Can Trump Enhance His Political Fortune? Condemn Russia By Luke Perry
Donald Trump’s praise for Vladimir Putin in the wake of sanctions was surprising even for him. There are many possible reasons Trump has sided with a disliked autocrat and dubious ally rather the President Obama or Congress during this virtual war. None of them are particularly compelling.
The first is strategic. Perhaps Trump believes that overlooking these attacks aligns with America’s long term security interest by building stronger relations, better positioning the U.S. for advantageous cooperation. This is plausible, and may be accurate, but does not explain the effusive nature of Trump’s praise for Putin, particularly at the expense of existing American political leaders in both parties. Simply keeping quiet would be sufficient. Trump has deliberately, and somewhat mysteriously, supported Putin like no other before, during, and after the campaign, including explicitly endorsing Putin as a better and stronger leader than our current president.
This speaks to Donald Trump’s personal affinity toward Putin. Trump’s fondness for strong men, even Fascists, is well documented, as are his global business interests. Not being liked by Putin would be bad for business. This motivation is understandable, yet inexcusable. No president should elevate one’s personal wealth or feelings above the country’s well-being. Any seasoned political leader knows this, but Trump may not or not care.
This illustrates how diplomatic inexperience is a factor as well. Satirists have diligently mocked the perception that Putin is playing him. Only time will tell. Trump has claimed that Putin outsmarted President Obama, so he recognizes the possibility, nor would Trump be the first Republican president in this position.
Looking into Trump’s eyes and seeing his soul is not so easy either. With a limited political record, littered with contradiction, one wonders the extent to which Trump’s verbal encouragement of hacking during the campaign was reality or for show. One would think a future president would not joke about these things. One would also think that a president would have more honor than to wish or sincerely encourage an electoral victory via foreign sabotage. Trump has not distinguished himself by being honorable. This has come from proving people wrong. It is possible Trump is trying to save face after a tight race, wanting Americans to “move on” primarily for his benefit and Putin’s, secondarily for the country.
All this misses one monumental political opportunity staring Donald Trump right in the face. Publicly condemning the Russian attacks is the simplest and most expedient way for him to simultaneously eliminate related criticism, unify the country, unify his party, deflect his financial conflicts of interest, and boost his unprecedentedly low favorability ratings upon taking office. More specifically, such a response would solidify support among uneasy GOP Senators, particularly the hawkish ones on full display in recent hearings whom he mocked on the campaign trail, and create goodwill with Congressional leaders on both sides calling for a bipartisan investigation. And if there is any way disconsolate Democrats could give President Trump some benefit among all the doubt it would be in response to a dignified defense of American security. President George W. Bush demonstrated this in the immediate aftermath of 9-11.
Cyber attacks are invisible and difficult to understand. Reactions to Russian involvement in this election are severely complicated by partisanship. The President-elect could stand on principle and not just any principle, one widely accepted and inherently nationalistic, defending “us” against “them.”
Reversing course may be difficult for some, but not for Trump, who has never appeared concerned about contradicting himself. His biggest obstacle is internal. Trump’s ego may not allow him to implicitly acknowledge that he is the only president to be aided to office by foreign attacks. It is clearly in his interest, and America’s, to stop rallying round the wrong flag and recognize Putin as the formidable cyber enemy he is. For Trump, who is always interested in his bottom line, there is no better way to enhance his political fortune as he takes office.
Luke Perry is Chair and Associate Professor of Government at Utica College.