President Trump meets with the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and their ambassador in the Oval Office the day after firing FBI Director James Comey; and Trump and President Putin in Helsinki in July 2018.
President Trump meets with the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and their ambassador in the Oval Office the day after firing FBI Director James Comey; and Trump and President Putin in Helsinki in July 2018.

INDIANAPOLIS  — Let me tell you why this past week has been so jarring and so alarming when it comes to Presidents Trump and Vladimir Putin.

But first, some context. I’m a Russophile. I majored in history at IU Bloomington and studied in the Russian East European Institute. When reporting for the Elkhart Truth, I covered a small Russian dissident community there with Georgi Vins. I still have the waterproof Bible he gave me (they used to tuck them into snow drifts when KGB agents appeared). In the mid-1980s, I attended a number of IU and Purdue seminars on the Soviet Union, and virtually no one was predicting the USSR’s collapse, which occurred in 1990. I’ve read most of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books on the Soviets and their brutal gulags.

I traveled to Moscow, Siberia and the Urals with Sen. Richard Lugar. I had my Moscow Grand Marriott hotel room ransacked by FSB agents while I attended the Moscow Carnegie seminar. I attended a face-to-face meeting between Lugar, Sam Nunn and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Foreign Ministry. I had a private dinner with Sam Nunn at the Yekaterinburg World Trade Center where he picked my brain about a potential 2008 presidential run. As we prepared to depart the city where the Bolsheviks murdered the czar and his family, my passport came up missing at the airport. They found it, and once on the flight, I turned to Kenny Meyers of the Pentagon and said, “What the f— was that about?” He responded, “They didn’t know you. They just wanted to take one more look at you.”

I’m so interested in all things Russian that in the typical parlor game (name the five people in history you’d most like to have dinner with… ) my answer has long been Jesus, Jefferson, Lincoln, Churchill and Stalin. I watched in fasciation the Sochi Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies that presented Putin’s take on Soviet and Russian history, and then days later saw him occupy and annex the Crimea and launch a low-grade war with Ukraine that continues to this day. We learn that citizen militias in the Baltics spend their weekends practicing guerrilla warfare tactics out of future Putin incursions. 

Why am I so jarred and alarmed these days? Because of reporting by the New York Times that the FBI commenced a counterintelligence investigation in the days following Trump’s firing of James Comey. Trump fueled the concern with his Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak the following day as they had a good laugh over Comey’s dismissal with only Russian press present. Another subsequent NYT report says that Trump has repeatedly told senior aides he wants the withdraw the U.S. from NATO, which is an astoundingly bad idea. And another NYT report that Trump has met with Putin alone, without senior administration officials from State or the intelligence community, five times and there is no record of what they discussed. At one meeting in Hamburg, there wasn’t even a U.S. interpreter present.

The Washington Post has reported that Trump has taken measures to keep the content of these private talks with Putin private, in one case confiscating the notes of the American interpreter. At Helsinki, Trump and Putin met alone for two hours. David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, writes in The Atlantic: “Concern focuses most on Trump’s meetings with Putin at the Helsinki summit in July 2018. The Russian president, and the American president helped into office by the Russian president, met for two hours with no aides. No agenda was published before the meeting, no communiqué issued afterward. The Russian side later claimed that a number of agreements had been reached at the summit. Nobody on the American side seemed to know whether this was true. At a press conference four days after the meeting, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said, ‘I’m not in a position to either understand fully or talk about what happened in Helsinki.’”

In fact, according to former Sen. Joe Donnelly, who served on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Coats does not have a readout of any of these conversations. What Coats knows comes from U.S. intelligence information gleaned from Russian diplomatic and intel channels. The Russians know exactly what was said in these five meetings, while Coats and the Americans are trying to piece them together through clandestine sources. 

Politico reported in July 2018: “Coats ... revealed last week that he does not have full visibility into what was discussed, and that there’s a ‘risk’ Putin had secretly recorded the meeting. A DNI spokesperson said Monday that Coats has said nothing publicly to indicate that his position has changed.”

“What’s disconcerting is the desire to hide information from your own team,” Andrew S. Weiss, who was a Russia adviser to President Bill Clinton, told the New York Times. “The fact that Trump didn’t want the State Department or members of the White House team to know what he was talking with Putin about suggests it was not about advancing our country’s national interest but something more problematic.”

“If any president would have wanted witnesses and protection, it ought to have been Donald Trump,” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and adviser to four presidents to the NYT. “And yet he chose not to, and that adds fuel to the fire that something here is not right.”

Frum, who authored the book “Trumpocracy,” shares my alarm, writing in The Atlantic, “We are facing very possibly the worst scandal in the history of the U.S. government. Previous high-profile cases of disloyalty to the United States – Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s betrayal of atomic secrets to the USSR; Secretary of War John B. Floyd’s allowing federal arsenals to fall into secessionist hands in 1861 – did not involve presidents. Previous presidential scandals did not involve allegations of disloyalty. Is the president of the United States a Russian asset? Is he subject to Russian blackmail? Is he at this hour conniving with the Russian president against the interests of the United States? These are haunting questions, and Trump’s own determination to defy normal presidential operating procedures to keep secret his private conversations with Putin only lends credibility to the worst suspicions.”

The norms in dealing with the Russians and Soviets have long been that an American president has State, national security and intel officials with him. They are the extra eyes and ears, they are the notetakers. They meticulously document every word of every conversation so what has transpired can be communicated through the various channels of the U.S. government: State Department, FBI and CIA, the Pentagon, the atomic agencies, Treasury.

The Soviets and Russians were – and are – American enemies. Putin’s goal has been to restore his demographically declining country, a petro-kleptocracy, into out-sized political and geographic glory. He considers the Soviet collapse a geopolitical disaster when we saw it as an affirmation of American Manifest Destiny. 

Putin wants nothing more than the disruption of the post-World War II Western alliance, whether it is the breakup of the European Union through Brexit, or a defanging and collapse of NATO. Trump has defiled all of these institutions and alliances.

Remember Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s characterization of President Trump as a “f---ing moron”? That came after an hour-long Pentagon briefing in July 2017 when Defense Sec. Jim Mattis and others explained with slides and charts how NATO has been the underpinning of Western democracy. Trump sat silently and then said, “That’s exactly what I don’t want.”

Last year at the chaotic G-7 summit, Trump told startled allied leaders, “NATO is as bad as NAFTA. It’s much too costly for the U.S.”

What we’re seeing with this president is so historically abnormal as to defy imagination. On Monday, we watched President Trump have one of those Nixon at Disney moments (“I am not a crook”). Asked by the press as he headed to New Orleans to address the American Farm Bureau Federation’s convention if he had ever “worked for Russia,” Trump responded, “I never worked for Russia. And you know that answer better than anybody. I think it’s a disgrace you even asked that question. It’s just a big fat hoax.” 

The fact that anyone had to ask whether the president of the United State is a Russian asset is simply mind-blowing. 

We earnestly await the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.