Russia has yet to collect much of what it hoped for from the Trump administration, including the lifting of U.S. sanctions and recognition of its annexation of Crimea.
But the Kremlin has collected a different return on its effort to help elect Trump in last year’s election: chaos in Washington.
The president’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey last week was the latest destabilizing jolt to a core institution of the U.S. government. The nation’s top law enforcement agency joined a list of entities that Trump has targeted, including federal judges, U.S. spy services, news organizations and military alliances.
The instability, although driven by Trump, has in some ways extended and amplified the effect Russia sought to achieve with its unprecedented campaign to undermine the 2016 presidential race.
In a declassified report released this year, U.S. spy agencies described destabilization as one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objectives.
“The Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order,” it said.
Russia’s “active measures” campaign ended with the election last year. But Comey’s firing on Tuesday triggered a new wave of Russia-related turbulence.
His removal was perceived as a blow to the independence of the bureau’s ongoing investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Current and former U.S. officials said that even if that probe remains on track, Comey’s ouster serves broader Russian interests.
“They feel pretty good overall because that’s a further sign that our political system is in a real crisis,” said Eugene Rumer, a former State Department official who served as the top intelligence officer on Russia issues from 2010 to 2014. “The firing of Comey only aggravates this crisis. It’s now certain to be more protracted and more painful, and that’s okay with them.”
James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, offered a similar assessment in Senate testimony last week, even before Comey was dismissed, saying that Moscow must look on the election and its aftermath with a great deal of satisfaction.
“The Russians have to be celebrating the success of . . . what they set out do with rather minimal resource expenditure,” Clapper said. “The first objective was to sow discord and dissension, which they certainly did.”
Clapper went further in interviews on Sunday, saying that U.S. institutions are “under assault” from Trump and that Russia must see the firing of Comey as “another victory on the scoreboard for them.”
Even Trump alluded to Russia’s presumed glee at the post-Comey turmoil, although he blamed Democrats. “Russia must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the U.S. tears itself apart over a Democrat EXCUSE for losing the election,” Trump said in Twitter post on Thursday.
If Russia’s most specific priorities have proved elusive, it may be partly because Moscow overachieved in its effort to cultivate ties to Trump.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who shared many of Trump’s pro-Russia positions, was forced to resign in February after it was revealed that he had misled other White House officials about his post-election conversations with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States.
In a late December phone call that was intercepted by U.S. intelligence, Flynn assured Kislyak that Trump planned to revisit the sanctions issue shortly after taking office. Trump has so far not followed through on that front, largely because the Flynn controversy and multiple Russia probes have made it politically unfeasible.
Trump’s policies toward Russia have also taken a harder line in part because of the rising influence of senior members of his administration, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who are critics of Moscow.
Even so, Trump himself continues to send pro-Russia signals, sometimes at the expense of agencies that report to him. Trump recently signaled, again, that he remains unconvinced that Russia was behind the hack of the 2016 election and release of tens of thousands of emails that damaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign. His position is a rejection of the consensus view of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Trump has provided a steady stream of material for Russian propaganda platforms.
One day after firing Comey, Trump welcomed Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to the White House. U.S. news agencies were barred from attending, but a photographer for Russia’s state-run Tass news agency was granted access to the Oval Office.
Photos released later in the day showed Trump warmly welcoming his guests, including a shot that showed Trump smiling and shaking hands with Kislyak, the ambassador embroiled in the controversy with Flynn.
Russian officials have denied the country meddled in the U.S. election. In brief public appearances last week, Lavrov joked about Comey’s dismissal — “Was he fired? You’re kidding!” — and mocked claims of Moscow interference.
“We are monitoring what is going on here concerning Russia and its alleged ‘decisive role’ in your domestic policy,” Lavrov said in a quote reported by Tass.
Trump’s defenders acknowledge that he seeks improved relations with Moscow but insist that his goals are designed entirely to advance U.S. interests.
They point to sharp criticism of Moscow by senior administration officials, strained diplomatic relations on key issues and Trump’s decision to order a missile strike on an air base in Syria where Russian military operatives were based as part of Moscow’s support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The assertion that the Trump administration has been advantageous to Moscow “is laughable,” said James Carafano, the vice president of foreign and defense policy at the Heritage Foundation, who served as an adviser to the Trump transition team. “The president has actually stiff-armed them on a number of occasions.”
But critics argue that many of Trump’s foreign policy positions undercut U.S. influence overseas and, as a result, strengthen Moscow — his effective endorsement of nationalist candidates including Marine Le Pen in France; his effort to impose an immigration ban on Muslim-majority countries; and his threats, since softened, to restructure NATO.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed allegations of ties between his campaign and Russia as “fake news.” The White House insisted that Comey’s firing was based solely on his handling of the investigation of Clinton’s emails.
But Trump’s own later statements made clear the decision was linked to his frustration that the Russia inquiry was expanding under Comey, a director whom Trump viewed as disloyal.
Trump had telegraphed the move a day earlier on Twitter, saying: “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?”
The implication that the FBI would perpetuate an unwarranted investigation out of political animus echoes other instances in which Trump has disparaged U.S. institutions or principles.
U.S. intelligence officials said such comments bolster the case that Putin makes against Western democracies.
“It plays into the idea that we are as corrupt as anybody else, that what the United States is exporting isn’t something you want,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official involved in tracking the Russian election hack and its aftermath. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
With sanctions still in place, Russia may think that the election interference “didn’t pan out the way they expected,” the official said. “But what they’re getting now is more positive than what they had under [President Barack] Obama and what they feared under Clinton. It’s not pro-Russia, but it’s certainly not anti-Russia. It’s more a kind of chaos. And that does benefit them.”