WASHINGTON – Coming from a presidential candidate, Donald Trump’s misty-eyed admiration of Russia and its autocratic leader was weird. Coming from a president-elect, it’s nothing short of alarming.
I repeat the questions I asked back in September: What’s the deal with Trump and Russia? Does he have financial entanglements with Russian banks, businesses or billionaires that color his views? If not, as he claims, then why won’t he release the personal and business tax returns that could put the matter to rest?
The latest sign of Trump’s infatuation is his refusal to accept the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russian state-sponsored hackers meddled in our election – a risky and provocative operation that could only have been authorized by Vladimir Putin.
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“It could be somebody else,” Trump told reporters on New Year’s Eve. “And I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation.” The president-elect added that “I know a lot about hacking, and hacking is a very hard thing to prove.”
It is unclear how Trump could know even a little about hacking, since he rarely uses computers. Aides reportedly must print out news articles for him to read. In my experience, experts on cybersecurity know how to use a web browser.
Trump is scheduled to receive a full briefing on the issue Friday from senior officials including FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. President Obama has seen the evidence – and was convinced enough to impose new sanctions against Russia as punishment.
When Putin decided not to reciprocate, given that Obama will soon leave office, Trump offered this glowing comment on Twitter: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”
Trump has argued that since the CIA was in error about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it may well be wrong about Russian hacking. That’s ridiculous. It’s like saying that since Trump was wrong when he claimed early in the campaign to have seen thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11, everything he has said since may well be exaggerated, half-baked or a flat-out lie.
On second thought, maybe I should choose a different analogy.
One possible reason for Trump’s stubbornness is that intelligence officials believe the intent of the hacking was not merely to shake public confidence in the U.S. electoral process, but to help Trump win the election. The hacked material that was allowed to surface, mostly through WikiLeaks, contained embarrassing information about Democratic institutions and individuals, including the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Republicans were almost completely spared.
Perhaps believing that the legitimacy of his victory is being impugned, Trump is willing to take the founder of WikiLeaks – a fugitive from justice on sexual assault allegations – at his word. Trump tweeted Wednesday: “Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!”
Another possible explanation is that Trump is deliberately making a huge shift in U.S. foreign policy regarding the other two global superpowers. Not only has he been much more indulgent of Russia than recent presidents, he has also taken a much tougher and more confrontational line toward China. This smacks of 18th- and 19th-century balance-of-power statecraft, which became obsolete with the advent of modern weapons. Such machinations cannot be advisable in the nuclear age.
On New Year’s Eve, as Trump prepared to host a black-tie gala at his Mar-a-Lago estate, two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee – John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. – joined Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in meeting with front-line Ukrainian troops who are defending their country against Russian-backed military aggression. In 2014, Putin annexed Crimea by force. A few years earlier, he sent troops into the sovereign nation of Georgia.
Perhaps Trump doesn’t believe all of this is really happening. Maybe he doesn’t care.
The senators made clear they want tougher sanctions against Russia to punish its territorial ambitions and its outrageous attempt to influence our election. How to deal with Putin could be the first big foreign policy fight between the new president and the Republican-controlled Congress.
Perhaps McCain and his colleagues will get to the bottom of why Trump, who sounds like such a tough guy with regard to the rest of the world, is such a pussycat when it comes to Russia. Senate committees can issue wide-reaching subpoenas, and should.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.