Esper Says He Saw No Evidence Iran Targeted 4 Embassies, as Story Shifts Again

The disparity between the defense secretary and President Trump added another twist to an ever-evolving explanation for a strike on an Iranian general that led to the brink of war.

They had to kill him because he was planning an “imminent” attack. But how imminent they could not say. Where they could not say. When they could not say. And really, it was more about what he had already done. Or actually it was to stop him from hitting an American embassy. Or four embassies. Or not.

For 10 days, President Trump and his team have struggled to describe the reasoning behind the decision to launch a drone strike against Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite security forces, propelling the two nations to the brink of war. Officials agree they had intelligence indicating danger, but the public explanations have shifted by the day and sometimes by the hour.

On Sunday came the latest twist. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he was never shown any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as Mr. Trump had claimed just two days earlier.

“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Mr. Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But he added: “I share the president’s view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”

The sharp disparity between the president and his defense secretary only added to the public debate over the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general and whether there was sufficient justification for an operation that escalated tensions with Iran, aggravated relations with European allies and prompted Iraq to threaten to expel United States forces. General Suleimani was deemed responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers in the Iraq war more than a decade ago, but it was not clear whether he had specific plans for a mass-casualty attack in the near future.

The Trump Administration’s Fluctuating Explanations for the Suleimani Strike

While agreeing that General Suleimani was generally a threat, Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, have said the administration has not provided evidence even in classified briefings to back up the claim of an “imminent” attack, nor has it mentioned that four embassies were targeted. Even some Pentagon officials have said privately that they were unaware of any intelligence suggesting that a large-scale attack was in the offing.

But senior government officials with the best access to intelligence have insisted there was ample cause for concern even if it has not been communicated clearly to the public. Gina Haspel, the director of the C.I.A., and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — who were both appointed by Mr. Trump but are career officials without a political history — have said privately and forcefully that the intelligence was compelling and that they were convinced a major attack was coming.

The challenge for the Trump administration is persuading the public, which has been skeptical about intelligence used to justify military action since President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 based on what turned out to be inaccurate intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Trump himself has made clear in other circumstances that he does not trust the intelligence agencies that he is now citing to justify his decision to eliminate General Suleimani. Moreover, given his long history of falsehoods and distortions, Mr. Trump has his own credibility issues that further cloud the picture. All of which means the administration’s failure to provide a consistent explanation has sown doubts and exposed it to criticism.

“If indeed the strike was taken to disrupt an imminent threat to U.S. persons — and that picture seems to be getting murkier by the minute — the case should be made to Congress and to the public, consistent with national security,” said Lisa Monaco, a former senior F.B.I. official and homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama. “Failure to do so hurts our credibility and deterrence going forward.”

Intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive data collection, have said there was no single definitive piece of information about a coming attack. Instead, C.I.A. officers described a “mosaic effect,” multiple scraps of information that came together indicating that General Suleimani was organizing proxy forces around the region, including in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, to attack American embassies and bases.

Several officials said they did not have enough concrete information to describe such a threat as “imminent,” despite the administration’s assertion, but they did see a worrying pattern. A State Department official has privately said it was a mistake for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to use the word “imminent” because it suggested a level of specificity that was not borne out by the intelligence.

“I have not seen the intelligence, just to be clear, but it is sometimes possible for the reporting of planned attacks to be very compelling even without specificity of time, target or method,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former acting C.I.A. director. “In a sense, that is the story of 9/11. Our reporting gave us high confidence that a big attack was coming — and we so warned — but we were unable to nail down key details.”

Mr. McLaughlin said that the administration may well have had intelligence adequate to compel action, but that it was a separate question whether killing General Suleimani was the most effective response, as opposed to hardening targets or choosing a less provocative option.

John B. Bellinger III, who was the top lawyer for the National Security Council and later the State Department under Mr. Bush, said the president would have legal authority to strike under the Constitution whether or not there was fear of an imminent attack.

But under the United Nations Charter, the United States cannot use force in another country without its consent or the authority of the Security Council except in response to an armed attack or a threat of an imminent armed attack. “So under international law, the attack on Suleimani would not have been lawful unless he presented an imminent threat,” Mr. Bellinger said.

