Trump’s Putin Lust & the Final Frontier of Democracy

Former President Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Former President Trump and Vladimir Putin. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP
Julia Ioffe
September 20, 2022

When I first moved to Moscow in September 2009, I brought with me a red paperback copy of Kremlin Rising. It had been published in 2005, the year its married co-authors, Susan Glasser and Peter Baker, left their posts as the Washington Post’s Moscow correspondents. The book carefully and powerfully chronicled how a relatively unknown KGB officer named Vladimir Putin got himself appointed president and went about systematically dismantling a fledgling Russian democracy. 

When they were reporting from Moscow, much of the West still didn’t believe them. Articles in serious journals like Foreign Affairs praised Putin’s arrival, believing that he would clean up corruption and get the powerful oligarchs under control. When Putin said that he would institute a “dictatorship of the law” on the wild, wild West that was Russia after the Soviet collapse, many in the West cheered. Here was the strong hand that Russia needed, they believed, to bring the rule of law to a lawless place.

Susan and Peter showed the West what Putin was really up to. They were some of the first Western journalists that chronicled for the world the arc of where all of this would lead, of where Putin was inexorably headed. It was a clear-eyed and bracing roadmap of the terrors ahead.

Before long, I ended up writing dispatches from Moscow for Susan, when she was editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, and she was eager to hear everything about what was happening in Russia whenever I visited Washington. When I moved back, I worked for Susan again, at Politico Magazine. Over those years, Susan became an important ally and mentor in a maddeningly male-dominated industry. (“We’re finally getting a seat at the table,” she once told me, “but they’ll never stop reminding us that it’s still their table.”) Over the last decade, over countless dinners, including with our mutual friends from Moscow, Susan and Peter also became my good and trusted friends. 

During the Trump years, I found much solace in my conversations with them. As much of the Washington establishment gaslighted those of us who knew how this movie always ends, I knew that Susan and Peter, the authors of Kremlin Rising, knew the ending better than most. We often shared our growing alarm at just how similar everything in America suddenly seemed to what we had seen in Russia, and I knew that they could see it all, too.

Tomorrow, their book, The Divider, finally hits store shelves. I’m still not sure how they managed to report and write it while holding down two demanding full time jobs, at The New Yorker and The New York Times. I’ve heard about it all along the way, but it was incredible to finally sit down and read the final version. 

It is not a Trump book, in that it isn’t just a bunch of shocking Trump said what?! anecdotes with some double-spaced prose to pad it out. This is a first crack at a history of the Trump presidency, a first draft of many future books. Having lived through it all, it is still shocking to read, laid out in one elegant narrative, in crisp, compelling prose and in chilling detail. It did not make me feel better about the future of American democracy, nor did my interview with Susan and Peter, which has been edited for concision and clarity.

Julia Ioffe: We’re all old Russia hands here, and you start the book with the joke about the health of Russian democracy from the old liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, the one about the ambulance picking up a patient and heading to the morgue. The patient says, “Why are we going to the morgue? I’m not dead yet!” The ambulance driver responds, “We’re not there yet.” 

This book reminded me a lot of your first book together, Kremlin Rising, in the sense that you chart very methodically how nobody believes that this guy is going to do what he says he’s going to do, and then he does all the things he said he was going to do. 

Susan Glasser: If 20 years ago, you told us that we would have acquired useful skills for observing an American president through four years of observing Vladimir Putin, we just wouldn’t have believed it. But in fact, some of those skills of Kremlinology, or Putinology, translated to watching an American president test, systematically, the institutions of American democracy and blow them up, one by one. We told that joke in our first book about Putin, and, at the time, it was a sad commentary on the state of Russian democracy. Now, of course, Russian democracy doesn’t even exist. And it was inconceivable that you would ever make a joke like that about the United States. And yet here we are.

Last weekend, I was on Bill Maher’s show and he was so self-congratulatory in saying that he had warned everyone that Donald Trump wouldn’t leave office voluntarily. And I was like, well, actually, all of us who have studied or reported on authoritarian regimes knew he wouldn’t, because we’ve all seen this movie before. In fact, I remember talking to both of you throughout the Trump presidency about just how terrifyingly familiar this all felt.

Peter Baker: It’s the war on the institutions themselves that felt so familiar. That’s why we wanted to do this book, because January 6 wasn’t some sort of one-off. It wasn’t an aberration. It was the inexorable and ultimately predictable conclusion of four years of bending norms and pushing the government to be his political instrument, to warp the traditions and the mores, if not the actual rules, of American democracy as we’ve observed it for generations. We thought it was important to go back to look from the vantage point of the full four years to get it right. You have to understand January 6th, 2021, in the context of January 20th, 2017, and every day in between.

