It’s a familiar plot line: Top intelligence officials deliver a warning to lawmakers that Russia wants to interfere in the upcoming presidential election – and that the Kremlin’s preferred outcome is a win by President Donald Trump.
But Russiagate 2 may not be a straightforward sequel for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Why would Putin want to put his finger on the scales of American democracy again? For starters, it’s not clear that the Trump presidency has been a consistent foreign-policy win for Russia.
The Trump administration delivered lethal aid to Ukraine, which is locked in a proxy war with Russian-backed separatists. Washington is at odds with Moscow in a range of foreign-policy crises, from the conflict in Syria to political turmoil in Venezuela. And Trump withdrew the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a move that drew condemnation from the Kremlin.
Russia continues to bear the costs of confronting Washington. The Treasury Department under Trump has continued to aggressively sanction Russia for its election meddling in 2016 and the occupation of Crimea in 2014. And the US joined with its allies in booting out dozens of Russian diplomats in the wake of the poisoning of a former Russian spy living in the United Kingdom.
It’s worth remembering two things, however. In 2016, Russia had to contend with the prospect that Hillary Clinton would win the White House, not Donald Trump – something of major concern for the Kremlin. And regardless of how frosty relations between Moscow and Washington may be, Trump still appears to have a warm spot in his heart for Putin.
Putin’s animus toward Clinton was a matter of public record. In 2011, then-Prime Minister Putin blamed the United States – and then-Secretary of State Clinton – for stirring up anti-government protests that followed allegations of widespread fraud in parliamentary elections.
Clinton’s general hawkishness on Russia also riled the Kremlin. Candidate Trump, by contrast, was an open admirer of Putin, even publicly expressing the hope on Twitter that the Kremlin leader would become his “new best friend.”
That pattern has not changed during Trump’s presidency. Most famously, Trump suggested at the Helsinki summit in 2018 that he valued Putin’s statements about election interference above that of his own intelligence officials.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said during a joint news conference with Putin.
Leave aside, for the moment, the sweeping evidence that the Russian government sought to sway the 2016 election in favor of candidate Trump. Now in his fourth year, the incumbent president is a known quantity in Moscow, and we are months away from a clear Democratic nominee. Putin has placed an emphasis during his presidency on building personal relationships with his opposite numbers, as he has with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and many other world leaders.
It’s not exactly news that US intelligence and law enforcement officials are keyed up to the threat of Russian interference in elections through disinformation, fake news and postmodern propaganda strategies.
Speaking last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the 2016 Russian influence campaign “has continued pretty much unabated, [through] the use of social media, fake news, propaganda, false personas, et cetera, to spin us up, pit us against each other, sow divisiveness and discord, undermine Americans’ faith in democracy. That is not just an election-cycle threat; it’s pretty much a 365-days-a-year threat.”
Trump’s response to the Russia investigations – heaping scorn on intelligence and law enforcement bodies – also plays into Russia’s strategy, undermining Americans’ faith in the rule of law and stoking mistrust of government.
As in 2016, however, we can expect to see the same scripted denials from Moscow over election interference.
“More paranoid messages that to our regret will multiply as we are getting closer to the election,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “Of course this has nothing to do with the truth.”