Contrary to popular perceptions perpetuated by Hollywood movies and T.V. series, circumstantial evidence can suffice to convict someone of a crime, even in the absence of direct testimony. This is true in Israel, in deviation from Jewish religious law, and in the United States as well. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that circumstantial evidence is “intrinsically” no different than direct testimony, as long as a defendant’s guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
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Asserting that Donald Trump is a Russian mole, the popular term introduced by John Le Carre as a synonym of a sleeper agent, may seem far-fetched, but the fact that there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to justify asking what the hell is going on between him and Vladimir Putin is not. Politico Magazine described Trump in May as “The Kremlin’s Candidate”. Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Robin Mook said that Trump was the Kremlin’s “puppet”. Former CIA director Michal Morell wrote in August in the New York Times that the Kremlin had “recruited Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation”. Some pugnacious pundits have taken to dubbing Trump “The Manchurian Candidate”, in reference to the famous book and movie about a Vice President who was brainwashed in captivity during the Korean War and primed to take over the country.
But even people who dismiss such speculation cannot deny that Trump has singlehandedly brought about a 180-degree turn in the hitherto antagonistic Republican attitude towards Russia. Until he came along, a direct line connected Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” with Mitt Romney’s 2012 portrayal of Russia as America’s number one “geopolitical foe”. But the same people who lacerated Barack Obama for his flippant retort to Romney - “The eighties called, they want their foreign policy back” - are now keeping mum, albeit with trepidation, as their party leader emerges as the Kremlin’s main man in America.
Despite the criticism hurled at him for his stance, Trump stuck to his guns at Monday’s presidential debate at New York’s Hofstra University. Even though there’s hardly any doubt that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee that embarrassed Clinton just before the party convention in Philadelphia, and despite the fact that Trump publicly prodded Moscow to hack away in order to uncover Clinton’s deleted emails, he refused to pin the blame on Russia and pointed to other possible perpetrators, including, bizarrely, a generic 400lb hacker. He then asserted, in a style reminiscent of the famous “boring prophet” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, who warned “there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are” - that “under President Obama we’ve lost control of things that we used to have control over.”
The CIA and the FBI are investigating the hacking incident and other recent cyber-invasions, which analysts with close ties to both organizations say were carried out by two shady Russian groups who work with the country’s security services, one known as “Fancy Bear” and the other as “Cozy Bear”. The investigation is also looking into other hacking incidents, with potentially graver significance, of voter registration rolls in two states, reportedly Arizona and Illinois, which some people suspect served as a dry run for a massive Russian effort to sabotage and/or tilt the results of the November 8 Presidential Elections. CIA Director John Brennan told Jeffrey Goldberg this week that such a development poses a grave threat to U.S. democracy and national security. And while he refrained from fingering the Kremlin specifically, Brennan said his agency was looking into “whether something that certainly looks like a duck, smells like a duck and flies like a duck, whether it’s a duck or not”.
There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind of course, in favor of which candidate the Kremlin would intervene, if it intervened. Putin is said to fear Clinton and personally despise her ever since she said while serving as a U.S. senator that as a former KGB operative “he has no soul.” As secretary of state, Clinton was not a great fan of Obama’s efforts to “reset” ties with the Kremlin, and her vociferous criticism of the Kremlin’s heavy-handed intervention in the 2011 parliamentary elections is said to have been interpreted by Putin as part of a grand effort to remove him from office. Russian media outlets subservient to the Russian leader have launched harsh attacks on Clinton in recent months while heaping lavish praise on her rival.
The admiration, of course, is mutual. Putin’s moderate praise of Trump as “colorful and talented” was enough to melt the New York billionaire’s heart and turn him into an unabashed groupie of the authoritarian Russian leader. Putin is strong, he says, “and he runs his country, unlike Obama.” It goes without saying that, with the possible exception of Trump himself, no one believes that Putin has fallen for the Republican candidate because of his blue eyes or because he wants to start a beautiful friendship between the U.S. and Russia. Putin realizes that under a Trump presidency, America will be torn from within and weakened, its international stature will diminish and it will find it much harder to recruit the kind of multinational coalition that sanctioned Russia for its intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. Trump, for his part, has already indicated that he would reevaluate sanctions and would consider recognizing Russian ownership of Crimea.
