Getting Pulled into Trump’s Gravity: Talking to Greg Miller

Which personal lowest bars has Donald Trump failed to clear in the first two years of his presidency? Which institutions of American democracy have faced the most sustained public threat? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Greg Miller. This present conversation focuses on Miller’s book The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy. Miller, a national-security reporter for The Washington Post, was among the Post reporters awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, for their revelatory stories on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and on the resulting investigations of the Trump campaign and administration. Miller was also part of a team awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, for coverage of American surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden. He is the coauthor of The Interrogators, and has reported from Europe, Afghanistan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey.

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ANDY FITCH: As The Apprentice’s epilogue takes up one last time this book’s persistent question of why a boorish Donald Trump would present himself with such unswerving servility in pursuit of political partnership with Vladimir Putin, you quietly set aside the need for any systematic conspiratorial scenario in which Putin holds salacious sexual footage or compromising financial dirt on Trump (neither of which possibilities you deny), and you redirect attention to a more obvious mode of collusion that “has always been hiding right in front of us…. it is Putin who Trump counts on to maintain the fantasy that Russia’s interference wasn’t real…. That may be all the leverage that Putin needs.” Could you describe how you see this easily overlooked collusion shaping the broader two-year timeline you track?

GREG MILLER: So this speaks to how difficult it remains for many of us to understand Trump’s motivations, and to how we still look for explanations of his behavior that actually would make sense to us, right? We can imagine this idea of some tape existing that shows Trump with prostitutes. But even if such a tape did exist, it wouldn’t necessarily give Putin all that much leverage on a guy who seems to shrug off sex scandals one after the other. I actually find the idea of murky financial entanglements with Russia a much more compelling explanation for Trump’s behavior, but still sort of unproven.

And then more generally, I do believe that the disorienting way Trump carries himself blinds us to realities staring right at us. In the book I ask readers to engage in a mental exercise. If we look back at that moment during the campaign when he says something like “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you look for Hillary’s missing emails,” many people in the press responded basically by asking: “What the hell was that?” Whereas if Trump had not made that statement at a campaign rally, and instead had transmitted such a request in secret to the Kremlin, we would have been absolutely alarmed. We’d understand what we were encountering. There would be no doubt, no confusion. But because he did it in the open, we don’t quite know how to process it.

Well again in terms of the obvious: I don’t want to waste anybody’s time with yet another armchair psychoanalysis of Trump, but do parallels to how this president needs to think of himself as an independently successful businessman (perhaps specifically in his father’s eyes, yet with the complicating complicity of his father having provided hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance) stand out to you as much as they do to me?

I haven’t thought about this with any Freudian parallel in mind, but that comparison interests me. Creation myths and self-creation myths matter a lot to Trump. He has to believe that he’s exceptional. It could shatter his pretty fragile ego to consider this idea that he doesn’t single-handedly deserve whatever success has come his way.

And we can now grasp much more clearly this decades-old creation myth about his fortune, in which Trump claims only to have received a tiny loan from his father, which Trump then parlayed into a real-estate empire. That type of fabrication does seem comparable in some ways to this creation myth around the 2016 election, in which Trump feels the need to insist that he won a historic victory, entirely thanks to his own charisma and strategic brilliance — again with no other forces at work here. He just can’t admit to that possibility. And he basically only has one person willing to stay out on that long, long limb with him, and it’s Putin, right? Nobody even in Trump’s own administration believes in that myth at this point. And to “prove” his myth, Trump only has one potential source of evidence: Vladimir Putin’s denials.

And here, in terms laid out by your book’s title, could we start considering a broader pattern of how, as soon as one forgoes the distraction of following Trump’s aggressive public antics, one sees this unexpected president’s ongoing confrontation with the fact that “Now he was the one…utterly unprepared, in dire need of a steadying hand…now he was the apprentice”)? But first, one explanatory element in your highly personalized account of Trump’s behavior towards Putin stood out unresolved for me. Why would a paranoid Trump, prone to attack when feeling exposed, and perhaps sensing Putin’s power to determine whether this delusional president ever faces up to the fact that “his victory might not have been earned free and clear,” still stay so fixated specifically on prospects for friendship with Putin?

