"During his administration, Trump will be friendly with Putin," Trump said in an August interview with CNBC. Trump kept up this posture even as the intelligence community suggested Russia was meddling in the U.S. presidential election by disclosing emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign and as Democrats argued Russia was trying to elect Trump. Trump didn't care; he still said nice things.
In the end, Trump's kind words about Putin and overtures toward a stronger relationship with Russia didn't cost him the 2016 election. But that doesn't necessarily mean people liked it. And you can rest assured that foreign policy leaders will have thoughts in the hours and days ahead.
The fact is that plenty of tension remains between the United States and Russia, two countries that since the Cold War have certainly had ups and downs. But Trump never really seemed to be perturbed by that increasingly uneasy relationship and its political implications.
Just four years ago, you might recall, Trump's predecessor as the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, called Russia the United States's top "geopolitical foe." In 2016, Trump offered a different approach from the start.
“If we could get along with Russia, wouldn’t that be a good thing, instead of a bad thing?" he said in July. "Wouldn't it be nice if we actually got along, as an example, with Russia?” he said a couple days prior in Florida. And a couple days before that in North Carolina: "Wouldn't it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?"
What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail
The comments were especially curious, given Democrats had alleged that Russia is trying to help elect Trump president. Trump played down his admiration for and relationship with Putin some, yes, but he did almost nothing to really combat the idea that Russia might prefer him as president and that he would be good to the Russian government.
Trump even appeared to call for Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton's emails. He even suggested he might recognize Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula whose 2014 annexation by Russia the United States currently regards as an illegal occupation, as Russian territory. And despite that Russian incursion into Eastern Europe, he has suggested on multiple occasions that he might not defend NATO allies if they don't pony up more.
Then there are the comments about making friends with Russia. That sounds nice in theory, but it's pretty apparent that Americans are skeptical of who their new ally would be. And that makes Trump's early move much more fraught.
Pew data shows two-thirds of Americans regard Russia as either an "adversary" or a "serious problem." That number is very much on par with China, a country toward which Trump has taken a much more adversarial political stance.
Similarly, Gallup polling shows about two-thirds of Americans have an unfavorable view of Russia — the second-highest mark since the end of the Cold War.
Eighty-six percent of Americans regard the military power of Russia as either an "important" or "critical" threat to the vital interests of the United States. And 68 percent regard Russia as either "unfriendly" or an "enemy" of the United States. Twenty-one percent say it's friendly, and 5 percent call it an ally — numbers that are both down massively from the early 2000s.
The trajectory makes clear that Russia has fallen out of favor with Americans in recent years. And Democrats were smart to seize on that.
It didn't make the difference politically, but now Trump is a major player on the world stage, trying to make his Russia goals into a reality. And winning that geopolitical campaign won't be easy either.