At this point, I think it’s worth asking whether the Russian collusion debate is a red herring.
Obsessively following the developments of the Mueller investigation has become a habit for many of us looking for a way out of the dumpster fire that is the Trump presidency. But I have to wonder if it’s a good thing for us to expend all of our energy looking at what happened before the 2016 election when Trump continues to cozy up with foreign autocrats. Arguably, these actions have a greater significance to our nation today than his alleged election tampering — especially given the apparent unlikeliness that he will be removed from office before the end of his term.
With the sheer volume of unbelievable news stories coming out about Trump’s day-to-day crises, it’s easy to lose sight of how these foreign policy anomalies pile up. But if we consider them together, what emerges is a frightening picture of US international relationships shifting decisively towards despots and away from democratic allies. As often as Trump has threatened international trade and peace agreements like NAFTA and NATO, he has advanced the interests of leaders like Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, and Kim Jong Un.
Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to prove this point.
For starters, Trump has always defended Putin’s assertions that he didn’t meddle in the US elections, despite abundant evidence otherwise. In November 2017, Trump confidently declared after speaking with Putin: “I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did.”
While this was an unusual way for a president to approach a hostile foreign conflict in a casual setting, his rhetoric became downright shocking when, at the 2018 NATO summit, he stood next to Putin and directly contradicted his own intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference. Trump first rambled awkwardly about holding both countries responsible, and then ultimately concluded: “They think it’s Russia. I have President Putin — he just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be… President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
His general willingness to side with Russian interests over US intelligence becomes more alarming when considered in relation to other foreign policy decisions he has made that clearly benefit Russia directly. Russian interests have long included controlling war-torn nations like Syria and Yemen, as well as dissolving NATO. In December, Trump suddenly announced via that he would withdraw troops from Syria — apparently at the suggestion of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The move clearly benefits the interests of Russia and Iran, who are competing for control of the region, and it also leaves the US-backed Kurds vulnerable to Turkish attacks.
Trump has also threatened to veto bipartisan congressional legislation that would cut off US funding for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, where the war has caused devastating famine and the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis. The funding cuts are being threatened in the wake of the murder of US-based journalist and Saudi Arabian dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who was allegedly dismembered at the order of Mohammed bin Salman inside of the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Trump responded to US intelligence about MbS’s involvement in the murder in much the same way he responded to US intel on Russian interference: “Whether he did or whether he didn’t, he denies it vehemently… They do point out certain things, and in pointing out those things, you can conclude that maybe he did or maybe he didn’t.”
Trump’s constant willingness to take leaders like Mohammed bin Salman and Vladimir Putin on their word, over the findings of US intelligence agencies, is more alarming when you consider his dubious personal connections to each leader. Reporting from the New York Times last month revealed that Trump has met one-on-one with Putin at least five times since taking office, and even took his own interpreter's notes in one case. Individual meetings without notes are particularly risky, as they give Putin free reign to say what he wants about the meetings without an official US record to disprove it.
But he isn’t just seizing notes from his own staff; he’s hiding the meetings themselves. Trump publicly cancelled his meeting with Putin at the G20 summit after public discovery of the suspicious Trump Tower Moscow project — only to meet secretly with Putin there anyways. As one former US presidential advisor on Russia argued, “The fact that Trump didn’t want the State Department or members of the White House team to know what he was talking with Putin about suggests it was not about advancing our country’s national interest but something more problematic.”
While Trump himself hasn’t appeared frequently with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his son-in-law and Middle East advisor Jared Kushner seems to be disconcertingly friendly with the Saudi leader. This unlikely couple have apparently been texting, calling and emailing each other privately, against the usual security protocols, for more than two years now. Some have even called into question whether Kushner and Trump played a hand in MbS being selected as successor to his father. This relationship is additionally complicated by the fact that Kushner’s security clearance was rejected twice before Trump’s personnel security office overruled the decision — meaning that Kushner was having private meetings with foreign leaders, and being given access to sensitive US documents, for at least a year without being cleared.
I could go on and on about these types of profound lapses in American national security and diplomacy that Trump is single-handedly responsible for. The State Department is still woefully understaffed after two years. His administration’s turnover rate is staggering: Trump is on his fourth National Security Advisor; third Attorney General; third Secretary of Homeland Security; third White House Chief of Staff; second Secretary of State; and fifth White House Communications Director.
Moreover, Trump has destroyed relationships with many US allies after he nearly imploded the Iran Nuclear Deal, pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord, and refused to sign onto a G-7 statement while calling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “very dishonest and weak.”
While I understand the lure of trying to fit together the grand conspiracy of Trump-Russia collusion, it seems to me that public focus on the investigation has actually prevented us from removing Trump from office over more obvious problems that would have ousted any other president. If we want Trump gone, we shouldn’t just wait around for the announcement of some new, game-changing information.
We just need to make a decision based on the abundant information that we already have.