US President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018.

Editor’s Note: This was excerpted from the December 21 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.

CNN  — 

Four years on, Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia is becoming even more of an impenetrable riddle.

Yet again, the US President appears to be working to further Moscow’s interests before those of his own nation. This weekend, he dismissed national security aides’ assertions that Russia engineered the worst-ever cyber attack on US government servers, and tweeted without evidence that the hack could have been China’s work or a media fantasy.

A measured response to Russia’s alleged action could make sense if the US were already engaged in its own covert retaliation. Outgoing administrations generally try to avoid aggressive moves that narrow options for a successor White House — though that’s hardly been Trump’s M.O. so far.

Trump’s attempt at absolution by tweet is the most notable example of his deeply strange attitude towards Russia. He previously pooh-poohed assessments that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, which defenders framed as a defense of his own electoral victory’s legitimacy. But this time, there’s no clear personal motive for him to shield Russia from hacking accusations.

Contrary to the White House claim that no President has been tougher on Moscow than Trump, the President’s geopolitical moves in the Middle East and Europe have often seemed closer to Russia’s goals than America’s own. He has constantly undermined NATO and only sanctioned Moscow when shamed into doing so by Congress and foreign allies. The question never satisfactorily answered in four years of Trump’s presidency is: Why?

Does Putin have some kind of spell over Trump, whose admiration for autocrats is well-established? Is Trump’s business in hock to Russian financiers? Does the Kremlin have compromising personal information? Or is Trump simply too proud to admit he’s wrong?

‘A gas station parading as a country’

China is now “the more significant threat to America” than Russia, US Senator Mitt Romney told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday. The former Republican nominee gets kudos for telling former President Barack Obama in 2012 that Moscow was America’s greatest geopolitical foe. But he’s not done with America’s old Cold War rival that helped defeat Nazi Germany and which Tolstoy, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, and Pavlova called home. “Russia is, if you will, a gas station parading as a country, as John McCain used to say,” Romney said. Moscow is believed to have orchestrated a massive hack of at least half a dozen US government agencies. Such attitudes from prominent US politicians not only insult a rich culture, they also complicate the serious diplomatic work needed to stabilize currently disastrous Washington-Moscow relations.

Do the right thing

Even America’s broken, divided Congress did the right thing in the end.

Faced with the prospect of going home for the holiday season after ignoring the plight of millions of hungry, unemployed Americans, rival lawmakers finally agreed on a $900 billion pandemic relief bill on Sunday.

The package extends unemployment benefits, offers a $600 payment to some citizens, and includes rental assistance, measures to support shuttered small businesses and financing to accelerate distribution of vaccines. The bill will give President-elect Joe Biden some breathing space before a new and probably bigger rescue package is needed next year.

But the weeks of political shenanigans that stalled the deal bode ill for Biden’s plans to rescue the economy: Republican senators who spent four years standing by as Trump exploded the deficit are suddenly turning back into fiscal hawks, and will surely fight Biden’s appeals to secure more spending to open schools and alleviate massive job losses in 2021. In this round, Democratic demands to help cash-strapped state and local governments went nowhere, while Republican efforts to offer liability protection to firms that employ returning workers amid the pandemic also hit the cutting room floor,

Maybe with Trump out of the way, there will be more incentive for lawmakers to work toward common goals. Perhaps a unifying appeal from a new President and the promise of deliverance from Covid-19 can transform the bitter political mood. But huge fault lines have been revealed, and they could widen further in the months to come.

‘You have nothing to worry about’

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Kids isolated from friends and worried about the coronavirus can still look forward to a visit from Santa Claus, says Dr. Anthony Fauci. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director on Saturday assured young viewers watching CNN and Sesame Street’s “The ABC’s of Covid-19” that he had personally vaccinated the jolly old elf. “He can come down the chimney. He can leave the presents, he can leave, and you have nothing to worry about,” Fauci said.