Watching Donald Trump’s bizarre 77-minute press conference this week, in which the reality show crank who is also President of the United States rambled and whined, declared he’d be the media’s “biggest fan” if we’d just do nice stories about him; shut down a Jewish reporter for “insulting” him with a perfectly reasonable question about the uptick in anti-Semitism around the country; and presumed that an African-American reporter, April Ryan, could set up a meeting between him and the Congressional Black Caucus because … well … she’s black; it occurred to me: what must this spectacle look like from Moscow?
After all, Trump’s utility to the Russians has never been in his wackiness. It’s been in the potential for him to deliver, as President, a different U.S. foreign policy; one that de-emphasizes the traditional Western alliances and frees Russia to operate in the European theater as it pleases, with lifted sanctions and a few lucrative bilateral oil deals to boot.
But Trump as President hasn’t shown any inkling of the kind of competence or political skill—or the political capital—to do any of that. Even his Secretary of State, Exxon’s Rex Tillerson, has sounded a dubious note about the extent to which the United States will allow Moscow to flex its muscle around the world, which had to be a great disappointment to his good friend, “V. Putin,” as Trump labels him in tweets, using the common Russian nomenclature.
The Trump administration—a claque of former “ironic” California high school racists, Pepe-the-fascist bloggers and neo-Crusader race conspiracists—plus Trump’s blank-staring son-in-law (when he’s not trying to buy the Miami Marlins) and a couple of beleaguered veterans of the RNC—has proven itself to be as bungling as it is malevolent. None of Team Trump’s “shock and awe” Big Ideas have been executed without extreme folly; not the “totally not Muslim” travel ban, not the immigration raids, and not the wall Mexico won’t pay for. And for Russia, that can’t be good news, unless what they truly wanted from a President Trump was sheer American chaos, not policy change.
Russian leaders seemed palpably freaked out when Gen. Michael Flynn, clearly seen as Moscow’s main man in Washington, was forced out of the Trump administration amid revelations that he conducted secret foreign policy on the phone with the Russian ambassador over Christmas, then lied to the vice president about it. It’s pretty difficult to imagine that Flynn acted without the direction, or at least the approval, of his boss, the then-incoming president.
But more alarming than the phone calls was the fact that Flynn was considered potentially compromised by a foreign power, by the Director of National Intelligence, the acting attorney general of the United States, Sally Yates, and others, and that the White House was told as much and still waited to act. Now, the Kremlin has reportedly ordered Russian media outlets to dial back their glowing Trump coverage, amid uncertainty about what comes next.
There are even reports that some Russian Trump enthusiasts are beginning to experience the first pangs of buyer’s (well, hacker’s) remorse.
From Russia’s point of view, the rank incompetence of the Trump administration in handling everything from the Flynn situation to the poorly written travel ban executive order to their failure to conduct the kind of rudimentary vetting that keeps embarrassing things from happening—like a half dozen proposed administration appointees failing their FBI background checks or Flynn’s preferred replacement, former Navy SEAL, Vice Admiral Bob Harward, turning down a job he considered a “shit sandwich—has to give some pause. So must Trump’s dismal approval ratings, which hover at a historically low 39 percent in the latest Pew Research poll. Is this the man who can deliver an historic shift in U.S.-Russian relations?
However loyal his hardcore base, can a president who is quickly losing support from everyone else—who has declared his own country’s press corps to be the “enemy of the people” and who seems to need to be out on the campaign trail holding rallies and absorbing the love and adulation of his fans in order to function; and who with every day appears more erratic, more desperate for acknowledgment, and more disconnected from reality—possibly deliver on the big foreign policy stage?
More ominously, what happens if Moscow decides that he can’t? If Donald Trump ceases to be seen as useful to the people who were so eager for his election they risked sanctions and the wrath of a president Hillary Clinton should she have won despite their meddling; what do the Russians do then?
Little by little, parts of the infamous MI-6 dossier are being confirmed by journalists here and abroad. If indeed the Russians have something on the American president, one wonders if and when it gets used, and to what end.
The bottom line is that Mike Flynn wasn’t the only vulnerable member of the Trump administration. Trump himself has a long history of strange affinity for Russia. And he has few friends in Washington, despite the exaggerated sycophancy of the Beltway GOP, which fears his tweets because they fear his voters, and who now spend their time dodging reporters’ questions about Trump’s antics while quickly approving his barely vetted Cabinet nominees on party line votes.
But fear and fealty are two different things. And clearly, the Pence wing of the Republican Party would think nothing of sticking a political shiv in Trump if it meant getting his zealously evangelical, reliably Republican veep in his place. The only question is how far Trump’s poll numbers have to fall, and how absurd his behavior must become, before the Pence-Ryan axis throws him under the bus. (A good barometer: once he’s signed their most unpopular ideas, like privatizing Medicare and Social Security, selling Yellowstone Park to the oil companies or ending Obamacare.)
Democrats, meanwhile, are sharpening their knives for an administration that has alienated every possible group by gathering into the White House a cadre of white nationalists and ideologues no sane politician (or general) could stand proudly beside, but who now get to share the principal’s table at the National Security Council.
Trump likely has a few more months to put his administration on a glide path to sanity. Otherwise, he may find himself fighting a new enemy he thought was a friend (Russia) with only a paltry Washington rear guard—the diehards like Jason Chaffetz and Devin Nunes and probably not much more—standing behind him.