally from Trump.
Trump did directly invite Russian involvement in the campaign, did make extensive use (and distortions) of the Wikileaks material to attack Hillary Clinton, did publicly appeal to Putin to hack Clinton’s email, did repeatedly deny that Russia was involved in the hacking even as he was benefiting from that involvement and even after receiving intelligence reports.
It’s not that Trump is the only one remaining on his team with connections to Russia. Far from it. Among others is Rex Tillerson, an oil company CEO who came out of nowhere to be Trump’s secretary of state. He assumed his role almost entirely on his reputation for making a $500 billion deal with Putin that can only be completed if the United States drops existing sanctions.
And then there’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, whose white nationalist philosophy slots Putin into the role of the Great Leader who will fulfill Bannon’s desire for smashing existing institutions—like NATO—while also protecting white Europe against invasions from Muslims. Bannon’s Breitbart is a hotbed of Putin love.
Trump isn’t quite alone as the last White House Putin fan … but his personal connections to Russia are no longer overshadowed by those of Manafort, or Carter, or Flynn. And the truth is that Trump has been at least as blatant as Manafort, at least as offensive as Carter, at least as deceptive as Flynn. There’s no need to get distracted in going after Tillerson or Bannon or others …
Just get Trump.