America’s moral authority also has been undercut by the devastatingly high death toll and wrenching economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with the racial reckoning that has convulsed the country.
These highlights from Trump’s nearly four years in office read like Vladimir Putin’s wish list. Few countries have benefited more geopolitically from Trump’s time in office than Russia.
In his two decades as Russia’s autocratic leader, Putin has systematically sought to grow his nation’s influence at America’s expense by breaking up its long-standing alliance structure and discrediting its democratic institutions and values.
Over the past four years, Putin has succeeded to a remarkable degree, aided by the credibility and support on the world stage that Trump has given him, according to national security and foreign policy experts, some of them Trump’s most strident critics.
“The more dysfunctional, polarized and erratic the United States seems at home, the more beset by domestic problems, the more ineffective in demonstrating leadership and dealing with them, especially during the pandemic, the better that is for Russia, because they benefit from a world in which the United States is seen as unreliable and unpredictable,” said William J. Burns, a former deputy secretary of state and U.S. ambassador to Russia under George W. Bush who now leads the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Trump argues that he has been tough on Russia. He cites a series of economic sanctions leveled on Russia, including those imposed in response to its 2018 poisoning of former Russian military officer and double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with a chemical nerve agent in Salisbury, England.
After the Salisbury attack, the United States also expelled 60 Russian intelligence officers and forced the closure of Russia’s consulates in San Francisco and Seattle, as well as other facilities. Separately, the administration has provided lethal aid to Ukraine in its battle against occupying Russian forces.
“There has been nobody tougher on Russia than Donald Trump,” Trump said in Thursday night’s debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden. He argued that his years-long effort to strong-arm NATO allies into increasing their defense spending allocations had helped fortify “the guard against Russia.”
But the administration’s aggressive measures have met with stiff resistance from the president, who has had to be cajoled and prodded into supporting policies that enjoy strong bipartisan support, according to intelligence officials and his own public statements.
John Ullyot, a spokesman for Trump’s National Security Council, argued in a statement, “While President Trump strives for good relations with all nations, no president since Ronald Reagan has shown as much resolve toward Moscow.”
He added, “President Trump knows that peace comes through strength and we seek another path with Russia — one in which Russia refrains from aggression abroad and becomes a friendly partner to the United States and Europe.” For example, Ullyot said the administration was “cautiously optimistic” about reaching an agreement with Russia and China on an arms-control framework to limit nuclear weapons.
An array of national security experts, both nonpartisan and those with ties to the two parties, however, say these arguments are nonsense. More than 130 Republican former military, intelligence, diplomatic and other national security officials signed a joint statement in August endorsing Biden because they said Trump had “failed our country,” in part because of his handling of Russian interference and alignment with Putin and other strongmen.
Russia’s longtime aim has been to undermine trust in democratic systems of government around the world, and the United States with Trump at the helm has proved an ideal model to advance that goal.
“This president has been the most extraordinary gift to the Kremlin,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “Across every field, in terms of America’s standing in the world, in terms of America’s cohesion at home, no president has done more to damage the United States or to advantage the Kremlin than Donald Trump. That will be his lasting legacy.”
Through his rhetorical attacks and norm-busting actions, Trump has eroded public faith in the Justice Department, the State Department and the intelligence community; demeaned the military leadership; threatened the freedom of the press; and challenged the courts.
Most recently, he has challenged elements of America’s democracy itself by questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming election and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
“One of Putin’s primary objectives is to utterly discredit democracy as a model, and on that he’s getting an A-plus, because in Donald Trump you have a would-be authoritarian who is deliberately and overtly taking a wrecking ball to the underpinnings of our democracy,” said Susan E. Rice, a former ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser in the Obama administration.
Though Trump appears to have governed in this manner largely to protect and perpetuate his own political power, his objective dovetails neatly with Putin’s, according to longtime students of Russia.
“If you turn on state-controlled Russian language television in Russia, what they love talking about day in and day out is how much of a mess the United States is,” said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Normalizing election interference
Russia has been a central player throughout Trump’s presidency — from that country’s election interference in 2016 and again this year to Trump’s appeasement of Putin on matters both geopolitical and personal.
For the first half of his term, Trump was haunted by the wide-ranging criminal investigation into Russian election interference — so much so that, for the president, simply repeating the country’s name (“Russia, Russia, Russia”) is shorthand for scandal.
