Yesterday, during his visit to Poland, President Trump spoke about Russian interference in global affairs; like a lot of his speeches, it was somewhat haphazard and contradictory in nature. When asked if he believes that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, Trump demurred, saying “It could have been [that] a lot of people interfered.” This response, of course, runs counter to the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, who have expressed their firm belief that Russia did indeed interfere during the campaigns with the express purpose of influencing the results of the election.
If you’ll recall, Trump originally decried claims that Russia had meddled in our election, arguing that they were nothing more than a “Democrat EXCUSE for losing the election.” Then, on June 23rd, he changed course, acknowledging that Russia had indeed interfered in our election while (correctly) pointing out that then-President Obama failed to act on this information. And now, Trump has taken a third stance, one that flies directly in the face of both his first and second stances: it’s not a “Democrat EXCUSE,” and though it was Obama’s fault for not doing anything about the Russian interference, he’s no longer willing to accept that Russia did interfere (though somebody definitely did). Got all that?
The contradictions don’t end there. (As far as I can tell, when it comes to Trump, the contradictions simply don’t end.)
During his speech, Trump also warned Russia “to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes — including Syria and Iran.” The posturing and feigned worry about Russia’s habitual line-crossing is more than a little ironic given Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Russia's role in influencing our own elections, as well as his general disinterest in the affairs of any country that A) isn’t the United States, or B) doesn’t play host to a Trump-branded property.
And still, the contradictions go deeper. Trump also reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, despite his refusal to do so during his trip to Europe last month and his assertion on the campaign trail that NATO is “obsolete.” (For those keeping score at home, Trump eventually changed course on his assessment of NATO.) Of course, Trump couldn’t resist reviving his attacks on other NATO member countries who don’t spend as much on their military as the United States — including Germany, one of our closest allies.
As an aside: this is a recurring problem with Trump. In his mind, all of his actions or thoughts take place in a vacuum, existing independently of one another. It doesn’t matter what he said or did before; it’s just about what he’s saying or doing right now. So in his mind, there’s nothing wrong with the content of what he said: Russia should stop its destabilizing activities. But from the perspective of our allies (and our enemies), it’s hard to take Trump’s stances seriously when they might change overnight with little or no rhyme or reason. But I digress.
The other issue with Trump’s speech isn’t just the fact that it likely will piss off our allies (by criticizing them yet again for not dumping more of their GDP into their military). The larger problem is that it further emboldens Putin. Trump’s stance on Russian interference would have had a lot more weight behind it if he were willing to acknowledge unequivocally, once and for all, that Russia interfered in last year’s election. Trump’s change of heart from two weeks ago might be viewed by the Kremlin as evidence that he is intimidated by Putin — it’s one thing to acknowledge Russian interference on Twitter, but to do so in Putin’s backyard is another matter entirely. Trump had yet another opportunity to publicly condemn Russia for their actions, and yet again, he didn’t take it.
To that end, Trump’s warning regarding Russian interference in Ukranian and European affairs is rendered toothless. Acknowledging that Russia interfered in our elections wouldn’t change anything for Trump; he would still be President. It would, however, send a clear signal of our displeasure to Russia, which might — might — dissuade Russia from engaging in similar acts in the future. But when the rest of our government (and our intelligence community) is saying one thing, and our President is saying nothing, we look disinterested at best and frightened at worst. And neither of those characteristics give the impression that the United States is not to be trifled with.
Trump supporters might argue that Trump is trying to adopt a more conciliatory approach to U.S.-Russia relations. And sure, maybe that’s true, but if it is: why? To help us defeat ISIS? ISIS poses less of a threat to America than Russia does. To serve as potential allies in a conflict with China? For one thing, we have a better relationship with China than we’ve had with Russia since World War II; for another, that’s asking quite a lot from a government that essentially runs on anti-Americanism.
More to the point, why now? It has proven near-impossible to establish an alliance with Russia in the past, and that was before Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. Under ideal circumstances, a partnership with Russia would be a good thing for America and the world. But these are not ideal circumstances. What is the value in cozying up to a foreign adversary that has, in essence, launched an attack on one of the bedrock principles (free and fair elections) of America with the intention of diminishing America’s global standing?
Of course, all of this might be for naught in a month anyway, since there’s a nonzero chance Trump might suddenly reverse course again and decide that he wants to go to war with Russia. Either way, one thing is clear: Trump’s mercurial nature when it comes to global affairs will continue to erode global trust in the United States.