Mac Deford: A Subdued Trump Slips into His Second Month — But the Russian Question Still Looms
Thursday, March 02, 2017 11:17 AM
Another week: another seven days during which the majority of Americans cringe at the latest demands for attention, followed by cries of foul play, from our first president with no political experience and even fewer social graces. Never a dull moment: a press conference with key members of the press excluded, a budget with cuts for social spending and increases for the military, and finally, a nod towards moderation in a calm, but totally bland, speech before a joint session of Congress.
American democracy, it seems, is full of inexperienced nobodies becoming the people’s choice. A result we have, so far, survived.
His toned-down speech notwithstanding, the conclusion remains: let’s hope it’s at least two more centuries before we send such another rank amateur to the White House.
But if his first month has been an overflowing hogshead of contradictions, there’s one area where maybe the whiff of scandal in fact hides a potentially welcome change in policy: US relations with Russia.
The conspiracy theorists — and to be sure, Trump’s behavior seems designed to make people believe the worst — have tied contacts by Trump’s disgraced ex-NSA head Michael Flynn with the Russian ambassador and Trump’s overt praise of Vladimir Putin into a possible treasonous trail of breadcrumbs involving interference in the US elections, proposed sanctions relief, and protection for Trump’s hidden Russian assets.
Even if no one really believes Trump’s a Russian mole on the payroll of Washington’s archenemy Putin, still there’s an assumption lurking out there that he is somehow beholden to Putin in a presumed scenario that can undermine NATO, strengthen Russia, and, of course, severely weaken the US.
President Trump is a national embarrassment — for his vulgar self-promotion, his tiresome alternative facts, his self-directed fantasies. But not, surely, for any nefarious dealings with Moscow. A kid from Queens, inspired by an inferiority complex as he looked across the East River at Manhattan, he made it big-time. His gaudy showmanship would have given P.T. Barnum a run for his money. For more than three decades, he managed to manipulate the press in a way that promoted his real estate business a lot more effectively than any Madison Avenue firm could have done. And then a couple of coincidental flukes — 16 non-entities knocking over each other for the Republican nomination, Hillary’s long-passed sell-by date — thrown in with that basic fault in our democratic process, the antiquated Electoral College. And there he is — Believe It or Not! — the yellow-haired political neophyte on Air Force One.
It’s not of course the first time the American public has chosen inexperience over experience: a junior senator from Massachusetts after all defeated Eisenhower’s two-term vice-president; an undistinguished first-term governor of Georgia defeated President Gerald Ford; and George H.W. Bush, the most experienced president ever — Congressman, UN ambassador, US rep in China, director of the CIA, two-term vice-president — was whipped by a governor from one of our most inconsequential states.
That’s just recent history. Go back a generation further and there’s the haberdasher from Missouri beating the well-regarded moderate Republican governor of New York at a time when the Republican Party represented the Establishment.
And the 19th century, beginning with Andrew Jackson — having run out of Founding Fathers — had its share of such upstarts. American democracy, it seems, is full of inexperienced nobodies becoming the people’s choice.
A result we have, so far, survived. And, depressing as is the proposition of four years of Trump — God, forty days already seems long enough — we’ll survive him too.
In fact, this whole Russian “scandal” could, ironically, turn into a positive step for Trump — if he knows what he’s doing.
The Cold War has been over for more than a quarter century. Russia was prostrate for years after its forebear the Soviet Union collapsed. But rather than working with Boris Yeltsin, at least when he was sober, and trying to build Russia into a confident, western-leaning state, the US pushed NATO into Poland and Czechoslovakia, right up to Russia’s shrunken border. NATO expanded even further a few years later after Putin had replaced Yeltsin, in effect rubbing his nose in the decade-long downward spiral of Russia from its pre-eminent role as the Soviet Union.
Maybe Trump has it right about today’s Russia: further isolating it for its behavior in Georgia and the Crimea makes little sense. Russia has long played a role in the Caucasus and it’s understandable it would want to maintain a strategic presence there.
The fact that Crimea ended up as part of Ukraine, and independent from the Russia that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is a coincidence of history. Crimea had always been an integral part of Russia. Nikita Khrushchev “gave’’ Crimea to Ukraine in the 1960s as an acknowledgment, some have speculated, of the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s absorption into old Muscovy. Needless to say, it seemed an insignificant gesture at the time as the Soviet Union was in full control of the entire area and likely to remain so far into the future.
It would clearly be a disastrous mistake to downgrade NATO. It’s not “obsolete,” as candidate Trump called it — at least not until Putin’s strategic aims undergo a dramatic change. Trump’s announcement earlier this week that he intends to increase our military budget by 10% contradicts his rhetoric about de-fanging NATO — or is it just that aligning himself with the ever-present military-industrial complex is for the time being politically expedient?
Certainly, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles is truly worrisome. And ISIS is weaker but remains a serious terrorist threat. But does Trump intend to invade North Korea or put a massive force on the ground in Syria? Does he have an overall strategy? Or is he just his old reality-show self, relying on his instinct, flying by the seat of his pants?
In the meantime, let’s gear up that bipartisan Senate investigation into Russian activities during the election. Let’s find out the totality of what Russia did, and, more importantly, whether Trump or anyone in his campaign was involved. Trump is bad news enough without this Russian cloud shadowing his White House.