U.S.-Russia relations have dipped to “an all-time low,” in the words last week of a one-time Kremlin aficionado, President Donald Trump.
Trump made this assertion on same the day Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a frosty meeting with Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader claimed the Syrian gas attack was a “provocation” by the United States and Syrian rebels – meaning we did it or faked it to undermine Syrian President Bashar Assad. (Yet Moscow vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have authorized a U.N. inspection.)
But then, of course, Putin trades in fake facts, claiming Russia never invaded Ukraine, never hacked the U.S. election, and never interfered in U.S. or European domestic politics. Never mind tons of irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
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Which raises one of the most dangerous quandaries we face in this new political era. How do you deal with a nuclear-armed Russian leader who denies, even in private, the most basic facts about the issues? And yes, you know where this is leading. How can Trump rebuff the Kremlin’s disinformation strategy when he copies the Putin playbook by promoting “fake facts” in his interviews and tweets?
The White House embrace of conspiratorial websites that promote outrageous lies feeds into Moscow’s efforts to sow confusion in Western democracies on the issues. Many of those alt-right sites are parroting Kremlin-like explanations of the sarin gas attack in Syria.
Take one example: Alex Jones’ “Infowars,” an online radio show that is a favorite of Trump’s. Jones blamed the gas attack on the White Helmets, a selfless group of Syrian civilian volunteers who rush to the scene of regime bomb attacks to try to rescue victims from the rubble. Here’s the “Infowars” version: “The White Helmets, an al-Qaeda affiliated group (a grotesque and disgusting canard) funded by George Soros and the British government, have reportedly staged another chemical weapon attack on civilians in the Syrian city of Khan Shaykhun”
Trump has praised Jones as having “an amazing reputation” and appeared on his show during the presidential campaign. Jones also claims the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut was a hoax, but despite pleas from families of the children killed there, Trump has yet to repudiate Jones.
And then there is Mike Cernovich, a gadfly who livestreams endless conspiracy theories and was recently touted by Kellyanne Conway. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that Cernovich deserved a Pulitzer Prize (journalism’s highest award). Never mind that Cernovich helped spread the “Pizzagate” fable that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring out of a Washington Pizzeria, which inspired a believer to shoot up the joint. Now Cernovich says Assad was framed and suggests Sen. John McCain gave the Islamic State poison gas and Hollywood equipment to stage the attack.
This may all seem like baloney to you, but these websites have a huge audience, including Trump and White House staffers. And, as their response to the Syria strike shows, these conspiracy sites feed a climate in which facts become irrelevant and wild theories more attractive.
This climate of confusion is dramatically encouraged by the president’s habit of labeling any views he disputes as “fake facts,” thus further muddying the water for his voters about where truth lies, or whether there is any truth at all.
As the past week has shown, Trump is slowly coming to grips with, and wholly shifting positions on facts he had previously disputed – on North Korea, Chinese currency manipulation, Kremlin behavior (at least on Syria), etc. But his learning curve is steep, since – as he makes clear – he is resistant to detailed briefings, State Department expertise, or reading that informs him on critical topics.
Moreover, Trump’s tendency to do 180-degree turns based on the last person he met (he said “10 minutes” with Chinese President Xi Jinping changed his take on North Korea) is unnerving. Moreover, his continued partiality to “fake facts” farms that proliferate on the web or cable TV make him susceptible to the disinformation wiles of the Kremlin.
Remember when Trump proclaimed “I love WikiLeaks” last October, indifferent to Moscow’s machinations? The issue, which the president still won’t address, was not Russian hacking per se, but the way the material was leaked and released to an outfit willing to do Moscow’s bidding, interfering with an American election.
“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” said Trump’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo, last week.
The conspiratorial websites so beloved of the president may not be as directly connected to the Kremlin, but Trump’s encouragement of these ‘fake facts” factories has a similar impact. They feed into a climate of political uncertainty in America, which can be manipulated by Moscow.
After all, the president still refuses to confront the reality that some of his campaign staff had dicey contacts with Moscow that have prompted an FBI investigation. Even if they didn’t decide the election, these contacts reflect an unprecedented level of Moscow interference in American political life.
If U.S. officials don’t halt Russia’s domestic meddling, this encourages Kremlin stonewalling on international issues. Yet no successful counterespionage program can be mounted if the president denies Kremlin intervention in the elections.
“This shouldn’t be a big issue for a healthy democracy,” said Dimitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Center, at a Council on Foreign Relations conference last week in New York. “Hacking is nothing new. Putin is trying to use information to influence political processes.”
But a healthy democracy requires the president to recognize reality and seek out facts rather than grab on to wild theories. When there is no agreement on basic political facts inside the White House, it is far harder to confront Moscow’s lies.
Trudy Rubin can be contacted at email@example.com.