A report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion” in hopes of helping Trump. Mueller also laid out evidence of 10 episodes of potential obstruction of justice by Trump but concluded it was not his role to determine whether Trump broke the law.
The Russian government consistently has denied that it ever interfered in U.S. elections and has described such allegations as the predictable byproduct of a growing Russophobia among American politicians.
Nearly four years after he defeated Hillary Clinton, Trump still obsesses over the idea that Russian interference may have helped him eke out his narrow electoral college victory. Current and former officials who have briefed the president or have prepared materials for him say the topic of Russia has prompted extended outbursts from Trump.
Recent intelligence assessments have concluded that Russia is reprising some of the tactics it used in 2016, particularly by spreading false and misleading information on social media. But senior administration officials, ever wary of upsetting their boss, have sought to portray Russia as just one of several actors that tries to influence U.S. politics.
White House officials have privately instructed intelligence leaders to expand their focus to include China and Iran, in what some of them have interpreted as an effort by the Trump administration to minimize the Kremlin’s more targeted and aggressive interference campaign, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe last week alerted the public to foreign election interference and characterized the threat as coming mainly from Iran, even though U.S. officials privately said Russia remained the more potent threat.
Brian Murphy, the former top intelligence official for the Department of Homeland Security, alleged in a whistleblower complaint that the department’s acting secretary, Chad Wolf, told him “to cease providing intelligence assessments” on Russian interference and to begin reporting instead on activities by China and Iran. The instructions, Murphy has alleged, were passed down from Robert O’Brien, the White House national security adviser.
Homeland Security and White House officials have denied they ever sought to stop intelligence officials from reporting on Russian interference. O’Brien “has consistently and publicly advocated for a holistic focus on all threats to our elections — whether from Russia, Iran, China, or any other malign actor,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews said earlier this month, in response to Murphy’s allegations.
But current and former officials said that the message career intelligence officers and analysts received back at their agencies was clear. The administration was not interested in singling out Russia as the uniquely dangerous actor that it is, these officials said. And that served Putin’s interest of normalizing election interference.
The Homeland Security Department has continued to produce reports on Russian election interference, according to officials with knowledge of the matter. But not much has been made public. And what has been publicized is the product of a balancing act, between carrying out an apolitical intelligence mission and not incurring the president’s wrath.
In its first-ever homeland threat assessment — a high-altitude overview of domestic security concerns published earlier this month — the department portrayed Russia as the primary foreign threat to the election. That was the conclusion of career, nonpartisan intelligence analysts.
But in a separate note Wolf wrote, “It is clear China and Iran also pose threats in this space.”
Trump has not only played down the Russian threat, he has sought to exploit it. Last December, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani met with a Ukrainian lawmaker offering derogatory information about Biden, the former vice president, and his son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
The lawmaker, Andrii Derkach, “has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services,” the Treasury Department declared in September, sanctioning Derkach for his efforts to “undermine” the 2020 elections.
The previous month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence singled out Derkach for his role in helping Russia “denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ ” in the United States. Current and former officials said that the false information he peddled to Giuliani, which Trump has spread, also has been picked up by U.S. lawmakers, who are effectively laundering Russian propaganda.
“Trump has embraced Russian assistance to destroy his own political enemies,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a career CIA officer who oversaw the agency’s operations in Russia and Eastern Europe.
At times, it’s difficult to tell whether Trump is parroting Russian propaganda or if the Kremlin is echoing Trump.
In September, the Homeland Security Department issued an intelligence bulletin to state and local law enforcement agencies that Russia seeks “to undermine public trust in the electoral process” by spreading false claims that mail-in ballots are riddled with fraud and susceptible to manipulation. The department said Russia spreads such claims through a network of state-controlled media, proxy websites and social media trolls.
Kremlin officials have denied allegations that Russia is interfering in the 2020 U.S. elections.
Many of the false Russian claims are identical to repeated, unsupported public statements aired by Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr, who have said that mailed ballots aren’t trustworthy while warning of the potential for rampant fraud in November’s elections.
The bulletin didn’t cite any statements by Trump or other U.S. officials, but it stated that Russia is “amplifying” claims that mail-in voting is prone to fraud.
On Sept. 17, not long after the bulletin was reported in the press, Trump railed in a tweet against a “new and unprecedented massive amount of unsolicited ballots” sent to voters, arguing that the election result “may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED, which is what some want.” The same day, in another tweet, he publicly rebuked the FBI director for not saying China posed a greater threat than Russia to the elections, which experts say it does not. Twitter flagged both the president’s tweets on the grounds that they contained misleading information about voting.
