President Trump raised the ire of his counterpart in Moscow by striking a Syrian airfield last Thursday, and in doing so disrupted the media narrative that he is too cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A CBS News poll published Monday found majority support for the bombing ordered by Trump, and just 35 percent of U.S. adults said they believe the president is “too friendly” with Russia, down 8 percentage points since February. Notably, Trump made headway with Democrats and independents. (Republicans needed less convincing to begin with.)
Sixty-two percent of Democrats still say Trump is too friendly, but that figure represents a 13-point drop. The share of independents who view Trump as too friendly toward Russia declined by 9 points, to 30 percent.
Coverage of Trump's military action noted that the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles — aimed at the airfield from which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces are believed to have deployed a chemical-weapon attack on civilians this week — puts the United States at odds with Russia, which has supported the Assad regime. A few excerpts from the early coverage:
- “Putin denounced the U.S. action as 'aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law under a far-fetched pretext.' He said the strikes 'dealt a serious blow to Russian-U.S. relations' and that their aim was to distract from civilian deaths caused by coalition airstrikes in Iraq, a statement from his press office said.” (CNN)
- “Mr. Putin considered the attack a breach of international law that had been made under a false pretext, Peskov said. Moscow also called on the United Nations Security Council to convene an emergency meeting, and the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was freezing an agreement with the United States to coordinate air operations over Syria.” (New York Times)
- “Trump's decision to strike Syrian government forces is a particularly notable shift for a leader who in the past had repeatedly said he wanted better relations with Moscow, including to cooperate with Russia to fight Islamic State. … Russian media long portrayed Trump as a figure who would promote closer relations with Moscow. At home, Trump's opponents have accused him of being too supportive of Putin.” (Reuters)
The Reuters excerpt captures the dynamic perfectly. During the presidential campaign, Trump praised Putin, calling him a “stronger leader” than President Barack Obama.
After his inauguration, Trump did little to inspire confidence that he could stand up to Putin when he defended the Russian leader in a high-profile interview on Super Bowl Sunday. Interviewer Bill O'Reilly of Fox News remarked to Trump that “Putin is a killer,” referring to suspicions that the Kremlin has been behind the deaths of journalists and political dissidents.
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump replied. “We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Most significant, FBI Director James B. Comey confirmed last month that his agency is investigating whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to meddle in the election by spreading negative information about Democrat Hillary Clinton. There is no proof of collusion, but the FBI and CIA agree that Russia sought to help Trump win — a conclusion that would seem to make the president disinclined to cross such a powerful supporter.
Yet that is exactly what Trump did by authorizing Thursday's airstrike. The move does not answer questions about collusion one way or the other, but it does counter the notion that Trump might reflexively yield to Putin on important decisions.