Back in the USSR: Trump’s Putin KGB Playbook


Protests in Portland

Federal agents decked out in paramilitary gear have agreed to stand down after weeks of clashes with protesters in Portland. But the acting chief of the Department of Homeland Security says the troops will remain in the city until the Trump administration is satisfied that federal property is safe.

The agents, wearing no identifying insignia, have arrested nearly 100 protesters without warrants or probable cause, hustling some into unmarked vans and carting them off to police detention. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler blame the federal intervention for intensifying violence in the city.

This is how political opponents were dealt with in the Soviet Union. KGB agents, armed with clubs and in civilian clothes to evade notice until the order to start bashing heads was received, swept through the small groups of dissidents or refuseniks and detained them for crimes against the regime.

As an Associated Press correspondent in Moscow in the final years of the Communist Party’s grip on power, the sight of people being beaten and arrested for challenging a repressive government was sickening to those of us from Western countries who considered the freedom to peacefully protest a birthright.

It is no coincidence that Trump is embracing the scare tactics and authoritarian overreach of his idol Vladimir Putin, the Russian president and career KGB operative who has skillfully positioned himself to rule for life.

Trump deployed his DHS storm troopers to provoke violence they can then put down with whatever force is needed. It appears to be the president’s new re-election strategy of casting predominantly peaceful crowds protesting racial injustice as anarchists running wild through cities governed by Democrats.

The images of armed agents in riot gear lobbing tear gas and stun grenades loom large in Trump’s latest campaign ads pressing his message of “law and order” and warning that Americans won’t be safe unless he is re-elected in November.

Throughout his term in the White House, Trump has envied Putin’s ability to rule unchallenged. The Kremlin chief controls both houses of the Russian parliament with loyalists from the United Russia party. Putin re-imposed state censorship of the mass media early in his 20-year tenure after a brief post-Soviet period of independent news operations. He keeps opposition politicians like Alexei Navalny at bay with house arrest for violating laws against unauthorized protests. For those who gain ground despite the barriers protecting the incumbent, they can be removed with bogus charges of corruption, as with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Yukos oil company CEO who spent 10 years in prison for funding opposition political campaigns. Some opponents of Putin pay with their lives, like Boris Nemtsov, the former deputy prime minister shot dead in 2015 as he walked home with his girlfriend in the shadow of the Kremlin.

Trump has tried to muzzle U.S. media by pulling White House press passes from reporters who ask him questions he doesn’t like. He is verbally abusive to women reporters and powerful female politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi and the four progressive women of color known as “The Squad.” His cheerleaders at Fox News provide fawning coverage of Trump for right-wing audiences in the sycophantic style of Russian media reporting on Putin. But Trump’s branding of mainstream journalists as “the enemy of the people” has failed to achieve the one-note conformity of news and commentary endured in Russia.    

With control of parliament and the airwaves, Putin recently engineered constitutional changes that allow him to run for the presidency and serve until 2036, when he will be 84. It was his second manipulation of Russia’s term limits to stay in power. It may not be his last if he is still alive and intent on remaining Kremlin leader 16 years from now.

Trump’s deployment of federal forces to Portland and threats to send thousands to other U.S. cities spurs concern that he may engage in similar tactics if he loses his bid for a second term in the Nov. 3 election. Polls increasingly suggest former Vice President Joe Biden holds double-digit leads over Trump. The president’s refusal during a recent interview with Fox News host Chris Wallace to commit to accepting the results of the vote have heightened fears that the federal troop deployments to the Northwest might have been a dry run for what could follow his defeat in November.

Recent indications from Pentagon chief Mark Esper and top U.S. military brass that they will uphold their commitment to nonpartisan command of the armed forces has alleviated some of the frantic hand-wringing over signals from other administration officials that offer no such assurances. Attorney Gen. William Barr used his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee this week to deny there is systemic racism driving the nationwide demands for justice and to parrot Trump’s depiction of the protests as a movement of violent anarchists.

When we journalists covering the Soviet-era suppression of dissent watched the brutality of secret police in quashing peaceful protest we consoled ourselves with the thought that nothing like that could ever happen in our country.

Steve Hurst, a former correspondent colleague who covered the Soviet empire and the Middle East for decades for the Associated Press, NBC and CNN, posted on Facebook his reaction to the incendiary images of the federal troops in Portland:

“I spent most of my career in countries with Interior Ministries to keep an eye on the people and bash them when they got uppity. Now retired, I no longer must travel to have that experience.”  

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


  1. I continue to be disappointed when competent, intelligent journalists like Carol use the fact that Vice President Biden has a substantial poll lead over Trump in the run up to the 2020 election. Carol seems to want to imply that a Trump loss is a foregone conclusion when she states “Polls increasingly suggest former Vice President Joe Biden holds double-digit leads over Trump.”

    Surely Carol knows better, and if she doesn’t she needs to refresh her memory on what happened in 2016. Hilary had a poll lead over Trump before the election and in fact beat Trump by 3 million plus votes. BUT WE DO NOT ELECT PRESIDENTS BY POPULAR VOTE. We elect them with an anachronism called the electoral college. In the future I suggest that if Carol wants to speculate about the 2020 election she focus on what is happening in the five or six key states, not on what the polls say the popular vote might look like.

  2. An apt comparison and a sad one. More and more we see things happening in our country that we once thought impossible. Where will Putin’s playbook steer Trump next?


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