We may never know what took place behind closed doors in Helsinki between President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, but we know enough from public pronouncements on both sides to be worried. Very worried. For perhaps the first time in U.S. history, we have a president whose loyalty the American people cannot trust, even in dealing with an adversary. I know there are many conservatives who distrusted President Barack Obama — and I was one who believed that Obama lacked the visceral belief that America has been an unequivocal force for good in the world. But until Trump took office, we'd never had a president who was willing to take the word of a murderous thug over that of his own intelligence community and advisers. Trump has repeatedly done so, and this week's performance was the most blatant.
The president, under nearly universal pressure from his own appointees and Republican members of Congress, has tried to walk back some of his most egregious statements backing Putin's denials of interference in U.S. elections in 2016 and currently, but Trump's efforts have been as laughable as Putin's lies were transparent. As many commentators have noted, Trump's Cabinet room reading of a script that attempted to gloss over as a mere misstatement his acceding to Putin's denials looked and sounded like a hostage tape. It reminded me, as a study in contrasting motives, of former Sen. Jeremiah Denton's televised interview as a POW in North Vietnam during the war. Denton, who was held for eight years, blinked out a message to the world — "T-O-R-T-U-R-E" — in Morse code to alert viewers that he was being forced to condemn U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Trump made sure his body language, stiff delivery and asides telegraphed to Putin that despite the words he was reading, he doesn't believe that Russia tampered with our elections, regardless of the evidence. Denton loved his country; Trump loves himself.
This is a serious charge, but I don't know how one comes to any other conclusion. And Trump's affinity for strongmen does not fully explain his behavior. Nor does his hostility to the media and his resentment of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Even as venal a character as Trump would not sell out his country just to rile up his domestic political foes. Something more must be behind his behavior, though it is not yet clear what it is. Does Putin have kompromat on Trump? Undoubtedly, just as he does on virtually every high-level official who has not led a perfect life. That's what hostile foreign intelligence agencies do when they can; they collect dirt on powerful people that may be useful at some point in the future. But it is hard to believe that Trump's infidelities and sexual antics would be enough to force the president to risk national security rather than have his peccadilloes revealed.
The one thing Trump cares about above all else — and that includes country, I believe — is money. Trump is no business genius, despite what his supporters think. He has gone through multiple bankruptcies and can't borrow money through usual avenues, given his history of not repaying his debts. As with most corruption investigations, "follow the money" is a good rule. Is Trump in debt to Russians who financed his borrowing through third parties? Did he assist in money laundering for Russian oligarchs — selling them properties for cash at inflated values, enabling them to then resell them and "clean" their proceeds, even if they lost money? Does Trump hope to cash in on his relationship with Putin by opening properties in Russia after he is out of office? Would Trump's empire collapse if Russia pulled the rug out by calling in loans or revealing where he and his family members got their money?
Surely, Mueller's investigators are digging deep into these questions, which is why Trump is so intent on shutting it down. Trump may be insulted that many Americans believe he didn't win the election fair and square and got Russia's help. But no doubt what really keeps Trump up at night is not that Mueller will prove collusion but that the special counsel will topple the house of cards that is the Trump fortune.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.