Trump: I knew Putin was very smart and him not retaliating against these new U.S. sanctions proves it

New Year’s Eve drinking typically doesn’t start until tomorrow night, but after this, we might as well get cracking.

I don’t think it’s the sentiment itself as much as the obsequiousness of it that’s irritating so many of his critics on Twitter this afternoon. Tom Nichols is right that there’s a key distinction on Russia between Trump and Obama, both of whom sought “resets” with Moscow early on and both of whom promised Russia “flexibility” after they began their new terms. Obama thought he could bring Russia to the table because he seemed to believe that anti-Americanism abroad was driven chiefly by upset at Bush’s policies. A new multilateralist president, one who prided himself on appearing “reasonable” and interested in dialogue, would get further. That is to say, and true to form, Obama’s “reset” had less to do with any personal regard for Putin (or his puppet Medvedev in 2009) than for his own abilities. Of course he would broker better relations with Russia; he’s Barack Obama. He’s been getting pantsed by Putin ever since. But, and here’s the key point, he never denied that he or the United States had deep differences with the Kremlin on international policy or on human rights. He was just really, really bad at maneuvering to advance our side of those differences.

Trump’s confidence in better relations with Russia, by contrast, seems to have less to do with confidence in his own abilities than with admiration for Putin himself — which is highly, highly un-Trump-like. With literally any other country or foreign leader, Trump would say that he can bring that country to the table through a combination of his stellar negotiating skills and his willingness to use “strength.” No one says no to the alpha male, and anyone who dares try will learn a hard lesson. That’s the essence of his bravado on every domestic and international problem — with the conspicuous and consistent exception of Putin and Russia, where you get bizarre high-fives like the tweet above. If Trump wants to reset relations with Russia, that’s fine, but there are ways to do that without coming off as some sort of ass-kisser, which he did today and not for the first time. (“At least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”) It’s beneath the dignity of the office for him to flatter this fascist anti-American, even if it’s apparently not beneath his personal dignity.

Trump is the same guy who once said years ago that his “problem” with Mikhail Gorbachev was that he didn’t use a “firm enough hand” like the Chinese did in Tiananmen Square. Putin, coincidentally, appreciates the virtues of “firm hands” too. Trump should be able to say “I think we can work with Putin on matters of common interest” without spinning for him like some RT host when he’s asked about him murdering journalists. And he should be especially sensitive to coming off that way not 24 hours after his own country’s government has sanctioned Russia for crimes committed against American citizens. At least pretend to be irritated that a hostile power was conducting cyberespionage inside the U.S., if only to dispel the suspicion that any sort of foreign meddling in the campaign would have been okay with Trump so long as it ended up damaging Clinton. That’s what’s really bugging people about today’s tweet, I think: It reeks of the sense that Trump sees him and Putin as somehow on the same “team” and together they’re going to show up Obama, the Democrat-in-chief, next month. That’s not how these teams are supposed to work, and a nationalist of all people should understand that. But that’s what this Russia kerfuffle boils down to for most people on both sides. Given a choice between Team Obama and Team Putin, which do you choose? Trump’s choice is pretty clear.

The punchline is, while Trump is right that it’s smart of Putin not to retaliate, he seems not to understand that what makes it smart is how it gives Putin a leg up on Trump, not Obama. If Putin retaliated by slapping new sanctions on U.S. personnel, expelling dozens of American diplomats, etc, that would be the makings of an easy concession to Trump next month. “We’ll let your diplomats come back if you’ll lift sanctions. Tit for tat.” Trump could make that deal on day one and claim that he’s already secured some diplomatic gains for the U.S. by making nice with Moscow. As it is, though, by taking no major action against the U.S., Putin is essentially daring Trump to lift the sanctions in exchange for nothing. He’s going to make Trump do it unilaterally, as an olive branch (or a gift) to the Kremlin, which Putin will then use domestically to claim that the new American administration came begging for his friendship and all but admitted that the U.S. had been wrong all along. And here’s Trump, hint-hinting as loudly as he can that he is in fact prepared to do that and royally piss off the hawks in his own party by doing so. As the saying goes, if you can’t spot the sucker at the poker table, you’re it.