Enjoy the most sensational tidbit from Jane Mayer’s very sympathetic portrait of dossier author Christopher Steele.
There are two ways to interpret this, assuming it’s true at all. The nefarious interpretation: Our worst fears are realized. Russia has kompromat on POTUS and is using it to blackmail him on decisions involving U.S. policy, all the way up to and including veto power over his choice for America’s chief diplomat. If they could block Romney from the State Department, they can do anything with the dirt they have on Trump.
The president may be an honest-to-goodness foreign agent, whether willingly or via extortion.
One subject that Steele is believed to have discussed with Mueller’s investigators is a memo that he wrote in late November, 2016, after his contract with Fusion had ended. This memo, which did not surface publicly with the others, is shorter than the rest, and is based on one source, described as “a senior Russian official.” The official said that he was merely relaying talk circulating in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but what he’d heard was astonishing: people were saying that the Kremlin had intervened to block Trump’s initial choice for Secretary of State, Mitt Romney. (During Romney’s run for the White House in 2012, he was notably hawkish on Russia, calling it the single greatest threat to the U.S.) The memo said that the Kremlin, through unspecified channels, had asked Trump to appoint someone who would be prepared to lift Ukraine-related sanctions, and who would coöperate on security issues of interest to Russia, such as the conflict in Syria. If what the source heard was true, then a foreign power was exercising pivotal influence over U.S. foreign policy—and an incoming President.
As fantastical as the memo sounds, subsequent events could be said to support it. In a humiliating public spectacle, Trump dangled the post before Romney until early December, then rejected him. There are plenty of domestic political reasons that Trump may have turned against Romney. Trump loyalists, for instance, noted Romney’s public opposition to Trump during the campaign. Roger Stone, the longtime Trump aide, has suggested that Trump was vengefully tormenting Romney, and had never seriously considered him. (Romney declined to comment. The White House said that he was never a first choice for the role and declined to comment about any communications that the Trump team may have had with Russia on the subject.) In any case, on December 13, 2016, Trump gave Rex Tillerson, the C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, the job. The choice was a surprise to most, and a happy one in Moscow, because Tillerson’s business ties with the Kremlin were long-standing and warm. (In 2011, he brokered a historic partnership between ExxonMobil and Rosneft.) After the election, Congress imposed additional sanctions on Russia, in retaliation for its interference, but Trump and Tillerson have resisted enacting them.
The much less nefarious interpretation: Either Mayer, Steele, or Steele’s source is distorting a request by making it sound like a demand. It was no secret before Trump took office that he wanted a reset with Russia. Maybe that’s because he’s a Putin fanboy who’s under the Kremlin’s thumb or maybe it’s the fact that every dope we’ve elected in the past 20 years has entered the White House with the same ambition, believing that their predecessor simply mishandled relations with Moscow. Bush thought he’d found a partner in Putin against Islamic terrorism. Obama thought Bush had foolishly alienated the Russians with his aggressive foreign policy and presented the Russian foreign minister with an actual “reset” button soon after being sworn in. You know how that turned out. Now Trump wanted to make nice with Russia too, to get a little cooperation in Syria and to maybe find a partner in isolating China, his white whale. Mike Flynn famously chatted with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. about sanctions relief even before Trump took office. His interest in rapprochement with Russia was well known during the campaign and the transition, one of the reasons Russiagate has gotten the public interest it has.
All of which is to say, Russia might have watched Trump’s flirtation with Romney during the transition and dialed him up to let him know that Mitt wouldn’t be the best midwife for a fresh start between the two countries. Which is true, of course; anti-Trumpers were excited about Romney’s dark-horse bid for State precisely because they expected him to be tough on Russia. This was the guy who once called Russia America’s top geopolitical foe and was later mocked for it by Obama at a debate, a moment of policy myopia Obama will never live down. In fact, according to media reports at the time, Romney himself concluded that he and Trump were too mismatched on Russia policy to function well together vis-a-vis Moscow. As such it’d be perfectly rational for the Kremlin to have told Trump that if he wanted rapprochement, appointing Mitt would be “unhelpful.” That wouldn’t amount to “blocking” or “vetoing” Romney. It would essentially be lobbying. “Up to you,” Putin might have said. “Better relations or the same old same old Cold-ish War.” At which point Trump might have started looking at Tillerson.
Even there, though, *if* Steele’s source is telling the truth, a foreign power lobbying an adversary on whom it should choose for its chief diplomat feels awfully brazen. I can understand a country objecting to another nation’s choice to be ambassador to that country, as that bears on their relationship alone. But to lean on Trump not to choose someone charged with managing the entirety of U.S. foreign policy because he’d cause more trouble for your own country would be exceedingly pushy. If it did happen, though, and Trump acquiesced in Russia’s demand, it says more about him than it does about the Russians. Russia was looking out for its own interests. If Trump was willing to craft his *cabinet* to make sure it was Russian-approved, he was willing to do a lot to stay in Putin’s good graces. Either that reset was crucially important to him or we’re back to the nefarious explanation.
Exit question: If the nefarious explanation was the correct one, with Russia “blocking” Romney for fear that sanctions would persist over Ukraine, how do we explain the fact that, uh, Trump has maintained sanctions on Russia over Ukraine?