Trump warns Putin: We can have an arms race if you want, but I'll win

Not something you’d say to a man with whom you had conspired to get elected, who might have compromising information on you. Perhaps the Russiagate true believers are wrong and there’s no collusion or kompromat after all?

Strange but true: Although Trump was responding here to some recent saber-rattling by Putin, it was actually POTUS who first dangled the prospect of a new U.S./Russia arms race. That was all the way back in December 2016, around six weeks after he won the election, in response to a question from … Mika Brzezinski. Really! Trump floated this possibility so long ago, he was still friends with Joe-n-Mika at the time.

What were the odds that two militaristic nationalists leading bitter longtime rival powers and each obsessed with projecting “strength” might find themselves butting heads at some point?

Behind the scenes, Trump has only recently taken a sharper tone on Putin, administration officials said, but even then the shift seems more a reaction to the Russian leader challenging the president’s strength than a new belief that he’s an adversary. Putin’s claim earlier this month that Russia has new nuclear-capable weapons that could hit the U.S., a threat he underscored with video simulating an attack, “really got under the president’s skin,” one official said.

Two officials said Trump told Putin during a phone call last week: “If you want to have an arms race we can do that, but I’ll win.”

An argument the president’s national security advisers have found to be successful in trying to persuade Trump to adopt aggressive Russia policies is that Putin responds to strength and the way to achieve better relations is to be tougher on him, officials said.

Trump’s not being reckless about his new tensions with Russia, though, to his credit. He approved the sale of American anti-tank missiles to Ukraine but told staff not to tout the measure so as not to further alienate Putin and ruin any chance of rapprochement with Russia. He approved the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats but demanded that European allies act in concert so that the U.S. wouldn’t be out on a limb against Moscow. He’s speaking softly but carrying a bigger stick nowadays in dealing with Putin. Predictably, as noted in the excerpt, it was Putin projecting strength at America’s expense by touting his new nukes that irritated him. But I think the diplomatic arc with North Korea over the last year has also encouraged him to be more standoffish with foreign leaders in the name of forcing dialogue. He rattled his saber at Kim Jong Un a bunch (remember “fire and fury”?) and took to insulting him on Twitter, and now here’s Kim asking for a face-to-face summit with POTUS. His hawkish advisors are smart to nudge him towards hawkishness on Russia by arguing that Putin respects strength. Kim seemed to do so too.

Speaking of hawkish advisors, if you’re going to gamble on Trump becoming more or less confrontational with Russia over the next year, you should bet heavily on “more”. Here’s our new National Security Advisor in a speech last month:

“I think that this is actually now a perfect time for President Trump to pivot to make it clear that he’s not going to permit additional [Russian] meddling, or meddling by any other foreign government in our election process,” Bolton said. “Whether you think [the Russians] were trying to collude with the Trump campaign or trying to collude with the Clinton campaign, their interference is unacceptable. It’s really an attack on the American Constitution.”

The United States should respond in “cyberspace and elsewhere,” Bolton said, suggesting offensive action against the Russian operatives that perpetrated the interference. Only if the response is overwhelming will Russia and other countries be deterred.

“I don’t think the response should be proportionate, I think it should be very disproportionate,” he said.

You can’t view Russia in isolation, Bolton went on to say. They’re a problem actor for the United States in concert with various other problem actors. They’re a key sponsor of Iran and Iran’s boy in Syria; they skirt sanctions to do business with North Korea; they run interference for China and vice versa in the UN Security Council; they supply the Taliban in Afghanistan. Name a major U.S. foreign policy problem and there’s probably a Russian element somewhere to it. Although Trump would say, I suppose, that that’s all the more reason to play nice with them, if possible. What’s the fastest route to solving those problems, trying to crack them one by one with a hostile Russia across the table or several in one shot via some sort of grand bargain with a cooperative Russia? (What do you suppose Trump could get for tearing up Article 5 of the NATO treaty?) Also, I don’t know how far Bolton’s going to get trying to convince Trump that Russia’s campaign meddling was an attack on America. To POTUS, that’s a Democratic talking point designed to delegitimize his glorious election.

I’m verrrry interested, though, to see what happens if Russia gets caught with its hand in the cookie jar again by trying to screw around in the midterm campaign. Trump might react the same way as he did in 2016, particularly if Republicans overperform: Democrats are just being sore losers again, he could say, inventing tales of Russian interference to try to discredit a GOP victory, etc. But he could also react the opposite way. This time, if Russia pulls something off, it’s on his watch as president; failing to stop them and to hit back hard afterward would be seen as weakness, the cardinal sin. (Especially with Bolton hooting “You gonna take that?” at him behind the scenes.) And since Democrats are highly likely to make gains in Congress this fall, any sort of ambiguous Russian interference in the campaign might be spun by righties to try to discredit those Democratic gains. E.g., “Russia helped the left to undermine Trump!” That would give POTUS twice the reason to want to punish Putin. Point being, relations are much more likely to get worse before they get better.

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Duane Patterson 2:01 PM on June 05, 2023