Explanations for Donald Trump’s election victory have proliferated almost as much in recent weeks as the president-elect’s tweets.
It’s an insoluble debate, deciding which factor was most crucial: Trump’s promise of sweeping change; Hillary Clinton’s weakness as a candidate, her email server or her campaign’s blue state political malpractice; the mistaken intrusions of FBI Chief James Comey; damage from Bernie Sanders’ exaggerated primary criticisms; or apparent Russian efforts to help Trump.
The likeliest answer is that all contributed to the unexpected outcome, which hinged on Trump’s victory in three Rust Belt states by less than 80,000 votes.
In any case, the election’s unfortunate fallout is becoming increasingly evident, such as Trump’s decision to install domestic Cabinet chiefs who support policies that would weaken federal protections for many Americans.
Even more serious perhaps is the growing evidence Trump would abandon 70 years of U.S.-led Western firmness against Soviet and Russian expansionism by seeking friendlier relations with President Vladimir Putin, whose aggressive policies represent one of the greatest threats to European stability.
From picking top aides with long-standing ties to the autocratic Russian leader to dismissing the increasing evidence Putin’s agents sought to manipulate the 2016 U.S. election, Trump is pushing ahead with his unproven belief that a friendlier approach will somehow benefit the United States. (It may benefit business interests whose pro-Trump lobbyists are already at work in Moscow.)
Unlike the sharply conservative tone of the heretofore politically androgynous Trump’s domestic appointments, his pro-Putin thrust should come as no surprise. Throughout the campaign, Trump made it clear he favors closer ties with Russia, and he mocked suggestions it sought to influence the outcome.
He called Putin “a better leader” than Barack Obama. He gave misleading answers about their relationship, at one point telling George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week,” “I’ve no relationship with Putin. I’ve never met him.” But in a 2014 Fox News interview, he said, “When I went to Russia with the Miss Universe pageant, he contacted me and was so nice.”
Trump said he had no financial dealings with Russia other than running the 2008 Miss Universe pageant there. But the website eturbonews.com quoted Donald Trump Jr. telling a 2008 real estate conference: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” In a detailed article, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo suggested Trump is “highly reliant on money from Russia” to finance his debts – something that could be checked if Trump followed past practice and released his tax returns.
Whether Trump was motivated by his finances or wishful thinking, there was little doubt before intelligence agencies confirmed Russian efforts that Putin favored Trump’s election. His antagonism toward Clinton seems to stem mainly from her December 2011 statement expressing “serious concern” about the fairness of Russian parliamentary elections and calling for a “full investigation” of irregularities.
In other words, Putin objected to the fact that, as secretary of state, Clinton properly decried his increasingly anti-democratic tendencies, a stance the United States has traditionally taken around the world. Now, Russian leaders reportedly are delighted with Trump’s election, believing the United States will be more interested in financial dealing than in opposing Russian expansionism and autocracy.
Still, whatever Putin’s motives, it’s far worse that he tried actively to interfere in our election, probably to help elect Trump. That’s why leading Republicans such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham joined top Democrats in bipartisan calls to investigate.
Even some lawmakers who don’t acknowledge Putin sought to help Trump understand his ultimate goal is to destabilize the Western alliance that has kept European peace since World War II and remains a vital barrier to renewed Russian expansionism. Trump may face considerable resistance if he tries to ease economic sanctions on Russia.
Meanwhile, he should join demands to determine what happened in the campaign, rather than continually cozying up to the country Mitt Romney in 2012 presciently called America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” That would require the transition he has yet to make from Republican candidate to president of all Americans.
Whatever Trump says or does, this issue will be front and center when Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which must approve his nomination. Even senators inclined to back the oil mogul will want to know if Trump’s administration will take the realistic stance toward Russia that has been lacking in his campaign and post-campaign pronouncements.
Carl P. Leubsdorf, a columnist for The Dallas Morning News, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.