The “Russia thing”

This month marks the centenary of John Kennedy’s birth. For someone who was lucky enough to have been in Washington during JFK’s brief, incandescent administration, the contrast between what we had then and what we have now is searing. Kennedy held regular news conferences using an auditorium at the State Department. As a young intern, I attended the last of these shortly before his fateful trip to Dallas. What impressed this observer was Kennedy’s grace, intelligence and wry self-deprecating humor. Typically, a reporter would ask a question and JFK would answer — and then ask what the reporter thought about the matter. That would initiate a back and forth conversation marked by humor and mutual respect.

But that was then. The present is something very different and disquieting. The strangest and arguably most ominous aspect of the current administration is the President’s bizarre, determined embrace of the Kremlin. It showed up at the very beginning of the Trump campaign: his persistent, unmitigated praise for Vladimir Putin (“a great leader”) and his calls for “beautiful” relations with Moscow. This seemed odd, to put it mildly, since the Republican Party had a long tradition of taking a tough, skeptical stance toward Russia. Leading Republicans in the House and Senate routinely referred to Russia as a “hostile” power. They echoed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who identified Russia as the greatest military threat facing the United States and NATO. Moscow bolstered these judgments with aggressive moves against the eastern edge of Europe, culminating in an undisguised invasion and occupation of Crimea while supporting armed separatists against the Ukraine government. Putin never minced words regarding his deep dislike of America and all its works. Senior Russian politicians routinely boast that Russia has the military power to “destroy” the United States. Russian heavy bombers regularly conduct simulated attack runs against Alaska. Some such flights have extended to the U.S. Gulf Coast just to make sure Washington gets the message. Along the way, Moscow has violated the terms of a missile treaty signed with the United States and acted to impede U.S. naval patrols in the Black Sea.

Trump’s overt infatuation with Russia seemed all the more inexplicable given his focus on economic growth to “make America great again.” There are many countries that are important to America’s economic future, but Russia is not one of them. Russia’s economy is smaller than Italy’s and produces only two major exports — petroleum (oil and gas) and armaments — neither of which has a market in the United States. As candidate and president, Trump has applauded Russia’s supposed importance as a partner in the fight against terrorism, particularly against the Islamic State in Syria. Unfortunately, this is a fiction. Russia’s military presence in Syria is focused on one thing — keeping the Assad regime in power. In a recent statement, the general leading U.S. Special Operations forces in Syria made it clear that he was receiving no help whatsoever from the Russians.

During the election campaign, candidate Trump called upon the Russians to hack into Hillary Clinton’s email system. The Russians did better than that, hacking into and distributing the contents of the Democratic National Committee online files and communications while mounting a huge social media campaign of false stories designed to discredit and weaken Clinton.

Since the inauguration, the Russia saga has continued on steroids. A full account of recent developments would require far more space than is available here. Some selected highlights include:

  • The appointment of Michael Flynn to the ultra-sensitive post of national security advisor despite a personal caution to Trump by Obama (Flynn had been fired from a senior military position for cause) and a warning from the attorney general to Trump that Flynn was in repeated clandestine contact with the Russians. Flynn was dismissed only when this information became public, thereby forcing the hand of the White House.
  • Trump’s insistence on a private meeting with FBI Director Comey when he asked the director to terminate his counterintelligence investigation of Flynn and also asked for Comey’s pledge of loyalty, not to the Constitution, but to him personally. When Comey demurred, Trump fired him despite several years remaining on his appointment.
  • With headline stories involving Russia investigations in the House and Senate (as well as the FBI), Trump chose that moment to invite the Russian foreign minister and ambassador (better understood as Russia’s chief intelligence officer in the United States) into the Oval Office with Russian press included and U.S. press excluded. The Russian photos of this cozy event show Trump with an ecstatic expression on this face reporting to the Russians that he had fired Comey and this would “relieve pressure” (almost certainly meaning that he expected the FBI’s Russia-related investigations to end). He also bragged about the “great intelligence” he receives and in the process revealed extremely sensitive information concerning ongoing terrorist plots against passenger aircraft. The subsequent political firestorm forced the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election. The “pressure” is still on.

This is only a small part of the Russia story that is known publicly. It all underlines the question of why. What is there that draws Trump toward Moscow against all logic? In philosophy, there is a very old principle that when confronted with multiple explanations for a puzzling phenomenon, the most likely explanation is the simplest. In this case, the simplest (and most alarming) explanation is that provided by a former British intelligence agent who was told by Russian sources that Moscow had embarrassing or incriminating evidence it could use to blackmail the President.


Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.


Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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