WASHINGTON – Even before Official Washington reeled from the charge that President Trump improperly shared classified information with Russian visitors to the Oval Office last week, the president himself had begun indulging the thought that the capital’s preoccupation with All Things Russia is doing our country harm – and the Kremlin a world of good.
“Russia must be laughing up their sleeves,” President Trump tweeted last Thursday afternoon, “watching as the U.S. tears itself apart over a Democrat EXCUSE for losing the election.”
“Everything that the Russians have wanted to achieve in both the American political arena, as well as on the global stage, has happened,” writes Doug Schoen, a former pollster for Bill Clinton who is now a Fox News contributor, on Fox News.
Asked how the U.S. is “tearing itself apart,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer pointed to the allegation – thus far unsubstantiated but nonetheless the subject of an intensifying FBI investigation – that the Trump campaign last year colluded with the Kremlin to damage the prospects of the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
“This has been a subject that comes up over and over again when it’s been very clearly stated on multiple occasions that there’s no collusion that occurred, and yet this narrative continues to be perpetuated,” Spicer lamented. The collusion charge, of course, is far from the only Russia angle consuming the White House, key congressional committees, or the intelligence and law enforcement communities.
Who met with Kremlin agents during the campaign? Who said what to whom about sanctions? Who leaked what to which news agency? Who’s recused himself from a Russia probe? Did the Russia probes trigger the firing of FBI Director James Comey? Was classified data shared by President Trump with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov? For this metastasizing lesion of allegations and investigations, which is paralyzing the country’s national security apparatus, Russia President Vladimir V. Putin, with a hint of bemusement, offered his own assessment.
“We see that political schizophrenia is developing in the United States,” the former KGB officer told reporters at a news conference in Socci. “I cannot find any other explanation to accusations that [President Trump] revealed some secrets to Lavrov.” His intentions again uncertain, Putin then offered to supply to the Congress, if the Trump administration “find it necessary,” what the Russian leader called “a record” of the meeting between Mr. Trump and Lavrov.
Russian scholars discounted the notion that the current discord in the capital was an explicit objective of Putin’s when Russia first conceived its plan to meddle in the 2016 elections. For one thing, analysts pointed out, the Russians – like many other observers of the U.S. election – never expected Donald Trump to win. The Kremlin’s disruptions were more likely tailored to an expectation that Hillary Clinton would assume the presidency, and an accompanying hope to muddy the political waters for her.
Nor has the contentious Russia-focused climate in Washington conduced to Moscow’s benefit in substantive policy terms. The very sanctions that Michael Flynn infamously discussed with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which led to Flynn’s firing as White House national security adviser after only 24 days on the job, have remained in place.
President Trumps’ first air strikes were launched against Russia’s client state, Syria. And both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have forcefully confronted Russia on the world stage. After U.S. intelligence concluded the regime of Bashar al-Assad to be behind a lethal chemical weapons attack in Syria last month, Haley held aloft photographs of the victims and asked pointedly: “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”
“If the Russians wanted to become a No. 1 topic of conversation…they’ve achieved that aim,” said Angela Stent, a State Department and National Intelligence Council veteran who is now director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. “But I would also say that probably it hasn’t quite turned out the way they wanted it to…Because all of these Russia investigations that we have going on has meant that President Trump – and those around him who believed it was time to have a new relationship with Russia – that they’ve had to postpone it and delay it.”
She said that has complicated matters.
“This is going to be,” she added, “much more difficult than either side realized.”