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Putin bromance has US intelligence officials fearing second Trump term

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Donald Trump’s continuing lavish praise and support for Vladimir Putin are fueling alarm among former intelligence officials and other experts who fear another Trump presidency would benefit Moscow and harm American democracy and interests overseas.

Trump praised the Russian president as a “genius” and “pretty savvy” when Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, and has boasted he would end the war in a “day”, sparking critics’ fears that if he’s elected again Trump would help Russia achieve a favorable peace deal by cutting off aid to Kyiv. Trump also recently greenlit Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to Nato members who don’t pay enough to the alliance.

“Trump views Putin as a strongman,” said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution and a national security official in the first two years of Trump’s administration. “In a way they’re working in parallel because they’re both trying to weaken the US, but for very different reasons.”

More recently, instead of criticizing Putin for the death of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition figure, who the Kremlin once tried to kill with poison, and who died suddenly last month in an Arctic penal colony, Trump weirdly equated the four criminal prosecutions he faces with Navalny’s fate.

“The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our country,” Trump posted on his Truth Social platform

Trump’s adulation for autocrats was displayed again this month at Mar-a-Lago, where he hosted Viktor Orbán, the far-right Hungarian prime minister who is a close Putin ally and foe of Ukraine aid, whom Trump extolled. “There’s nobody that’s better, smarter or a better leader than Viktor Orbán,” Trump said.

In turn, Orbán lauded Trump as “a man of peace”, and said if Trump is re-elected, he “won’t give a penny” to Ukraine and the war will end.

Ex-officials fret, too, that Trump would gut US intelligence by appointing far-right loyalists such as retired Lt Gen Michael Flynn, who briefly served in 2017 as Trump’s national security adviser and later plead guilty of lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition.

Deep concerns about another Trump presidency are rooted in part on his acceptance of Putin’s word in 2018 that Russia didn’t meddle in the 2016 election, despite strong evidence to the contrary from US intelligence officials, a bipartisan Senate panel report and an inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller.

In paring back the US government and appointing loyalists, Trump will get rid of vital security expertise

Fiona Hill

A two-year investigation by Mueller found that Russian interference to help Trump win in 2016 was “sweeping and systematic”.

There were other significant signs of Trump cozying up to Russia during his presidency, including a bizarre Oval office meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister where Trump shared classified information.

Now veteran intelligence officials and other experts say they have strong worries should Trump become president again, in light of the ongoing Putin-Trump bromance.

“Putin much prefers the chaos agent of Trump because it undermines the US,” Hill said. “Trump’s not worried about national security, but focused on himself. In paring back the US government and appointing loyalists, Trump will get rid of vital security expertise.”

“Trump is shockingly ignorant” about foreign affairs, Hill added. “Trump rarely read materials he was given before meetings. Trump is less a threat to Russia, and more to the US given his approach to governance.”

Other ex-officials raise related concerns.

“I think Trump and Putin are natural bedfellows,” said Douglas London, a retired senior CIA operations officer and author. “They complement each other well. They have common goals and objectives.

Given Trump’s oft stated agenda to seek retribution against his enemies, London worries that via executive orders Trump will “use the CIA like his own Praetorian guard. Trump could do this by using the agency’s unique capabilities and authorities to spy on, silence and perhaps even bring harm to his enemies.”

There is literally nothing about Trump that suggests he would put our country’s interests ahead of his own interests under almost any circumstances

Sheldon Whitehouse

Similarly, key Democrats are deeply worried about the international and domestic repercussions if Trump wins the presidency again.

“There is literally nothing about Trump that suggests he would put our country’s interests ahead of his own interests under almost any circumstances,” said Sheldon Whitehouse.

“So when he has a close and long standing, almost servile, relationship with a foreign enemy, who is also a multi-billionaire oligarch, the recipe for disaster is self-evident,” the Democratic senator said.

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Trump’s efforts to placate Putin and undercut US intelligence were underscored by their infamous 2018 meeting in Helsinki, Whitehouse noted.

“We’ve seen Donald Trump’s assault on our national intelligence community prefigured by his horrifying performance with Putin where he said that he accepted Putin’s representations about election inference, election meddling and other mischief, putting our own intelligence agency’s determinations to the contrary, right under the bus.”

Likewise Charlie Dent, the ex-Republican Representative, voiced fears about another Trump presidency given Trump’s adulation for Putin. “Trump identifies with illiberal, populist and authoritarian leaders,” Dent said. “Trump has autocratic inclinations, and Putin is simply an autocrat.”

On the campaign trail, Trump has sparked new criticism with bizarre statements underscoring his authoritarian instincts.

One example: as Trump has ratcheted up his attacks on prosecutors who have charged him with 91 felony counts including 17 for conspiring with others to overturn his 2020 loss to Joe Biden, he even cited cynical comments by Putin last fall that echoed Trump’s false charges of political persecution.

“Even Vladimir Putin says that Biden’s – and this is a quote – politically motivated persecution of his political rival is very good for Russia, because it shows the rottenness of the American political system, which cannot pretend to teach others about democracy,” Trump told a New Hampshire rally this year before the state primary.

“Trump speaking favorably about Putin and using him as a credible source, is the language of extremist politics,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard government professor and coauthor of How Democracies Die. “Trump is an authoritarian personality if there ever was one in American politics.”

In a cagey twist, after Putin last month said he’d prefer a Biden victory this year because he’s “more experienced”, and “more predictable”, Trump tried to capitalize on the former KGB spy’s comments by thanking Putin for paying him a “great compliment”.

“Putin’s trying to make as much mischief as possible,” said Hill. “It inoculates Trump and Putin if Biden is re-elected. Putin is covering all his bases.”

Still, ex-intelligence officials see Trump’s pro-Putin affinities leading to a politicized intelligence community if Trump wins again, weakening intelligence sharing with allies and benefitting Russian interests.

“Trump almost certainly will politicize the intelligence community by going forward with his public promise of installing people on the extreme fringes of rightwing politics such as Michael Flynn and Kash Patel,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior intelligence service official.

Patel, a former defense department official in the Trump years who has been touted as a possible acting attorney general or top CIA official if Trump wins again, late last year echoed Trump’s talk of seeking retribution against his enemies. Patel told Steve Bannon’s War Room: “We will go out and find the conspirators, not just in the government but in the media … who helped Joe Biden rig elections”

Polymeropoulos stressed that appointments of Flynn or Patel by Trump “would damage US ties with key allies. You’ll see old allies not sharing critical intelligence, and for good reason. They’ll slowly reduce sharing, so as not to provoke the ire of Trump, but their source protection concerns will be paramount and over-ride all else. The intelligence will dry up.”

“If Trump wins, forget the Brits or French – two of our best bilateral intelligence partners in Europe – ever sharing anything significant with us on Russia, for example.”

Likewise, London sees a second Trump presidency posing extraordinary dangers for the US and its allies. “Trump terribly underestimates Putin. It’s in his interests to keep the US preoccupied domestically and politically polarized,” he said.

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