I do consider that one of the real mysteries about Trump’s personality. He does, as you say, preemptively reject those from whom he fears rejection. You see this at times in his relationships with Congressional leaders, or with world leaders like Angela Merkel. And yet with Putin, Trump doesn’t seem to operate from that same defensive space. He remains in this much more odd kind of supplicant role. And again I don’t have any solid explanation for that behavior, other than what everybody can see in terms of how Trump conducts himself as president, how he talks about the office of the presidency, about leadership — consistently showing his sympathies for a strong-man model. Trump clearly admires a figure like Putin, who doesn’t have to worry about certain pesky aspects of any democratic system.

Trump wishes he could emulate Putin in more ways than one. Putin doesn’t have to worry about a Mueller investigation, or an independent Justice Department, or an independent judiciary, or a secure and critical press, or substantial opposition parties. And if given the chance, would Trump wipe away all those parts of American political culture? Probably. I mean, I think Trump sees himself as this singular figure hindered by all of this antagonism, who otherwise could achieve the greatness that he’s destined for.

Starting to expand outward now, towards broader political implications of this personalized Trump-Putin dynamic, your book describes quite well Russia’s innovative efforts to weaponize elements of classic espionage, here by amplifying its disclosures and distortions through WikiLeaks and various social-media platforms. Do we find an analogous escalation / weaponization of more timeless statecraft taking place as a KGB-trained master of psychological manipulation like Putin whispers conspiratorially (even on the phone) to Trump, telling Trump “it wasn’t their fault that they could not consummate the relationship that each sought,” reinforcing this president’s belief that a “secret government cabal, a bureaucratic ‘deep state’” continues to undermine his authority? And when we then encounter compulsive narcissistic / sycophantic tendencies driving Trump’s team even at moments of acute national distress (here I picture the Trump Tower meeting at which Michael Flynn, Reince Priebus, Mike Pompeo, and Mike Pence respond to “overwhelming” intelligence findings of Russian election interference by reinforcing Trump’s self-deluding query that “You found…no impact on the result, right?”), can we say that Putin has successfully weaponized Trump’s own psychological vulnerabilities against American democracy?

Absolutely. And Putin doesn’t whisper to Trump only when they speak on the phone. Every time they appear together, we get photos of Putin reaching over to whisper into Trump’s ear. I picture this famous scene, I think at a meeting of world leaders in Germany, where Putin leans over and points to the pool spray, with all of these press photographers packed together, and says “These are the ones giving you such trouble.” And Trump just sort of chuckles. So again, for this span of a few seconds, Putin puts them in an intimate and elite league with one another. He suggests: “We’re on the same side, with these other forces as our enemies. We have this secret bond of understanding what we’re up against.”

Putin certainly has tried to exploit these disruptive tendencies in Trump whenever possible. Russia sought to insert itself into some of America’s most divisive conversations, around race relations, gun control, gay and lesbian rights. Trump himself has been even more divisive on each of these topics.

And yet sometimes it seems that Trump makes Putin nervous. I went to Helsinki to watch their body language, and to be in that room. And you couldn’t help noticing these moments when Putin would glance over at Trump — not necessarily with a look of fear, but with apprehension about the unpredictability of this guy sitting beside him. You would think that, given Putin’s own psychological training, he sometimes wanted to coach Trump and say: “Big guy, we’ll both look better here if you could criticize me a bit. Feel free to take some shots at me in public. Feel free to come across as somewhat nasty towards Russia, so that behind the scenes we can push our policy objectives.” And Trump always does the opposite. He’s so gushing toward Putin that he squanders any political room to enact policies more favorable toward Russia.

In some fundamental sense, Putin clearly craves control, whereas Trump breeds chaos. You’ll see that conflict play out between them, with Putin kind of aghast, as if wanting to say: “Wow, this guy is going off the rails right here. What’s going to happen as the result?” So I think Putin would prefer to have a more reliable and predictable partner than Trump. But at the same time, he probably can’t help thinking: Well, look at the continuing payoff for us because of this guy, and how his leadership creates chaos throughout the American system.