Susan: To that point about not leaving office: Trump systematically told all of us, again and again, starting in the spring of 2020, that any results of the 2020 election that did not have him as the winner were going to be rigged, flawed and not acceptable to him. So why is it that everybody was so damn shocked? Including, by the way, people like Bill Barr, who, when ultimately forced to make a decision, made the correct decision not to bring the Justice Department in as Trump wanted to after the election. But where was Barr when an American president was challenging the legitimacy of an American election? He was going along. And that, to me, was the part that felt most familiar. 

One of the things that sticks with me the most from our time in Russia was when Putin was very actively dismantling what existed of Russian democracy at the time. Obviously, he had different tools at his disposal than Donald Trump, and a different history and all that. But people wouldn’t take him seriously and literally with some of the things he proposed to do. 

Why do you think that people, particularly the Washington establishment—and I include the media in that—were so blasé and why were they so dedicated to dismissing people who were leaning on the alarm?

Peter: I think it’s because we’ve grown comfortable through 246 years with a country that felt to us to be different than Russia. It felt to us to be different than these places that had these authoritarian histories and crackdowns and so forth. It was the whole it-can’t-happen-here thing, which has always been a running theme in American democracy. It’s sort of the nature of the beast. We view ourselves as an exceptional country. And in fact, what we’ve learned is that we are susceptible to some of the same forces and the same dynamics and the same dangers as a lot of other countries we used to look down on. That’s a shock to the system. 

Now, what they would tell you, of course, is that the system did hold. The system did work because he didn’t succeed in overturning the election. And there’s something to that. But, really, he came so close. When you’re talking about the institutions holding, you’re really talking about a handful of individuals who basically decided to stand up, most of them Republicans in the key places, and say no. Were it not for a handful of those people, this could have gone very differently.

Well, we don’t know yet if the institutions have held, because we have all these election deniers on the ballot coming up in November and there are all these new laws on the books in different states, allowing partisan officials to overturn election results. They’ve held for now. But I’m wondering: now that you’ve written this book, do you think American institutions are stronger or weaker than you originally thought? 

Susan: I agree with you that we are in the middle of the crisis. It is not clear that Trump’s 2020 election defeat is the end of him politically. In fact, all evidence points to the contrary. And even if Trump, himself, does not reemerge as the Republican nominee in 2024, we’re looking at a Republican Party that has been remade in his image with a cadre of Trumpists and a new style of Trumpist politics. It’s like crack cocaine for the Republicans, and I don’t think they’re weaning themselves from it. The institution of the Republican Party, one of the two political parties around which our system of government is essentially built, is not stable. In aggressively embracing unconstitutional and anti-democratic things and trying to overturn an election, this is about as serious of a thing as you can imagine. Well, then, our system hasn’t held. This is not a family newspaper, so we can say it: We’re fucked!

Tell me about the Playboy article.

Susan: The Rosetta Stone of the Trump presidency! 

Peter: It turns out that Angela Merkel really does read Playboy for the articles. 

Susan: There was this amazing article where Donald Trump gave this interview in 1989 in which he laid out his worldview, which he would bring with him decades later to the presidency. He talked about how America was always getting screwed and how its allies were taking advantage of it. He talked about protectionist trade policies against, at the time, Japan, not China. He talked about how the strongmen of the era weren’t tough enough. He was very critical, amazingly, of Mikhail Gorbachev, because he thought he was too weak for a Soviet leader and he was very approving of the Chinese massacre in Tiananmen Square. Even then, Donald Trump was sucking up to strongmen. 

So when he got elected, all of these world leaders were passing this Playboy article around like samizdat. Justin Trudeau had the first in-person meeting with Trump in February 2017 in the White House. And then he has dinner in Germany with Angela Merkel and she hadn’t met Trump in person yet and was very concerned about him. And Merkel actually said to Trudeau at the dinner, Have you read the Playboy interview yet? She had read it. She also watched old tapes of The Apprentice. Merkel was a huge believer in meticulous preparation, and she studied Donald Trump meticulously. However, it really was not successful because Donald Trump and Angela Merkel are about as opposite people on the world stage as you could possibly imagine. They got off on the wrong foot from their very first phone call.

Why did he hate her so much?

Peter: Because she didn’t play the flattery game. A lot of these world leaders tried at first to do the one thing that seems to sometimes work with Trump, which is flattery. Shinzo Abe and Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, they all tried the flattery game and to some extent it worked for a little while, but it never worked perfectly because ultimately you find yourself on the other side of him. Because in the end he wants to rip up the trade agreement or he wants to take the troops out of your region or whatever. And you can’t stand for that because it’s not in your national interest. Flattery only goes so far. Merkel never played that game, she just refused. She’s just the kind of woman he doesn’t like. She doesn’t suck up to him, doesn’t flatter him, she doesn’t flirt with him, she just is who she is. That wasn’t his kind of person.

