Milbank: Trump ought to prove he’s no puppet of Putin’s

By Dana Milbank

After my aunt died recently, a cousin found in her papers the “Petition for Naturalization” that our great-grandfather signed in 1913, 13 years after emigrating from Russia.

The wording on the yellowed page required my ancestor to affirm that he was neither anarchist nor polygamist. The oath continued: “It is my intention to become a citizen of the United States and to renounce absolutely and forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, and particularly to Nicholas II, Emperor of all the Russias.”

The oath differs from the one President-elect Donald Trump will take at his inauguration. But if it was important enough for our nation to require a Brooklyn tailor a century ago to renounce the czar, is it too much to ask that our new president promise the same?

I’m not questioning Trump’s citizenship or patriotism. But it would be reassuring to see him renounce fidelity to another repressive leader of Russia — to demonstrate that he is “no puppet” of Vladimir Putin.

The renewed attention to Trump’s Russia ties is welcome, but the unverified “dossier” published last week is a distraction. Hotel liaisons don’t threaten American security. The danger is that Putin and his allies might control a chunk of Trump’s debt and therefore hold hostage his financial stability.

Trump arguably owes his election to Putin. (In an election as close as this one, any number of minor factors could have been decisive, including the Russians’ leaks of Democrats’ hacked emails.) And he refuses to do the things that would remove fears that Putin has sway over Trump’s finances: release his tax returns, divest of his businesses or put them into a blind trust. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder if the incoming president is beholden to one of the nation’s most wily adversaries.

Here’s what we know:

Trump, once the self-described “king of debt,” now claims he isn’t highly leveraged, but there’s no way to verify this without tax returns. A New York Times examination last year found at least $650 million in debt, twice the amount that could be found in Trump’s financial disclosure.

Though Trump has insisted he has no financial dealings with Russia, his son Donald Trump Jr. declared in 2008: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. … We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

As The Washington Post’s Michael Kranish recapped last week, Trump has attempted several deals in Russia over decades. He received $95 million from an oligarch for a Palm Beach mansion in 2008 and untold more from Russian investors buying his condos.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported last week that the FBI unsuccessfully applied for a warrant during the summer to monitor four members of Trump’s team suspected of “irregular contacts with Russian officials.”

Russia’s deputy foreign minister told the Interfax state news agency that the government had “contacts” with Trump’s campaign and knows “most of the people from his entourage.” Trump’s campaign denied this.

Trump declined again last week to release his tax returns. Instead of selling his businesses or creating a blind trust, he announced that he gave control to his adult sons with his (unenforceable) assurance that “they’re not going to discuss it with me.”

While having all these known or potential entanglements with Russia, Trump has questioned the value of NATO, said he would consider removing sanctions against Russia and recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, spoken favorably of Putin’s leadership and resisted blaming Putin for cyberattacks and human-rights abuses. Trump hired as his national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has appeared on Russia’s state-owned RT network and sat with Putin at a dinner celebrating the network.

Trump also tapped to be secretary of state Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil chief who received the Order of Friendship award from Putin’s government. At his confirmation hearing, Tillerson declined to say Putin had committed war crimes or approved the killing of opponents and journalists. He left open the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia.

Happily, Trump’s picks to run the Pentagon and CIA were more skeptical of Russia in testimony, but that potentially puts them at odds with their commander in chief.

Asked last week whether he agreed that Putin tried to help him win the election and whether he would rescind Obama’s actions punishing Russia, Trump replied: “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.”

Clearly. And Putin, just as clearly, considers Trump an asset. The question is whether Trump is Putin’s asset because the Russian president controls the American president’s liabilities.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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