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Putin is just waiting for the right moment to spear Trump

TYVA REPUBLIC, RUSSIA - AUGUST 5, 2017: Russia's President Vladimir Putin on vacation. Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS - Credit: Tass/PA Images

Vlad the Lad is the supreme master of the macho man holiday snap…

Vlad the Lad is the supreme master of the macho man holiday snap. Witness the still frames and video footage of Russia’s 64-year-old leader flexing his muscles, bare-chested, wearing only combat pants and wraparound sunglasses in the southern Siberian wilderness. Not to mention the apparent two-hour underwater scuba adventure, chasing a predatory, razor-toothed pike in 17C temperature waters before finally nailing it with a spear gun!

OK, you can call it just another PR exercise in machismo by the Kremlin ruler; a man with a more sophisticated take on narcissism than his rival in the White House. But this time the enthusiasm for pumping out those Putin images globally via every media platform possible exceeded all past records. And there were clear, albeit unspoken, propaganda reason for doing that.

This was a deliberate exercise in upstaging Donald Trump on the holiday photocall battlefront; displaying the slim, muscular Putin presidential physique and flagging up his ability to chase and kill. Not for nothing did the Kremlin propaganda machine also roll out past images of their leader’s past ‘exploits’, seemingly flying combat fighter jets, downing a tiger with a tranquiliser gun, freeing leopards into a wildlife sanctuary and riding bucking stallions (topless, naturally).

It was meant to contrast sharply with President Donald Trump’s controversial 17-day holiday at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. No topless rounds being shot there and not exactly rich on photo shoot opportunities, either.

On one level you can look at Vlad the Lad’s bid to upstage The Donald in the holiday stakes as nothing but a publicity trek deep into theatre of the absurd territory. But then you look further, and consider both the timing and the reasoning behind it. Timing, as any half-decent comedian or political/military strategist can testify, is often everything.

Beyond simply contrasting Vladimir Putin’s brief three-day action man outing in Siberia’s remote Tuva region with Trump’s much-longer sojourn at his New Jersey luxury golf sanctuary, it was also part of the Kremlin calculated response to the president’s crushing bipartisan defeat in both houses of Congress on the thorny issue of tougher US sanctions against Russia.

It has to be seen in the context of the Kremlin’s fury over Trump’s forced surrender on signing the new sanction bill he’d opposed. And, in the process, breaking his Putin-praising campaign trail pledges to reverse President Obama’s Russian sanctions policy and forge a new relationship with the Kremlin, despite its annexation of Crimea, intervention in Ukraine and, above all, its cyber-hacking attempt to swing the US election against Hillary Clinton and in Trump’s favour.

The derision heaped on POTUS after he’d signed the bill in a searing Facebook post by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spoke volumes, with its unusually personal vitriol pitch. (As number two only to Putin himself, there is no doubt Medvedev was attacking with the Russian president’s full approval).

The ‘warning’ that ‘Congress sees Trump as an incompetent player who must be liquidated’ was, according to one former senior Russian intelligence officer contact, ‘meant to wound Donald Trump where it hurts — his ego and vanity — and play into another weakness, his paranoia’. The character weaknesses that the Kremlin now regards as a useful psychological warfare weapon.

So was another line in the Medvedev Facebook fusillade accusing POTUS of ‘complete impotence, in the most humiliating manner, transferring executive power to Congress….the Trump administration has show its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress. The US establishment fully outwitted Trump. The President is not happy about the sanctions, yet he could not but sign the bill’.

The words were chosen carefully to hit where it hurts most, confirms my Russian intelligence source. ‘Impotence’ for its impact on the only US president who has even felt the need to boast about the size of his penis on the campaign trail; ‘outwitted by the US establishment’ because it mocked The Donald’s anti-establishment, ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric that did so much to secure him the White House – to the Kremlin’s initial delight.

But with its additional references to the ‘beginning of a full-fledged trade war’ (and intimation of a potential return to a full-fledged Cold War to boot), it’s now clear that the Putin regime has effectively ‘disowned’ Trump and is gearing up to damage him and his presidency. And that begs many questions on which the fate and fortunes of POTUS, his family and associates could potentially and precariously hinge.

As my Russian intelligence source put it to me: ‘Depending on what Kompromat material the Kremlin holds on Donald Trump personally, or those closely associated with him, it could have the equivalent impact of a political nuclear bomb. If it exists, Vladimir Putin will enjoy the panic and paranoia it’ll trigger, with the White House sweating on if or when it’ll be leaked. You could liken it to a Sword of Damocles strategy.

