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January 18th, 2017

Insight

Putin and Trump: a Very Odd Couple

Suzanne Fields

By Suzanne Fields

Published Dec. 23, 2016

Putin and Trump: a Very Odd Couple

Russian President Vladimir Putin is portrayed by "Saturday Night Live" as a bare-chested Santa Claus sliding down the chimney with a sack full of presents, an energetic muscle-bound figure of fun. He delivers a small surveillance device shaped like an Elf on the Shelf to Donald Trump (played by Alec Baldwin), who is ripe for satire. When the president-elect apologizes for not having a gift in return, the Russian leader replies: "Please, Mr. Trump. You are the gift."

Santa knows who's naughty and who's nice.

Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil and Trump's pick for secretary of state, walks in to take his lumps as a Putin confederate. If "Saturday Night Live" made fun of Tillerson's friendliness toward Putin as a fault, Robert Gates, the former CIA director and a paid-up member of the bipartisan elites, took a different tack the next morning on "Meet the Press." He cast the businessman's relationship with world leaders not as a risk but as an asset.

"Being friendly doesn't make you friends," Gates said. He called the criticism of Tillerson's business connections a "false narrative." In fact, Tillerson's experience and deep knowledge of many countries and the men and women who run them could help America restore its leadership in the world.

Gates observed: "You don't have to negotiate very much with your friends. It's with your adversaries that you have to deal and figure out how to get along."

As the shirtless pretend Putty laughs it up on "Saturday Night Live" with the pretend Tillerson and jokes about their future together, Hillary Clinton persists in a defensive public crouch over her past with the Russian strongman.

At a party she threw at The Plaza Hotel to express her gratitude for her top donors' big bucks, she blamed Putin for her humiliation on Nov. 8. The Russian president interfered in the U.S. election, she said, "because he has a personal beef against me." It was Russian retaliation for critical remarks she made of Russia's parliamentary elections in 2011, which she said were "neither free nor fair."

The Clintons have not always felt that Putin's intentions toward them or toward the United States were hostile, but their friendship doesn't sound like the kind Gates was talking about. In 2010, former President Bill Clinton took $500,000 in speaking fees from a Russian finance company run by former KGB spies with links to Putin. When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she professed optimism about doing high-tech business in Russia. She cheered the visit of a delegation of American executives from information-technology companies that went to Russia to explore joint private-sector initiatives. When Russians visited Silicon Valley she said, "I think it's great that Russia is looking to try to create that kind of center for technology and growth right outside Moscow, and we want to help because we think it's in everyone's interest to do so."

What followed was the Skolkovo Innovation Center, a high-tech Russian-run enclave of researchers and developers supporting startups with global investors. Its success, as measured by the Government Accountability Institute, benefitted the Clintons. The Skolkovo Foundation was a favorite of many Russian and American corporations that gave generously to the Clinton Foundation. Viktor Vekselberg, a billionaire Putin ally who headed the Skolkovo Foundation, was particularly generous.

Power, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder: How you see it depends on whether you're a winner or a loser. "Power is the sum total of wills transferred to one person," Tolstoy famously wrote. And that's certainly how voters who are disappointed over Clinton's defeat perceive Putin's responsibility in the hacking.

Putin actually resembles a character not of Tolstoy but Dostoyevsky, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger observed. "For him, the question of Russian identity is very crucial because, as a result of the collapse of communism, Russia has lost about 300 years of its history," he said. He's figuring out how to bring back pride of place.

Putin is a cold and cunning calculator, Kissinger told CBS News. He thinks the Donald has a unique opportunity to be a positive player in those calculations. He said:

"Donald Trump is a phenomenon that foreign countries haven't seen. I believe he has the possibility of going down in history as a very considerable president because every country now has two things to consider. One, their perception that the previous president, or the outgoing president, basically withdrew America from international politics ... And secondly, that here is a new president who's asking a lot of unfamiliar questions."

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