Obama was weak on Russia, but Trump is incoherent

BY MAX BOOT
Posted 3/2/18

Editor's note: This column originally ran in the Feb. 26 edition of The Post and Courier.

Even by President Donald Trump's elevated standards of incoherence, his position on Kremlingate is a marvel of illogic. After repeatedly claiming that …

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Obama was weak on Russia, but Trump is incoherent

Posted

Editor's note: This column originally ran in the Feb. 26 edition of The Post and Courier.

Even by President Donald Trump's elevated standards of incoherence, his position on Kremlingate is a marvel of illogic. After repeatedly claiming that stories about Russia's intervention in the 2016 election were a "hoax," he now slams President Barack Obama for not doing more to combat this nonexistent threat. "Obama was President up to, and beyond, the 2016 Election," Trump tweeted on Monday. "So why didn't he do something about Russian meddling?" And he claims: "I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts. Total Fake News!"

But as contradictory as Trump's position may be, he has a point - sort of. Obama was far too weak in dealing with the Russian assault, which ranged from stealing Democratic emails to promoting pro-Trump propaganda online.

As the New York Times reported shortly after the election, Obama was briefed regularly on the Russian operation, but he "did not name Russians publicly, or issue sanctions. There was always a reason: fear of escalating a cyberwar, and concern that the United States needed Russia's cooperation in negotiations over Syria."

In hindsight, those reasons do not look like good ones: Obama was placing fear of confrontation with Russia over his duty to safeguard the electoral process.

In part this was because he was overly complacent, imagining that Hillary Clinton would win no matter what. But in fairness to Obama, he was handicapped by the lack of Republican cooperation.

The Post reported that in September 2016, Obama dispatched national security officials to Capitol Hill to plead for bipartisan unity in confronting the Kremlin. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., shamefully put party above patriotism by refusing to cooperate. If Obama had gone ahead on his own, he would have added credence to Trump's cynical charges that the election was "rigged."

What of Trump's second claim - that he's tougher on Russia than Obama? He can point to the fact that he has authorized the sale of lethal weaponry to Ukraine, expanded sanctions to include 38 Russian individuals and companies involved in the invasion of Ukraine, requested more defense spending and launched a cruise missile strike on the Syrian regime of Russia's ally Bashar Assad.

On the other side of the ledger there is far more evidence that Trump has been anything but tough on Russia.

Given that he routinely trashes everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., it's striking that he never has a negative word to say about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

When the Russian autocrat ordered the elimination of 755 U.S. diplomatic positions in Russia, Trump praised him. Trump even credulously accepted Putin's denials of complicity in election interference. Now Trump kind of admits that Russia may have meddled, but he still plays down its importance and refuses to respond.

Not only has Trump refused to respond to Russia's attack, he tried to undermine Obama's response. On Dec. 29, 2016, the outgoing president expelled 35 Russian diplomats and shut down two Russian diplomatic facilities.

That same day, Trump's newly designated national security adviser, Michael Flynn, called Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to urge his government to refrain from retaliating. Sure enough, Putin did not immediately expel U.S. diplomats in return. Trump tweeted: "Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!" Flynn subsequently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about this and other contacts with Kislyak.

It strains credulity to imagine that Trump did not know what Flynn was up to - in effect, offering the Kremlin an implicit understanding that Trump would lift the sanctions Obama had just imposed.

And Trump might well have done so if the Kremlingate controversy had not erupted, making it too politically dangerous for him.

Even then, he resisted a Russia sanctions bill and only reluctantly signed it on Aug. 2 after it was passed by veto-proof majorities in both houses. To this day, Trump refuses to impose the sanctions authorized under the bill.

Trump's Russia policy is incoherent, because of the tensions between his pro-Putin outlook and the more hard-line views of aides such as national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He is both more and less tough on Russia than Obama was. But there is little doubt that the hawkish Clinton would have been far tougher - which is why Putin launched a risky bid to prevent her election.

The gambit paid off. Although Trump hasn't made U.S. policy as pro-Russia as Putin might have hoped, his chaotic governance style, hostility to democracy promotion and aversion to American global leadership have allowed Russia to keep expanding its power from Ukraine to Syria and beyond.

Max Boot is a columnist with The Washington Post.