But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad…He struggled with himself, too. I saw it – I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself. – Joseph Conrad, from Heart of Darkness
It feels that President Donald Trump is alone in the political wilderness these days. He is lashing out at both his advisers and the press in interviews and on Twitter. He refuses to follow the advice of his legal counsel, his family, and his staff. Many journalists have begun to question his mental fitness and acumen. The current drama surrounding President Trump and the investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russian oligarchs and the Kremlin is heating up. And though it is true that the script for The Manchurian Candidate has already been written, the sequel, The Manchurian President, is playing out before our eyes as I type these words on my laptop at this very moment. So is Donald Trump the Manchurian president?
In June 16, 2015, Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy. And though few in the media and around the country took him seriously, as he flirted with the idea of running for president many times before, one man did: Russian President Vladimir Putin. The perplexing game of footsy between Trump and Putin started two years prior, when Trump made the following tweet announcing the 2013 Miss Universe pageant: “Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend?”
Trump also indicated in 2013 that he was interested in doing more business in Russia and he was in negotiations to establish a skyscraper in Moscow. In fact, on October 17, 2013, Trump told David Letterman on The Late Show that, “…I’ve done a lot of business with the Russians.” The very next month, at the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, Trump says: “I do have a relationship with Putin and I can tell you that he’s very interested in what we’re doing here. I do have a relationship with him…He’s done a brilliant job in terms of what he represents and who he’s represented”. And upon his return from the overseas pageant, Trump said to Real Estate Weekly, “I have a great relationship with many Russians and almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.” Furthermore, it was reported in 2014 (and aired in an interview on May 5, 2017 on Boston’s public radio station) that Eric Trump, youngest son of President Trump, responded when asked who was funding all of the newly developed Trump golf courses, “Well, we don’t really rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia…We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf and they’re really invested in our programs.” On May 5, 2017, Eric Trump called these claims “categorically untrue” and “complete garbage”.
After announcing his run for the presidency in June 2015, Trump spent the next several months doing radio and television interviews in which he largely praised Putin and his leadership style. He told Bill O’Reilly on September 29, 2015, “I will tell you in terms of leadership, he is getting an ‘A’ and our president is not doing so well.” Amidst all this flattery, Trump’s would-be National Security Adviser, Lt. General Michael Flynn, was invited to sit at Putin’s table for a 10th anniversary gala on December 10, 2015 and earns more than $65,000 from Russian-linked companies in 2015.
Then the lies and denials begin amidst growing Russia speculation. According to a May 22, 2017 letter from Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), when asked about his Moscow appearance, Flynn reportedly told investigators, “I didn’t take any money from Russia, if that’s what you’re asking me.” Similarly, on February 17, 2016, Trump told reporters, “I have no relationship with Putin other than he called me a genius.” Shortly thereafter, the Trump campaign accepts the application of Paul Manafort, who cites in his application that he has assisted rich and powerful business and political leaders in Russia and Ukraine. Next month, Flynn continues to lie, telling investigators that the $65,000 he received was paid by U.S. companies.
During April to November 2016, Flynn and other Trump advisers (including Jared Kushner) exchange at least 18 phone calls and emails with Russian officials, including Kremlin-linked officials such as Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. During this time, Russia’s patent office granted generous extensions for 6 unused Trump trademarks that were set to expire in 2016. In June 2016, Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page mimicked Trump’s praise for Putin by saying during a closed-door meeting with the Prime Minister of India that Putin is a stronger and more reliable leader than President Obama.
Then there is the mysterious meeting between Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and several Russian-linked officials on June 9, 2016, where Donald Trump’s eldest son was almost giddy at the revelation that the Russian officials reportedly had information that would be damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign. Then Jeff Sessions, current Attorney General, spoke with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak privately at a Heritage Foundation event on July 18, 2016 and neglected to mention this on his security clearance form. Similarly, Kushner has forgotten to identify most of his Russian contacts, which has prompted him to update his security clearance form 3 times, with over 100 foreign contacts being added to the form the last time he updated it.
The most recent salacious development in this international saga is that President Trump told the New York Times recently that he would not have chosen former Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General had he known that Sessions was going to recuse himself. There is also speculation that President Trump is considering whether or not to fire Special Investigator Mueller, fueled by his recent suggestion that conflicts of interest exist amongst the investigation staff. However, it is not entirely clear what he meant as he did not elaborate, specify, or provide specific details to support his allegation.
It does appear that President Trump is having a difficult adapting to politics and political life in Washington, D.C. But these recent public remarks suggest that the president believes that it is the duty of the Attorney General to be loyal to him. It is not. The only entity to which the Attorney General is required to be loyal is the United States Constitution. This seems to be a recurring theme emerging from the president: expecting loyalty to him personally, not to the Constitution or the American people. President Trump recently appointed Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director, a position he created and requires to report to him directly. The position of Press Secretary traditionally reported to the Chief of Staff.
Public perception, at its core, comes down to simple biology. Our eyes deceive us with optical illusions. They invent colors, movements, and actions that are too bright, too fast, or too anomalous for our eyes to interpret or process. Similarly, our brains also play tricks on us. When we are unable to fill in information gaps or to establish logical connections or networks, our brains fill in the blank space with assumptions and presumptions. So as long as we do not have the full story – and the only sure thing so far is that we definitely do not have the complete picture – Americans will continue to internalize their own assumptions (and those of their friends and neighbors), rationalize gossip and innuendo, and lend credence to conspiracy and collusion. Perhaps the full story would finally help President Trump find his way out of the political wilderness.
Written By: Brett Zografos (@BrettZografos)