Trump and Putin: Some 1980s Background

What do interviews in the 1980s and 1990s with Donald Trump tell us about his attitudes toward Russia and nuclear weapons?

The interviews are oblivious to world events taking place at that time. They are basically gossip columns by Lois Romano and William E. Geist, 1984; Ron Rosenbaum, 1987; Mark Singer, 1997. Descriptions of Trump’s lavish quarters and sycophantic workers, his expensive clothes, and his ease in getting a table at a restaurant figure prominently in the introductory paragraphs.

Nuclear issues and Russia are minor parts of the Romano and Singer interviews and even less of Geist’s, but what Rosenbaum capitalizes as The Problem, nuclear proliferation, is central to his interview. The interviewers all knew that the subjects were likely to come up, but seem not to have prepared. Rosenbaum cites a recent article of his and a visit to a nuclear silo control room as preparation, along with his revulsion at one proposed and rejected aspect of nuclear doctrine and sharing in the then-common wisdom that the summit at Reykjavik was a failure.

That lack of preparation leads to weak questions and no followup.

Here are the bullet points I compiled on Trump’s comments in those interviews:

  • Trump is a gifted negotiator
  • Previous negotiators have been inadequate
  • Trump doesn’t want to reveal his thinking
  • “It would take an hour-and-a-half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles . . . I think I know most of it anyway.”
  • Building up suspense with the interviewer by canceling and renewing the interview
  • Inflating himself by implying high-level connections
  • “The Subject” is utterly secret, but Trump is willing to dish about it in a public restaurant
  • Nobody else understands the danger

We have heard all of this recently. Trump’s general approach has not changed.

In 1997, Singer recalls Trump’s 1987 comments about working with the Soviets “to coördinate a formula for coping with Armageddon-minded lunatics.” This is an introduction to the appearance of Alexander Lebed at Trump’s offices. Lebed was a candidate for president in the 1996 Russian elections, running in favor of a more dictatorial government at a time when Russian institutions were in flux. He also argued that a large number of suitcase nuclear weapons had escaped the Russian government’s control. There was then and is now no evidence for that.

The entire discussion with Lebed is trivial, but he compliments Trump: “I told the New York Times I was talking to you because you are a professional—a high-level professional—and if you invest, you invest in real stuff. Serious, high-quality projects. And you deal with serious people. And I deem you to be a very serious person. That’s why I’m meeting you.” Trump sums up the meeting: Lebed is a tough guy that you “wouldn’t want to play nuclear weapons with,” but he loves Trump.

Rosenbaum felt his interview was important enough to reprint it in Slate. It also appeared in a book that was reviewed in June 1987. Thus, the interview must have been earlier in the year, before Trump’s July trip to Moscow.

Rosenbaum describes in detail how Trump softened him up. Referring coyly to nuclear proliferation as The Subject. Canceling the interview and then rescheduling it. Worrying that some reporters might make him look like an idiot. And it worked. Rosenbaum says “I’ve come to feel protective about Donald Trump.” He believes that Trump is serious. And knows how to make deals. He also writes in sentence fragments like this.

Financier Bernard Baruch’s presentation in the United Nations in 1946 of a plan to prevent the arms race shows that businessmen can have good ideas about such things, Rosenbaum tells us. If he had dug further, he would have found that the Baruch Plan was based on the Acheson-Lilienthal report, written by a committee of statesmen and scientists. Baruch had the background to appreciate it, but he could never have written it himself. And, though President Harry Truman appointed him to do the presentation because of his experience as a negotiator, the Baruch Plan was firmly rejected by the Soviet Union.

So Rosenbaum gives in to the nihilism that elected Trump: “What could we possibly have to lose by placing all nuclear negotiating in the hands of Donald Trump?”

Trump’s story is disjointed and disorganized, but a few themes stand out. Trump almost cancels the interview because he wants to keep his thoughts on The Problem secret, but then he and Rosenbaum talk about it at a restaurant where Trump admirers keep butting in. Trump is concerned about crazy leaders like Muammar Qaddafi getting nukes and has special animus toward the French for allegedly selling nuclear technology carelessly. He believes that a nuclear weapon could be miniaturized to briefcase, even tape recorder size.  He gives no evidence for any of this.

A great negotiator is needed. Not necessarily him, he says, but someone like him who could negotiate a much better deal than people in government service who are paid low salaries because the private sector doesn’t want them.

He intersperses commercials for Trump properties into the conversation.

Another commercial for a Trump property and his deal-making skills, this one much longer.

The gist of Trump’s deal, in a wordy and unclear description, seems to be an agreement between the United States and the Soviets to squeeze economically any other nation that they deem to be behaving badly with respect to nuclear weapons. No carrots, just sticks. “You do whatever is necessary so these people will have riots in the street, so they can’t get water. So they can’t get Band-Aids, so they can’t get food. Because that’s the only thing that’s going to do it—the people, the riots.”

He seems to want to roll back France’s nuclear status.

They’ve got the bomb, but they don’t have it now with the delivery capability they will have in five years. I f they didn’t give it up—and I don’t mean reduce it, and I don’t mean stop, because stopping doesn’t mean anything. I mean get it out. If they didn’t, I would bring sanctions against that country that would be so strong, so unbelievable…

At this point, Rosenbaum draws back a little and recognizes that this is not a plan. But he feels protective of Trump’s vision.


The interviews were poorly done, with too much deference to Trump, who was clearly manipulating the interviewers. Tendencies appear that we see today in his words and actions. Whether he has a well-formed plan remains unclear.

Trump’s (and Rosenbaum’s) concerns about the fragility of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty were wrong. Since 1987, Pakistan, India, and North Korea have added themselves to the list of countries holding nuclear weapons. Iran was moving down that road, but the world responded and held them back. South Africa and Libya gave up their nuclear weapons programs.  A total of nine nations hold nuclear weapons, and four are outside the NPT. Not perfect, but not as bad as projected by Trump. Economic sanctions played some role in the outcome, but not to the extent Trump expected.

In 1987, Trump saw collaboration with the Soviet Union as a way to use brutal force against countries to bend them to his will. That he chose to meet with Alexander Lebed in 1997, who felt that Russia needed to be more dictatorial in its government, suggests that those views continued. His current siding with autocratic governments in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to force certain behaviors on Qatar follows this pattern.

His admiration for Vladimir Putin is of a piece with this. It is possible he still believes a nuclear duopoly can be enforced across the world. His desire to ally with Putin suggests that he is unsure about his ability to pull off such a maneuver and needs a stronger, more knowledgeable partner. The entire scheme is similar to the workings of organized crime, a part of the New York real estate mileu. Subsequent events, like his attempts to co-opt James Comey and Preet Bharara, also suggest tactics of organized crime.

Does this mean, as Sarah Kendzior says, that Trump has a plan to join with Putin to control nuclear weapons across the world? Trump’s track record so far argues against a long-range plan. But his inclinations could lean toward such an arrangement if the opportunity presented itself. Whether Putin would find Trump an acceptable partner in such an enterprise, or if he even sees such an enterprise as worthwhile, are other questions.


Graphic from The Daily Star.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice.