It Seems Like Trump Can’t Dance To The Russian Bear’s Tune Anymore. Or Can He?
Vladimir Putin is only the latest person to learn to his dismay that if you try to get close to Donald Trump, you get burned. But unlike Anthony Scaramucci, Reince Priebus, Chris Christie and . . . well, the 62 million people who voted for him, there is a divine thug-meets-thug serendipitousness about this bit of political arson.
Putin thought he was doing a proklyatyy shtraf (damned fine) job of getting Trump to dance to the Russian bear’s tune by helping elevate the former Soviet Union to its Cold War glory, never mind that Crimea dust-up and Putin’s kleptocratic tendencies in general. Trump was more than happy to oblige Putin after Russia whacked Hillary Clinton with the connivance of his presidential campaign. (Then there is the not small matter of Vlad probably having something yuge with which to blackmail Trump, but that’s another story.)
This is the part of the movie where it should be noted that as fiendishly ingenious as Putin has seemed to be, he also got lucky even if his little bump — cyberbot-delivered manufactured news to embarrass Clinton, hacked emails, James Comey and all — might have made a difference.
And perhaps misunderestimated that one consequence of Trump’s raving narcissism is that he is capable of doing really stupid things he does not believe will put him at legal risk.
But now Putin’s luck seems to have run out. Or has it?
The overwhelming view of the punditocracy is that Putin’s courtship of Trump has “backfired spectacularly,” in the words of a New York Times scribe.
This has nothing to do with Trump souring on his longtime bromance with the embodiment of America’s past and present enemy and everything to do with Congress souring on an unceasingly bombastic president and its dawning awareness of how destructive Trump has become to the Grand Old Party, not to mention the country.
Would the bromance have taken a dark turn earlier if Trump had not continued to believe he is innocent and insist that the Russia scandal was “fake news” and “the greatest witch hunt in political history”?
Possibly, but it matters not because a coalition of Democrats who blame Putin for contributing to Clinton’s defeat and Republicans horrified that an overmatched Trump doesn’t understand who he is dealing with in Putin rammed through and sent to the White House a package of new Russian economic sanctions by nearly unanimous 98-2 and 419-3 votes in the Senate and House wrapped with a warning that Trump vetoes the legislation at his own peril.
And so all those meetings between Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and who knows who else, and Russian officials to discuss, if not promise, the easing of sanctions when the billionaire reality television star became the leader of the free world, not to mention those friendly Trump-Putin chit-chats in Hamburg last month, seem to have been for naught.
Putin’s initial response to the new sanctions was to impose the harshest measures on the U.S. since the Communist revolution in 1917. His second response was to order upwards of 100,000 troops to the eastern edge of NATO territory in Belarus. Both Cold War-style tactics will boomerang on poor Donald, who had only recently learned to sing “The Volga Boatman.”
There will be other reminders that the Russian leader is trying to undermine American democracy, that the president has been complicit in those efforts, and that there is a great likelihood that Moscow will launch fresh cyber attacks against which the U.S. is unprepared and Trump has shrugged off in refusing to heed warnings from intelligence and election officials.
Then there are Putin’s expansionist tendencies.
The original sanctions imposed by the Obama administration were a consequence of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Trump didn’t just soft-pedal that as a candidate, his campaign team rewrote the Republican National Convention platform on Ukraine, removing a pledge that the U.S. would provide lethal weapons in its fight over Crimea, as well as a call for maintaining or increasing sanctions. Trump will be unable to be so blasé when Putin next scratches his expansionist itch.
Yet despite all that, I’m not ready to declare the Trump-Putin bromance dead and I suspect my decidedly minority view may look a whole like smarter over the long haul.
For one thing, Trump signed the sanctions bill with a gun to his head, appending to it a signing statement delineating his assertion that Congress intruded into his constitutional powers to conduct foreign affairs.
For another, in Trump’s responsibility-free alternate universe, Congress is to blame for the downturn in relations with Moscow, not Russia or (heaven forbid!) the thug who directed the election cyber-interference.
For yet another, there is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is just one of several Cabinet members with Russia connections. (The others are Wilbur Ross at Commerce, who led the 2014 rescue of the Bank of Cyprus, a favorite conduit for Russian oligarch and mob money laundering; Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who met who knows how many times with a Russian official during the campaign, and the late, lamented Flynn, whose brazen contacts with and payoffs from Russians short-circuited his tenure as national security director.)
Tillerson’s mere presence in the job as the U.S.’s lead diplomat is a reflection of Trump’s outlook on all things Russian. He is a personal friend of Putin and made tens of billions of dollars for ExxonMobil from Russian oil when he was CEO of the multinational energy giant.
Tillerson doesn’t break wind without Trump’s permission, so the president’s small hands are all over a dispute regarding $80 million to fight Russian disinformation and terrorist propaganda, not that there’s much difference between the two. Although the money already has been appropriated by Congress and Tillerson is legally obligated to spend it, he refuses to do so.
And so sanctions or not, Trump is still putting Russian interests above America’s.
Legislation is in the offing to shield special counsels from political influence, as in should Trump makes good on his threats to fire Robert Mueller.
On Monday, a bill was introduced by Senators Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Corey Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, that would require the Justice Department to seek a request from a federal judge before firing Mueller or any other special counsel.
Another bill to be introduced by Senators Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, and Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, would allow any Justice Department special counsel to challenge their firing in court and to have it reviewed by a three-judge panel.
Both bills would apply retroactively to May 17, 2017, the day Mueller was assigned as a special counsel after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in a brazen and botched attempt to shut down the primary investigation into Russia election interference and the collusion of the Trump campaign in that successful effort.
The bills also would limit a president’s authority to hire and fire special counsels, a right that fell under the president’s purview after Congress let an independent-counsel law established in the wake of the Watergate scandal expire in 1999 following Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Clinton.
While Trump cannot fire Mueller directly, there are concerns that he might seek to replace AG Sessions, who has technically recused himself from the Russia investigation, and that would be easier to do while the Senate is in recess. But in another slap to Trump, lawmakers agreed to a series of so-called pro forma sessions that ensures it never officially goes on recess although it has adjourned until after Labor Day.
Mueller reportedly has now impaneled a grand jury in Washington in connection with his investigation. Despite the breathlessness with which many people have greeted this news, it’s no big deal. Grand juries are how federal prosecutors conduct their investigations, including the need to compel reluctant witnesses to testify under oath and issuing subpoenas for documents such as bank records — and yes, tax returns — that people won’t produce them voluntarily.
There is broad, bipartisan support in Congress for Mueller’s investigation, so the bills would appear likely to pass, setting up another confrontation with the president over Russia.