President Trump has now made it abundantly clear that he isn't going to force the issue with Vladimir Putin when it comes to Russian interference in the 2016 election. After an encounter this weekend in Vietnam, Trump said he believes the Russian president is sincere in his denials and suggested it doesn't make sense to keep raising the matter.
“You can only ask so many times,” Trump said Saturday. He followed that up with a tweet stressing the need for a good relationship with Russia. The inference: Pressing Putin too hard will only jeopardize important things.
And this now seems to be the official company line. White House adviser Marc Short made basically the same case Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
“Nuclear weapons in North Korea is a greater threat than Russia buying Facebook ads in America,” Short said. Pressed by Chuck Todd on whether Trump thinks Russia has been punished enough, Short deflected: “I think the president is more interested in figuring how can we partner with them to help prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon.”
This is a case that makes logical sense on its surface. Why focus on the past, after all, when the future is so important, and its course can still be altered? But there are a couple major problems with it:
- It sets a hell of a precedent
- This is not how he treats other countries
- It's entirely contrary to Trump's long-cultivated brand
For No. 1, Trump and the White House arguing about the relative importance of Russian interference vis-à-vis North Korea nuclear weapons is a hugely slippery slope. Next to North Korea developing a nuclear weapon, after all, basically nothing is a pressing issue. This is an argument that could be used not just to give Russia a pass on its 2016 interference, but also to roll back sanctions and cave on basically anything else Putin wants. After all, it would be in the service of preventing Kim Jong Un from acquiring the ability to strike the United States with nukes! And those sanctions are alienating our potential Russian allies!
This also ignores the all-important need to deter other, similar actions. If Trump basically diminishes Russian interference as unimportant and not worth his time, it risks sending a message to other countries with big bargaining chips that they, too, can engage in such behavior as long as they hold on to those chips.
On Point No. 2, what has long struck me about Trump throwing up his hands when it comes to Putin is that it's completely the opposite of his approach to other countries.
When it comes to China's assistance in dealing with the North Korean threat, for instance, Trump has often been the opposite of obsequious. While he's mostly been warm and fuzzy with Beijing of late, there was a time when he repeatedly wrote off China's help and played hardball with it.
Trump's occasionally tough treatment of China stands in stark contrast to how he deals with Russia — even as China is the more important country when it comes to halting North Korea's nuclear aspirations. So why is he all sunshine and smiles with Russia while he wields carrots and sticks with China?
And finally, this is all completely counter to Trump's entire ethos. Trump is supposed to be a master negotiator, after all — the guy who literally wrote the book on making deals. Yet when it comes to an issue of import, his argument is essentially that he can't be expected to negotiate contrition or an admission from Putin. Trump is basically conceding defeat in this negotiation, without appearing to have really tried all that hard.
And that might be the strangest part of this whole dance.