Putin on the Ritz
TRUMP AND RUSSIA
Trump’s fondness for Vladimir Putin is not debatable, but Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election absolutely has been. For many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters, Russia was the election’s hidden hand—feeding damaging leaks to Julian Assange and possibly even coordinating with Trump and his campaign. Trump himself was sometimes presented as a kind of Siberian candidate, working with Russian backers and handlers (in some of these theories, under duress) to deliver a pro-Russian U.S. government.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak twice during the 2016 campaign, when he was serving as a Trump advisor. This is despite the fact that Sessions said in his confirmation hearing that “I did not have communications with the Russians” — while under oath.
Routine diplomatic interactions are depicted as dark and sinister if they involve Russians. When the most flamboyant, alarmist, tabloid-style Russia stories from leading news outlets collapse (as so many have), or when Trump’s actions (such as hiring numerous anti-Russia hawks for key positions) explode the “Putin’s puppet” narrative, it makes no difference to our mainstream conspiracy obsessives because – as she (Masha Gessen) puts it – “such is the nature of conspiracy thinking that facts can do nothing to change it.”
As the New York Times — supposedly the paper of record — recently reported, there is “no evidence” that the “Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.” But there is ample evidence that the outgoing Obama administration could have used intelligence agencies to carry out a political agenda against Trump.
The notion that Trump or his associates were wiretapped directly — much less at the behest of President Obama — has not been substantiated. Congressional intelligence leaders say they have seen no evidence of such a wiretap, and experts call the scenario far-fetched.
“The issue isn’t whether the Obama administration spied on the Trump campaign or transition of surrogates; the issue is the extent of it,” Mark Levin (originator of Trump’s wiretapping theory) said.
“Donald Trump is the victim. His campaign is the victim. His transition team is the victim. His surrogates are the victim,” he said.
-Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone
There is a lot of smoke in the Russia story. The most damning item is General Michael Flynn having improper discussions with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak prior to taking office. There is the much-discussed Republican platform change with regard to American assistance to Ukranian rebels, and the unreported contacts between officials like Jeff Sessions (and even Trump himself now) with Kislyak.
Moreover, the case that the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee now appears fairly solid. Even Donald Trump thinks so. This of course makes it harder to dismiss stories like the one in which former Trump adviser Roger Stone appeared to know that Wikileaks was about to release the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta.
But the manner in which these stories are being reported is becoming a story in its own right. Russia has become an obsession, cultural shorthand for a vast range of suspicions about Donald Trump.
Many Russian and American policy experts no longer hesitate to use phrases like “the second Cold War.”
For nearly two decades, U.S.-Russian relations have ranged between strained and miserable. Although the two countries have come to agreements on various issues, including trade and arms control, the general picture is grim. Many Russian and American policy experts no longer hesitate to use phrases like “the second Cold War.”
The level of tension has alarmed experienced hands on both sides. “What we have is a situation in which the strong leader of a relatively weak state is acting in opposition to weak leaders of relatively strong states,” General Sir Richard Shirreff, the former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, said. “And that strong leader is Putin. He is calling the shots at the moment.” Shirreff observes that NATO’s withdrawal of military forces from Europe has been answered with incidents of Russian aggression, and with a sizable buildup of forces in the vicinity of the Baltic states, including an aircraft-carrier group dispatched to the North Sea, an expanded deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander-M ballistic missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Kremlin, for its part, views the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders as itself a provocation, and points to such U.S. measures as the placement of a new ground-based missile-defense system in Deveselu, Romania.
Robert Gates, who was Secretary of Defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, describes relations between Obama and Putin as having been “poisonous” and casts at least some of the blame on Obama; referring to Russia as a “regional power,” as Obama did, was “the equivalent of referring to ISIS as a J.V. team,” in his view. “I think the new Administration has a big challenge in front of it in terms of stopping the downward spiral in the U.S.-Russia relationship while pushing back against Putin’s aggression and general thuggery,” Gates said. “Every time NATO makes a move or Russia makes a move near its border, there is a response. Where does that all stop? So there is a need to stop that downward spiral. The dilemma is how do you do that without handing Putin a victory of huge proportions?”
Sessions’ meeting with Kislyak wouldn’t have been nearly as controversial (to the point where he may have lied about it under oath) had it not been for questions about Trump’s choices about Russia. The scandals aren’t “fake news” or an intelligence community conspiracy; they stem directly from behavior by Trump or his staff.
Worst of all, our discourse is being drowned by irrational, highly corrosive delusions and feverish conspiracy theorizing – not just from Trump, who built his political career on a racist and deranged conspiracy theory about Obama’s true birthplace, but also from those who have anointed themselves leaders of the Resistance against him.
Although the evidence for Russia’s interference appears convincing, it is too easy to allow such an account to become the master narrative of Trump’s ascent—a way to explain the presence of a man who is so alien and discomforting to so much of the population by rendering him in some way foreign. In truth, he is a phenomenon of America’s own making.
Modified: March 11, 2017
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