Claims that an imminent attack could take “hundreds of American lives,” as Mr. Pompeo put it right after the drone strike, have also generated doubts because no attack in the Middle East over the past two decades, even at the height of the Iraq war, has ever resulted in so many American casualties at once in part because embassies and bases have become so fortified.

The contrast in descriptions of what the administration knew and what it did not came in quick succession on a single Fox News show last week.

On Thursday night, Mr. Pompeo, while sticking by his description of an “imminent” attack, acknowledged that the information was not concrete. “We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” he told the host, Laura Ingraham.

The next day, in a separate interview, Mr. Trump told Ms. Ingraham that in fact he did know where. “I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” he said.

That left administration officials like Mr. Esper in an awkward position when they hit the talk show circuit on Sunday. While the defense secretary revealed on CBS that he had not seen intelligence indicating four embassies were targeted, he sounded more supportive of Mr. Trump’s claim on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said, seeming to make a distinction between belief and specific intelligence. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, played down Mr. Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four American embassies in the region.

“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”

“But,” he added, “we had very strong intelligence.”

Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the administration’s most outspoken Republican critics after the strike, said on CNN that he worried about the quality of the information that national security officials were sharing with Congress and had not “been able to yet ascertain specific details of the imminence of the attack.”

“I believe that the briefers and the president believed that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack, I don’t doubt that, but it is frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it,” he said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi struck a similar tone, telling ABC’s “This Week” that “I don’t think the administration has been straight with the Congress of the United States” about the reasons for killing General Suleimani.

On “Face the Nation,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, accused the president and his top aides of “fudging” the intelligence.

“Frankly, I think what they are doing is overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows,” Mr. Schiff said. Officials briefing the so-called Gang of Eight top congressional leaders never said that four embassies were targeted, he added. “In the view of the briefers, there was plotting, there was an effort to escalate being planned, but they didn’t have specificity.”

A Mar-a-Lago Weekend and an Act of God: Trump’s History With Deutsche Bank

At Deutsche Bank, Mr. Offit’s mandate was to lend money to big real estate developers, package the loans into securities and sell the resulting bonds to investors. He said in an interview that one way to stand out in a crowded market was to make loans that his rivals considered too risky.

In 1998, a broker contacted him to see if he would consider lending to a Wall Street pariah: Mr. Trump, who was then a casino magnate whose bankruptcies had cost banks hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mr. Offit took the meeting.

A few days later, Mr. Offit’s secretary called him. “Donald Trump is in the conference room,” she whispered. Mr. Offit said he rushed in, expecting to find an entourage. Mr. Trump was alone.

He was looking for a $125 million loan to pay for gut renovations of 40 Wall Street, his Art Deco tower in Lower Manhattan. Mr. Offit was impressed by the pitch, and the loan sailed through Deutsche Bank’s approval process.

Mr. Trump seemed giddy with gratitude, Mr. Offit recalled. He took Mr. Offit golfing. He flew him by helicopter to Atlantic City for boxing matches. He wrote a grateful note to Sidney Offit for having “a great son!”

Mr. Offit commissioned a detailed model of 40 Wall Street. A golden plaque on its pedestal bore the names and logos of Deutsche Bank and the Trump Organization. Mr. Offit gave one to Mr. Trump and kept another in his office.

Mr. Trump soon came looking for $300 million for the construction of a skyscraper across from the United Nations headquarters. The loan was approved. He wanted hundreds of millions more for his Trump Marina casino in Atlantic City. Mr. Offit pledged to line up cash for that, too.

Not long after, Edson Mitchell, a top bank executive, discovered that the signature of the credit officer who had approved the Trump Marina deal had been forged, Mr. Offit said. (Mr. Offit was never accused of forgery; the loan never went through.)

Mr. Offit was fired months later. He said it was because Mr. Mitchell claimed that he was reckless, a charge Mr. Offit disputed.

It was the first hiccup in the Trump relationship. It would not be the last.

Over the next few years, the commercial real estate group, with Mr. Kennedy now in a senior role, kept lending to Mr. Trump, including to buy the General Motors building in Manhattan. Occasionally, Justice Kennedy stopped by Deutsche Bank’s offices to say hello to the team, executives recalled.