Yeah, I guess I can’t help sticking on your “consummate the relationship” phrase, and sensing that the person who craves control also might find him / herself inexplicably attracted to sitting beside the chaotic person.

I definitely hear that.

But now returning to the weaponization theme running throughout this book, one related mode of recent weaponization you trace involves the Republican Party, even prior to Trump’s election victory, weaponizing denial. The Apprentice presents both figures like Mitch McConnell at the national level, and numerous officials at the state and local level, as more willing to embrace paranoid-conspiracy mongering, as more willing to endorse blatantly false Russian pronouncements, than to acknowledge the well-documented findings of our own intelligence community. So could we here consider Trump’s presidential victory as a symptom as much as a cause of certain forms of weaponized denial deployed by today’s Republican Party, and if we conceive of that weapon as ultimately damaging American democracy as a whole more than it damages any Democratic adversary, do suggestions stand out for how to proactively diffuse, disarm, de-escalate, regulate, and / or overpower it?

I’m glad you asked about this. I definitely wanted this book to get at how, even as both Putin and Trump have taken advantage and continue to take advantage of our polarized American politics, that divisiveness predates their personal interventions. Too often we end up focusing on Trump both as cause and as symptom. And no doubt both Trump and Putin have enabled and amplified and exacerbated this dysfunctional polarization, but neither campaign could have been half as effective without existing fissures in American society.

Throughout our history we’ve faced moments when members from both parties have stood up to extremism, sometimes within their own ranks, or have reacted in nonpartisan fashion to external threats the United States faced. But with the 2016 election manipulations, in moment after moment after moment, you don’t see that happen. And I think the press has to work even harder to bring this destructive partisanship and all of its potential consequences to the public’s attention.

You had mentioned McConnell, and I do think that when historians look back at his pre-election encounter about U.S. intelligence reports with John Brennan, they will find a really telling and disturbing moment. And The Apprentice also has scenes of Devin Nunes taking his position as leader of the House Intelligence Committee, and using it as a battering ram to discredit the institutions he supposedly oversees: the FBI, the Justice Department, the CIA. Nunes quite clearly wages an institutional campaign deliberately designed to erode public confidence in these institutions.

I very much value this idea of the press needing to make these partisan abuses more public, and to point to broader long-term consequences. At the same time, I definitely know and love people who by now carry a readymade narrative in their head that would immediately neutralize any more damning account of McConnell’s cynical decisions. And here of course one more far-reaching question emerges as we consider how / why not only Donald Trump, but almost half the country (the half historically most apprehensive about perceived threat from Russia, the half historically most trusting of our intelligence community’s efforts to protect us from that threat) has so unflinchingly reversed some of its foundational political propositions — presumably without the same personal complexes that animate Trump. Could you outline your current understanding of why Trump’s servile approach to Russia has proved palatable to this particular base? Did Trump simply recognize earlier than most American politicians that the connotations of “Russia” had changed from “Communist threat” to “white orthodox patriarchal order”? What role do even more overtly white-supremacist visions play, as first formulated by whom? And here we also could point to Trump expressing admiration for Rodrigo Duterte, or praising the recent victory of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and ask where theories of Trump and his supporters identifying with nostalgic white European regimes still face limits, with progressives still failing to account for contemporary populism’s broader global appeal.

I do consider it remarkable to see these changes coming out of a Republican Party which for decades presented itself as the party of law and order, of strong national security, of support for very robust U.S. intelligence capabilities, for the CIA’s detention program, for secret prisons, for the NSA’s warrantless surveillance. And of course Democrats historically have felt much more compelled to hold these agencies up to scrutiny. So we’ve entered a weird upside-down world quite recently.

And of course when I mention Trump or McConnell or Nunes, and their decisions to discredit national-security institutions, we do have to think about how this pattern gets enabled in part by Fox News bashing these same institutions night after night after night. Conservative audiences consistently see these institutions depicted as highly partisan, with questionable motives, engaged in some conspiracy against Trump. It’s one thing for Trump himself to randomly try out these theories. It’s another thing for viewers to face these conspiracy theories persistently reinforced as real news stories, almost to the exclusion of any other content. Like you, I can observe this up close among people I know well. It really feels like a powerful indoctrination happening on a nightly basis.

