Panorama’s John Sweeney: I fear the Trump-Putin relationship will end very badly

The investigative journalist has faced both men and thinks that despite their friendship, we should be scared

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I’ve challenged both buddies in the world’s great new geobromance – Vladimir Putin on the killings in Ukraine and Donald Trump on his business associate’s links with the mafia – and the Russian strong man was as wily as the American reality TV star was rash.

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Now we see them as butch sweethearts with Putin in the role of Kremlin master to his White House apprentice. That should be enough to make the world – in particular those in Syria and the Ukraine – worried. But if “the Donald” and Vlad fall out, and that prospect is highly likely, they are both ultra-aggressive, prickly, thin-skinned truth-shifters with 14,000 nuclear warheads to play with.

In the flesh, they look like baddies from a badly drawn comic strip. Trump has hair of spun sugar and skin of marmalade; Putin’s Botox gone-wrong gives his flesh a waxy sheen, like the Autons who gobble people up and turn them plastic in Doctor Who.

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Donald Trump and John Sweeney 

Michael D’Antonio, author of the unauthorised 2015 biography Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, told me, “Trump has said: ‘I am the star of my own comic book.’ He believes he’s Superman or Batman – or maybe he’s a villain. He believes in ‘truth, justice and the American way’ but it’s a 1950s framework. In that time it was never anyone but a white older male who was in charge and the bad guys didn’t have the chiselled jaw and the beautiful hair. The bad guys were disfigured, recognisably evil.

“I think he likes to identify people as recognisable enemies and then go after them simply for opposing him. So the American way is Donald Trump, and the enemy is the person he defines as the enemy.

Scarily, D’Antonio thinks the same of Putin: “He is also a comic book character. He’s head of a country whose economy is half that of the State of California and yet on the world stage he looms large because he’s puffed himself up. He’s also a strong man and Trump really admires strong men. He admires the exertion of power and the fact that Putin doesn’t seem inhibited about using it.”

Maybe I’m dead wrong to be fearful that the Trumputin buddy-love may not end well. Some predict that Trump, in power, will morph into a more restrained human being. D’Antonio is not optimistic: “The most powerful person on Earth can be so easily irritated. It can take just a single person to set off a bomb in New York City. If he’s traced to a certain country will Trump unleash a massive attack? We have a person now in charge who’s unpredictable.”

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Trump’s first biographer, Wayne Barrett, who covered his failed ventures into Atlantic City’s casino business in the 1980s, is also not hopeful: “I am full of fear,” he told me.

Putin is a known quantity. Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, calls the former KGB chief, “a thug, a bully and a murderer.” Over the years, three Russians, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, human rights activist Natalya Estemirova and politician Boris Nemtsov, all told me that Putin played dirty. All three were shot dead. No one who ordered their murders has ever been brought to justice.

In 2014, I popped up in a mammoth museum in Siberia and asked Putin about the killings in Ukraine, not just Ukrainians and Russians, but Dutch, Australian and British too: a direct reference to the downing of flight MH17, brought down, the evidence suggests, by a Russian missile by mistake.

His PR Svengali, Dmitry Peskov, looked cross at my cheek but Putin handled it smoothly, answering my question by speaking at length in Russian, blaming the Ukrainians for the deaths, and then moving on as I asked my next question to a wall of Kremlin muscle.

For his handling of a difficult journalist, I mark Putin 9/10. Very good.   

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In 2013, Trump invited me to his golf mansion at Bedminster in New Jersey. The self-certified billionaire likes showing off his money. No one really knows how rich he is – some say he’s not remotely a billionaire. Trump arranged for me to fly in his helicopter, its seatbelt buckles made of fake gold, and took me for a ride in his golf buggy. He drove uncomfortably fast off a small cliff as I squeaked: “I’m a bit worried about the driver.” The Donald and I seemed to be great buddies and at our temporary farewell he pointed at me and said it was a “great honour” to meet me.

A few days later in Trump Tower I challenged him about his relationship with Felix Sater, jailed in 1993 for stabbing a man in the face with the broken off stem of a margarita glass. Sater then got into a pump-and-dump stock market scam with the Gambino crime family and turned FBI informer. The ex-con ended up in Trump Tower as a player in Bayrock, the money behind Trump Soho, a property in Manhattan.

Adopting Trump’s trademark phrase from The Apprentice, I asked him: “Why didn’t you say to Sater, you’re connected with the mafia, you’re fired?” Trump said that he couldn’t be expected to know about everyone he did business with, suggested that I was “thick” and shortly afterwards walked out of the interview.

My marks for Trump’s handling of a difficult journalist? 3/10. Poor.

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This cartoon arc of over-the-top seduction followed by narky rejection is classic Trump. He’s wooed then rubbished Selena Scott, Wayne Barrett, Michael D’Antonio and me.

Will he do the same to Putin? Woo him, then fall out and start calling him “Little Vlad”? I fear he might. Agreeing on facts is critical to reducing tension between disputing parties. But comic-book characters don’t do facts. Trump once boasted that his signature Tower was 68 storeys high. It isn’t. It’s ten storeys lower. Putin said no Russian troops were in Crimea. Then he unsaid it. One could go on.

According to one New York developer D’Antonio quotes: “Trump won’t do a deal unless there’s something extra – a kind of moral larceny – in it.” That registers with both what I have found out about Trump’s murky business affairs and everything you can pick up in Moscow about Putin’s modus operandi. Trump and Putin are weirdly similar. That’s no guarantee they will get on. None at all.

One Trump-watcher suggested that his family, especially son Donald Junior and daughter Ivanka will restrain their father from doing something rash. I put that to D’Antonio. “I interviewed his children and they all occupy offices one floor below his and when they spoke of him, they automatically said, our father and looked up as if to heaven. Ivanka is most worshipful. The children are lesser gods but Donald is the seat of all knowledge, all power and all that is good. There is a cult-like quality to the Trump organisation.”

So, faced with two comic-strip baddies being the most powerful men on Earth, I’d hide under the bed if I were you. But line the bed with lead and put it in a hole in the ground 100 feet deep. Let’s hope I’m dead wrong.

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Panorama: Trump – the Kremlin Candidate? is available on BBC iPlayer