Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Herald.

August 5th, 2017

This Just In 318

For the past six months, the mainstream media, in which I include myself, have been fixated on the Trump-Putin “bromance.” This reached its apex last month when the two men held extensive discussions during an international conference in Hamburg, Germany. Trump set an obsequious tone by telling Putin publicly that it was an “honor” to meet him. This of course, was taking place against the background of a series of investigations into possible Trump administration collusion with Russia in its meddling in the 2016 American presidential election.

But then Congress, almost unanimously passed new sanctions against Russia that the president cannot remove without specific congressional approval. And President Putin has announced the expulsion of hundreds of American diplomats from Russia, while predicting that U.S. Russian relations will worsen.

The reaction to these events were major items in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, by two of their most respected analysts.

In the Times, David Sanger wrote, “President Vladimir V. Putin bet that Donald J.Trump, who had spoken fondly of Russia and its autocratic leader for years, would treat his nation as Putin has longed to have it treated by the West. That is, as the super power it once was, or at least a major force to be reckoned with from Syria to Europe and boasting a military revived after decades of neglect. That bet has now backfired spectacularly.

If the sanctions overwhelmingly passed by Congress last week have sent any message to Moscow, it was that Mr. Trump’s hands are tied in dealing with Moscow, for years to come.”

In the Washington Post, under the headline “The Trump Boomerang Effect,” editorial page editor Fred Hiatt begins,

 “Did your head spin when Utah’s Orrin Hatch, a true conservative and the Senate’s longest serving Republican emerged last week as the most eloquent spokesman for transgender rights? Credit the Trump Boomerang effect.”

Hiatt then cites a series of national and international events that have turned out precisely opposite to Trump’s wishes – elections in the Netherlands and France for example.  On Russia he writes, “Trump’s win seemed certain to take U.S.-Russian ties out of the deep freeze. Again, the opposite has happened. Congress, which can’t agree on anything, came close to unanimity last week in endorsing tough, Trump-proof sanctions against the Putin regime. Russia is expelling diplomats and seizing U.S. diplomatic properties. The new Cold War, is colder than ever.”


Before offering my own ideas on this significant shift in interpreting the meaning of Trump’s very odd affinity toward Putin, some evident changes need to be recognized. Until very recently, despite their private concerns about Trump, Republican members of Congress have been largely acquiescent in his bizarre behavior. But the fact that they nearly all supported the new Russian sanctions bill, which included almost unprecedented procedures to prevent the president alone from rolling the sanctions back, is an unambiguous statement that they don’t trust him.

 Likewise, the very public support Republicans offered Attorney General Jeff Sessions as he suffered Trump’s verbal abuses for his having recused himself from the Russian investigation, was especially notable. Their warnings against his firing, seem to have saved Sessions, at least for the moment.

And amidst these developments, along comes a book, which articulates the feelings of Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. He is the author of “Conscience of a Conservative,” excerpts of which appear in an article published this past week in Politico. Flake believes his party is in “denial” about President Trump, whose executive branch is “in chaos” and who has “a seeming affection for strong men and authoritarians.” Flake is up for re-election next year and his book is unsparing of his Republican colleagues. He writes they were “largely silent when the most egregious and sustained attacks on Obama’s legitimacy were leveled by marginal figures and legitimized by far too many of us.” (a not so subtle slam at Trump and his birther movement.)

While he is only one Republican senator there are now at least some signs that he might also be expressing what other Republicans feel when they’re called “fools” and have their own healthcare threatened in presidential tweets. For example, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) who chairs a prominent senate health care committee announced this past week he is going to work with Democrats to “stabilize and strengthen” aspects of Obamacare.

But I’d like to conclude with some thoughts on what might be called new revisionist thinking on the consequences of the Trump-Putin relationship. If Putin’s bet on Trump has backfired spectacularly or if Trumpism is boomeranging, does that imply we are safe to exhale? I don't think so. As the Post’s Hiatt himself warns, “Trump can still do grave damage at home and abroad in the next three and a half years….Nationalist governments ensconced in parts of Eastern Europe could still draw strength from Trump. The absence of U.S. leadership in the world leaves ample ground for others to cause trouble.”

It is that last point that in my view is already the most troubling aspect of Trump’s presidency- namely the severe damage he has inflicted on America’s global image as trusted leader of the Western world and protector of its democratic values. I am not so sure that it wasn’t this Trump that was the motive behind Putin’s support for him. After all, Trump did what he could to weaken NATO and he certainly tried to undermine the European Union and its de facto leader, Germany’s Angela Merkel. These are the institutions and people who have kept the peace in Europe for 70 years

At home, Trump repeatedly trashes the U.S. Intelligence community, the judges and prosecutors who challenge him and the American journalists who expose his lies and tell the truth about him. These are key American institutions threatened and potentially weakened by Trump, which is why I think Putin will still consider his bet on Trump worthwhile. In short, this is no time to declare victory over Trumpism.

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