The New Year has brought a torrent of ever-more-frenzied allegations that President Donald Trump has long had a conspiratorial relationship—why mince words and call it “collusion”?—with Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin.
Why the frenzy now? Perhaps because Russiagate promoters in high places are concerned that special counsel Robert Mueller will not produce the hoped-for “bombshell” to end Trump’s presidency. Certainly, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt seems worried, demanding, “The president must go,” his drop line exhorting, “What are we waiting for?” (In some countries, articles like his, and there are very many, would be read as calling for a coup.) Perhaps to incite Democrats who have now taken control of House investigative committees. Perhaps simply because Russiagate has become a political-media cult that no facts, or any lack of evidence, can dissuade or diminish.
And there is no new credible evidence, preposterous claims notwithstanding. One of The New York Times’ own recent “bombshells,” published on January 12, reported, for example, that in spring 2017, FBI officials “began investigating whether [President Trump] had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.” None of the three reporters bothered to point out that those “agents and officials” almost certainly included ones later reprimanded and retired by the FBI itself for their political biases. (As usual, the Times buried its self-protective disclaimer deep in the story: “No evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials.”)
Whatever the explanation, the heightened frenzy is unmistakable, leading the “news” almost daily in the synergistic print and cable media outlets that have zealously promoted Russiagate for more than two years, in particular the Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, and their kindred outlets. They have plenty of eager enablers, including the once-distinguished Strobe Talbott, President Bill Clinton’s top adviser on Russia and until recently president of the Brookings Institution. According to Talbott, “We already know that the Kremlin helped put Trump into the White House and played him for a sucker…. Trump has been colluding with a hostile Russia throughout his presidency.” In fact, we do not “know” any of this. These remain merely widely disseminated suspicions and allegations.
In this cult-like commentary, the “threat” of “a hostile Russia” must be inflated along with charges against Trump. (In truth, Russia represents no threat to the United States that Washington itself did not provoke since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.) For its own threat inflation, the Times featured not an expert with any plausible credentials but Lisa Page, the former FBI lawyer with no known Russia expertise, and who was one of those reprimanded by the agency for anti-Trump political bias. Nonetheless, the Times quotes Page at length: “In the Russian Federation and in President Putin himself you have an individual whose aim is to disrupt the Western alliance and whose aim is to make Western democracy more fractious in order to weaken our ability…to spread our democratic ideals.” Perhaps we should have guessed that the democracy-promotion genes of J. Edgar Hoover were still alive and breeding in the FBI, though for the Times, in its exploitation of the hapless and legally endangered Page, it seems not to matter.
Which brings us, or rather Russiagate zealots, to the heightened “threat” represented by “Putin’s Russia.” If true, we would expect the US president to negotiate with the Kremlin leader, including at summit meetings, as every president since Dwight Eisenhower has done. But, we are told, we cannot trust Trump to do so, because, according to The Washington Post, he has repeatedly met with Putin alone, with only translators present, and concealed the records of their private talks, sure signs of “treasonous” behavior, as the Russiagate media first insisted following the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki in July 2018.
It’s hard to know whether this is historical ignorance or Russiagate malice, though it is probably both. In any event, the truth is very different. In preparing US-Russian (Soviet and post-Soviet) summits since the 1950s, aides on both sides have arranged “private time” for their bosses for two essential reasons: so they can develop sufficient personal rapport to sustain any policy partnership they decide on; and so they can alert one another to constraints on their policy powers at home, to foes of such détente policies often centered in their respective intelligence agencies. (The KGB ran operations against Nikita Khrushchev’s détente policies with Eisenhower, and, as is well established, US intelligence agencies have run operations against Trump’s proclaimed goal of “cooperation with Russia.”)
That is, in the modern history of US-Russian summits, we are told by a former American ambassador who knows, the “secrecy of presidential private meetings…has been the rule, not the exception.” He continues, “There’s nothing unusual about withholding information from the bureaucracy about the president’s private meetings with foreign leaders…. Sometimes they would dictate a memo afterward, sometimes not.” Indeed, President Richard Nixon, distrustful of the US “bureaucracy,” sometimes met privately with Kremlin leader Leonid Brezhnev while only Brezhnev’s translator was present.
Nor should we forget the national-security benefits that have come from private meetings between US and Kremlin leaders. In October 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met alone with their translators and an American official who took notes—the two leaders, despite their disagreements, agreed in principle that nuclear weapons should be abolished. The result, in 1987, was the first and still only treaty abolishing an entire category of such weapons, the exceedingly dangerous intermediate-range ones. (This is the historic treaty Trump has said he may abrogate.)
And yet, congressional zealots are now threatening to subpoena the American translator who was present during Trump’s meetings with Putin. If this recklessness prevails, it will be the end of the nuclear-superpower summit diplomacy that has helped to keep America and the world safe from catastrophic war for nearly 70 years—and as a new, more perilous nuclear arms race between the two countries is unfolding. It will amply confirm a thesis set out in my book War with Russia?—that anti-Trump Russiagate allegations have become the gravest threat to our security.
The following correction and clarification were made to the original version of this article on January 17: Reagan and Gorbachev met privately with translators during their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986, not February, and Reagan was also accompanied by an American official who took notes. And it would be more precise to say that the two leaders, despite their disagreements, agreed in principle that nuclear weapons should be abolished.
Stephen F. Cohen is professor emeritus of politics and Russian studies at Princeton and NYU and author of the new book War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate. This commentary is based on the most recent of his weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War with the host of the John Batchelor radio show. (The podcast is here. Previous installments, now in their fifth year, are at TheNation.com.)