Donald Trump campaigned for the US presidency vowing that he’d improve US-Russia relations. Having won office, his relationship with the Kremlin hangs like a dark shadow over US politics and threatens to destroy the Trump presidency. Writing from New York, John Haltiwanger casts a critical eye across the issues.
On July 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was expelling 755 US diplomats in retaliation for new US sanctions imposed on Moscow. The sanctions were a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military actions in Syria, as well as its interference in the 2016 US presidential election. At the time, Mr Putin claimed he was growing impatient with the lack of improvement in US-Russia relations. This was an audacious stance for the Russian leader to take, particularly given the growing evidence that he directly coordinated a sophisticated effort to intervene in the democratic process.
The move goes much further than President Barack Obama’s decision to expel 35 Russian diplomats last year. Indeed, it represents one of the harshest diplomatic measures between the US and Russia since the Cold War. But many in the US seem to be far more concerned with President Donald Trump’s dubious reaction to Mr Putin’s decision, rather than its historical significance. Based on his response, the President Trump is seemingly unwilling to defend Americans who serve their country in a nation hostile toward the US.
TRUMP RESPONDS TO THE DIPLOMATIC EXPULSION
When Mr Putin called for the 755 US diplomats to be removed, the legislation imposing the new sanctions on Moscow had yet to be signed by Mr Trump. While the President ultimately signed the bill on August 3, it was evident he did so reluctantly. He didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, however, given it had enough votes in Congress to override his presidential veto.
Despite the strong bipartisan support for the bill in Congress, the President found reasons to condemn it even as he signed it into law. In a statement, Mr Trump described the legislation as “seriously flawed” and “unconstitutional” due to the fact the bill contained a provision requiring him to consult Congress before altering or lifting sanctions on Russia. In Mr Trump’s view, this was an affront on his executive authority. Meanwhile, the President made no comment on his counterparts expulsion of the 755 US diplomats.
The US is not saving money from this expulsion. It is losing diplomatic leverage and hundreds of hardworking people who were advancing US interests in Russia.
It wasn’t until 10th August that Mr Trump finally addressed the situation directly. He thanked Mr Putin, claiming the expulsions would help the US save money. “I want to thank [Putin] because we’re trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I’m concerned I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll,” Mr Trump said.
The White House later claimed the President was being sarcastic. This has been a standard response from Mr Trump when trying to deflect from his frequent controversial and inappropriate statements. Even if that is true, it’s safe to say none of the 755 individuals impacted by Mr Putin’s decision appreciated the joke. Not to mention, the US will still have to pay every US diplomat – and all other personnel – Mr Putin is kicking out. The US is not saving money from this expulsion. It is losing diplomatic leverage and hundreds of hardworking people who were advancing US interests in Russia.
From the standpoint of many Americans, it’s hard to view Mr Trump’s response as anything other than an extraordinary moment of weakness in the face of blatant bullying. This is a president who has spent more time attacking the American free press and judiciary, even his own party, than the leader of a country that clearly wants to undermine US Interests. Indeed, Mr Trump is rapidly eroding the credibility of the presidency while giving ammunition to those who believe he’s a Russian puppet.
A RUSSIAN PUPPET?
Under Mr Trump, the relationship between the US and Russia has reached one of its most bizarre chapters since the end of the Cold War. Throughout the US presidential campaign, Mr Trump often praised President Putin, expressing a desire to improve US-Russia relations. This has been politically impossible for the President, however, due to the allegations of collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin. Yet this hasn’t stopped Mr Trump from exhibiting behaviour toward Russia – more specifically towards Mr Putin – that has called his loyalties and competence into question.
While there is currently no concrete evidence of explicit collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the President has done a terrible job squashing any suspicions. Despite a strong consensus among the US intelligence community that Russia interfered in the US presidential election, Mr Trump has continued to express lingering doubts. It’s remarkable for an American president to exhibit such distrust of his own intelligence agencies. Beyond this, Mr Trump’s tenuous support for NATO and reluctant endorsement of Article 5 has called into question whether he would truly aid American allies against Russian aggression.
Mr Trump’s apparent lack of self-awareness of how his behaviour appears to many Americans is dumbfounding. It’s not surprising that a Gallup poll from early August showed 25 percent of Americans believing that Mr Trump had acted illegally in terms of his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia. Meanwhile, US-Russia relations are hitting their lowest point since the Cold War. This doesn’t seem to be a coincidence.
