How to Handle Donald Trump

Coercion

Coercion was perhaps the favorite explanation earlier this year. My impression was that this framing was mostly driven by sketches on Saturday Night Live as inadequate as that would be for a journalistic analysis. Those portrayed the relationship between Trump and Putin as one where a bare-chested Kremlin leader pulled out a tape and the US president then immediately caved in.

Ego

The second motivation that the media have often focused on is Trump’s ego. Obviously, he has a big one, a bigly one even. However, I do not think either that this plays a major role. Feeding Trump’s vanity may be a good idea to get him to change his mind when it is a close decision. But that would need continual interaction to get him to pursue a course over a long time. And then what has Putin said that would thrill Trump so? That he is smart.

Ideology

What has been overlooked is ideology in my view. There was a line of explanation that Trump was and is surrounded by people who are pro-Kremlin and who feed the respective propaganda to him. I think that is true, and it is an avenue that makes sense if you want to influence Trump on a continual basis. The general assumption was that he is very impressionable and that he tends to echo what the last person has just told him.

Money

Which leaves us with money as the main motivation and the way how Putin can handle Trump. Of course, this has gotten quite a bit of scrutiny over the past year. Still I think it deserves even more of it compared to what I view as a false focus on coercion and ego. And I would also say that much of the scrutiny went in the wrong direction. The thrust seems to be to look for a “smoking gun,” some grand bargain where Trump and Putin have negotiated a quid pro quo once and for all. I am agnostic here. Maybe something like this happened. But maybe it did not happen, and so the search could be futile.

  • Trump’s financial situation was never as great as he has boasted in public. He may even have been in dire straights at certain times, and his general position could still be shaky.
  • Putin tested him and found out about it. He gaged how rich Trump really is and designed a series of carrots for him.
  • My hunch is that the main carrots were: the Trump Tower project in Moscow from 2013 on, the obscure partial privatization of Rosneft from 2016 on, and lately perhaps the partial privatization of Rostec. On a different level, it was also general support during the primaries and the campaign.

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