At the same time, Trump has assiduously sought to cultivate a friendship with Putin, through regular phone calls and private in-person huddles. He has publicly excused Putin’s transgressions and has steadfastly avoided denouncing or even lightly criticizing the Russian president.
Time after time, Trump has taken Putin at his word, to the consternation of Trump’s top national security advisers.
Putin appears to have fueled Trump’s long-standing conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, and not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election — and that it did so to try to stop him from reaching the White House.
Putin seemed to relish the diversion. “Thank God no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore; now they’re accusing Ukraine,” the Russian president said at a news conference last November. “Well, let them sort this out among themselves.”
In 2018, Trump traveled to Helsinki for a summit with Putin, where he said he took Putin at his word that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, effectively rejecting the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had done so.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the summit “fabulous” and “better than super,” according to Russian news agencies.
Retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, a former U.S. permanent representative to NATO, said, “The last four years have been open-field running for Vladimir Putin because he hasn’t received a hard pushback.”
Trump’s defenders see it differently. Matthews, the White House spokeswoman, asserted in a statement that Trump “has been far tougher on Russia than the Obama-Biden administration ever was.” Matthews characterized her boss as “resolute that any foreign adversary seeking to disrupt our elections will face tremendous consequences.”
In a few instances, Trump has condemned foreign election interference, such as stating in September 2018, after the Helsinki summit, that “the United States will not tolerate any form of foreign meddling in our elections.” But the president has equivocated in other public remarks over the years.
Trump has argued that befriending Putin and other despots around the world, including North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, pays dividends for the United States.
“People don’t understand, having a good relationship with leaders of other countries is a good thing,” Trump said in Thursday’s debate. He argued that his closeness with Kim has helped prevent a nuclear war with North Korea.
But experts questioned whether Trump’s pursuit of Putin’s affections has made Americans any safer or better positioned the United States in the world.
“I’m not against that in principle, but the objective always has to be, you’re doing this as a means to advance an American national interest,” said Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration.
“He’s done all these things to try to befriend Putin over four years,” McFaul said. “What has that accomplished for the United States of America? . . . What tangible, concrete agreement, policy, change in Putin’s behavior has all of this appeasement achieved? I would say it’s empty. It’s literally empty.”
Putin’s greatest triumph
National security experts believe Putin’s greatest triumph in the Trump years has been on the foreign policy front, and specifically the U.S. president’s methodical denigration of NATO.
NATO, which the United States helped establish after World War II as a bulwark against the then-Soviet Union, has been widely considered America’s most productive security alliance and the foundation of the Western-led liberal order.
“Trump is doing to NATO what Russia has long wanted to do, which is to separate the U.S. from our European allies and to decrease NATO’s ability to pose a coherent counterweight to Russia,” Lute said. “This lack of cohesion and absence of U.S. leadership are gifts to Russia.”
Rice said Putin’s ambition has been to undermine U.S. alliance relationships, which she argued have been America’s greatest global asset and source of power.
“In Trump, he’s found somebody who wants to degrade our alliance structure and has called into question the very concept of NATO,” Rice said. “What better red carpet for Vladimir Putin?”
Trump has publicly toyed with the idea of withdrawing from NATO, has questioned the value to the United States of the alliance, and has repeatedly assailed NATO allies. In one particularly vituperative outburst at a 2018 NATO summit, he said Germany was “a captive of Russia,” because Germany imports large amounts of natural gas from Russia.
Trump also has withdrawn the United States from a number of trade agreements, as well as the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, Trump has praised far-right, pro-Russian leaders in Europe — a U.S. embrace that is seen as a threat to some in the NATO alliance. In May 2019, he welcomed to the White House Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, whom Western leaders have criticized for his hard-line immigration policies and authoritarian maneuvers. In their Oval Office meeting, Trump remarked, “I know he’s a tough man but he’s a respected man. Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s okay.”
In a further break with Western allies, Trump has repeatedly called for Russia to be added back to the Group of Seven, after it was expelled in 2014 in response to invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea.
“He doesn’t think of a promotion of freedom, human rights and rule of law as a foreign policy objective,” McFaul said. “That, I think, has let the creepy crawlers of the world advance their interests all over the place, and Russia’s at the top of the list.”
McFaul recalled a recent interview he had with a Moscow radio station. “They were like, ‘Man, what’s happened to you guys? It feels like you completely forgot about who you once were.’ ”