National Security & Defense

A Thing That Makes You Go Hmmm . . .

In Hamburg last summer (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
The ongoing question of Trump and Putin

A few weeks ago, some of us were saying that there’s one thing Donald Trump has been consistent on: an antipathy to free trade. (This was when he had announced major new tariffs.) Trump has been all over the map on other things, including immigration. After the 2012 election, he faulted Mitt Romney and the Republicans for being “mean-spirited” toward illegals. But on trade, he has been notably consistent.

There’s something else he has been consistent on: admiration of dictatorial strength. Way back in 1990, he gave an interview to Playboy magazine. At the time, the Soviet Union was in uncertain condition. Change was in the air. Democratic protesters were getting bolder. And Trump said, “Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.”

For decades, well-wishers of freedom and democracy had been hoping and praying for a less firm hand in the Soviet Union.

Trump’s interviewer asked him, “You mean firm hand as in China?” Trump answered, “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”

“The power of strength” is an interesting phrase. Also, Trump’s statement has a ring of admiration. Ponder the phrase “the Chinese government almost blew it.”

When Trump was running in the 2016 Republican primaries, he called in to Morning Joe, as was his habit. Vladimir Putin had just praised Trump, and Trump was tickled pink. “When people call you brilliant, it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia,” he said.

Joe Scarborough replied, “Well, he’s also a person that kills journalists and political opponents and invades countries. Obviously, that would be a concern, would it not?” Trump said, “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country.”

Scarborough pressed him: “But again, he kills journalists that don’t agree with him.” Trump responded, “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe.” (Conservatives had long condemned this kind of talk as “moral equivalence.”)

Later in the interview, Scarborough asked Trump about the U.S.-Russia relationship in a potential Trump administration. The candidate said, “Well, I think it would be good. I’ve always felt, you know, fine about Putin. I think that he is a strong leader, he’s a powerful leader, he’s represented his country — that’s the way the country is being represented.”

I thought of this statement yesterday while listening to Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She was asked about Putin’s latest sham election. “We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” she said. “What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country and that’s not something that we can dictate to them, how they operate.”

In the past, American presidents have not been so shy. Think merely of “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The Trump administration has not always been shy either — about a mockery of democracy in Venezuela, for example. Noah Rothman detailed this in a column (typically excellent). There seems to be something special about Putin and his Russia. Some “odd exemption,” to borrow a Buckley phrase.

Now, turn to a report from the Washington Post:

President Trump did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers when he congratulated Russian President Vladi­mir Putin Tuesday on his reelection, including a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” according to officials familiar with the call.

Have one more paragraph:

Trump also chose not to heed talking points from aides instructing him to condemn Putin about the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom with a powerful nerve agent, a case that both the British and U.S. governments have blamed on Moscow.

Look: You and I might not have congratulated Putin on this cruel joke of an election — his major political opponents were not on the ballot, having been murdered or otherwise sidelined — and we might have condemned these latest poison attacks in Britain. But you and I aren’t president. Trump is. We can run ourselves, if we want a different set of values represented in the White House.

Trump beat 16 other candidates in the primaries — including seasoned senators and governors. Then he was elected by the people at large, through the Electoral College. A president in our country is an expression of the will of the people, no matter how narrowly he is elected.

Consider two recent news items — two further ones, I should say: In a speech delivered in Moscow, Putin boasted that Russian nuclear advances had rendered U.S. missile defense “useless.” Also, U.S. officials revealed that Russia had hacked into key American infrastructure, including our nuclear-power plants.

What did Trump say? Nothing. He’s not exactly shy about lashing out or condemning. Quite the opposite. His regular or recent targets include the FBI, the EU, Chuck Todd, Jeff Sessions, and Oprah. But about Vladimir Putin — not a peep.

Could it be prudential? Is the president simply exercising prudent diplomacy, not wanting to rattle an adversary that has a nuclear arsenal? That’s a nice theory, but consider his behavior toward Kim Jong-un, the “crazy fat kid,” as John McCain says, who rules in North Korea. Trump has bragged that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim’s. Whatever this is, it’s not prudence.

As many have noted — including Michael Crowley and Blake Hounshell, in an article last weekend — the Trump administration has been fairly stern toward Russia. That is, the administration has been fairly traditional — fairly American, fairly normal — toward Russia. The administration as distinct from the man whose name is on it: Trump.

And he is the man who matters most. “It all comes down to the man at the desk,” the first Bush used to say, while running for president in 1988. He sets the tone and he is where the buck stops.

There is almost nothing that makes Trump supporters angrier than suggesting that Putin has some kind of hold on the president, or leverage over him. General Barry McCaffrey, of Gulf War fame, made just such a suggestion last Friday. More than a suggestion, it was a bald statement. Tweeting about Trump, McCaffrey said, “It is apparent that he is for some unknown reason under the sway of Mr. Putin.”

We can all understand the anger of Trump fans. But we might understand the suspicions of others, too.

Years ago, in the early ’90s, there was a rap called “Things That Make You Go Hmmm . . .” I don’t know that there’s any funny business between Putin and Trump (although I think that Trump’s tax returns might be illuminating). But isn’t Trump’s behavior toward Putin something that makes you go hmmm? Even if you’re a fan of Trump, doesn’t it make you wonder? Just a little?

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