The Trump-Putin Bond That May or May Not Be Real: QuickTake Q&A

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QuickTake: Protecting Vladimir Putin's Image, Popularity

In a crazy political year, it’s one of the crazier questions out there: Is the hard-line leader of America’s historic enemy trying to get Republican candidate Donald Trump elected president? Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have exchanged compliments and suggested their two countries could become closer if Trump is elected. Democrats are warning that Putin is trying to influence the election in Trump’s favor, something Trump explicitly invited before explaining he was just being sarcastic. In their final debate, Clinton charged that Putin sees Trump as his "puppet."

1. What have Trump and Putin said about each other?

In December 2015, Putin praised Trump as talented and colorful, though he didn’t call Trump "a genius," as Trump later claimed. In a September 2016 interview, Putin criticized both Trump and Clinton and refused to publicly declare a preference. For his part, Trump praised Putin as "a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond" and said of Putin, "You know, he feels good about me. I feel, frankly, good about him." At the final debate, Trump said Putin "has outsmarted" Clinton "at every step of the way," including in Syria, and reiterated his belief that Russia and the U.S. should work more closely together. "If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good," he said.

2. Have they ever met?

Apparently not, despite strong hints by Trump to that effect. In a 2013 tweet, Trump wondered if Putin might join him at a beauty pageant in Moscow and "become my new best friend." Though Putin didn’t show, an associate of his, Vladimir Kozhin, did, and met with Trump.

3. Why does this matter?

Though the Cold War is over, the face-off between the U.S. and the Soviet Union still frames much of the world’s military posture. That’s why Trump’s suggestion that he might not deploy the U.S. military if Russia attacked a fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization caused alarm throughout eastern Europe and drew condemnation even from Republicans. The suspected involvement of Russia in hacking and leaking e-mails and internal reports from the Democratic National Committee and from the Gmail account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, raises the equally alarming prospect that Russia is trying to meddle in an American election.

4. Was Russia really involved in hacking e-mails?

On Oct. 7, U.S. intelligence officials said publicly for the first time that they are “confident that the Russian government directed” the hacking and disclosures “to interfere with the U.S. election process," and that "only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities." Since then, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has confirmed that it’s investigating the hack of Podesta’s e-mails as part of its larger Russia probe. Russian government officials have repeatedly denied any involvement.

5. What do Trump and Putin say about that?

Putin said Americans should focus on the information obtained by the hackers and distributed by WikiLeaks, and not be distracted by questions about the hackers’ identities or motivation. “Does it really matter who did it?” he asked. Trump doesn’t accept the opinion of U.S. intelligence agencies, saying at the final debate that Clinton "has no idea whether it’s Russia, China or anybody else."

6. Is Trump popular in Russia?

In a poll of 1,600 Russians by VTsIOM, 29 percent predicted relations with the U.S. would improve under a President Trump, while only 4 percent said that of a President Clinton. There’s anecdotal evidence as well. "We love him here," a pro-Russia taxi driver in Crimea, the former Ukrainian region annexed by Putin in 2014, explained recently. "Tell him he is more than welcome in Crimea.’’

7. Does Trump do business in Russia?

He says he has "zero investments in Russia" but has done business with Russians on major projects including construction of Trump SoHo hotel in Manhattan.

8. What other ties are there?

Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, faced scrutiny for his past work for Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, who was ousted from office in 2014 because of his closeness to Putin’s Russia. Manafort said a published report that he may have received millions of dollars in undisclosed cash payments "is unfounded, silly and nonsensical." He stepped down from the Trump campaign on Aug. 19.

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