The overwhelming opposition narrative of President Trump’s first term revolves around Russia. At best, critics say that Russia interfered on Trump’s behalf during the 2016 election. Others say that Trump actively colluded with the Russians. Some Democrats say that Trump remains under Russian control. Several times, however, Trump has actively taken actions counter to Russia’s interests when he could simply have done nothing or made a symbolic effort. The complex truth of the Trump-Russia relationship reflects Trump’s unusual geopolitical philosophy and view of himself as a dealmaker.
In 2012, President Obama ridiculed Mitt Romney for citing Russia as America’s major geopolitical threat. A mere four years later, attitudes changed:
- Some Democrats blame Hilliary Clinton’s loss on Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to have preferred Trump and ordered his henchmen to interfere; Trump disputes that narrative.
- The Steele dossier accused Trump of various nefarious acts and sparked a years-long investigation by Robert Mueller to evaluate collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Regardless of how one views Mueller’s various prosecutions, the collusion narrative fell apart.
- At worst, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently stated that the Russians must have something on Trump, “…politically, personally, financially, or whatever it is…” in response to reports that the Russians placed bounties on American soldiers.
If President Trump serves Putin, many of the actions he’s taken over the last few years make little sense.
#1 — Attacking Syria, twice
On April 7th, 2017, President Trump directed US forces to launch a missile strike against the Syrian Air Force in response to the reported use of chemical weapons against civilians. Syria is a long-time ally and client state of Russia. Various countries were notified before-hand, and Russia might or might not have tipped Syria off to the strike. Reports conflict as to effectiveness.
Why bother in the first place? The president could have made speeches and sent a sharply worded letter. The American people were not clamoring for a military strike against the Syrian regime, and minor economic sanctions could have been hyped as punishing. By attacking a Russian ally, the US reduced Russia’s credibility as a friend and protector.
On April 14th, 2018, barely a year after the previous strike, the United States attacked Syria again. The world suspected the regime used chemical weapons against Douma, an insurgent hotbed. Alongside Britain and France, Trump launched an attack directed at facilities connected to chemical weapons.
The US notified Russia before the strikes, but fixed production facilities are hard to move. Putin referred to the attack as an “act of aggression,” though they made little other response. As with the first Syrian attack, Trump could easily have avoided attacking the Russian client state.
#2 — Selling lethal aid to Ukraine
In December 2017, long Joe Biden announced his run for the presidency and the antics of his son became a political issue, Trump approved lethal military aid to Ukraine. Regardless of pressure from the right, the issue would have been easy to sidestep with “We are conducting an ongoing review…” or “We’ve consulted with our allies and agree not to escalate…” or any number of deflections.
One enterprising writer at The Daily Kos postulated that Putin directed Trump to approve the sale so that Putin could use it as a domestic issue in Russia’s 2018 elections. The explanation seems tortured…could it be satire? When was the last time there was a question about Putin winning an election? Trump could easily have continued Obama’s policy.
#3 — Pushing NATO to increase spending
Throughout his first term, President Trump pushed NATO member countries to increase spending. Sometimes, he threatened to withdraw from NATO, leading to widespread media frothing. In the end, though, his pushing may have influenced NATO to build up.
Recently, Trump announced plans to remove 9,500 of 35,000 troops in Germany because of that country’s notable delinquency as the second-largest economy in NATO behind the US. Of other NATO countries also in the G8, only Italy struggles more, and Italy houses far fewer American troops. France’s spending is under the two percent threshold, but stable and higher than Germany’s. Britain spends above the threshold, and even Canada has made faster progress.
Democrats predictably called the troop withdrawal a “gift to Putin.” Trump reportedly stated:
“…we’re protecting Germany and they’re delinquent. That doesn’t make sense. So I said, we’re going to bring down the count to 25,000 soldiers.”
