Needless to say, here’s another motive for why anti-Trumpers inside the federal bureaucracy may be leaking at politically inconvenient times for Trump. Reminding the public that some of his aides are under suspicion because of their contacts with Russia is a clever way to force Trump to postpone any planned diplomatic outreach to Russia at moments when he feels his political capital cresting. Trump might eventually be in a position to swing a deal with Moscow, but so long as Russia hawks within the administration are dribbling out material from the investigation that puts a cloud over the White House, it’ll look suspicious for him to make nice with Putin.
And so, inevitably, Trump is reportedly backing away from any “grand bargain” for now.
President Donald Trump is telling advisers and allies that he may shelve, at least temporarily, his plan to pursue a deal with Moscow on the Islamic State group and other national security matters, according to administration officials and Western diplomats…
Trump’s new skepticism about brokering a deal with Moscow also suggests the rising influence of a new set of advisers who have taken a tougher stance on Russia, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and new national security adviser H.R. McMaster. During his first meeting with National Security Council staff, McMaster described Russia — as well as China — as a country that wants to upend the current world order, according to an administration official who attended the meeting…
European allies also have been pushing the Trump administration not to make any early concessions to Russia. To bolster their case, European officials have tailored their rhetoric to appeal to Trump’s business background, including emphasizing the risks of negotiating a bad deal, rather than more nuanced arguments, according to one Western diplomat. Given Trump’s “America First” mantra, foreign officials emphasize how U.S. standing in the world could be diminished by making concessions to Russia instead of focusing on the importance of the U.S. and Europe sticking together to counter Moscow.
The most interesting detail in the AP story: In talks with his staff, Trump supposedly singled out Russia’s violation of the 1987 INF Treaty as making a deal “tougher and tougher to achieve,” a message that’s been relayed to U.S. allies in Europe too. I wrote about that here. It’s genuinely confounding. If Russia wants a compliant Washington, why would it choose to violate the treaty by deploying intermediate-range missiles aimed at Europe when it surely knows that Trump hates being seen as “weak” and won’t look the other way? Putin seemed to understand how to deal with him late last year when he refused to retaliate against the sanctions imposed on Russia by Obama for trying to interfere in the presidential campaign. That was Moscow signaling to the world that it expected those sanctions to be lifted by the new administration unilaterally. (Which was a damning sign of how conciliatory they expected Trump to be, but whatever.) Putin could have responded in kind but instead chose to preserve the status quo on its end as a goodwill gesture to Trump. And Trump appreciated it.
They didn’t preserve the status quo in deploying their missiles, though, a much more provocative way of challenging Trump than reciprocal sanctions would have been. You can cook up a scenario in which Putin violated the treaty in the expectation that he’d use the missiles as a bargaining chip during negotiations to come with the White House. E.g., maybe he thought Trump might bite on a deal that would trade decommissioning the missiles for the lifting of all U.S. sanctions against Russia, including the 2014 measures imposed to punish them over Ukraine. The problem with that theory, though, is that once the missiles are in the field, as they are now, then Trump has already lost face, and regaining it requires a show of strength. The White House may well end up demanding that the missiles be withdrawn as a precondition of negotiations rather than as something to be haggled over during the process. The smart play, it seems, would have been for Putin to roll out the missiles last fall, to defy Obama, and then withdraw them voluntarily after Trump took office as a goodwill gesture, to invite further negotiations. The better behaved Putin seems during Trump’s early presidency, the more Americans might be willing to let Trump negotiate with him to see what else he can get from Russia. Instead, Russia has engaged in various petty provocations, culminating in the more serious escalation of violating the INF Treaty. Why? If it’s true that they were hoping Trump would win the election, how does it make sense to box him in politically so that he can’t make concessions to Moscow without looking horribly weak and corrupt even if he wanted to?
If you want to go full cloak-and-dagger, you could theorize that the missiles were deployed because Russia wants to give Trump a chance to stand up to them. Putin may have concluded that the Kremlin’s interference in the election worked too well insofar as many Americans now suspect that Russia has influence over the president. That makes negotiations hard, even if preceded by unilateral concessions by Moscow. The only way to really create political space for diplomacy under this theory is to manufacture a minor diplomatic confrontation like the INF violation, have Trump demand that the missiles be withdrawn, and then comply in the hope that it’ll convince Americans Trump is being “tough” on Moscow and driving a hard bargain. Once Trump has earned the trust of his own doubters here at home, he’ll be free to make a sweetheart deal with Putin. That theory’s hard to buy, though: Putin needs to look tough to Russians even more so than Trump needs to look tough to Americans, and toughness typically doesn’t involve backing down in a (manufactured) confrontation. Plus, given the shift in Russian media lately, it seems as though the Kremlin is sincerely warier of Trump lately than it used to be. If they’ve already decided that Trump will be more of an enemy than a friend, it’ll be the quickest reassessment by a foreign power in modern history.
If you want a glimpse of what Europe’s future might look like if Trump doesn’t get Putin to withdraw those missiles, go read this. Exit question: If you subscribe to the theory that Russia was/is all-in for Trump as president, how do you explain the fact that Trump now feels unable, however temporarily, to approach Moscow for a deal? Did the Russian interference succeed so well that it’s made cooperation impossible? On what planet does that constitute “success”?