At an annual pro-am golf tournament the bank hosted outside Boston in the early 2000s, Mr. Trump sat down for a recorded interview with the bank’s public relations staff, who asked about his experience with Deutsche Bank.

“It’s great,” Mr. Trump exclaimed, according to a person who witnessed the interview. “They’re really fast!”

In 2003, a Deutsche Bank team led by Richard Byrne — a former casino-industry analyst who had known Mr. Trump since the 1980s — was hired to sell bonds on behalf of Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts. Bank officials escorted Mr. Trump to meet institutional investors in New York and Boston, according to an executive who attended.

The so-called roadshow seemed to go well. At every stop, Mr. Trump was greeted by large audiences of fund managers, executives and lower-level employees eager to see the famous mogul. The problem, as a Deutsche Bank executive would explain to Mr. Trump, was that few of them were willing to entrust money to him.

Mr. Trump requested an audience with the bank’s bond salesmen.

According to a Deutsche Bank executive who heard the remarks, Mr. Trump gave a pep talk. “Fellas, I know this isn’t the easiest thing you’ve had to sell,” the executive recalled Mr. Trump saying. “But if you get this done, you’ll all be my guests at Mar-a-Lago,” his private club in Palm Beach, Fla.

The sales team managed to sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bonds. Mr. Trump was pleased with the results when a Deutsche Bank executive called, according to a person who heard the conversation.

“Don’t forget what you promised our guys,” the executive reminded him.

Mr. Trump said he did not remember and that he doubted the salesmen actually expected to be taken to Mar-a-Lago.

“That’s all they’ve talked about the past week,” the executive replied.

Mr. Trump ultimately flew about 15 salesmen to Florida on his Boeing 727. They spent a weekend golfing with Mr. Trump, two participants said.

A year later, in 2004, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts defaulted on the bonds. Deutsche Bank’s clients suffered steep losses. This arm of the investment-banking division stopped doing business with Mr. Trump.

.. Mr. Trump told Deutsche Bank his net worth was about $3 billion, but when bank employees reviewed his finances, they concluded he was worth about $788 million, according to documents produced during a lawsuit Mr. Trump brought against the former New York Times journalist Timothy O’Brien. And a senior investment-banking executive said in an interview that he and others cautioned that Mr. Trump should be avoided because he had worked with people in the construction industry connected to organized crime.

Nonetheless, Deutsche Bank agreed in 2005 to lend Mr. Trump more than $500 million for the project. He personally guaranteed $40 million of it, meaning the bank could come after his personal assets if he defaulted.

By 2008, the riverside skyscraper, one of the tallest in America, was mostly built. But with the economy sagging, Mr. Trump struggled to sell hundreds of condominium units. The bulk of the loan was due that November.

Then the financial crisis hit, and Mr. Trump’s lawyers sensed an opportunity.

A provision in the loan let Mr. Trump partially off the hook in the event of a “force majeure,” essentially an act of God, like a natural disaster. The former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan had called the financial crisis a tsunami. And what was a tsunami if not a natural disaster?

.. One of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Steven Schlesinger, told him the provision could be used against Deutsche Bank.

“It’s brilliant!” Mr. Schlesinger recalled Mr. Trump responding.

Days before the loan was due, Mr. Trump sued Deutsche Bank, citing the force majeure language and seeking $3 billion in damages. Deutsche Bank countersued and demanded payment of the $40 million that Mr. Trump had personally guaranteed.

With the suits in court, senior investment-banking executives severed ties with Mr. Trump.

.. Ms. Vrablic’s superiors encouraged her to make loans that rival banks dismissed as too large or complex. They saw it as a way to elbow into the hypercompetitive New York market.

.. One of Ms. Vrablic’s clients was Jared Kushner, who married Ivanka Trump in 2009. Mr. Kushner regarded Ms. Vrablic as the best banker he had ever worked with, according to a person familiar with his thinking.

Shortly after the Chicago lawsuit was settled, Mr. Kushner was told that Mr. Trump was looking for a loan and introduced him to Ms. Vrablic, according to people familiar with the relationship.

.. Mr. Trump flew Ms. Vrablic to Miami to show her a property he wanted to buy: the Doral Golf Resort and Spa. He needed more than $100 million for the 72-hole property.

