McCain: Putin's a bigger threat than ISIS

Alternate headline: 2012’s calling, and it wants its Romney foreign policy back. Just a little over four years after Mitt Romney got ridiculed for calling Russia our greatest geopolitical threat, positions have switched somewhat on the issue. Suddenly Democrats are seeing a Russian behind every tree, and Republicans are downplaying the threat from Vladimir Putin. Well, some Republicans are, but not John McCain — who’s re-upping Romney’s foreign-policy vision:

“I think ISIS can do terrible things, and I worry a lot about what is happening with the Muslim faith, and I worry about a whole lot of things about it,” McCain told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview today.

“But it is the Russians who are trying, who tried to destroy the very fundamental of democracy, and that is to change the outcome of an American election,” he said, referring to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“So I view Vladimir Putin … I view the Russians as the far greatest challenge that we have,” said McCain, who serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly tried to play down reports that Jared Kushner had set up back-channel communication lines with Russia, calling it a normal part of diplomacy:

“His No. 1 interest, really, is the nation. So you know there’s a lot of different ways to communicate, back channel, publicly with other countries,” Kelly told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I don’t see any big issue here relative to Jared.” …

“Just because you have a back channel, if indeed that’s what Jared was after, doesn’t mean that he then keeps everything secret,” Kelly said. “… Back channel communications with people are ways to communicate with people, again not in front of the press, as an example, but that information is not necessarily kept secret from the rest of the government.”

The back channel with Russia could actually be a “good thing” as long the White House realizes the information coming in from Russia may be false.

“Any channel of communications – back or otherwise – with a country like Russia is a good thing,” Kelly added on “Fox News Sunday.” “… It doesn’t bother me.”

McCain’s not buying that explanation, he told Australian broadcaster ABC. “I don’t like it,” McCain responded at least indirectly to Kelly:

“I know that some administration officials are saying, ‘Well, that’s standard procedure,’” he elaborated. “I don’t think it is standard procedure prior to the inauguration of a president of the United States by someone who is not in an appointed position.”

NRO’s Andrew McCarthy finds himself much closer to McCain’s position. Nothing has yet emerged to suggest that Jared Kushner did anything illegal — but if the intel leaks are true, it’s an example of amateur hour at the White House:

On Sunday, Fox News’s Chris Wallace reported that his own unidentified Trump-administration source maintains that it was Kislyak, not Kushner, who proposed the back channel for consultations on Syria — and Wallace’s source, too, stresses that the “secure link” was never set up. Meanwhile, even the Post’s own account points out that old Russian hands like Kislyak are notorious for feeding false information into channels they suspect American spies are monitoring. The Kremlin’s goal, we must always bear in mind, is to sow confusion and instability that paralyze our government’s ability to pursue American interests. And man, oh man, is it working like a charm in this case.

But if there is truth to the Post’s account, it would be hard to quantify how galactically stupid making such a proposal to Kislyak would be, although former Bush CIA director Mike Hayden has tried: “Off the map,” he said Saturday.

Let’s stipulate that Kushner, Flynn, and Team Trump had good reason to believe they had lots of enemies in the so-called community of U.S. intelligence agencies — a community politicized by Obama plants, whose leaks have been fueling the “collusion with Russia” narrative since the fall campaign. It would nevertheless be the height of foolishness for Trump transition officials to believe that their discussions with Russian operatives would remain secret from American intelligence. Nor could anything good could have come from an arrangement in which Trump officials put themselves at the tender mercies of Putin’s regime. Russia, to put it mildly, does not have America’s or Trump’s interests at heart. The Kremlin would be certain to humiliate Trump and Kushner by publicly disclosing the talks (or a distorted version of them) the moment doing so seemed expedient.

Whether or not the worst aspects of the Post’s account are true, it appears that this is exactly what the Kremlin has done. Kushner put himself in position to let Kislyak embarrass him. Kushner made himself vulnerable to media-Democrat speculation that he wanted secret dealings with Russia because Trump was having shady dealings with Russia.

Even if nothing comes of the Kushner rumors — and it seems very unlikely that anything will —  it’s become apparent that this administration doesn’t take the threat from Russia seriously. That has serious ramifications, too, as the failure this week to fully embrace Article V in the NATO meetings shows. Trump may have a natural inclination to appreciate Russia’s strain of nationalism, but that means something very different in Russia, as its former Soviet republics can attest.

Nothing has really changed since 2012, or since Putin came to power; Russia is our main geopolitical challenge, and they’re not looking for an alliance but a chance to push us to the sidelines around the world. Republicans used to understand this, and hopefully will wake up to it again in time to keep our Western alliances strong enough to keep Russian imperialism contained.

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