Trump defensively tried to prove the unprovable — that Russia had no impact on the election. But he ignores the bigger slam to his credibility: Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks Trump is a soft touch. Isn’t his ego just a tiny bit bruised by Putin’s conclusion that, as they used to say of Soviet-friendly westerners, Trump is a “useful idiot” ? Trump liked to say during the campaign that Putin thought he was “smart.” In fact, Putin, it seems, figured Trump is a fool. While using public flattery to woo Trump, Putin worked stealthily to stop the more aggressive candidate, Clinton, who plainly had Putin figured out.
Trump’s cringe-worthy admiration for Putin has become a running joke on SNL. He might actually and quite literally be in the Russian oligarchs’ debt. Mesmerized by a kleptocrat who represses liberty and gets rich off his country, Trump might be swayed by equally deluded advisers with a pro-Russian tilt. Maybe, despite the intelligence briefing, Trump still revels in the public compliments Putin paid him. Whatever the reason, he now has a reputation as a fool, a pawn, a poodle of a U.S. adversary. You would think Trump would want to prove Putin wrong.
Virtually the whole Congress opposes treating Russia as a benign force. Lawmakers would line up behind him if he chose to replace President Obama’s passive stance toward Putin with something much more robust and effective. He’d be hailed as a forceful strategist and tough guy. This would require him to encourage Congress to pass a stiff sanctions package. He would need to make forceful remarks at his inauguration and beyond that show he considers Russian behavior to be unacceptable. He would have to nominate tough anti-Putin hawks to the Nos. 2 and 3 positions at the State Department. He would have to make clear he supports defensive arms to Ukraine. Moreover, he would need to direct the intelligence community to uncover the extent of Putin’s wealth and corruption. (Perhaps that information needs to be widely shared along with Putin’s ongoing human rights abuses.)
If Trump does not make such moves and sticks with Putin, he’ll have proved Putin and Trump’s critics right — he really is a patsy for Putin. As Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on “Meet the Press” today, “In a couple weeks, Donald Trump will be the defender of the free world and democracy. You should let everybody know in America –Republicans and Democrats — that you’re going to make Russia pay a price for trying to interfere. Even though it didn’t affect the outcome, they tried to interfere, and they need to pay a price. I don’t care what their motives were.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in remarks on Friday stated quite clearly that Trump should not isolate himself from the conclusions of the entire intelligence community and from the mainstream of his own party. He also hinted that Rex Tillerson was going to face “sharp” questioning and would have to do some persuading on Russia:
Menendez seemed to hint that Tillerson so far has won over very few skeptics because he relies on talking points to evade answering specific questions. If he lacks depth of knowledge and a comfort level with foreign policy detail, he had better hit the books and exceed expectations next week. (This also reflects poorly on those who recommended him without verifying what he knows and impartially assessing whether a secretary of state with such a steep learning curve is a good idea at a time when we face so many complex problems.) Otherwise, several hawkish Republicans and virtually all Democrats will oppose his confirmation. Tillerson will need to remove the impression he’s as inexperienced and clueless as the president-elect. He also must dispel the notion that both he and Trump match the stereotype of transactional businessmen who do not grasp why Putin cannot be our ally. (Trump insisting that only “stupid” people don’t want to get along with Russia suggests a stubborn, childlike denial that Russia’s behavior makes “getting along” impossible.)
Trump insists the Russian scheme doesn’t mean he didn’t win the election. (He can believe whatever he wants, but no metric can assess the damage done to Clinton.) Now, he needs to show that the Russian scheme doesn’t mean he will be a weak, foolish and gullible president.