On Tuesday, 17 days after Russia allegedly poisoned a former spy on the soil of a close U.S. ally using a nerve agent, President Trump made the case for taking it easy on Russia.
“Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump tweeted in defense of his having congratulated Vladimir Putin on his apparently undemocratic reelection win.
It's a case Trump has made regularly while defending his soft posture toward Russia, but seldom has it been so apparent how overly simplistic it is.
Despite signing on to a strong statement alleging Russia was at least complicit in the nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the White House over the past couple of days has defended Trump's apparent willingness to gloss over that and any alleged shenanigans in Putin's reelection, including sidelining Putin critics.
In doing so, it has essentially argued that its hands are tied and that this is all distracting from a broader goal of harmony. But both those arguments belie this truth: Trump has seemingly no desire to challenge Putin.
Tuesday's White House news briefing featured a rather remarkable exchange. In it, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to questions about Trump congratulating Putin by saying the U.S. can't tell other counties what to do.
“We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” Sanders said. “What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country, and that’s not something that we can dictate to them, how they operate.”
While that statement is strictly true, it's really not the point. The United States can't dictate what other countries can do, sure, but it can sure apply pressure — whether through tough words, sanctions or other means. It has done that very thing, in fact, with Venezuela's tainted elections as recently as ... this week.
Sanders was presenting a false choice between drawing a line in the sand and accepting Putin's win as legitimate. In reality, there are many choices in between.
That same false dichotomy was evident in Trump's tweets Wednesday — and has been a regular feature of his defenses of a desired alliance with Putin. Trump has often presented his softness on Putin as the price of doing business when it comes to making friends. While that might help matters, it ignores the fact that every alliance is predicated on trust and not being taken advantage of. It's one thing to try to be nice; it's another to let someone walk all over you.
Glossing over the Skripal poisoning — which Trump failed to broach with Putin Tuesday despite it being in his talking points — could pretty easily be construed as letting someone walk all over you.
The fact that Trump has now argued, not three weeks later, that being tough on Russia is the wrong call is a pretty telling example of what he's willing to put up with. Trump has signaled that pressing Putin on election interference and the Skripal poisoning is unimportant in the grand scheme of things — despite other parts of his administration regarding each as something of a red line.
If Trump truly thinks those things are not that big a deal and not worth raising a stink over, he might as well say it. But that's the inescapable conclusion of everything he and the White House have done both this week and throughout his administration.