But even before he enters the White House, Trump has already served the Kremlin well. He has cast doubt on America’s commitment to NATO, the military alliance that is viewed with increasing suspicion by Moscow after incorporating former communist countries in Eastern Europe. He has scared the Baltic countries out of their wits, after hinting that the U.S. wouldn’t necessarily abide by its NATO commitments and help Estonia ward off a Russian attack. He’s even targeted Japan, Russian’s rival for the disputed Kuril Islands, by questioning their commitment to their own country’s defense. In this weeks’ debate, he described Japan as a “behemoth”, no less, whose auto industry devours American jobs.
Trump conducts pro-Russian propaganda along the same lines as the old retort “And You Hang Blacks” with which the Soviets tried to deflect U.S. criticism of their human rights abuses. He isn’t troubled by Putin’s political opponents being murdered, because “people get killed here too.” He refuses to condemn restrictions on democracy or individual freedoms in Russia because civil liberties in America are in no great shape either, so it would be hypocritical for the U.S. to preach to others on the subject.
Of far greater concern is the increasingly mind-boggling concentration of people working for Trump who have or had direct or indirect affiliations with the Kremlin. His campaign manager Paul Manafort resigned in August amid allegations that he was paid millions of dollars while working for the pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, not before Manafort helped stamp out efforts to include a clause in the Republican Party platform calling for the supply of “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine. Trump’s senior military adviser, General Michael Flynn, is a regular guest of the pro-Putin television network RT, which compensated him handsomely to speak at a recent annual convention in Moscow; Trump’s PR adviser Michael Caputo was once hired to promote Putin’s image in the U.S.; Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Burt, who is an informal adviser and helped write at least one of Trump’s speeches, serves as a director of a major Russian bank, is chairman of the National Interest and heads the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which hosted Trump’s first major foreign policy in April, attended by the Russian ambassador to Washington. And this week it was revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating Carter Page, a former Merrill Lynch executive with deep ties to the Russian energy industry, for allegedly holding secret meetings with Kremlin officials to discuss the removal of sanctions. In March, Trump boasted about recruiting Page as an informal adviser, now it seems he doesn’t know him from Adam.
In Trump’s defense it must be noted that has been a fan of Putin for many years, for reasons that were once thought to be mainly business oriented. Trump’s high-end apartments are catered for oligarchs from Russia and other former Soviet Union republics, many with well-known ties to the Kremlin. Although Trump does not seem to have found an avenue for substantial investment in Russia, he was paid $50 million by two such oligarchs in 2013 to put on a Miss Universe contest, during which he tweeted about Putin possibly attending the extravaganza and then becoming “my new best friend”.
An even more ominous potential conflict of interest is alleged by some Trump critics, which helps explain why he has resisted making his tax returns public, despite the criticism that his refusal has spawned. According to these accounts, Trump may owe close to half a billion dollars to Russian and other oligarchs who loaned him the money when his bankruptcies in the 1990s dried up his credit supply. One Democratic activist told me this week that if Trump is shown to be in substantial debt to Russians before Election Day, he would come crashing down and drag the rest of the GOP with him.
Perhaps this is the reason that Republicans feel they have no choice but to keep silent even though they realize that if a Democratic presidential candidate would kowtow to a foreign and hostile strongman like Putin, the GOP would declare him a traitor, whip up a massive and hysterical lynch mob and hang, draw and quarter him, or her, for all the world to see.
Many of them ascribe Trump’s deferential subservience to Moscow to ignorance or naiveté. They try to convince themselves that he would behave differently once in the White House or that he would go home quietly and spare them the embarrassment if he loses the elections, a scenario that seems more probable after his crushing defeat by Clinton in Monday’s debate. But it’s a yuuuuuuge gamble: the mass of circumstantial evidence may not prove anything about Trump beyond a reasonable doubt but it certainly provides a basis for very reasonable suspicions. If Trump wins, with or without Moscow’s intervention, he would have to work hard to dispel worries that the formal leader of the free world is now taking orders from the informal leader of the non-free world.