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By Brandon Mooney 

August 4, 2020

Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand for the past month, you have no doubt heard about the controversy surrounding whether Trump had been briefed on intelligence claiming that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban in Afghanistan for the targeting and killing of U.S. servicemen.

Policy Summary:

Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand for the past month, you have no doubt heard about the controversy surrounding whether Trump had been briefed on intelligence claiming that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban in Afghanistan for the targeting and killing of U.S. servicemen. With more right-wing news sources and the Trump administration offering a variety of arguments such as that the intelligence was not verified, that the intelligence was never brought to Trump’s attention, or that Russian and Taliban denials of the affair should be taken as truth; one can quickly surmise that the American public will probably never know the truth. Plausible deniability is on Trump’s side, and however much liberal audiences may cry out, it is unlikely that the official narrative will change. It has become, as all things are in the era of Trump, a “he said, she said” debate with each side claiming wrongdoing by the other. However, this event raises the opportunity to take a look back over Trump’s foreign policy with Russia. 

As many media sources have pointed out, the Trump administration’s seeming foreign policy goals and treatment of Russia has been nothing if not confusing. Marked by anti-Kremlin policies from the administration and GOP allies mixed with a litany of pro-Putin sentiments from Trump, it is an odd tangle of conflicting elements. Looking first at moves by the Trump administration, one finds a fairly homogenous approach of resisting Russian influence. Back in 2017, the Trump administration closed two Russian diplomatic trade annexes and shut down Russia’s consulate in San Francisco over accusations of espionage. However, it was reported that Trump had either been disinterested in said closings or had never been brought in on the decision, with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis spearheading the move. In the same year, the administration approved the selling of lethal arms to Ukraine to resist Russian-backed forces in Crimea, a move that the Obama administration had refused to do. Moving forward, in 2018, the Trump administration pushed for a $1.4 billion increase in the European Deterrence Initiative budget, an almost 41% increase over the Obama-era.   

However, these foreign policy decisions are juxtaposed by Trump’s personal rhetoric. He has suggested re-instating Russia into the G-7, from which it was removed in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. He has also floated withdrawing U.S. troops from Germany, which many see as allowing Russian influence in the region to swell and a weakening of NATO power. He was criticized for revealing top-secret Israeli intelligence on ISIS bomb-making to Kremlin officials in a closed-door meeting as well. Trump has posted various pro-Putin remarks over Twitter, and even sent out a congratulations on Putin’s election victory. Trump has also largely denied Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and seems to give Russia the benefit of the doubt on most issues. A series of bipartisan sanctions imposed on Russia in 2017 by Congress was met by heavy criticism by Trump’s White House and on Twitter. 

Analysis:

Whenever he comes under criticism about his personal treatment of Russia, Trump argues that he has been the toughest president on Russia in recent history and points to the moves by his administration that I mentioned above. However, one has to wonder how many of those moves came from him and how many came from those around him. Is he truly anti-Kremlin and just admires an oil-rich autocrat masquerading as a democratically elected president? Although I do believe that Trump wishes to push American national interest, I seriously doubt that his version of national interest involves an aggressive anti-Russian component. This is not to say that diplomacy should be abandoned or that the U.S. should be antagonistic, but that refusing to admit to Putin’s authoritarian tendencies and the Kremlin’s desire to manipulate the American electorate in order to erode our power abroad is ultimately far worse than turning a blind eye. 

As much as Trump may say it doesn’t, his rhetoric matters. Posting on Twitter is his main avenue for communicating with the wider world and acting congenial and supportive of the Russian regime should not be dismissed as casual talk without meaning. You can bet that the Kremlin is watching, learning, anticipating, and acting upon the things that Trump posts. They obviously see him as an ally in a world order that views Russia with suspicion. The fact that his administration has been tough on them has not appeared to overly sour Putin’s chummy relationship with Trump nor dissuade Russian trolls and interference. 

In closing, although the Trump administration as a whole has made admirable moves towards resisting Russian influence and pushing for the expansion of American national interest, Trump’s own feelings and narrative of Russia is highly divergent and does not fill me with confidence. Hypothetically, if Trump was told that Russian operatives were paying the Taliban to kill U.S. servicemen, from a reading of his tweets, I am not confident that Trump would take this as intelligence to act upon. And in a world where our president has openly expressed admiration for a world leader that utilizes the organs of state for personal enrichment, that should worry all of us. 

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