And then more specifically in terms of Putin’s weird appeal to the right at this moment, I do sense in part at least this new identification with the Russian leader as some sort of strong, white, patriarchal figure fighting the same culture battles Trump wants to take up: again on gay marriage, on racial animosity. You could go down a pretty long list just checking off culture-front topics on which the American right and some of these European right movements claim a strong overlap.

Of course The Apprentice suggests that left-leaning political forces shouldn’t get too easy of a pass here either, with Putin finding it advantageous to support Bernie Sanders alongside Trump, with Democratic candidates having little success contesting Trump’s claims to classic patriotic rhetoric and coming across as authentic, with you describing the unprecedented experience of receiving Washington Post fan mail that (not unlike Trump himself) seems to set aside “getting at the truth” as a paramount objective of news reporting. So could you outline some pivotal accomplishments of Russia’s Internet Research Agency “Translator Project,” perhaps by describing its appeal to left as much as to right?

That all makes sense. And I can start from the personal experience. Many of us at the Post began to receive a lot of cards and letters from people thanking us. I even started getting bottles of wine delivered to my house. It would just show up on the porch. My wife and I would look at each other and think: Can we drink this? Who really put this here? And we do need to acknowledge cultural shifts happening not just on the right but the left. I do sense some readers getting overly invested in arriving at preordained outcomes, particularly the impeachment of Trump. I’ll do speaking engagements now where you just can’t get far enough left. You can’t satisfy certain audiences unless you can promise them Trump will face impeachment proceedings on such and such date for such and such charges.

This all really stood out a couple weeks ago when some friends at The New York Times published a story about how Rod Rosenstein had this idea of wearing a wire into his meetings with Trump. Denunciations of the Times for running that story overwhelmingly came from the left. And it all sounded pretty much the same: how dare you smear Rod Rosenstein, this sort of savior figure to the left, protecting the Mueller investigation? How dare you challenge him? How dare you attribute impure motives to him?

The Times was just reporting what it had learned. It was true. It was accurate. So you see the media going through a troubling moment, and undergoing an enormous stress-test right now, like many institutions. And this gets much more complicated than most people realize. You don’t have only Trump calling us the enemy of the people. You don’t only have ubiquitous “fake news” accusations. You have these escalating expectations across the political spectrum, with everybody wanting to advance their own interests. And the second we deviate from that path, we’re no longer to be trusted.

Well another major source of weaponized / institutionalized denial only gradually recedes after the election, as Facebook, for instance, pivots from the relatively modest admission of having received $100,000 total for roughly three thousand manipulative Russian ads…

Paid for in rubles, by the way.

to acknowledging that, in fact, 126 million Americans directly absorbed content from Russian operatives (with 139 million Americans voting in 2016), and with a subsequent BuzzFeed analysis concluding that “in the final months of the campaign fake stories…mostly favoring Trump…spread farther and faster online than legitimate news.” Yet rather than simply demonize social-media companies for abetting these outcomes, The Apprentice illuminates complex strategic binds these companies face, first as capitalist media enterprises seeking to attract passionate conservatives to their brands, and second as corporate entities seeking to protect themselves from legal charges of posting libelous or defamatory or criminal content — in part by prioritizing algorithmic operations over any more humanized editorial approach that might bring legal liabilities like those faced by traditional publishers. So how would you assess more recent efforts by Facebook, Twitter, and the like to address their flawed approach to 2016-style news flows?

You almost have to start with the old saw about addiction, right — that admitting you have a problem is the first step? We still find ourselves in the beginning phases of that kind of admission, in terms of the reckoning required at these companies. They really had seen themselves as these enablers of truth, their services and platforms making democracy ever stronger. They’ve only begun to grapple with all the downsides, but I do sense a meaningful recognition occurring now.

