Syrian Collusion: Trump, Erdoğan & Putin

Having recklessly given Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey the green light to invade Syria, how did Donald Trump fudge his decision? He wrote the Turkish leader a letter that began “Let’s work out a good deal!” and ended by telling Erdoğan: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”  What glorious sophistication from our president, a man who told his biographer, Michael D’Antonio: “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same.”  To which I say, amen.

Yesterday, Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin met to put their seal on Syria and there’s more to come. Russia is going to build Turkey a nuclear reactor for supposedly civilian purposes, as if the nuclear-weapons the U.S. has at its airbase in nominally NATO-allied Turkey isn’t already enough of a risk. As the stakes go up, what kind of man is Erdoğan? Will he answer Trump’s appeal to “get this done the right and humane way” or be the “devil” Trump’s letter also warned him not to be?

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The verdict is already known, by actions large and small: those already being enacted on the ground in Syria and in the characteristic facial expressions of Erdoğan. In doing the analysis that went into my book, Two Cheers for Democracy: How Emotions Drive Leadership Style, a clear emotional algorithm emerged. However explicit their “strongman” rule, those inclined more to dictatorship than democracy lacked happiness and were, instead, inclined to displays of anger and disgust. While Trump’s too sad to exemplify the model entirely, Putin comes close, and Erdoğan fits the model perfectly. If you’re one of those Kurds Trump faulted for not fighting alongside us on D-Day in France, don’t lose sleep trying to divine Erdoğan’s nature. The answer is written all over his face.

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Intelligence Chief Dan Coats Given Shock Treatment

You’ve got to hand it to Donald Trump: there’s nothing like leaving dumbfounded on stage the man supposed to be the country’s Director of National Intelligence. I’m referring of course to the latest twist to the Helsinki summit and its aftermath, insofar as it involves Dan Coats. During a session with Andrea Mitchell at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, Coats got the breaking news right along with everyone else in the world that Vladimir Putin is being invited to the White House sometime this fall.

Sure, Coats offered an expression of mock surprise on hearing the White House’s tweet. Maybe that look is what The New York Times, for instance, was referring to when it said Coats “expressed surprise” and “appeared genuinely astonished.” But in non-verbal terms, that was the least of Coats’s actual emotional response to the Twitter announcement.

First, Coats’s mock surprise already contained a hint of more than mere surprise (as noteworthy as surprise is in this case). When a person’s mouth drops open while simultaneously pulling wider, fear is as much a part of the equation as surprise. Coats diplomatically surrendered to laughter and a series of big smiles that began with replying: “Say that again.” But Coats’s first, camouflaging look of mock surprise already contained within it the seeds of Coats’s actual, more enduring and substantive reaction to having Trump invite into the White House the man who metaphorically speaking has been busy burglarizing it.

A playful version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream was, after all, just the start of Coats’s emoting. “Okay. That’s going to be special,” Coats added, his mouth pulled slightly wide in unadorned fear after saying “okay” —though feeling exactly the opposite.

Then Mitchell pressed the point by mentioning that Trump and Putin were alone for over two hours in Helsinki. Coats gulped at that idea, and again his mouth pulled wide in fear. “How do you have any idea what happened in that meeting?” was Mitchell’s follow-up. In replying, “Well, you’re right. I don’t know,” Coats now brought anger into play with a look of eyes flashing wide open (a sign of fear, anger and, yes, surprise). And it was anger that Coats most felt by the end of this particular exchange with Mitchell. “So, um, it is what it is,” the Director of National Intelligence concluded, those conciliatory words offset by the way Coats’s eyes had narrowed and his lips had grown taut.

You could say Coats graduated to anger in recognizing that being so left out of the loop is, in effect, a measure of Trump’s disrespect for, and humiliation of, all or nearly all of the people who work for him in this administration. Coats no doubt resents Trump’s behavior, as much as Trump will surely punish Coats for honesty, independence and patriotism instead of unquestioned loyalty to him.

The bigger picture here is that Trump relishes indulging in surprises that leave much of the universe dumbfounded.  The E.U. is America’s leading “foe,” NATO is “obsolete,” and the press is supposedly the true “enemy of the people.” Putin and his idol, Joseph Stalin, couldn’t say it better. As emotions, surprise and fear are fellow travelers. Many of the facial expressions that reveal surprise also reveal fear, which makes sense because human beings don’t generally welcome surprises. Something new can be threatening, and certainly it is in the case of Trump. What’s next? Who knows—certainly not Coats. Why stop with inviting Putin the arch-burglar into The White House? Forget about the G-7. Why shouldn’t Trump convene a gathering of the world’s greatest dictators instead? Here’s a suggestion: he can dub this new group the D-7 and thereby champion the rise of strongmen everywhere.

The Incredible Trump-Putin Summit in Helsinki

“No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up” (with reality), Fran Lebowitz once said, a comment that aptly summarizes the bizarre press conference held following the private, two-hour talk between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Finland. What was bizarre about the summit? For one thing, Putin was actually happy at times and Trump was, too. If Russia had some kind of incriminating video about him, it “would have been out long ago” Trump claimed, all smiles, as if retaining leverage wouldn’t be more helpful to Putin’s cause.

The cat that swallowed the canary was surely the subtext of Putin’s smile when the two men emerged to begin the press conference. Whatever Putin heard in private must have been pleasing, as was the spectacle of being again a super power sharing the world stage with America’s leader.

Donald was Donald. Have you heard that he won the election after a “brilliant” campaign? Or that there wasn’t any collusion (“I didn’t even know” Putin, Trump said, sarcastically smiling). On this day, Putin had the more interesting body language. Yes, he exhibited the usual smirks – like when Trump insisted the goal of meeting was for the “greater good of all.” Putin’s concern about the humanitarian crisis in Syria was certainly touching. His adroit sense of humor in making what Trump characterized as the “incredible offer” of having Russia itself “interrogate” the 12 men Muller indicted on Friday was likewise a masterpiece of obfuscation delivered with only the slightest of ironic smiles.

But even the often tight-lipped ex-KGB officer couldn’t manage not to give away his discomfort when the question became:  who did Trump believe regarding alleged Russian interference, the FBI or Putin? Then Russia’s leader pulled back his upper body, rubbed his head, kept his eyes down, and hid his lips with his hand—all in the matter of 25 seconds—in knowing that dishonestly earning trust was the key to the day. Could he get through Trump’s answer that Russia had no plausible motive for interfering in America’s election without betraying fear if caught red-handed or laughter on getting away with it?

Did Putin want Trump to win the election? Ah, there was motive directly inquired about and for a moment Putin was truthful: “Yes” was the answer, accompanied by wrinkles forming in the middle of Putin’s forehead as his eyebrows lifted in a sign of feelings that include apprehension. Otherwise, it was all pretty smooth sailing. “You can trust no one if you believe” these allegations about Russian hacking, Putin informed us, which is indeed true. Trust no one on that stage in Helsinki. Putin is Putin, and meanwhile Trump has cheated on everyone and everything from his customers, vendors and wives to his country, without even the slightest hint of shame.