My Turn: Trump is tangled in Russia ties

  • Donald Trump smiles as supporters cheer during a news conference at the Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., on June 7. AP file

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) is shown in this Oct. 28, 2013, file photo. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 8/3/2016 12:25:06 AM

(This is the first of two parts.)

In the unorthodox presidential campaign of 2016, Donald Trump has emerged as the most accommodating American politician toward Russia since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president, Henry Wallace.

In 1944, on a goodwill tour of the Soviet Union, then a wartime ally, Wallace famously visited one of Stalin’s most brutal forced-labor colonies in the Siberian Kolyma.

Here, a credulous Wallace found what he believed was an idyllic place of forests and lakes, bursting with the can-do pioneering spirit of the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority.

Asserting that “Soviet guided democracy is changing” just as American free-enterprise democracy was evolving – as if the two systems were comparable – Wallace, whom FDR dumped as his 1944 running mate in favor of Harry Truman, later urged the U.S. to abandon the East European and Baltic countries the Soviet Union was proceeding to occupy as the war ended.

“We have no more business in the political affairs of Eastern Europe,” Wallace declared in a speech at Madison Square Garden in 1946, “than Russia has in . . . Latin America.”

Donald Trump hasn’t yet reached this level of friendly accommodation with Russia, but he’s on track.

“I’ll get along very well with Putin,” Trump has said, calling the Russian president “a stronger leader than ours” and a “better leader than Obama.” When Putin returned the praise, calling Trump a “colorful and talented person,” Trump thanked him for the “honor” and promptly upgraded Putin’s measured compliment to “genius.”

Abandoning decades of bipartisan foreign policy, Trump has dismissed NATO as “obsolete” and said as president he couldn’t be sure he’d defend the NATO-member Baltic states from a Russian invasion.

He’s thrown Ukraine under the bus. In his only foreign policy speech so far, in New York in April – conspicuously attended by Russia’s U.S. ambassador – Trump ignored Russia’s armed annexation of Crimea in 2014, the proxy war it still fuels in eastern Ukraine, and the sanctions the West imposed in response.

In the unlikely event Russia missed these friendly signs, Trump said in a July 27 news conference that as president he would consider lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia and recognizing its seizure of Ukrainian territory. “We’ll be looking at that,” he said. “Yeah, we’ll be looking.”

Henry Wallace eventually admitted he’d been duped by the Soviets and recanted, as the memoirs of surviving prisoners filtering out to the west revealed Kolyma as a place of unspeakable hardship and death for hundreds of thousands.

What explains Donald Trump’s channeling of Henry Wallace?

Money, for one. He and his family have spent 30 years cultivating Russian politicians and like-minded oligarchs in quest of deals, including repeated (as yet unsuccessful) plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. When he brought the Miss Universe contest to Moscow in 2013, Trump boasted that “almost all the oligarchs were in the room,” and tweeted an invitation to Putin to join them. Putin was scheduled to attend, according to the Washington Post, but canceled at the last minute, sending a traditional lacquered box and a warm note.

Trump has lately denied having any business relations at all with Russia – contradicting his own son’s testimony.

“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Jr. told a real estate conference in 2008, as reported by eTN, an online trade publication. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

As Trump’s ties to Russia have become increasingly controversial, he tweeted indignantly on July 26, “I have ZERO investments in Russia.” But Donald Jr. indicated the money was flowing the other way: From Russia to Trump, suggesting the possibility of an as-yet unknown extent of financial dependence.

What is known, according to a Bloomberg News report of July 19, is that Trump’s total debt has nearly doubled since last year to $630 million. Bloomberg said a little more than half the $280 million increase came from a Deutsche Bank loan, but where the rest came from is unclear.

“I never met Putin. I don’t know who Putin is,” Trump claimed in response to a question at his long-rambling news conference on July 27.

Not true, according to Donald Trump, who said in a video-taped appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on May 27, 2014: “I was in Moscow recently and I spoke, indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer, and we had a tremendous success.”

Months ago, Mitt Romney suggested that Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns hid an embarrassing “blockbuster.” Conservative commentator George Will told Fox News on July 26 that one reason Trump still refuses to release his tax returns may be that “he is deeply involved in dealing with Russian oligarchs and others.”

(Tomorrow: Team Trump’s Russia connections.)

(Robert Gillette of Ossipee is a former Moscow and East European correspondent for the “Los Angeles Times” and served as director of broadcasting at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich and Prague.)

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