President Trump likes to say he’s been tougher on Russia than any president. (Well, except for all the Cold War presidents, Bill Clinton and both Bushes, I guess.) He doubles down on his “Mission Accomplished” boast even as Syria resumes attacks on innocent civilians. The notion that Trump cannot be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pet poodle because he is so tough on Russia does not hold up to scrutiny.
On Syria, Trump went out of his way to avoid confrontation with Russia to the point of rendering our response to use of chemical weapons nearly meaningless. Trump critic and former State Department official Eliot Cohen describes the president’s response as “unserious but intended to relieve emotional pressure, a kind of martial onanism masquerading as strategy.” Robust action would require the United States to “smash the Syrian air-defense system, destroy helicopters and aircraft, and above all kill a good number of the men who conducted these attacks and the men who ordered them.” That would be out of the question for Trump, writes Cohen:
Vladimir Putin has yet another piece of evidence that President Donald Trump will steer away from a direct confrontation with him, even though, in any kind of military conflict in the Middle East it would be the Russians, not the Americans, who by far would have the worst of it. He would secretly fear a president who would do that, because he knows that military humiliation has provoked the downfall of more than one czar in the past.
According to multiple reports, Trump chose the most innocuous of three military options presented to him. As for expelling diplomats and sanctions, that it seems was accomplished in spite of Trump. The Post reports:
Some close to Trump say the recent measures are the product of an ongoing pressure campaign to push the president to take a more skeptical view of the Russian leader. . . . Others note Trump’s ongoing unease with his own policy. Even as his administration has ratcheted up the pressure on Putin’s inner circle, Trump has continued in recent weeks to make overtures to the Russian leader, congratulating him on his election win and, in a move that frustrated his national security team, inviting him to visit the White House.
Most telling, Trump’s obsession with diffusing the Russia investigation — and blaming our own intelligence community investigating Russian manipulation as the source of bad relations(!) — still dominates his decision-making. “Trump advisers were reluctant to even raise the topic of Russian interference in the election, which Trump equated with Democrats’ efforts to undermine his victory. ‘It’s just kind of its own beast,’ a senior national security official said. ‘It’s been a constant from Day One.'” Constant from Day One. Nothing has changed — except Trump’s control over his own administration, which increasingly operates as if someone else were president. (The notion that Trump’s views are separate from his team’s foreign policy should be generally reassuring, so long as Defense Secretary James Mattis has the most influence.)
A president who won’t blame Russia for interfering with our election until convinced he’d get hammered in the press for refusing to deny the undeniable facts and who rails at his staff for being too bold on Russian expulsions has been captivated — compromised, if you will — by an enemy of the United States. His obsession with the infamous “pee tape” might point to fear of blackmail as the cause. Plain greed (or fear of financial ruin) rooted in Russian business dealings and/or debt to foreign banks might explain his conduct. Either of these situations or simply Trump’s innate cowardice in the face of confrontation might explain Trump’s conduct. But let’s not accept the premise that Trump is a tough guy when it comes to Russia. Moscow picked the candidate in the 2016 race who posed the least risk to its ambitions. Putin chose well.