Deutsche Bank dispatched a team to Trump Tower to inspect Mr. Trump’s personal and corporate financial records. The bankers determined he was overvaluing some of his real estate assets by as much as 70 percent, according to two former executives.

.. By then, though, Mr. Trump had become a reality-TV star, and he was swimming in cash from “The Apprentice.” Deutsche Bank officials also were impressed that Mr. Trump did not have much debt, according to people who reviewed his finances. Aside from his history of defaults, he was an attractive borrower.

Mr. Trump also expressed interest in another loan from the private-banking division: $48 million for the same Chicago property that had provoked the two-year court fight.

Mr. Trump told the bank he would use that loan to repay what he still owed the investment-banking division, the two former executives said. Even by Wall Street standards, borrowing money from one part of a bank to pay off a loan from another was an extraordinary act of financial chutzpah.

.. Investment-banking executives, including Anshu Jain, who would soon become Deutsche Bank’s co-chief executive, pushed back. Lending to Mr. Trump again would be foolish, they argued, and signal to clients that they could default and even sue the bank.

Executives in the private bank countered that the proposed loans had Mr. Trump’s personal guarantee and therefore were low risk. And the Chicago loan, they noted, would lead to the repayment of tens of millions of dollars that Mr. Trump still owed the investment-banking division.

A top executive with responsibility for the private bank discussed the loans with Mr. Ackermann, the chief executive, who supported them, according to two officials. A powerful committee in Frankfurt, which evaluated loans based on risks to the bank’s reputation, signed off.

“There is no objection from the bank to proceed with this client,” wrote Stuart Clarke, the chief operating officer for the Americas, in a Dec. 5, 2011, email, according to a recipient.

Deutsche Bank wired the money to Mr. Trump. The loans carried relatively low interest rates, executives said, but the business promised to be profitable: As part of the deal, Mr. Trump would hold millions of dollars in a personal account, generating fees for the bank.

“I have no recollection of having been asked to approve that private-banking loan,” Mr. Ackermann said in an interview. He added: “I would have approved it, if it came to me, if it was commercially sound.”

Ms. Vrablic’s relationship with the Trumps deepened.

Deutsche Bank lent money to Donald Trump Jr. for a South Carolina manufacturing venture that would soon go bankrupt. It provided a $15 million credit line to Mr. Kushner and his mother, according to financial documents reviewed by The Times. The bank previously had an informal ban on business with the Kushners because Jared’s father, Charles, was a felon.

In 2012, Jared Kushner recommended that the editor of The Mortgage Observer, one of the publications he owned, write a profile of Ms. Vrablic. The editor, Carl Gaines, knew Mr. Kushner was her client and objected, according to a person familiar with the exchange.

“Just go meet with her,” Mr. Kushner said. “You’ll figure something out.”

gauzy profile of Ms. Vrablic was published in February 2013.

Shortly afterward, the private bank produced a promotional video featuring some of its marquee clients. The video was played at a retreat for Deutsche Bank’s senior leadership in Barcelona. In it, Ivanka Trump extolled the private bank’s work with her family and thanked their relationship manager, according to two people who saw the video.

.. In early 2014, Mr. Trump and his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, approached Ms. Vrablic about more potential loans.

The owner of the Buffalo Bills had died, and the N.F.L. franchise was up for sale. Mr. Trump was interested, and he needed to show the league he had the financial wherewithal to pull off a transaction that could top $1 billion.

Mr. Trump asked Ms. Vrablic if the bank would be willing to make a loan and handed over bare-bones financial statements that estimated his net worth at $8.7 billion.

.. Mr. Cohen testified to Congress last month that the documents exaggerated Mr. Trump’s wealth. Deutsche Bank executives had reached a similar conclusion. They nonetheless agreed to vouch for Mr. Trump’s bid, according to an executive involved.

Mr. Trump’s bid did not win, but another lending opportunity soon arose.

A federal agency had selected Mr. Trump to transform the Old Post Office Building in Washington into a luxury hotel. But his financial partner — the private equity firm Colony Capital, run by Thomas J. Barrack Jr. — pulled out. Mr. Trump needed nearly $200 million.

.. Because of his decades-long pattern of defaults and his increasingly polarizing political rhetoric — among other things, he had been spreading a lie about President Barack Obama being born overseas — Mr. Trump remained untouchable for most banks.