And like you said, some big real-world problems arise when these companies’ growing political awareness runs into financial and business imperatives. In the book I discuss prominent Democratic backers coming out of California and Silicon Valley, holding fundraisers that bring in millions and millions of dollars. So you might think of these tech industries as reliable supporters of the left. But when it comes down to it, they want to make their money, and their executives need to present themselves as politically agnostic, right? These companies want and basically need the largest possible audience for their apps and for their social-media platforms — regardless of where that audience positions itself on the political spectrum. So anything that narrows this audience, that shrinks the reach of these companies, can’t help making them uncomfortable.

And unfortunately, writing a few algorithms will not by itself solve many of the problems these companies face right now. They need new ways to pare off entire categories of content and sometimes of membership. I mean, I’m just thinking about stuff I’ve read this week, following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, in terms of the anti-Semitic material that circulates on Instagram. What will it really take for Facebook to cut that off? We just don’t know yet. But we do have to acknowledge that the technological prowess and the asymmetric advantage that Silicon Valley and our open society bring (say over Russia) also can bring along these asymmetric vulnerabilities pretty easy to exploit.

In terms of the need for searching self-scrutiny, could we also pivot to self-corrupting complicities you see within government at present, and point to longer-term implications as this current presidential administration continues teaching itself how to work around an especially chaotic executive? Here I picture Apprentice scenes describing all-hands-on-deck crisis-management meetings that I first assume must include Trump, but that I gradually realize are about Trump. Or I think of how the enabling daily briefings this president receives paper over touchy subjects like Russian election manipulations, so that Trump perhaps inevitably fails to see sufficient cause for any more substantial retaliatory response. Or I think of H.R. McMaster providing the example of how one might achieve pointed policy outcomes in opposition to Trump’s preferences, but should expect to get fired quite swiftly for doing so, and probably replaced by a successor who will try even less and fare even worse. So how else might this present mess spill over into institutional precedent for how defense and intelligence officials, how domestic and international officials, engage with future presidents?

That’s one of the biggest questions we face: should we think of ourselves as living through an anomalous blip in American history, something we can recover from? Or how and when does a broader political equilibrium (and do particular institutions, traditions, expectations) get permanently altered? I actually feel some confidence that the CIA and the FBI will keep themselves in good shape and will recover from this. A slightly larger percentage of the population might end up suspecting their motives, but just look at their work apprehending the suspect at the center of these recent bombs mailed out from Florida — impressive, impressive detective work.

Those kinds of highly professional efforts will enable them to rehabilitate their reputation. But the broader damage done especially to the executive branch (the destruction of expectations, of norms we’ve relied on for decades, norms that many of us basically considered codified somehow, but which turn out to be built largely on the honor system — like the idea that presidential candidates will release their tax returns, the idea that uttering falsehoods or misleading the public has a political consequence), all of that feels much harder to quantify. And those really big questions all lead up to: how much can American recover at the end of this, and how much have we lost?

When you mention institutional norms, I think of authors such as David Frum making the case that present-day authoritarian kleptocracies don’t need a military coup or some traitorous Manchurian Candidate conspiracy to corrode democratic institutions beyond repair. And in terms of The Apprentice tracing emergent authoritarian kleptocracy at play, could you sketch one of the strangest schemes in this whole book (one you place under the sign of “insanity”), in which Jared Kushner, in a pre-inauguration meeting with Michael Flynn and Sergey Kislyak, proposes evading the reach of American intelligence by “setting up a private communications channel between the Trump team and the Kremlin, perhaps even using encrypted communications gear from inside the Russian embassy”? How might this single scene exemplify some of the most anti-democratic, anti-American implications of what isn’t an odious ideological stance so much as an engrained personal habit of working around established institutions and norms in shameless pursuit of one’s own self-interest?

Good example. We did have this debate, right after the election, about whether Trump’s team would move beyond their naivete, their lack of experience. Many of these people never had worked in politics, so maybe we just needed to give them the benefit of the doubt for a while. But their behavior went so far beyond naivete. I can’t imagine anybody I know proposing to use Russia’s secret encrypted communications gear to set up private conversations with the Kremlin before taking office — the way Jared Kushner did. It doesn’t take any level of political savvy or sophistication to recognize that is not a good idea.

