There has been a remarkable and growing collection of national security veterans who have raised questions — some in stark terms — about President Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), a sitting member of Congress and veteran of the CIA, became one of the most significant volunteers for that cadre on Thursday with an essay published by the New York Times.
“Over the course of my career as an undercover officer in the C.I.A., I saw Russian intelligence manipulate many people,” it begins. “I never thought I would see the day when an American president would be one of them.”
Hurd’s concerns spiked following Trump’s meeting with Putin on Monday. Steven Hall, the CIA’s former chief of Russian operations, also identified that meeting in Finland as having boosted his concerns.
“From a counterintelligence perspective, something is going on behind the scenes,” he wrote on Twitter. “Before Helsinki I was less sure; post Helsinki, I feel sick.”
A number of more prominent individuals were on record with concerns well before this week. Retired general Barry McCaffrey tweeted in March that he had “concluded that President Trump is a serious threat to US national security.” Trump “is refusing to protect vital US interests from active Russian attacks,” McCaffrey wrote, adding that “[i]t is apparent that he is for some unknown reason under the sway of Mr Putin.”
In an interview with CNBC that aired on Friday morning, Trump offered a now-familiar rebuttal to those concerns: He’d been tougher on Putin than any other president.
“Look at the sanctions I’ve put on. Look at the diplomats I threw out. Look at all of the things that I’ve done,” Trump said. “Nobody else did what I’ve done.”
Interestingly, this is a weaker case than Trump could be making. The most significant sanctions that have been imposed were the result of legislation overwhelmingly passed by Congress in part because Trump failed to criticize Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump had no choice but to accept the legislation, given the likelihood of a veto being overridden; his administration then missed the deadline to impose them, saying that the bill alone would be a sufficient deterrent.
As for the diplomats, it is the case that the U.S. booted more Russians than our allies in the wake of a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian intelligence officer in Britain. When Trump discovered that the U.S. response was more significant, though, he offered “a lot of curse words.”
“The president, who seemed to believe that other individual countries would largely equal the United States,” The Post reported, “was furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia.”
There’s a better case to be made.
“When you actually look at the substance of what this administration has done, not the rhetoric but the substance, this administration has been much tougher on Russia than any in the post-Cold War era,” the Atlantic Council’s Daniel Vajdich told NPR as part of a broad evaluation of Trump’s claim. Military spending to counter Russia is up and the Trump administration has armed Ukraine and given our armed forces a freer hand in Syria.
Trump also regularly points to increased sales of natural gas, something that has spiked during his administration and that could reduce Europe’s reliance on gas from Russia. The extent to which this is a geopolitical move specific to Trump, though, is questionable: It’s a boon to the energy industry that resulted in large part from the boom in gas production that followed the broad adoption of hydraulic fracturing.
There’s also that lingering distinction between what Trump’s administration does — Cabinet members taking steps in concert with or cajoled by the legislative branch — and what Trump does. As with the sanctions and the expulsions, it’s not always clear that the issues he cites most often as showing his strong hand were him actually seeking to demonstrate strength against Putin.
Then, too, there is Trump’s constant lack of interest in offering criticism of Putin. On Thursday he celebrated a Fox News clip that he suggested showed him “recogniz[ing] Russian meddling MANY TIMES.” The reality is that his acceptance of Russia’s role in 2016 has almost always been grudging and rarely has encompassed Putin’s involvement directly — despite his apparently having been shown, weeks before taking office, specific evidence reinforcing both of those things.
In that CNBC interview, Trump reverted to one of his other favorite tactics: Taking a criticism he faces and leveling it against someone else, in this case Barack Obama.
“Obama didn’t do it,” Trump said of his pushback on Russia. “Obama was a patsy for Russia. He was a total patsy. Look at the statement he made, when he thought the mics were turned off, okay? The stupid statement he made. Nobody does a big deal about that.”
The “statement Obama made” is an apparent reference to a hot-mic incident in 2012 when Obama said that he would have more flexibility in interacting with Russia after that year’s presidential election. The comment was broadly reported at the time and used to criticize Obama and interactions with Russia for some time afterward. Put another way: People made a big deal about it (including Fox News’s Sean Hannity, who mentioned it this week).
That response evoked Trump’s infamous response to Hillary Clinton in the third presidential debate in 2016.
TRUMP: Putin, from everything I see, has no respect for this person.
CLINTON: Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.
TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.
CLINTON: And it’s pretty clear…
TRUMP: You’re the puppet!
The public conversation about Trump and Russia is continually hampered by the imprecision of the language we use to describe it. What constitutes “collusion”? What are the boundaries of someone being an “agent” of Russia or being “leveraged” by Putin?
Wherever those lines should be drawn, the effect of Trump’s actions has been to prompt many of those most familiar with Russia’s efforts to undercut the United States to question his motives.
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who knows something about both foreign policy and embattled White Houses, offered a more nuanced take on Trump and Russia to the Financial Times.
“I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses,” Kissinger said.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative,” he added. “It could just be an accident.”