Yesterday, I was watching MSNBC and Steve Kornacki asked former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell if the move by Obama to sanction Russia over election hacking represented a “lack of faith” in Trump’s willingness to take this cyber attack seriously. Rendell’s answer was “No, not necessarily,” followed by an explanation that there is one president at a time and a defense of Obama’s actions in responding to aggression by a foreign adversary. Generally speaking I agreed with everything Rendell said except for his first three words, that I quoted above. I believe that a lack of faith or lack of confidence in Trump’s commitment to defending the United States from Russia is exactly why President Obama made the decision he did. Furthermore, the specific sanctions he ordered were designed to put Trump in a very difficult position and forcing him to deal with an issue that he would much rather ignore because it challenges the legitimacy and mandate of his own presidency.
Our country was in a very similar situation 16 years ago. The United States was attacked in October of 2000 when Al Qaeda terrorists bombed the U.S.S. Cole. In the final days of the Clinton Administration, a report concluded that Al Qaeda was responsible. President Clinton had not responded by the time he left office, and he left the response to President George W. Bush. What we know today is that the United States did not respond to the Cole attack. Both President Clinton and President Bush were criticized (and rightfully so) for their lack of response. Clinton should certainly have his judgment questioned in having faith and confidence in Bush to address an attack under his watch and Bush’s decision to not “swat at flies” is a clearly questionable policy considering what happened less than eight months into his presidency.
President Obama has made it clear that he has no confidence in his successor not only by the action of putting sanctions on Russia itself, but the specific types of sanctions he put in place. President Obama expelled 35 Russian “diplomats” who were spying on the United States. It is apparently one of the worst kept secrets that countries mix spies into their foreign diplomatic personnel and there are also likely American spies serving the same capacity in Russia. This particular move drives a wedge between Putin and Trump. Putin’s decision to not respond immediately in kind and wait for Trump to take office forces Trump to face a decision between the best interests of the United States and the best interests of Russia. Is Trump going to appease Russia and let spies back in or is he going to stand strong against Russia potentially triggering a response by Putin at risk of the cozy relationship he has with the Russian president?
So far Trump’s reaction appears to be pro-Russia. He continues to downplay the seriousness of the issue and has suggested that it is time to “move on” from the Russian hacking of our election. He also continues to heap praise on Putin. Trump is desperately trying to disprove the legitimacy of the allegations of Russian hacking in order to prove the legitimacy of his own election. The bottom line is that he is pursuing a narrative and response to this crisis that is more about his self interests than the interests of the country, a dangerous reaction from somebody who will be occupying the Oval Office in about three weeks.
Our country has one president at a time and this conflict is between President Obama and President Putin. Trump is Putin’s pawn in this chess game. Obama has boxed in this pawn by making moves that cannot be forced back including declassifying and making public tactics used by the Russians for hacking. American organizations are now better equipped to protect themselves. In addition, by targeting spies posing as diplomats, Obama is practically daring Trump to let them back in. Putin’s decision to not immediately expel our spies demonstrates that Putin looks at Trump as his useful idiot and believes he can play the next U.S. President as a fool and advance the Russian agenda. So far Trump appears ready to let Putin pull the strings.
This is the first international crisis Trump is likely to face as President and President Obama has every reason to lack faith in his successors ability to deal with it. So far it appears that Trump is putting his own personal need for praise admiration ahead of American interests. What will happen in the coming years as Russia sets sites on annexation of former Soviet states that now sit in limbo between Russia and NATO? While Trump has flip-flopped on numerous issues, relations with Russia is one of the areas that he has stubbornly stuck to the dangerous position of praising a former KGB agent with apparent ambitions to reestablish the former Soviet Union. If Trump fails this first test, expect Putin to use Trump again and again to advance Russia’s agenda.