“Iran has never had a better friend than Obama,” Donald Trump tweeted in December 2013, as U.S. negotiators were finalizing a deal with Iran over the country’s nuclear program. So began Trump’s long campaign of ridiculing Barack Obama for the latter’s hopelessly gullible view of the Iranian regime. We agreed with Trump on that subject, and still do. Obama’s insistence on crediting the words of Iran’s leaders, coupled with his barely concealed antipathy to Israel and contempt for all contrary evidence, was by turns laughable and appalling.
How strange, then, to behold that same Donald Trump exhibit precisely the same sort of naïveté toward Russia and, more particularly, Vladimir Putin.
Given the constant media chatter about the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia—recently enlivened after several top Trump advisers were once again required to revise previous claims about contacts with Russian officials or cutouts—one would expect the president to overcompensate by sounding and acting tough on the subject of Russia. Or at least to make an effort not to sound weak and naïve.
But Trump, as his supporters often remind us, is no ordinary president; and so on the subject of Russia he seems to go out of his way to sound like a dupe. On his recently concluded trip to east Asia, he spoke informally to Putin at several points. When asked whether he raised the matter of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, the president responded: “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
The president’s argument for taking this manifestly preposterous position is that continuing to dwell on Russia’s assault on the U.S. election system will only get in the way of the two nations’ cooperation on important matters such as Syria and Iran. “Having a good relationship with Russia’s a great, great thing,” he went on to explain. “And this artificial Democratic hit job gets in the way.”
It’s true that Trump doesn’t quite say he believes Putin’s claims that Russia had nothing to do with meddling in the 2016 election; he only says the Russian president believes his own denial, as if Russian agents could have operated without Putin’s knowledge. Does he actually, literally believe Putin? Is he that gullible? Trump won’t exactly say. “He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. But I just asked him again, and he said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they’re saying he did.”
Yes but do you believe him? a reporter asked. “Well look, I can’t stand there and argue with him,” Trump said, suggesting that such arguments would keep Putin from leaving Syria and inhibit our ability to “work with him on Ukraine.” What’s more, Trump added, the U.S. intelligence agencies that concluded Russia had meddled in the US election were headed by “political hacks.”
That narrow point is valid, particularly as it relates to James Clapper and John Brennan, whose gross politicization of intelligence during the Obama years never got the attention it deserved. But that doesn’t invalidate the findings of dozens of intelligence professionals who looked at Russia’s activities throughout the election process and concluded that Putin had directed a campaign to influence the 2016 presidential contest. This is why top intelligence officials appointed by Trump have confirmed those findings.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has said there is no dispute in the intelligence community about Russia’s meddling in the election. CIA Director Mike Pompeo echoed those views: “I am confident that the Russians meddled in this election, as is the entire intelligence community. This threat is real.” FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that he had “no reason to doubt the conclusions that the hard-working people who put that together came to.”
Perhaps this is why Trump revised his comments when asked to “once and for all, definitively” share his views on Russian meddling. “What I said there is that I believe he believes that, and that’s very important for somebody to believe,” he said during a press conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi. “I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election. As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership. I believe in our intel agencies, our intelligence agencies.”
But once again, in that same answer, Trump chose to empathize with Putin, even suggesting that the U.S. ought to consider pulling back on sanctions imposed on Russia. “People don’t realize Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned. They were sanctioned at a very high level, and that took place very recently. It’s now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken. Those are very important things. And I feel that having Russia in a friendly posture, as opposed to always fighting with them, is an asset to the world and an asset to our country, not a liability.”
We are left, then, with this: Trump says he believes strongly that Putin believes strongly that Russia didn’t interfere in the US elections last year. And Trump says the intelligence officials who issued a report concluding that Russia had interfered in our elections are political hacks but he agrees with intelligence officials he’s appointed who agree with the conclusions in the report produced by those political hacks. And in the end, even if Russia did meddle in our elections, maybe we ought not punish them for having done so since they’ve been heavily sanctioned in a way that prevents a friendly posture.
Even if Trump does believe Putin’s risible claim, though, only a naïf would also consider Putin a partner for peace. Of course, Putin has no interest in “get[ting] out of Syria” or “work[ing] with” the U.S. on Ukraine, because he regards both these geographies to be within Russia’s rightful sphere of influence. Russia believes it to be in its interest to keep Assad’s Syria as a proxy ally and eastern Ukraine (indeed Ukraine as a whole) as a de facto part of Russia.
The White House national security staff consists of people whose grasp on American diplomacy is far firmer than the president’s, and one hopes they’re directing American policy to a greater extent than the president’s words would imply. Back in Washington, however, the White House had no ready defense of the president’s remarks. “The President is not the chairman of the board of elections in this country,” Kellyanne Conway remarked to Martha Raddatz on ABC News’ This Week. “He’s the President of the United States. He wants to deal with President Putin and other world leaders . . . on major issues like global security, on trade, perhaps, on—in other countries, on combating ISIS, on a nuclearized North Korea.”
If the president means what he says, he thinks he must credit the words of America’s enemy when that enemy denies undermining American interests so that he can “work with” that enemy in accomplishing America’s interests. Again, got that?
As we’ve had occasion to remark before, we hope Donald Trump doesn’t believe what he says. We also hope clearer heads inside the White House possess the sagacity to guide him to sounder ideas than the idiotic ones he claims to endorse. If they don’t, his successor may have occasion to remark that Russia has never had a better friend than Trump.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard