Day 6

'A plausible theory of mind-boggling collusion': Jonathan Chait tests the case for Trump as Russian asset

Writer Jonathan Chait says the Trump-Putin summit could be "a meeting between a Russian-intelligence asset and his handler."

What if Donald Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987?

(Mikhail Klimentyev/Getty Images, Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has admired Vladimir Putin, and his tweets can attest to that.

But, a recent article by Jonathan Chait suggests that the Trump-Putin relationship goes far deeper than mere admiration. Coupled with Trump's ties to Russia and the indictments people close to him have received, Chait suggests the question to ask is: What if Trump has been a Russian intelligence asset since 1987?

Trump and Putin are set to meet in Finland on Monday for a summit, which may shed light on the nature of the relationship — or not.

Jonathan Chait put it all into perspective speaking with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Cars pass by a billboard showing then-U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin placed by pro-Serbian movement in Danilovgrad in November 2016. (Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images)

Brent Bambury: You've written that Monday's summit meeting should not be seen as a negotiation between two world leaders, but rather as a meeting between a Russian intelligence asset and his handler. Are you arguing that Donald Trump, president of the United States, is knowingly and willingly an intelligence asset for Vladimir Putin?

Jonathan Chait: I don't know. What I'm trying to argue is that we've been assuming all along that the Russia scandal goes just a little bit further than what we can see at any given time. And what we can see at any given time has gotten deeper and deeper. Initially, when the news of Russia hacking the Democratic emails broke, the news stories asserted either that Russia was doing nothing in the election at all or ignored that possibility altogether and assumed they just wanted to gain information about the candidates.

I'm arguing that we're erring if we assume that it's only going a little further. It may well, in fact, and that's probably the most likely possibility. But to ignore the minority of outcomes that are sort of on the ends of the extreme can be an analytic error. We should look at what the information we have tells us about Trump, what we don't know, and where it could be leading us.

I don't know how far it goes. I don't think Trump is controlled — like he's not a Russian spy, but is he being influenced and manipulated? Figures like John Brennan, the head of the CIA, said, 'Yes, Vladimir Putin has something over Donald Trump, he has some secret blackmail leverage.' That's someone who would be in a position to know something like this so I think we should take that seriously.

He's [not] speaking Russian with Vladimir Putin. He doesn't hum the Russian national anthem to himself at night before he goes to sleep.- Jonathan Chait

BB: You quote CIA Director John Brennan, saying that people who have been cultivated by Russia might not even realize it. Why do you think that's significant in this case?

JC: [Brennan] said that, and he also said more directly that Vladimir Putin has something over on Donald Trump. It's significant because, on at least two occasions, European intelligence agencies overheard Russians talking about the Trump campaign in what they felt [were] private conversations and briefed Brennan on what they had learned. We don't know exactly what they said and we don't know how credible these sources are. But clearly, Brennan was alarmed by what he heard. That's one of the many pieces of information I assemble in this story that I think presents the possibility of a much darker picture than has been discussed.

BB: Well, I mean, Brennan believes that Trump is afraid of Vladimir Putin and that seems to be such an odd dynamic. How could the most powerful person in the world, the president of the United States, be afraid of somebody else? How would that evidence ever be leveraged against him if there is something that he has over him?

JC: That's a very good question. Russia's economy is the size of Italy's. Trump shouldn't be afraid. It could be financial leverage. Trump is obviously very reluctant to disclose his financial information. Every presidential candidate for 40 years has published his tax returns. Trump has refused to do that. So, obviously, he's got something to hide about his finances and Russia has a lot to do with his finances.

Trump is also very private about his sexual information. He's paid non-disclosure agreements to women. He has sexual secrets that he wants to keep and Russia is in the business of gathering [sexually] compromising information on foreign dignitaries. They spring honey traps on people who visit Russia — that's what Russia does. We don't know that Trump did that. But that's a very lively possibility for what could be happening.

Trump and Putin shake hands during the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany in 2017. (Marcellus Stein/Associated Press)

BB: In your article, you are critical of American media for not being more open to this possibility. But you don't have evidence that confirms the theory. So, why do you think this kind of speculation —

JC: I would say I have evidence, but I don't have proof. There's a big difference between those two things.

BB: OK, you don't have proof that closes the circle here.

JC: Right.

BB: So, why do you think it's useful to bring this forward now?

JC: You know, I don't want to necessarily criticize the media. I think the media's doing a pretty good job. There's been just an absolute blizzard of scoops in individual bombshells that have come along for about two years now and sometimes it's just very difficult to keep track of all these things.

I've been filing them away the entire time for this story. As I've gone through to find them, I discovered some of the stories that came out six months or a year ago. It's a revelation to me even though I was stunned when I saw it. I forgot about it because so many more things have come out.

Part of the problem is simply compiling all this information and trying to put it together and see where it goes. I don't think that's been done so well before. It's a hard thing to do, so that's what I attempted to do in this piece and I think that's part of the reason why it's getting attention.

Trump and Putin take part in a family photo at the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam in November 2017. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters)

BB: And, you've been criticized. People are saying that you've gone too far in portraying these two men as so tightly connected and having their interests so very tightly entwined. How do you respond to that criticism?

JC: People who are making that criticism, for the most part, are not engaging with the data that I present. And again, I'm trying to be very careful and say, 'We don't know what the answer is. We just need to assemble the facts we have and consider different possibilities — some of which are actually worse than you might be thinking, but without wrapping ourselves in some certainty that we know that it's much worse than it is.'

I think it's certainly possible that all these apparent trails between Trump Tower and Moscow will peter out and this will end up being fairly innocent in a series of misunderstandings. That's a possibility a lot of people have been raising. So, I think it's worthwhile to focus on the possibilities at the opposite end which are also equally unlikely but could be happening.

[Donald Trump] is not committed to Russian world domination. He's committed, primarily, to Donald Trump.- Jonathan Chait

BB: If Trump were an asset of the Kremlin, don't you think he would try harder not to appear as if he's an asset of the Kremlin?

JC: That's a great question. But that's also a way of saying, 'Well, there's so much evidence on this side that it can't be true.' We have to be careful about what asset means. Again, he's not an agent. There's not going to be some situation where he's speaking Russian with Vladimir Putin. He doesn't hum the Russian national anthem to himself at night before he goes to sleep.

I think the possibilities we have to explore here are that he's been compromised in various ways. It could be as simple and shallow as flattery. He's very vulnerable to flattery. So, going back to when he traveled to Moscow in 1987 and then came back and started talking for the first time about running for president, it could simply be that the Russians talked to him and said, 'You know, you're a great man. America needs your strength. Have you ever thought about running for president?'

It could be something deeper with financial leverage or sexual blackmail, but it's not going to go deeper than that. He's not committed to Russian world domination. He's committed, primarily, to Donald Trump.

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin chat at the APEC Economic Leaders' meeting in 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)

BB: There may be more evidence to come when Mueller reports or when other investigations, including the Michael Cohen investigation, unfold, but do you ever think that there will be proof of what the real relationship is between these two men — between Trump and Russia and Putin?

JC: I don't know if we're ever going to have that kind of proof because if there is some kind of blackmail leverage, Russia is probably holding onto that information very tightly. I don't see how the Mueller investigation is going to get it. It's possible he would get some intimations of it through Paul Manafort, or Roger Stone, or some other Russian-linked American officials, but we're probably never really going to know the answer. We may know a lot more about the connections between Russia and Trump before this is over, though.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Jonathan Chait, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.