‘Don’t expect to get the answer anytime soon, though. And it wouldn’t come overtly from the Kremlin, or Russian intelligence services, either. Let’s just say it would find its way circuitously into the public domain the same way damaging information on Hillary Clinton did.’

That’s a view shared by US intelligence chiefs and both pro and anti-Trump Republican Party factions on Capitol Hill, as well as their Democrat opponents. They are also acutely aware of The Donald’s campaign expressions of admiration for Putin’s ‘strong’ (aka autocratic) leadership style and POTUS’s more recent, highly-contentious description of the US constitution’s checks and balances on executive power as ‘archaic’.

There is no doubt either, that the Kremlin also sees Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s decision to empanel a Grand Jury in his escalating ‘Russia Connection’ investigation and (to POTUS’s fury) broaden it beyond the election-meddling allegations into the Trump family’s business history and links, as a further reason to ‘abandon’ a beleaguered president.

As one senior US intelligence source put it to me: ‘There isn’t a scintilla of doubt the Kremlin interfered in last year’s election to help the Trump campaign. The evidence is overwhelming, whatever doubts Donald Trump has tried to throw up. The question we don’t yet have a clear answer to is whether or not there was direct collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

‘But if there is a smoking gun, the Putin regime has the bullets to put in it and fire them if they choose to. The one thing that could hold them back from doing it via some proxy source is that it could risk exposing wealthy, expatriate Russian figures with links to President Putin himself and he might not want to compromise them too.’

Intriguingly, amid the Russian sanctions humiliation and the scorching Medvedev verbal assault, The Donald reacted in an uncharacteristically presidential manner. No Twitter reprisal rant response to the Russian premier’s high-octane insults.

Instead, POTUS turned his Twitter fury on his own Congress, not least against the Republican benches. The Russia sanctions bill he argued was ‘seriously flawed’ and even ‘unconstitutional’ and claimed he’d only stopped from using ‘executive power’ to veto it ‘in the interests of national unity’. While feeling compelled to toss in the ego-boosting contention: ‘I’m worth billions and I can make much better deals than Congress!’

But if that was aimed at somehow placating Putin and Medvedev and currying renewed favour in the Kremlin, The Donald looks set to be sorely disappointed.

Significantly, against this backdrop, the prominent US magazine New Republic unleashed a September issue cover story, written by award-winning investigative journalist Craig Unger titled; ‘Married to the Mob: What Trump Owes The Russian Mafia’.

Unger’s lengthy article’s stark conclusion: ‘Whether Trump knew it or not, Russian mobsters and corrupt oligarchs used his properties not only to launder vast sums of money from extortion, drugs, gambling and racketeering, but even as a base for their criminal activities. In the process, they propped up Trump’s business and enabled him to reinvent his image. Without the Russian Mafia, it is fair to say, Donald Trump would not be President of the United States today.’

The New Republic article also played into the conviction among some senior Republicans that Mueller’s ‘follow the money’ approach to the Trump business empire’s history could prove more fertile ground than his primary investigation into election campaign ‘collusion’.

In another intriguing development, it emerged this week that two Republican staffers from the House Intelligence Committee flew secretly to London this summer in a bid to meet Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer who compiled last year’s explosive report into possible election campaign collusion between the Trump camp and Moscow. It was the 35-page Steele dossier that also contained the hotly-denied claim that Trump cavorted with Russian hookers during the ever-recurring subject of the 2013 Moscow Miss Universe pageant and that Russian intelligence has kompromat material on the alleged incident.

It’s believed that the congressional aides failed to fix a meeting with Steele, a former Moscow-based British spook, or his lawyers. But the secret escapade has sparked a behind the scenes row on Capitol Hill because Democrat party members of the Congressional intelligence committee weren’t informed of the trip. Similarly, neither the Senate Intelligence Committee nor Mueller had a clue about it either. Tension has risen over the affair because both Mueller and the committee were in the process of formally requesting Steele to testify and they have privately expressed their fury over the two Republican aides’ clandestine mission. It’s not yet clear whether Steele has agreed to co-operate, but members of Mueller’s team are said to be ‘pretty optimistic’.

So far, equally intriguingly, it’s a development – along with the New Republic cover story – on which the normally hyperactive POTUS Twitter fingers have remained remarkably still.

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former Sunday Mirror editor

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