Early last month, the Trump administration told the Russians that it would consider turning the properties back over to them if Moscow would lift its freeze, imposed in 2014 in retaliation for U.S. sanctions related to Ukraine, on construction of a new U.S. consulate on a certain parcel of land in St. Petersburg.Two days later, the U.S. position changed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a meeting in Washington that the United States had dropped any linkage between the compounds and the consulate, according to several people with knowledge of the exchanges.
Knowing that this would only stir a firestorm, the Trump administration nevertheless seems bent on conveying the appearance of a panicky supplicant desperate to stay in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s good graces. In comments to Right Turn, a former senior national security official sounded exasperated. The official asked rhetorically, “And this would be a reward for WHAT Russian behavior?”
It is hard to fathom what U.S. objective would be served by lifting one tiny sign of retribution for Russian interference in the election, interference that inured to Trump’s benefit and has set off an investigation in which everyone from former FBI director James B. Comey to former Trump media surrogate Boris Epshteyn has been asked to provide information. “There is absolutely no justification for this,” says Russia expert Max Bergmann, a former Obama State Department official. “Russia not only interfered in our election, but just in the last few months they did the same to our French and Dutch allies.” He says bluntly: “At a certain point, we need to just call this out for what it is — Trump is acting in the interests of a hostile foreign power over the interests of the United States. Congress meanwhile is MIA, as Senator Bob Corker and the Republican leadership continue to block additional sanctions against Russia.”
Astonishment seems to be the uniform reaction of foreign policy gurus. “If, as reported, they were SIGINT facilities it’s worse than insane,” says Trump critic and former State Department official Eliot Cohen. He points out that it once again embarrasses Trump spinners, including Gary Cohn and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who argue that Trump is practicing normal American foreign policy. (“We let adversaries know that we will not only take their measure, deter conflict through strength, and defend our interests and values, but also look for areas of common interest that allow us to work together,” McMaster and Cohn prattled on in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.) As Cohen puts it, a move like the return of Russian spy facilities “makes a mockery of the incoherent but troubling McMaster/Cohn op-ed.”
For many Trump critics, tying Trump directly to collusion with Russian officials seemed like a pipe dream. Sure, in public he egged on the Russians, but he’d never be caught secretly conspiring with the Russians, would he? The frenetic efforts to shut down the Russia investigation, distract the public with debunked allegations that President Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower and ply the Russians with code-word classified information only reignite suspicions that maybe there is some bombshell of incriminating information that might prove lethal to Trump’s presidency or his son-in-law’s future.
“Four months into the Trump presidency, it appears that adversaries are playing Trump like a fiddle, including Russia,” observes Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress. He continues, “Where is the outcry among Republicans and Democrats in Congress? At minimum they should asking questions and providing oversight on actions like these.”
A lack of impulse control (demonstrated by everything from crazy 3 a.m. tweeting to blurting out to Lester Holt in a TV interview that he had Russia on his mind when he canned Comey) has been Trump’s trademark. His most recent actions, however, suggest that unhinged desperation to prevent inquiry into his conduct drowns out even the natural instinct for self-preservation. Trump cannot help but make things worse for himself. I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to tell us whether this is “self-sabotage,” but whatever syndrome is at issue, Trump’s conduct fuels growing suspicion that he has something really, really bad to hide.