If President Vladimir Putin’s aim was to become the most incendiary, corrosive influence on American politics, he succeeded spectacularly.
Intrigue over election meddling, President Donald Trump’s mysterious past ties to Moscow, the Kremlin’s international belligerence and toxic diplomatic ties have Washington fixated on Russia as much it ever was during the Cold War.
A day of entwined strands of Russian-related machinations Thursday encapsulates why Trump seems fated never to emerge from the ever deepening, almost operatic drama that grips the White House like a vice.
With uncanny timing, the day the administration finally got tough on the Kremlin also brought significant new revelations about the special counsel investigation into links between Trump and Russia that are threatening his presidency.
The White House made a significant turn by finally rolling out sanctions on Russian groups and individuals – including one close to Putin – to punish election interference by the Kremlin and signed up to a tough statement alongside Britain, France and Germany slamming Moscow over an alleged assassination bid on a former Russian spy using nerve agent in rural England.
But consistent with the pattern of this presidency, the administration’s narrative was quickly overshadowed by a new bombshell about Robert Mueller’s probe, when it emerged the special counsel had subpoenaed Trump Organization documents, including some about Russia.
Trump warned last year that Mueller would cross a “red line” if he began to probe his family finances not related to Russia, sparking speculation that he could fire the special counsel – a step that could cause a constitutional crisis.
Trump’s repeated failure to publicly rebuke Russia for its behavior – even though other members of his administration do, has fueled debate about whether he really does have something to hide from Mueller.
But his White House finally did target Moscow on Thursday, unveiling its strongest sanctions yet against individuals and entities in an effective validation of assessments that election meddling did take place.
The move finally honored a congressional mandate to respond to the cyber interference. Targets included a Russian troll farm, Putin confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin and 13 people already indicted by Mueller.
“Russia’s behavior or lack thereof on the world stage is continuing to trouble us and we are continuing to press back in meaningful ways,” a senior US official said. “By no means will this be the end of our ongoing campaign to instruct Mr. Putin to change his behavior.”
The sanctions announcement underlined the odd duality on Russia that runs through the Trump administration.
On one hand, top officials, publicly and privately, stake out a hawkish line toward Moscow and endorse the intelligence agency assessments that Russia meddled in the election to help Trump.
Yet the President maintains that the whole episode is nothing but a “witch hunt” and leaped on disputed conclusions by the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee this week that there was no collusion.
It was impossible not to see the sanctions unveiled Thursday as an action by his own administration that not only undermined his position but also validated some of the work that Mueller has already done.
Sanctions undercut Trump ‘witch hunt’ claims
A day after UN envoy Nikki Haley delivered a tongue lashing to Russia in the Security Council, the administration signed up to a statement alongside Britain, France and Germany, castigating Russia over the attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the sleepy English cathedral town of Salisbury.
The statement abhorred the “use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, (that) constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.”
The UK’s allies shared its view there was “no plausible alternative explanation” and said Russia’s failure to adequately explain the episode further underlines its responsibility in the matter.
Taken together, the two strong statements of US resolve added up to the most robust and explicit warning to Russia ever made during the Trump administration and appeared to mark a policy turning point.
Yet even in this moment of vigor, doubts still lingered about the President’s own views. While condemnation has been strident across the administration, Trump has offered the meekest rhetoric of any senior official.
“The President has been dragged kicking and screaming to this moment,” Tony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, said on CNN.
Attack on NATO soil
Trump’s public hesitancy to rebuke Russia was on show In the Oval Office on Thursday when he was asked about Salisbury.
“It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it. Something that should never, ever happen. And we’re taking it very seriously, as, I think, are many others,” the President said.
While his comments directly tied Russia to the attack, they were mild compared with other official US statements.
Given the gravity of the use of a nerve agent on the soil of a NATO ally and subsequent hostile Russian behavior toward America’s “special relationship” partner, his remarks seemed a little tame.
After all, the US president has long been regarded – during the Cold War and afterward – as the leader of the West and remains the dominant power in NATO and the guarantor of Western Europe’s security.
It is hard to believe that any previous president since the end of World War II would have yet to deliver unequivocal warnings to Russia or clear reassurances to allies in Europe in the face of such Russian behavior.
“To hear the President actually speak to camera or speak to the American people and denounce Putin, denounce the Russian government for the steps they are taking, would be, I think, be far more powerful,” Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan told CNN’s Brianna Keilar on Thursday.
Still, Stephen Hadley, former President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, said Trump was moving in the right direction on Russia.
“The problem for President Trump is this has been pretty politicized, and the more people emphasize Putin’s intervening in the election in favor of Trump, the more it undermines President Trump’s election – and he doesn’t like that – surprise, surprise,” Hadley said.
“But the administration has been pretty tough on Russia,” he said, noting a White House decision to allow Ukraine to buy US light weapons.
But Trump’s tone is one reason why so much intrigue still swirls around his relationship with Russia and why claims remain that some past business association with Russians may be shaping the way he deals with Moscow.
Russia probe continues
That speculation intensified after it was revealed Thursday – hours after the sanctions announcement – that Mueller had subpoenaed documents from the Trump Organization including some to do with Russia.
The news, first reported by The New York Times, did not just confirm the trend of the Russia probe overshadowing almost everything in the White House narrative with its capacity to detonate bombshells at any time.
It also marked the first publicly known occasion on which Mueller has demanded documents related to Trump’s business.
It confirms that the special counsel has moved beyond the question of whether there was collusion with Trump campaign officials or whether the President obstructed justice by firing FBI chief James Comey in 2017.
Mueller runs the tightest ship in Washington, so the extent of his request and how it fits into the probe are unknown. But establishing whether there are Trump relationships with Russian businesses could help provide clarity on whether he was compromised by Russia in any way before he ran for office.
CNN reported in January that the Trump Organization had voluntarily provided documents on meetings and conversations involving the Trump firm’s real estate business to the special counsel.
Even so, Trump warned in a New York Times interview last year that he would draw a “red line” if Mueller probed family business dealings not related to Russia. His comment provoked fears that the President might try to fire Mueller – a move that would provoke uproar.
And signs that Mueller is deepening his investigation will do nothing to slake the Russia fever gripping Washington.