Interactions between the Trump administration and Russian officials in the Kremlin—a topic that was once largely a source of intrigue and curiosity—have snowballed into something much bigger. Every day that goes by reveals a new piece of the puzzle being reported, with the Washington Post just tonight disclosing several interactions that attorney general Jeff Sessions had with Russia’s ambassador to the US during the 2016 campaign.
Few in Washington, or across America, still view president Donald Trump’s positive words and overtures towards Russian president Vladimir Putin as clever, geopolitical ploys to reset bilateral relations with Moscow—if they ever were. The entire story, whether accurate or not, is now increasingly packaged as this century’s biggest political scandal; somehow, Trump’s campaign aides were collaborating with Russian intelligence operatives to damage Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the election, so the narrative goes.
And that story is something the New York Times is reporting on tonight (paywall): the Obama administration’s last-ditch attempt to preserve intelligence across the government, regarding contacts between Russia and Trump surrogates, so that investigators could later access and evaluate the information.
To label all of this as a mere distraction for the Trump administration would be a gross mischaracterization of what has been going on over the past several weeks. The drip, drip of Russia stories in the country’s most important newspapers is not merely having an impact on president Trump’s approval ratings at home. The deluge of press reports are also severely restricting the Trump administration’s attempts to do anything with Moscow that resembles a wholesale shift in policy.
Even before Trump was elected, Russia was one of those policy areas where Republican and Democratic lawmakers could agree. Washington is a town where division and partisan rancor are the norm, but getting tough on Moscow has been and continues to be a topic that the most liberal Democrat and the most conservative Republican should eagerly embrace without hesitation. Vladimir Putin is depicted (with justification) as a maniacal, shrewd narcissist whose life mission is bringing the Russian Federation back to its Cold War glory days—a time when Moscow was calling the shots from as far west as Central Europe to as far south as Angola.
Before the election bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate were already chomping at the bit to pass additional economic sanctions on Russian businesses, individuals, and sectors of the Russian economy. Accusations ranged from the Kremlin’s violent meddling in eastern Ukraine to its air support for a bloodthirsty dictator in Syria. Delivering lethal equipment to the Ukrainian military in order to kill Russian soldiers, an idea that has been popular on Capitol Hill, is exactly the type of proxy warfare that was so common during the Cold War. Indeed, one could be forgiven for assuming that the US and Russia are headed toward a direct confrontation, the likes of which we haven’t experienced since the 1970s and 1980s.
On a good day, this anti-Russia sentiment in Congress would have thrown a wrench into Trump’s goal of working with Putin on counterterrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, and Ukraine. But when the US intelligence community in January released its unclassified assessment on Russia’s interference in the US presidential election, any slim opening that the Trump administration may have had to improve the US-Russia relationship was further limited.
How does a president, after all, work with a country that the intelligence community believes—with a high degree of confidence—sought to undermine the pillar of American democracy: free and fair elections? How can Trump administration officials partner with Russia on anything when the men and women of the CIA, NSA, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence write that Moscow’s interference in the US election was “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort…?”
The easiest answer is that, politically speaking, you can’t. No longer is a more stable relationship with the Kremlin viewed by the Washington establishment as a move that would positively contribute and perhaps strengthen the US’s grand strategy. Instead, anything and everything that involves even the slightest amount of cooperation with Russia is a liability that will cause the president and his advisers political grief from both parties.
While many of us like to think that conducting US foreign policy revolves primarily around what is in the American national security interest, the fact is that domestic politics can often limit how far diplomats can take international diplomacy. President Obama’s decision to negotiate with the Iranians on their nuclear program was a notable exception to this trend; talking with Tehran was and is political suicide in the minds of many on Capitol Hill, which is probably why Obama waited until his second term to get down to the nitty-gritty of negotiations. President Richard Nixon’s overtures to communist China in 1972 were yet another good illustration of how ignoring political constraints at home can result in enormous geopolitical benefits. Not everyone, though, is willing or able to buck the establishment trend in Washington, even if it means pursuing a policy that could potentially make the world a safer, more predictable place.
Does Trump have the fortitude to go against the grain when it comes to Russia? The answer will depend partly on what the US Congress will support and how much leeway the White House will be given—not to mention any fallout from the Sessions story. Right now, it doesn’t look particularly good; when a bipartisan bill can be introduced that would require congressional approval before the White House can lift any economic sanctions on the Russians, it doesn’t take a Henry-Kissinger level of understanding to conclude that even broaching the subject of calmer US-Russia ties is a political disaster in the making.
The cold, hard truth is that as long as stories continue to come out that lead members of Congress to believe that there is something to the notion of a possible election-year collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials, it will be politically treacherous for the Trump administration to do anything on Russia policy that offers even a hint of nicety or unconventionality. Unfortunately, it’s US foreign policy that will suffer for these sins.