Repeatedly, President Trump has stressed that Vladimir Putin denies interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. He did it again yesterday, tweeting, “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” — as if that were that.
Does the president believe this? Does he believe Putin’s denials? If so, he is naïve, and dangerously so — too naïve to sit across a negotiating table from Putin, as he will soon do. Whatever else Putin is, he is not naïve. Quite the opposite.
In February, General H. R. McMaster, who was then Trump’s national security adviser, said that the evidence of Moscow’s interference was “incontrovertible.”
Last year, when Putin insisted to Trump that Russia committed no interference whatsoever, John Bolton wrote the following: “For Trump, it should be a highly salutary lesson about the character of Russia’s leadership to watch Putin lie to him. And it should be a fire-bell-in-the-night warning about the value Moscow places on honesty, whether regarding election interference, nuclear proliferation, arms control or the Middle East: negotiate with today’s Russia at your peril.”
Bolton is now at Trump’s side, as national security adviser. This is no little comfort. John Bolton is realism personified. His mustache is practically the most reassuring sight in U.S. foreign policy. Yet McMaster is wise to the world as well. And there is the president’s recent behavior to consider (including yesterday’s tweet).
Earlier this month at a G-7 meeting in Canada, Trump called for Russia’s readmission to the group, apparently without conditions. “Something happened a while ago,” is the way he put it. That “something” was Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by its launch of war in the Donbass. When asked whether Russian control of Crimea should be recognized, Trump declined to answer. Shortly after, he slammed U.S. allies, particularly the prime minister of Canada and the chancellor of Germany. This is in contrast with his attitude toward Putin, about whom he is consistently defensive.
During the 2016 election campaign, Joe Scarborough pressed Trump on Putin’s killing of political opponents. Trump answered, “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also.” After the inauguration, Bill O’Reilly pressed him on the same thing. Trump answered, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?” Last November, Trump said that Putin was “insulted” by the idea that Russia interfered in the U.S. election — “which is not a good thing for our country,” Trump added.
On Tuesday of this week, Josh Rogin of the Washington Post had an interesting column, which included this paragraph: “One European diplomat told me that in a private White House meeting in March, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven explained to Trump that Sweden, although not a member of NATO, partners with the alliance on a case-by-case basis. Trump responded that the United States should consider that approach. A senior administration official told me Trump was joking.”
That is an answer you often hear: “He was joking.” But sometimes the jokes are more serious than jokey.
To his G-7 partners, Trump reportedly said, “NATO is as bad as NAFTA” (the trade agreement he despises). The U.S. ambassador to Estonia, a career diplomat, has just resigned. “Having served under six presidents and 11 secretaries of state, I never really thought it would reach that point for me,” he said. (Story here.) Estonia is on NATO’s front line. It will be interesting to see who our new ambassador is, and what he believes.
In manifold ways, President Trump has left the impression that he has more sympathy for Putin than he does for NATO and Europe. This is not the fault of “FAKE NEWS” or “the enemy of the People!” or the “NeverTrumpers.” It is an impression that Trump has left, and if it is wrong, Trump can clear it up, easily. If it’s right, then we Americans need to have a deadly serious debate over what we should be in the world.