Ms. Vrablic was willing to help.

In a memo outlining the rationale for the Old Post Office loan, Ms. Vrablic said Mr. Trump was expected to add large sums to his brokerage account if he received the loan, according to an executive who read the document.

This time, there was less internal opposition. One reason: Mr. Jain — by then the bank’s co-chief executive — had a solid relationship with Ms. Vrablic. Mr. Jain accompanied her to meetings with high-profile clients, and he praised her work to colleagues, multiple executives said.

..On a foggy Wednesday in February 2013, Ms. Vrablic and Mr. Jain went to Trump Tower to meet with Mr. Trump, according to two executives with knowledge of the meeting. Ms. Vrablic’s rapport with the client was immediately clear: Mr. Trump’s assistant greeted her as an old friend, and she seemed relaxed with Mr. Trump and his daughter, one executive said.

.. They discussed Mr. Trump’s finances over lunch, and Mr. Jain said he was surprised by his low level of debt, the executives said. After lunch, Ms. Vrablic told her colleagues that Mr. Jain had sounded upbeat about Mr. Trump’s finances.

A $170 million loan to pay for the overhaul of the Old Post Office went through in 2015, and Mr. Trump added more money to his brokerage account. (In May 2016, he reported up to $46 million of stocks and bonds in the account.)

.. On Aug. 6, 2015, Mr. Trump participated in the first Republican presidential debate. He clashed with the Fox News moderator, Megyn Kelly. He flew back to New York early the next morning. That evening, he called in to a CNN talk show and said of Ms. Kelly that there was “blood coming out of her wherever.”

In the intervening hours, Mr. Trump had used a black Sharpie to sign documents for another loan from Deutsche Bank: $19 million for the Doral resort. That brought to more than $300 million the total lent under Ms. Vrablic.

.. On the campaign trail, rivals assailed Mr. Trump’s financial history. In response, he pointed to Deutsche Bank-funded successes like the Old Post Office project, now a gleaming hotel a few blocks from the White House.

.. In early 2016, Mr. Trump asked Ms. Vrablic for one final loan, for his golf course in Turnberry, Scotland.

.. Ms. Vrablic said yes, but a fight soon erupted.

Jacques Brand, who was in charge of Deutsche Bank’s American businesses, angrily objected, partly because of Mr. Trump’s divisive rhetoric.

Ms. Vrablic appealed the decision. Senior executives in Frankfurt, including Christian Sewing, who would become chief executive in 2018, were shocked that the private bank would consider lending Mr. Trump money during the campaign, bank officials said.

The bank’s reputational risk committee killed the transaction in March 2016.

.. That same month, as The Times was preparing an article about Mr. Trump’s excommunication from Wall Street, he cited his warm relationship with Deutsche Bank.

.. “They are totally happy with me,” he said to The Times. “Why don’t you call the head of Deutsche Bank? Her name is Rosemary Vrablic. She is the boss.”

.. After Mr. Trump won the election, Deutsche Bank’s board of directors rushed to understand how the bank had become the biggest lender to the president-elect.

A report prepared by the board’s integrity committee concluded that executives in the private-banking division were so determined to win business from big-name clients that they had ignored Mr. Trump’s reputation for demagogy and defaults, according to a person who read the report.

The review also found that Deutsche Bank had produced a number of “exposure reports” that flagged the growing business with Mr. Trump, but that they had not been adequately reviewed by senior executives.

.. On Deutsche Bank’s trading floor, managers began warning employees not to use the word “Trump” in communications with people outside the bank. Salesmen who violated the edict were scolded by compliance officers who said the bank feared stoking public interest in its ties to the new president.

One reason: If Mr. Trump were to default on his loans, Deutsche Bank would have to choose between seizing his assets or cutting him a lucrative breaka situation the bank would rather resolve in private.

.. Two years after Mr. Trump was sworn in, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. The chamber’s financial services and intelligence committees opened investigations into Deutsche Bank’s relationship with Mr. Trump. Those inquiries, as well as the New York attorney general’s investigation, come at a perilous time for Deutsche Bank, which is negotiating to merge with another large German lender.

Next month, Deutsche Bank is likely to start handing over extensive internal documents and communications about Mr. Trump to the congressional committees, according to people briefed on the process.

