President Donald Trump’s performance in Finland on Monday — roundly criticized even by many of his allies here at home — was only the latest in a string of rhetorical gestures that critics have interpreted as needlessly fawning in regard to Russia.
At a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump appeared to accept his counterpart’s denial of 2016 U.S. election campaign meddling over the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence agencies.
He backed Putin’s suggestion that independent counsel Robert Mueller let Russian law enforcement officers question Russian agents indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury of hacking into computer systems of Democratic Party officials.
Trump even suggested that Russia could be a good partner on cybersecurity.
Lost in the predictable outrage that followed is a curious paradox when it comes to Russia: While Trump’s words and tweets sound accommodating of Putin, his administration’s actions in many cases have been much tougher than those of his predecessor in the Oval Office, Barack Obama.
“It’s perplexing,” said Robert Kaufman, a public policy professor at Pepperdine University.
Kaufman, author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America,” attributed Trump’s rhetorical posture to stubbornness in the face of speculation that he conspired with the Russians during the 2016 campaign. He said Trump conflates Russian interference with his supposed role in it.
The tweets and words from Trump obscure the policies, Kaufman said. Trump’s foreign policy is “better than it sounds,” Kaufman said, paraphrasing a quote sometimes attributed to author Mark Twain about German composer Richard Wagner’s music.
“If you just watched what he did, I’d be 90 percent happy with it,” Kaufman said.
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A review of Trump’s policies turns up little that could be viewed as supportive of Russia’s agenda:
- In the wake of election interference, Trump — albeit reluctantly and in the face of veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress — signed a bill ramping up sanctions against Russia and against many specific Russian oligarchs said to be allies of Putin.
- The Trump administration last year allowed the sale of lethal anti-tank and other much-needed weapons to Ukraine — something Obama refused to do despite repeated pleas from Ukrainian leaders — to beef up defenses against possible further aggression by a country that had invaded and annexed Crimea.
- In June of last year, Trump withdrew from the Paris climate change accords, an environmental pact Russia supported.
- In May, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Russia’s biggest ally in the Middle East. Russia helped negotiate that deal and strongly supported it.
- Trump has pushed for increased spending on the U.S. military, which clearly is not in Russia’s interests.
- Trump also has supported expanding domestic energy production, a fact the president referenced on Monday. Since energy is by far Russia’s most important industry and high energy prices are vital to Putin’s ability to project power beyond Russia’s borders, it directly contradicts that nation’s interests for the United States to increase energy production.
But experts said Trump undermines that policy heft when he fails to back it up with strong, clear public messaging. Sending mixed signals can lead to miscalculations and even wars, Kaufman said.
“I think you have to be concerned over the long term because words do matter,” he said.
J. Michael Waller, vice president of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, downplayed the significance of some of Trump’s policies. He said the arms sold to Ukraine, for instance, are relatively ineffectual.
Waller, whose think tank often has been supportive of Trump, said the president has been slow to replace Obama-era staffers and other advisers who are not “MAGA [Make America Great Again] type” people. He pointed to Fiona Hill, a veteran of the left-leaning Brookings Institution, who still serves on the National Security Council staff and who accompanied Trump to Finland for the summit.
“We’re going to have an ‘Obama lite’ until that changes,” Waller said.
Waller faulted the president’s entire approach to the summit with Putin. He criticized the president for meeting with Putin alone except for interpreters — without even note takers to document the meeting.
“I did not see Trump taking an ‘America First’ approach on this,” he said. “He allowed Putin and Putin’s team to totally dominate the narrative.”
Waller said the United States has done little to challenge a Russian campaign to significantly upgrade its offensive weapons capabilities. “We have no defense against it,” he said.
Waller said Trump came off as petty and diminished himself by using the forum to talk about his campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton and his electoral college victory.
“You don’t bring domestic politics to a summit and blame them for things Putin did,” he said.
Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told LifeZette that a thaw in Russian-U.S. relations is unlikely in the short term.
“I am expecting a strong pushback from the Democrats and from those Republicans in Washington who are opposed to President Trump’s rapprochement with Moscow,” he said. “In any event, until such time that the Mueller investigation ran out its course and the indictments are presented, I do not think it will be possible to greatly expand the scope of U.S.-Russian relations.”
He added he hopes that “after that, we will be able to move forward, especially if we achieve progress on Ukraine.”