Trump’s Political Future: the Russia Factor

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Nikolay Pakhomov – Rethinking Russia expert

The US Constitution vests the president, the head of the executive branch, with considerable power to formulate the country’s foreign policy. Regardless of the proactive stance of some Congressmen in dealing with external issues, America’s foreign policy has historically been shaped by presidents, their temperament, experience, ideological leanings, and quite often it has been affected by their domestic policy. The latter can be central to understanding and forecasting the Trump administration’s steps related to Russia.

Nowadays only the elites can initiate and introduce changes in the US-Russian interaction. Economic cooperation is also limited.

The US President is the major actor in Washington who can affect the bilateral ties. Despite Trump’s Russia-friendly statements during the campaign, real opportunities to take decisive pro-Russian steps have been missing so far. I dare say that a deepening political crisis at home, which is caused by alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russia, stand in the way.

As of now, the accusation can be grouped into alleged collusion in the run-up to the 2016 US elections and the President’s suspected willingness to prevent the investigation of his team’s relations with Moscow. As American politicians, experts, and journalists would say, there is much smoke, but the real fire is nowhere to be seen. The allegations of both types abound, but there is little, if any, compelling evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Trump or his team. The Democrats and journalists with a traditional pro-Democrat bias, as well as numerous leaks from state officials, apparently including the ones who work with intelligence or national security agencies, publicize Trump and his administration’s ostensible interest in normalized relations with Russia. The American establishment, which has traditionally professed anti-Russian sentiment, may naturally find it unacceptable. However, it is definitely not the case for prosecution or impeachment.

The analysis of the facts allows constructing a clearer picture of the events. Apparently, Donald Trump had never demonstrated any antagonism toward Russia before the start of his political career. He even evinced a certain interest in Russia and President Putin. Moreover, General Michael Flynn, former head of US military intelligence and one of the first Trump’s political supporters and associates, considered Islamic terrorism a dire threat to the US security and stressed, for instance, that Russia could turn into a strong US ally in the counter-ISIS campaign.

Trump’s attentiveness to Russia and Flynn’s position, which the tycoon could not help giving ear to, resulted in probing the prospects for improved state-to-state ties. Trump’s team started examining the ways of harmonizing the relations prior to the elections, and later the White House forged ahead with the process. Various instances related to this analysis brought about the thick “smoke” which makes the American establishment lapse into the state of agitation and acute anxiety.It should be noted that Trump and his associates lack political experience and do not fully understand the underlying mechanisms, which is an additional negative factor. For instance, Barack Obama is known to have examined the ways of improving relations with Iran before he made it to the Oval Office in 2008. However, this initiative was not made public, with the very fact completely concealed from American society.

As far as the accusations of Trump’s conspiracy to thwart the investigation of his team’s communications with Russia are concerned, even the President’s critics admit that it is next to impossible to find the conclusive proofs. Second, Trump could just have been driven by loyalty to, for instance, Michael Flynn, who once decided to back the President despite the resistance of the establishment.

To fully grasp the situation, it must be noted that over the last decade American politics has boiled down to the zero-sum game, with the two parties fiercely competing for power. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) famously said on the day of Obama’s first inauguration that the Republicans should predominantly be tasked with averting the President’s re-election. Although the GOP failed and Obama still won the 2012 elections, the Republican virtually called on his party members to rally support for the cause and torpedo many of Obama’s initiatives in Congress. Many observers referred to McConnell as the main ideologue and executor of the obstructionist strategy.

With the growing ideological split and interparty hostility over the recent years, it would be unreasonable to assume that the Democrats in the Republicans’ shoes will now reject a similar strategy.

Under Obama’s presidency, the Republicans opposed specific legislative initiatives, some of which, health care reform in particular, commanded broad popular support. The GOP was required at the very least to engage in constructive debates. As of now, the task lying ahead of the Democrats is far easier. They are comfortable with the idea of using Congress as a bully pulpit to agree with the accusations against Trump and to launch numerous investigations into the case – all the more so because daredevils seeking to refute the charges can always be slashed for their pro-Russian stance. The American establishment deems the latter a damaging allegation.

Thus, one can predict that amid allegations of ties to Russia and efforts to interfere with the investigation, the Democrats and other Trump’s detractors of all stripes, including journalists and officials, will be mounting pressure on the White House. The recent developments demonstrate that Trump cannot neglect the slurs. A targeted response to particular accusations seems a poor strategy. Just follow the incontinent stream of allegations to realize that the President will hardly have enough time and strength to deal with each, especially given the lack of support from the media and even some influential Republicans. It is common knowledge that Trump, who has frequently been turning to private lawyers, aims to attract less politically biased experts.

The White House appears to need a strategic political decision. To date, two options can be seen. The Administration may either take a strongly negative stance towards Moscow – in a bid to vindicate the President over his affection for Russia – or publicly acknowledge its intention of mending fences with Russia for the sake of US national interests.

On the face of it, the first way seems more effective, convenient, and easy. Yet it will lead among other things to greater tensions abroad, thus adding to the Administration’s anxieties and concerns. At home, such an approach will raise new questions about the contacts of Trump’s acolytes with Russian officials and will offer evidence of the President’s hypocrisy, inconsistency, and “forked tongue” policies. Consequently, it will also have a tangible negative effect on Trump’s and his party’s political standing.

Undoubtedly, the second way also entails risks for Trump, with the establishment’s substantial resistance to US-Russia rapprochement presenting the major threat. However, Trump is no stranger to such opposition. Having challenged the powers that be, he rose to power. What we can be sure of is that the 45th occupant of the White House can catch us flat-footed as surprises are not uncommon in TrumpLand. More importantly, Trump’s potential success in improving US-Russia ties will depend on visible results of his attempts, the White House’s trump card to strengthen the President’s internal positions. Specifically, the outcomes can be achieved through a peace settlement in Syria, thus bolstering international security. If successful, Trump will be able to dismiss out of hand all allegations about his collusion with the Russians. Firstly, proving the absence of any grand scheme between him and Russia, Trump will highlight the ever-present desire to engage in dialogue with Russia in order to secure America’s national interests. Secondly, the progress made by the two countries will testify to Trump’s right strategy.

In any event, a string of Russia-related scandals surrounding the Trump administration will compel the President to take at least some actions. He is also forced to act by the logic of political infighting, as well as Trump’s concern about his own political future and perhaps the family’s prosperity. Easy ways-out are no longer available. Against the current background, Trump might opt for fence-mending with Russia in response to being rebuked for his sympathetic attitude towards the country. In this case, the context of US-Russia relations will profoundly change. When it comes to the United States, any foreign policy tone, after all, is set by the president. Faced with internal problems, Donald Trump may, therefore, emerge as the first head of state to be compelled to alter the context and the relevant rhetoric.

Фото: AFP 2016, Don Emmert

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