Ms. Vrablic, who is intensely private and rarely discusses her personal life with colleagues, declined to comment. People familiar with her thinking said she expected to be called to testify publicly on Capitol Hill.

Donald Trump’s Phony America

There are several kinds of success stories. We emphasize the ones starring brilliant inventors and earnest toilers. We celebrate sweat and stamina. We downplay the schemers, the short cuts and the subterfuge. But for every ambitious person who has the goods and is prepared to pay his or her dues, there’s another who doesn’t and is content to play the con. In the Trump era and the Trump orbit, these ambassadors of a darker side of the American dream have come to the fore.

.. What a con Holmes played with Theranos. For those unfamiliar with the tale, which the journalist John Carreyrou told brilliantly in “Bad Blood,” she dropped out of Stanford at 19 to pursue her Silicon Valley dream, intent on becoming a billionaire and on claiming the same perch in our culture and popular imagination that Steve Jobs did. She modeled her work habits and management style after his. She dressed as he did, in black turtlenecks. She honed a phony voice, deeper than her real one.

She spoke, with immaculate assurance, of a day when it might be on everyone’s bathroom counter: a time saver, a money saver and quite possibly a lifesaver. She sent early, imperfect versions of it to Walgreens pharmacies, which used it and thus doled out erroneous diagnoses to patients. She blocked peer reviews of it and buried evidence of its failures.

This went on not for months but for years, as Holmes attracted more than $900 million of investment money and lured a breathtakingly distinguished board of directors including two former secretaries of state, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger; a former secretary of defense, William Perry; and a future secretary of defense, James Mattis. What they had before them wasn’t proof or even the sturdy promise of revolutionary technology. It was a self-appointed wunderkind who struck a persuasive pose and talked an amazing game.

She was eventually found out, and faces criminal charges that could put her in prison. But there’s no guarantee of that. Meantime she lives in luxury. God bless America.

Theranos was perhaps an outlier in the scope of its deceptions, but not in the deceptions themselves. In an article titled “The Ugly Unethical Underside of Silicon Valley” in Fortune magazine in December 2016, Erin Griffith tallied a list of aborted ventures with more shimmer and swagger than substance, asserting: “As the list of start-up scandals grows, it’s time to ask whether entrepreneurs are taking ‘fake it till you make it’ too far.”

Is Trump Duping Putin?

Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to think that he has been using his strategically incompetent American counterpart to advance his ends. In fact, Donald Trump has dragged everyone into his reality-TV world, in which sensation, exaggeration, and misinformation all serve his only true goal: to be the center of attention.

But the truth is that neither Democrats nor the media have actually had much success in reining in Trump. As for the Republicans, who control both houses of the US Congress, even once-vocal opponents – such as Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz – now lick Trump’s boots. With Trump having bullied his party into submission, it seems unlikely that his failure to deliver for Putin can be blamed on others.

The more likely explanation for Trump’s betrayal of Putin is that his warm rhetoric was, like everything else that comes out of his mouth, driven by his desire for ratings, not any actual interest in – let alone commitment to – helping the Kremlin. Consider how Trump’s early overtures to another strongman, Chinese President Xi Jinping, gave way to a full-blown trade war against that country, which Trump now portrays as America’s enemy.

.. Of course, the world has come to expect broken promises and capriciousness from Trump. What is surprising is how Putin has misread the situation so badly. How could such a keen observer of the US, whose former career as a spy honed his ability to decipher people’s motives and intentions, fail to recognize the falseness of Trump’s promises?

.. If anyone knows that actions speak louder than words, it is Putin, whose words often include transparent denials of documented wrongdoing, from meddling in the US election to violating treaties. Yet Putin continues to ignore Trump’s actions and seeks for more meetings “to touch base” with the ever-complimentary US president, such as at this month’s World War I centenary in Paris or the G20 summit in Argentina.

Putin seems to think that he has been using the strategically incompetent Trump to advance his ends. In fact, Trump has dragged everyone into his reality-TV world, in which sensation, exaggeration, and misinformation all serve his only true goal: to be the last “survivor” on the island. By the time Putin finally realizes that he has been duped, the world will probably have paid a high price in terms of political stability, strategic security, and environmental damage. And Putin will have to pay it, too.