The “Trump versus Muslim Gold Star family” subplot is too sexy for the media to resist, which probably means short shrift in coverage for this more consequential soundbite, but take a minute to watch below. There’s a lot going on here in 90 seconds.
1. Trump says at the start that he had nothing to do with the GOP platform being reworked to omit language about supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself against Russia. Er, your staff did, replies Stephanopoulos, accurately. “Well, look, you know, I have my own ideas,” counters Trump. Is he lying about his non-involvement in softening the platform or did Team Trump go rogue in making a major change to it without his knowledge? It’s deeply weird for a candidate to distinguish his views, especially on a foreign-policy matter this sensitive, from his own campaign’s.
2. Trump tries to deflect the question with some bravado, assuring Stephanopoulos that it doesn’t matter what the platform says about Ukraine because, once President Trump’s in charge, Putin’s “not going into Ukraine, OK?” Some of his critics on social media are treating that as proof of ignorance, that Trump doesn’t know that Russia has already intervened in Ukraine in the form of Kremlin-backed separatists and those mysterious “little green men.” I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. When Stephanopoulos challenges him, noting that Putin is already in Ukraine, Trump replies, “OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there [in office] yet.” He’s not ignorant of what’s going on — if you doubt that, see this tweet from 2014 — he’s just seizing the opportunity to cast himself as a strong leader contra a weak one like Obama. Russia’s meddling in Ukraine because they don’t fear O, he’s saying. In a situation like that, we need to worry about a full-scale Russian invasion of the country. Once we’ve got an ubermensch like Trump in charge, Putin wouldn’t dare.
3. He may not be ignorant of what Putin’s doing in Ukraine but his answer is still bizarre. What he’s suggesting here in his Putin-doesn’t-dare bravado is a potential Trump/Putin standoff over Ukraine in which Russia’s too frightened of how the U.S. might respond to escalate further. I thought the whole point of Trump’s foreign policy was to avoid unnecessary antagonism with Russia, especially in its own sphere of influence. Trump hasn’t repudiated NATO outright (yet) but he’s called it “obsolete” and his griping about U.S. allies supposedly not paying their “fair share” of the cost of protecting them seems like an obvious pretext to sever those alliances later as needed. If he’s willing to start tearing up NATO, why would he want to draw a line in the sand around a non-NATO ally Ukraine, which many Russians consider a part of their country? Just a few days ago he floated the idea of a U.S.-Russia alliance against ISIS (which is already sort of happening, but never mind that). Good luck making that happen if the Kremlin decides it wants Ukraine back and the U.S. resists. Tough talk towards Putin is off-message for Trump but tough talk towards Putin about “Novorossiya” is really off-message.
Maybe Trump isn’t suggesting a standoff over Ukraine, though, so much as the possibility that he’ll make Putin so happy as president that Russia will give up its ambitions towards that country as a courtesy to him. I’ll leave to your imagination the scale of concessions the U.S. would have to make to get Putin to lose interest in his grandest nationalist project in exchange.
4. When Stephanopoulos asks him about recognizing Russian dominion over Crimea, which only a handful of countries have done but which Trump suggested last week would be worth considering, he says, “You know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that, also.” Is that true? Well, the referendum held in 2014 found that 95 percent of Crimeans wanted to rejoin Russia — but that vote was conducted after Russian soldiers had already occupied the peninsula. How would you vote if one side had a gun pointed at your head? Public polls taken since then have also found majority support in Crimea for rejoining Russia but, again, there’s no way to tell how many people answered as they did for fear of what Russian authorities might do if they were heard giving the wrong answer. Even assuming that a majority of Crimeans are pro-Russia, though, it’s strategic insanity for an American presidential nominee to identify public opinion as a de facto litmus test for the legitimacy of Russian military expansionism. It’s an invitation to Russia to push further west into eastern Europe. All the Kremlin would have to do to justify intervention in, say, Moldova is cook up a few polls afterward showing that Moldovans want to be reunited with Russia and suddenly Putin would have a claim, presumably persuasive to Trump, that that country should be annexed too. Go figure that Russian media is very interested in Trump’s Crimea comments this morning. Between this and Trump’s NATO criticism, eastern European allies like Poland would be nuts not to be exploring nuclear weapons right now.
As for whether this long game of footsie with Russia is hurting him politically, interesting numbers from PPP:
The Vladimir Putin/Russia issue has the potential to cause Donald Trump a lot of problems in the weeks ahead. Only 7% of Americans view Putin favorably to 69% with a negative opinion and only 14% see Russia as a whole favorably to 52% with a negative view. By a 47 point margin- 5% more likely, 52% less likely- voters say they’re less likely to vote for a candidate if it’s perceived Russia is interfering in the election to try to help them. And by a 26 point margin- 9% more likely, 35% less likely- they’re less likely to vote for a candidate seen as being friendly toward Russia. If Democrats can effectively leverage this issue in the weeks ahead it has the potential to help turn this into a more lopsided race.
On the other hand, ask voters if they see Hillary Clinton and the Democrats or Russia as a bigger threat to the United States and the numbers look like this:
Make of that what you will. Oh, elsewhere during this same interview today, Trump told Stephanopoulos that he’s still hiring foreign workers at Mar-a-Lago to do basic jobs like housekeeping because it’s “very, very hard” to find locals to fill those positions seasonally. He’s arguing, in other words, that … these are the jobs Americans just won’t do. Is that right?