TRUMP’S APPROACH: MAKING US-RUSSIA RELATIONS WORSE?
President Trump may have campaigned on the assertion that he could improve US-Russia relations, but it seems he’s achieved the complete opposite. The Trump era has already succeeded in creating a large cohort of Americans who will continue to view Russia as an enemy of the US for many years to come.
According to a March 2017 poll from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), 70 percent of Americans have an unfavourable view of Russia and more than half view it as either an enemy (24 percent) or unfriendly (29 percent) to the United States. Correspondingly, an April 2017 survey from Pew Research Center showed that 39 percent of Democrats view Russia as the country that represents the greatest danger to the US. This the highest percentage of Democrats to express this view since the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, just 21 percent of Republicans shared this opinion, but that’s still a significant portion.
President Trump may have campaigned on the notion that he could improve US-Russia relations, but it seems he’s achieved the complete opposite.
Overall, the Pew survey showed 31 percent of Americans said Russia was America’s top enemy. In 1990, 32 percent of Americans viewed Russia as the greatest danger, but that figure plummeted to 13 percent just two years later. While Pew’s data shows the American public’s views of Russia has fluctuated over time, by 2013 – the last time this question was asked – just five percent of Americans saw it as the greatest danger to their country.
In short, distrust of Russia in the US is at a historic high for the post-Cold War era. It’s hard not to blame the strange and unsettling dynamic that now exists between Mr Trump and Mr Putin. While the long-term consequences of this remain to be seen, history tells us it’s not good for the wider world when Russia and the US are completely at odds with one another.
AMERICA IS CONFUSED
While President Trump might wish to establish warmer relations with Mr Putin, the American public is extremely wary of the Russian leader. A Gallup poll from June 2017 showed just 13 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Mr Putin. Mr Trump’s apparent inability to criticise the Russian leader has often left Americans confused and, in some ways, suspicious of their relationship. These suspicions have been nourished by some of President Trump’s assertions on Twitter.
Following what many felt was an inadequate response from Mr Trump to a deadly white nationalist rally that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12th August, MSNBC host Christopher Hayes tweeted, “Trump will tear into anyone except Nazis and Putin.” Similar sentiments were echoed throughout social media after the President thanked Mr Putin for expelling the 755 US diplomats. At the time, prominent journalist Kurt Eichenwald tweeted, “By praising Putin for throwing 755 of our embassy staff out of Russia, Trump has proven beyond doubt that he is the dumbest POTUS in history.”
There’s also confusion amongst many Americans as to why Mr Trump’s supporters aren’t more concerned. On August 10, former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted, “How can Trump supporters praise the president’s tough talk on North Korea and defend his weak talk on Putin? I just don’t get it.”
On August 11, Laurence Tribe, professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law school, tweeted, “Trump may have fabricated a faux nuclear standoff with North Korea to distract attention from what Mueller is finding out about his crimes.”
On top of this, some seem to believe Mr Trump’s recent incendiary rhetoric toward North Korea regarding its nuclear program is meant to distract from the investigation into his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia. On August 11, Laurence Tribe, professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law school, tweeted, “Trump may have fabricated a faux nuclear standoff with North Korea to distract attention from what Mueller is finding out about his crimes.”
In short, Americans aren’t quite sure what to make of Mr Trump’s relationship with President Putin. His unusual attitude toward the Russian leader, among other things, has left America feeling as though the country is trapped in a political satire. Bizarrely this has made it difficult for late night hosts and comedians, who many Americans look to for perspective on current events, to come up with fresh material. As late-night host Stephen Colbert put it on August 1: “For Donald Trump, it has been a rough couple of … his entire presidency. The chaos coming out of the White House is just coming at you so fast it’s hard to keep track of it.”
Many Americans have been left to wonder; has their President been co-opted by Mr Putin, or if he’s just a buffoon? With a lack of solid evidence to support the former, one is inclined towards the notion that Trump is simply out of touch with reality.
John Haltiwanger is a New York-based journalist focusing primarily on US politics. He has an MSc in International Relations from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Follow John on Twitter: @jchaltiwanger
Feature image: the ‘Make Everything Great Again’ mural by the artist Mindaugas Bonanu. Vilnius, Lithuania. Image: CategoryV [CC BY-SA 4.0]