Donald Trump’s press conference yesterday was one of the daffiest spectacles I’ve ever witnessed, and yet the man wasn’t without his valid objections. Quizzed about the media’s current fetish, his alleged connections to Russia, Trump spluttered, “I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years. Don’t speak to people from Russia.”
Whether that’s true of his campaign advisors is an open question, given that at least four of them are under investigation by the FBI for allegedly maintaining contact with Russian intelligence operatives. Either way, Trump must be allowed the presumption of innocence, and right now, despite the endless extrapolations, there’s simply no there there. We have a fib by Michael Flynn to his boss that law enforcement is declining to charge him for and an ongoing probe that’s so far inconclusive and in which all the subjects strenuously deny any inappropriate contact with the Russians. That’s it.
This isn’t to squash genuine concerns over whether Trump is too cozy with Moscow, but that’s partly a policy question, and on policy, the tectonics are shifting. Just yesterday, Trump fired off a tweet asserting that “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia” and suggesting that President Obama was too soft on the Kremlin. His mouthpiece said the same. Sean Spicer: “President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea.” This prompted the Russian propaganda network RT to make it known that it was scaling back its hitherto slobbering coverage of Trump.
It’s a message uniquely tailored to Trump: You want good TV coverage? Then put a sock in it about Crimea. And yet Moscow isn’t nearly as confident as those italics might suggest.
As Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes observe at Foreign Policy, what haunts Vladimir Putin the most is the prospect of global instability. It’s a fear borne from trying to rule a rowdy federation that spans eleven time zones and two continents, as well as Putin’s experience of watching the Soviet Empire crumble. The Russians loathe color revolutions; here in America, we’ve undergone our own Orange Revolution and the devil knows where we’re going next. Trump is the most unstable actor in the first world. His shifting views on Crimea, the unexpected backlash against Russia that his candidacy has engendered, the possibility that he could start a trade war with Asia—all of this is making Moscow wonder whether they can ride this storm.
Some Manchurian candidate, right? Throw in James Mattis’ unflinching support for NATO and the fact that Trump has continued his predecessor’s rollout of American troops in Eastern Europe, and you can understand those crestfallen countenances in the Kremlin.
The left’s portrayal of Trump as a bear-skinned Russophile is increasingly a strategy premised on sand. But even more importantly, it’s an excuse. Why did Hillary Clinton lose the election? I’ve heard an increasing number of pundits claim that Russian hacking made all the difference. No. Clinton lost because she was twirling the baton for a political consensus that’s fallen into disrepute across the American middle. Washington elites want nothing less than to acknowledge that, to concede that their policy creed, with its preventative wars and environmentalist crusades, has produced for many an untenable situation. Russia gives them a way out, a comfortable villain—they loathe Putin; always have—that allows them to evade serious introspection over what they’ve done. Don’t blame us for Russia’s meddling. In fact, isn’t the real problem that Washington isn’t meddlesome enough? How else are we going to root out these GRU agents hiding behind every maple tree?
You can shake your fist at the Kremlin all you like; it’s not going to create jobs in coal country or rebuild any of those rubbled postindustrial towns. It’s Washington the voters were rejecting, not Kaliningrad. In doing so, they installed a dangerous man in the White House, one his critics will only be able to wrest loose if they turn the binoculars inward.