Political infighting hampering Trump’s ability to deal with Putin

On Tuesday, President Trump congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin over his re-election victory earlier this week. In a phone call, Trump said he kept the focus of the call on what the White House said were “shared interests,” which reportedly went against the advice of national security officials who wanted him to raise the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Moscow’s alleged involvement in the nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy living in Britain.

“We had a very good call,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office after welcoming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. “We will probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future.”

The call came five days after the Trump administration imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its interference in the election and for other “malicious cyberattacks,” which are the most significant actions taken against Moscow since Trump took office.

The United States also joined Britain, France and Germany in denouncing the Russian government for violating international law for the attack on the spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter Yulia.

According to a U.S. media report, Trump declined to personally criticize or antagonize Putin because he believes that doing so would jeopardize any opportunity to improve relations between the two nuclear-armed countries.

That report noted further:

The White House also insisted that it was not the place of the United States to question how other countries conduct their elections — a contention that is at odds with years of critical statements about foreign elections by the United States, as well as recent statements by the Trump administration about elections in Venezuela and Iran.

“What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country, and that’s not something we can dictate to them how they operate,” said the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “We can only focus on the freeness and fairness of our elections, something we 100 percent fully support.”

Echoing the president, she went on to rail against the investigation of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into links between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“To pretend like going through this absurd process for over a year would not bring frustration seems a little bit ridiculous,” she said. [source]

Some American lawmakers were also critical of the president’s phone call, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who tweeted: “An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election.”

Added Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “When I look at a Russian election, what I see is a lack of credibility in tallying the results. Calling him wouldn’t have been high on my list.”

Lost in this criticism: In 2012, then-President Obama also called Putin to congratulate him on his election victory.

Analysis: First of all, Trump was not the only Western leader to congratulate Putin; France, Germany, and Japan had already sent congratulatory messages to Putin before Trump called him.

But let’s look at the criticism of Trump’s action objectively because frankly, objectivity in our foreign policy been missing in Washington for a long time — since Trump became president, in fact.

There wasn’t nearly as much criticism for the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia, which began shortly after he took office in January 2009 and was led by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The reset didn’t ‘take;’ over the course of Obama’s eight-year tenure relations between Moscow and Washington got worse, not better. That wasn’t a good thing, mind you; having bad relations with a nuclear-armed great power puts the world at greater risk.

So what’s wrong with trying a new approach, which Trump seems to want to do? Nothing, per se, except that politically, Trump is completely hamstrung. He can’t be seen as attempting to improve relations with Russia because he’s under investigation for “colluding” with Moscow to “steal” the 2016 election, an allegation that, after more than a year, appears completely baseless — so much so that by now, you have to wonder if it is now a politically-motivated attack more than it is a legitimate investigation. And yet so many Americans believe it to be true because much of the media can’t let go of the allegations, either.

No one inside the White House seriously doubts that Putin’s victory was tainted and pre-ordained, just like they don’t doubt that Moscow was behind the nerve agent attack in Britain — or the Russian mercenary attack on an American position last month in Syria — and that includes Trump. But as the president is demonstrating in the Mideast Peace process, he has been able to make progress where the convention thinkers and careerist bureaucrats and diplomats have not.

Could he accomplish the same thing with Russia? We may never know because it appears as though there are too many forces working against him in a town where 1) no one expected him to be after the November 2016 election; and 2) where few in that town want him to be now. Trump the outsider can’t be allowed any such large-scale successes in solving long-standing diplomatic issues that have stumped the professional political class for decades.

Political pettiness in D.C. and disdain for Trump is putting our country at risk at a time when Russia — and other great powers — pose the greatest security challenges since the Cold War. 

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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