Even the Russia ambassador Sergey Kislyak, when he heard this proposal from Kushner, ran back to the embassy and wrote cables to the Kremlin asking: “Can you believe these guys? Here’s the crazy thing Kushner just proposed…”

Well in terms of figuring out ways to push Trump’s own buttons (perhaps, for example, in your Trumpesque taunting through the repurposed “Apprentice” title), in terms of this president’s staff gradually learning that “Telling Trump he would appear inadequate was…always an effective argument,” do you envision this book as directly speaking to Trump himself, as trying to get under his skin (perhaps in part as some sort of homeopathic reversal of Putin’s infections bite)?

No, but that’s interesting. I really didn’t think of that as my objective. I really just wanted to explore aspects of Trump’s personality that never have stopped perplexing me. And this book closes in Helsinki because that just felt like such a signature moment for Trump’s presidency. Here’s his big chance to stand up to Putin, with the whole world watching. Even just a mild rebuke of the Russian leader could transform the way Trump gets perceived by the American public and foreign audiences and perhaps even by history. And Trump just can’t clear that low bar. Something inside him makes him incapable of seizing that moment. So this book really tries to grasp how we arrived at that scene. In terms of getting inside Trump’s head, I didn’t feel the need for any more subversive effort than that.

Finally then, we haven’t addressed the ongoing Mueller investigation much. Given the reality that a divisive, distorted, dysfunctionally partisan conversation about this investigation already feels quite entrenched, what do you see as the most effective strategy for Mueller and his team to still have the biggest public and / or institutional impact that they can?

Obviously this book covers a lot of ground related to the 2016 race, but I definitely do want it to raise that type of question right now. And I actually think Mueller has been brilliant in many ways at inoculating his work, and at building protecting this investigation into the work itself. So The Apprentice explores this particular psychological contrast between Trump and Mueller. The two have some superficial similarities, with both born in New York just a year or two apart, with both having pretty privileged childhoods, attending private schools and stuff like that. And then they just go off in completely different directions for the rest of their lives. You can’t find two more different people.

Trump loves to drag adversaries onto stage with him, under the lights, just to mock them, poke at them, lance them, belittle them until they sort of inevitably cheapen themselves and try to fight back and just get pummeled, right? Mueller, on the other hand, gives you no vulnerable surface to go after. Aside from some brief remarks at his granddaughter’s graduation, Mueller hasn’t uttered a single word in public since this whole thing began.

Instead Mueller has spoken through his indictments. Each case has offered such overwhelming factual detail that I can’t help thinking of this as his broader strategy. I work in a business pretty invested in the value of facts and of truth, and Mueller has astonished us with the meticulous details brought to bear in these indictments of the Russian intelligence services and propaganda projects. CIA people I’ve talked to can’t believe Mueller got the clearance to present some of this in a public document. Those indictments have revealed a lot about U.S. intelligence capabilities, with Mueller somehow able to point to the specific addresses in Moscow, basically to the specific keyboards, to the specific individuals setting up these accounts and launching these spearfishing attacks against the DNC.

Our intelligence agencies seem to have decided that they need to defend the presentation of objective reality against this barrage of attacks from Putin and Trump and various associates still calling this whole national crisis just another fake-news story. And I have to assume we’ll see further indictments, and an overall report that does not make its points in emotional or polemical terms, but that just provides overwhelming factual information. I still think that’s Mueller’s best play. And you’re right: nobody knows if that’s guaranteed to work anymore.

And here again you can see Trump having this downward pull on everything and everybody around him, right? So we had this deliberate campaign to discredit the FBI and the Justice Department. And within those institutions, we have seen unprofessional reactions to Trump. I mean, those texts between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. Or Rod Rosenstein contemplating wearing a wire to meet with the president. These types of responses certainly don’t make the FBI and the Justice Department look good. That’s just part of getting pulled into Trump’s gravity.

 

Photo of Greg Miller by Bill O’Leary / The Washington Post
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