Just as the furor over Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation subsided over the summer, two new international storms engulfed the White House.
On Ukraine, President Donald Trump’s use of diplomatic pressure to damage a 2020 election rival have House Democrats poised to impeach him. On Syria, his green light for Turkey to attack American-aligned Kurdish forces has roiled Republicans, too.
The simultaneous spectacles may confuse average Americans who pay scant attention to foreign affairs. In fact, they contain a common thread.
In each case, the president has helped Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has helped him for years with money and political support. They represent different chapters of the same story.
The Republican president’s alignment with Moscow – unthinkable to an earlier generation’s GOP – is familiar enough to blend into the 2019 background. Yet it represents a rare consistent theme of Trump’s late-life turn to politics.
Before Trump sought the presidency, his children publicly identified Russians as key financing sources for the family real estate business. A Russian oligarch paid Trump $95-million for a Florida mansion he’d bought for less than half that price; another Russian linked to organized crime became a partner in the Trump Soho project.
As a 2016 candidate, Trump hired a campaign chairman who had advised a Putin-allied Ukrainian leader, and a national security adviser who later lied to federal investigators about conversations with the Kremlin’s ambassador. Both men, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, have plead guilty to felonies.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia—which attacked Ukraine after the leader Manafort advised was ousted from power in 2014—interfered in the 2016 campaign to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
As president, Trump fired the FBI director leading an investigation of Putin’s actions. He embraced the former KGB agent’s denial of election meddling over the findings of his own intelligence experts.
After one private meeting with Putin, Trump took his interpreter’s notes. He has taken a series of actions – from imposing tariffs on close allies to criticizing NATO to abandoning international agreements – that advance Putin’s objective of weakening Western democracies to enhance Russian power.
The twin storms now swirling around Trump fit this pattern.
On Ukraine, Trump’s means and ends both aid Russian interests. Through his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Trump has sought to absolve Moscow by alleging that 2016 election interference originated with Ukrainian attempts to aid Hillary Clinton.
Law enforcement officials arrested two Giuliani associates yesterday, charging that they funneled illegal campaign contributions to a Republican Congressman who sought the firing of a U.S. diplomat who resisted Giuliani’s effort. According to a charging document, money for the scheme came from a Russian identified only as “Foreign National 1.”
Ukraine has been under Russian attack since 2014. While asking its new president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden, Trump held up military aid and delayed a meeting Zelensky wanted to project solidarity against Moscow’s aggression.
On Syria, Trump announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops near the border with Turkey. Republicans and Democrats alike warned that the move exposes Kurdish forces – America’s allies in the fight against ISIS – to slaughter by the advancing Turks.
But it also expands the influence of Russia, for which Syria represents a foothold in the Middle East.
“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad regime,” tweeted Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Since Trump remains overwhelmingly popular among rank-and-file Republicans, McConnell remains his ally against Democratic impeachment attempts. And though hawkish resistance to Moscow was a decades-long staple of Republican politics, Trump’s stance has not damaged his intra-party popularity.
To the contrary, Trump-era Republicans have grown friendlier to Russia than Americans overall. From 2014 to 2018, the Gallup Poll found, the share of Republicans viewing Russia as an ally nearly doubled to 40% from 22%.
“The way he has made Republicans think cozying up to Russia is OK is one of his amazing sleights of hand,” says Bruce Jentleson, a Democratic foreign policy specialist at Duke University.
Trump has not persuaded all Republicans. Sixteen prominent conservative lawyers this week called for House action on impeachment on grounds that Trump’s actions “undermine the integrity of our elections, endanger global U.S. security and defense partnerships, and threaten our democracy.”
One of them, Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General Charles Fried, told MSNBC last night: “This man terrifies me.”
Hours before he spoke, five European ambassadors asked the United Nations Security Council to condemn Turkey’s move into Syria. Russia, and the Trump administration, blocked their effort.