Syndicated Columnists

Are Trump’s gifts to Putin the work of a gullible admirer rather than a mark of collusion?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump give a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump give a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018. The Associated Preess

The news that the FBI opened an investigation in 2017 as to whether President Donald Trump was actually working for the Russians shouldn’t have come as a shocker.

No public evidence has yet emerged from the FBI probe or from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that the president took orders from the Kremlin. And Trump has been furious in his denials.

Yet over and over this president makes common cause with the Kremlin in his statements, his policies and the many contacts between his team and Kremlin operatives — not to mention his bizarre bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meantime, William Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, has suggested to Congress that Mueller’s final report may be kept secret, even though polls show around 75 percent of Americans want it to be made public.

However, even before the Mueller report is issued, I think one can see why Trump is so useful to Putin. I don’t believe it’s due to Kremlin payoffs or blackmail.

It’s because Trump’s core attitudes and beliefs play into the hands of a Russian leader whose primary goal is to weaken the West.

Let’s look at a few of the biggest gifts that Trump has handed to Putin. Prime among them is the president’s hostility to NATO, the historic Western military alliance that has kept Europe safe since World War II. NATO is still vitally needed to dissuade Putin from nibbling at the territory of European nations, as he did in Ukraine, and undermining U.S. global interests.

Yet the president repeatedly scolds NATO allies while complimenting autocrats like Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

And we now learn that Trump repeatedly asked aides in 2018 whether the United States could withdraw from NATO, and said he didn’t see the point of the alliance. “This would be a humongous gift to Russia,” says Alexander Wershbow, former deputy Secretary General of NATO and U.S. ambassador to NATO and Russia. “The Europeans are quite worried this idea could resurface.”

There’s nothing wrong with asking Europeans to spend more, but NATO has a far greater value than those numbers. The organization groups democracies together to stand firm against autocratic regimes.

Trump, however, views NATO purely in monetary terms. He focuses laser-like on the size of European countries’ military budgets. He considers the alliance as a leach that is taking advantage of our country.

There is no room in this calculation for NATO’s role in protecting democratic systems and values, no interest in aligning with governments that share our outlook — at a time when authoritarian regimes are gaining ground around the world.

Similarly, in another gift to Putin, Trump cheers on efforts to split the European Union, pumping for Britain to Brexit from Europe. The president also praises autocratic leaders within the E.U., such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who are undermining democracy at home and are openly aligned with Moscow.

Putin doesn’t need to pay Trump to diss allies and praise autocrats. Trump is acting on instincts that prefer strongmen to leaders bound by democratic rules.

In other words, the president’s core instincts align perfectly with Putin’s. Trump has displayed his envy of the Russian tough guy who isn’t constrained by courts or pesky reporters. Trump even defended Putin when asked about the many Russian journalists who have been murdered, saying Americans kill people, too.

Trump’s instincts also align with the Kremlin’s in his refusal to release any details on his private meeting with Putin at the Helsinki summit. He confiscated the U.S. translator’s notes and has not even told America’s intelligence chiefs what was discussed at the meeting. Russian intel agencies, however, know all the details — and can use them against us.

Similarly, Putin didn’t need to pay Trump to suddenly announce that 2,000 U.S. troops were quitting Syria, betraying Kurdish allies and enhancing Russian power in the region. Trump ignores the bigger strategic picture, acting on instinct and ignoring advice from those with knowledge of the issues. Since the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, there is no one on his team able or willing to stay his hand.

Nor does Putin need to pay Trump to exacerbate divisions within American society, which Russia can exploit with its cyber-meddling. Those divisions were expanding even without Russian hacks. And Trump continues to invite more hacking by refusing to direct an all-of government response to online espionage from abroad.

Of course, the president claims, “I’ve been tougher on Russia than anybody else, any other — probably any other president period.” Yet the record shows that Trump has only endorsed penalties against Russian misdeeds when pressed by top aides, and done so with great reluctance. He grows increasingly willing to ignore that pressure, and is trying to lift some Russia sanctions.

In other words, Trump is a convenient Russian tool. To use Soviet terms, he is a “useful idiot” who doesn’t realize he is being manipulated. That makes him a Russian asset, no matter what Mueller ultimately learns.

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