No scenario exists where increased NATO spending makes Russia happy. Increasing NATO spending wasn’t Putin’s idea, and Trump could withdraw troops from Germany and just call it a budgetary or strategic decision. Perhaps Trump wants spending to increase so that the United States sells more weapons. Perhaps he just doesn’t like that many member countries routinely fail to meet obligations and rely on America’s outsized military spending. Trump could have said nothing and no one would have noticed.
#4 — Building up US troops in Poland
Under President Obama, in the summer of 2016, NATO members agreed to bolster defenses in eastern Europe. There were concerns that Trump might reverse course when he came into office, but Trump continued the policy and even expanded troop strength. Trump is also selling F-35s to Poland and may send even more troops. President Trump has also indicated that some of the troops withdrawn from Germany may move to Poland rather than back to the United States.
Advanced fighter jets and a troop buildup in Poland do not align with Putin’s or Russia’s interests. Perhaps Trump wants the Poles to name a military base after him, or perhaps he wants to sell more weapons. Whatever the reason, this action can’t make Putin happy.
#5 — Calling out Germany’s natural gas dependency
In addition to criticizing low defense spending, Trump sharply criticized western Europe and particularly Germany’s growing dependency on natural gas. Trump began criticizing in 2017 and kept it up in 2018. This ties into Trump’s stance on NATO; it doesn’t make sense to defend countries willfully becoming dependent on their potential adversary.
Trump is also expected to sign bipartisan legislation to block Russia’s opening of a second pipeline to Germany, a pipeline that would bypass Ukraine and deprive it of funds needed to fight the Russian-backed insurgency. Perhaps President Trump simply wants to supply Europe with American natural gas instead. Blocking a petro-oligarchy’s plans to sell carbon is no way to make friends or curry favor.
President Trump’s reality
Trump’s actions and statements confuse politicians and pundits because he sees the world differently. Cold War American foreign policy saw the world as a network of allies and enemies. Clarity ruled the eighties; communism bad, everyone else good.
Instead, Trump sees a landscape of strategic rivals competing for growth, dollars, and dominance, much like in business. Sometimes rivals can do a deal together and both profit. At other times, one undercuts rival companies to diminish them and promote one’s own interests. If a business deal is bad, even with a friend, walk away. Business is business.
So why the confusion? Much of it stems from the fact that Trump says nice things about authoritarians. At various times he said glowing things about Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi, Turkey’s Erdogan, and of course Korea’s Kim. Trump’s number one rule seems to be to avoid personal attacks on anyone that you want to make a deal with. Instead, he buries them in flattery.
- It’s hard to pick just one time that Trump praised Putin, but as recently as last month the president invited Russia to rejoin the G7 meetings. The details of the bounty story are still emerging, but as shown in the list above, despite his routine praise, Trump is willing to go against Russian interests.
- Trump praised China and in particular President Xi at the same time he criticized China and the World Health Organization (WHO). John Bolton relates that Trump called Xi China’s greatest leader in 300 years, but Trump also fought a trade war.
- President Trump’s photo-ops and nice letters to North Korean leaders haven’t produced results yet, nor are they likely to. Of note, when North Korea acts in belligerent fashion, Trump ups the American bluster as well, deploying carriers or menacing with new military exercises after eliminating old ones. Does Trump love Kim Jong-un? Or does he just want to make a deal? Interestingly, South Korea’s president recently called for another summit, so somebody likes this approach.
This pattern also plays out domestically. As late as early 2019, observers noted Trump had for years avoided personally attacking Nancy Pelosi. He unleashed tough personal smears and character attacks on media and political rivals, but not her. That changed when Trump came to regard her as a personal enemy, and she now faces the brunt of his criticism. Especially after impeachment, he likely views any compromise with Speaker Pelosi as impossible.
If one starts from the known and obvious fact that the Russians hacked American elections so that their plant could do their bidding, Trump’s actions are hard to parse. The paradigm of a business president, on the other hand, provides a framework for analysis. He will be the nicest person in the world as long as a deal is in the offing.