The nugget from your book about how close we got to war with North Korea has already gotten into the press, but what hasn’t gotten as much attention is just how close we got to pulling out of NATO. How close did we get?

Peter: Very close. I think that, had Trump gotten a second term, that would have happened. And imagine that right now regarding Ukraine. Instead of having NATO united against Russian aggression, you would have had a NATO that was falling apart and driven into different camps, if not destroyed altogether. He never believed in alliances. He never believed in international partnerships. He may or may not be an isolationist, but he was definitely an anti-international alliance guy, whether it be trade or security. But the damage done to NATO was profound. It was actually Vladimir Putin who undid it, ironically.

Just to address the inevitable counterfactual argument: had Donald Trump had a second term and pulled out of NATO, do you think Vladimir Putin would still have invaded Ukraine?

Susan: It’s really hard to know. I do think that Putin had Trump’s number and he read him, I think correctly, as highly manipulable and that his vanity was an incredible weakness. There’s this great detail that hadn’t been reported before from their last in-person meeting in the summer of 2019. They are meeting and Trump is bragging about how Poland is going to name a Fort Trump after him. And Israel named a settlement in the Golan Heights for him. And Putin just pokes Trump so perfectly and he says, Well, Donald, maybe they’ll name all of Israel after you! It’s such a revealing exchange and it suggests that Putin didn’t have a very high estimation of Trump, despite all of his sucking up. So maybe Putin would have felt that he could manage Trump or get what he wanted without having to launch a full scale invasion. Certainly Donald Trump basically sucker-punched Volodymyr Zelensky from literally Day One of Zelensky’s presidency, so he wasn’t a very good ally to him despite authorizing military aid. Putin was right about that.

And I think Putin just wanted more Ukrainian land and a new government in Kyiv, so I wonder if he could have gotten that from Trump.

Peter: Well, Putin said that part of his goal was to drive a wedge in the West. You didn’t need to necessarily do that because it was already happening. 

The anecdote about Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, where he is stumped and asks himself, What does Putin have on Trump? After all this reporting over all these years, after writing this book, do you have a working theory of why Trump was so in Putin’s thrall?

Peter: It’s a great unanswered question that I think we’re going to be debating for years to come. I don’t think we have a crystal clear answer. We didn’t find any evidence that would contradict Robert Mueller’s conclusion about a criminal conspiracy, but there’s obvious continual connections and affinity that he shows with Putin that still remain mysterious and unexplained. It could be as simple as his affinity for strongmen. Some of his own aides, including those who worked on the Russia account, would tell you he just really likes strongmen and Putin is the ultimate strongman. That’s how he sees himself. That’s how he sees the world. And I heard him as a reporter, traveling with him, talking rapturously about Xi Jinping and other autocrats. It could be as simple as that. 

Michael Cohen, his former attorney, says it’s all about money. The Russians were a source of money to the Trumps early in their real estate career and he sees Russia as a potential source of their future business prospects. And therefore, he doesn’t want to alienate somebody who could be lucrative for him. He lost that access to American banks, but he needed the cash from elsewhere. Russia was a great place for that. So there are multiple explanations. It may not be as nefarious as an outright Manchurian Candidate kind of thing, but it doesn’t mean it’s not problematic. I think that’s one of the things that we’re going to be exploring for years to come.

Susan: Amazingly, despite all of the work that’s been done, despite all of the investigations, despite all the reporting, we need to know more. Even as we’re having this fucking conversation, it’s worth noting that Donald Trump’s tax returns still haven’t been made public. We still don’t understand the extent to which Russians were or were not financing the Trump Organization. I think that this is why we have to have a historical inquiry about the Trump presidency. It’s a five-alarm fire for American democracy. We have to keep going back at it, and going back at it, and going back at it, to understand what really happened here. 

Do you think it’s important that Trump, at some point, be indicted? For either the classified documents he stashed at Mar-a-Lago or for fomenting the attack on the Capitol?

Peter: I think that’s one of the key debates of our era. The challenge for Merrick Garland is going to be, what is the impact on American democracy at this point? If there was reason to indict, if you were to do it, does that then discredit democracy in other places that see us therefore as just a banana republic where one party takes power and prosecutes the other party? Or does it tell half of this country that this is just political? Or, on the flip side, if you don’t hold somebody accountable, if you get away with multiple seeming violations of the law and you don’t actually do anything about it, what does that say about democracy? Does it mean that we don’t believe our own adage, that no person is above the law? I think that’s a really, really, really hard debate that goes beyond the specific statutes and subpoenas and all the stuff we’re debating right now. 

Susan: I just want to underscore—with an exclamation point!—that accountability is what so many people feel Trump escaped again and again and again. That is another way that the credibility of institutions suffers, not just by Trump’s direct frontal attacks on those institutions, but on the perception that the mechanisms that are in place to protect an unchecked executive somehow aren’t functioning.