Last week, Donald Trump lost a critical motion to keep a grand jury in Georgia from hearing evidence about his efforts to strong-arm Georgia election officials into overturning the state’s 2020 election results. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis also indicated that her office has developed evidence of what The Guardian characterizes as a “sprawling racketeering indictment” against Trump for those alleged criminal acts. At the same time, Trump confirmed that he has been designated as a target in Special Counsel Jack Smith’s grand jury investigation of Trump and his cohorts’ activities in instigating, among other things, the violent insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. Coupled with his indictment last month on charges of mishandling, appropriating, and then lying about his possession of classified government documents, these recent developments put Trump in serious jeopardy of a potential—and perhaps quite lengthy—prison sentence.
The character and timing of these multiple prosecutions, all of which will likely be instituted or pending at least a year prior to the November 2024 election (for which Trump continues to be the presumptive Republican nominee), provide Trump with very few realistic options to legally avoid or escape them. They are weighty, serious, and by all appearances, not subject to any quick or summary dismissal. If Trump follows his usual pattern, however, he will make every conceivable attempt to delay the trials until after Jan. 20, 2025, which will afford him an opportunity to resume his occupancy of the White House and have at least the federal charges dismissed by a compliant, hand-picked Justice Department seeded by his own sycophantic appointees.
But before any of those efforts, he absolutely must get himself elected. For Trump, winning in 2024 is now quite literally an existential imperative.
Meanwhile, in Russia, Vladimir Putin is facing his own crisis. Like Trump’s, it is one of his own making. For Putin’s sake, getting Trump reelected is also something of an existential imperative.
These two need each other now, and they’ve never needed each other more desperately since their own survival is literally at stake.
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Putin’s war on Ukraine is going very badly, the Russian economy is being decimated, and his kleptocratic, authoritarian regime is starting to show obvious cracks. One reason is the sheer fierceness and bravery of the Ukrainians in defending their land, but Putin can’t do much about that one. The other factor, however, is the unexpected resilience of NATO and its successful, fairly unified strategy of heavily arming and advising the Ukrainian military forces. Absent some radical change of military fortunes on the battlefield in Russia’s favor, NATO is the one circumstance that Putin has the power to change in order to salvage his misguided war, and probably his regime as well.
Trump has already publicly provided Putin with implicit assurances that if he is reelected, Trump will disparage, defund, and ultimately seek disengagement from NATO, thus crippling that alliance. Part of Trump’s rationale for his pro-Putin and pro-Russia sentiments is doubtlessly payback for the assistance that Russian intelligence provided in helping Trump get elected in 2016. Should Putin again oblige Trump with the full power of Russia’s intelligence and disinformation apparatus in 2024, it is practically certain that Trump will do everything in his power to gratify his Russian patron, including abandoning Ukraine and NATO. Despite some recent Senate backlash, he appears to have a significant degree of support among like-minded members of the Republican Party. Without U.S. leadership propping up NATO, Russia stands a decent chance of reversing the war’s course, and Putin’s survival chances along with it.
Despite the Republican Party’s best efforts to obfuscate or ridicule it through their own media outlets, the magnitude of Russia’s assistance to Trump in 2016 and the complicity of Trump’s campaign in soliciting and accepting that assistance is as unquestionable as it is damning. The treasonous implications of that relationship are, in fact, the reason why Trump so vigorously pushed his insistence that the Mueller investigation found “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia, neatly sidestepping the fact that determining “collusion” (not a legal term) was never the subject of that investigation. It is also the reason why both Trump and his allies invariably followed the word “Russia” with the word “hoax” in their public statements to foster a reflexive reaction of disbelief in the minds of supporters.
In 2016, Trump’s campaign apparatus operated to solidify his Russian contacts through a network of go-betweens and intermediaries, such as then-campaign advisers Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos, and various Russian private citizens with ties to Russia’s intelligence services. It is possible that Trump’s precarious legal position will prompt him to reestablish or reinvigorate those same ties, albeit with a brand new cast of characters for 2024, or at the very least establish some lines of communication with the Putin regime (assuming one is not already in existence). Or the understanding between Trump and Putin may, at this point, be implicit and no such contacts or conversations are even necessary.
Either way, the prospect of another such mutually beneficial collaboration is simply too attractive a proposition to ignore. For both Trump and Putin, the downside is negligible while the potential benefit is incalculable. Both will be able to reap the benefit of a gullible and credulous Republican voter base, one that has already demonstrated its susceptibility to external influence. Both will also have the advantage of a compliant right-wing media juggernaut already predisposed to regurgitate both pro-Russian and anti-Democratic propaganda.
But regardless of whatever “alternative universe” of facts with which Republicans sought to delude themselves and the American public about the interplay between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence surrounding the 2016 election, this country’s intelligence agencies shouldn’t be operating under the same delusion. They should prepare themselves for an even greater onslaught of such interference in 2024 given that sordid history and the fact that the actual, real-life stakes right now for both Trump and Putin are literally unprecedented.
That preparation must extend beyond simply beefing up our existing capabilities to thwart actual, physical election interference, but should include a far more robust public accounting, where possible, of Russian (or any foreign) efforts to directly or indirectly benefit any political candidates in this country, through social media or otherwise. It is not necessary for the Trump 2024 campaign to be singled out, even though it makes the most sense that they would benefit from such meddling. But the simple fact is that Americans have an inherent right to know what hostile foreign influences are working to influence or sway the decisions of any political officials, party, or constituency.
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Trump’s return to the White House is no longer an aspirational goal for Putin, but an operational necessity: If he is to survive his Ukraine debacle, he has to find a way to weaken NATO. His only way to do that effectively within the limited time he has available is by getting Trump reelected. Likewise, despite Republican pronouncements to the contrary, Trump’s own path to reelection must now find a way to circumnavigate the existence of multiple messy indictments and two prior impeachments. He needs an assist that no one except Putin, with his vast and proven disinformation networks, can provide.
And that is simply too glaring a fact for any of us to ignore.
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