Trump checks box but ques­tions re­main

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump did what he had to do: He con­fronted Vladimir Putin about the is­sue of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in last year’s US elec­tions dur­ing his much-an­tic­i­pated first meet­ing with the Rus­sian pres­i­dent. Un­der in­tense pres­sure to do so from his Demo­cratic op­po­nents and even some fel­low Repub­li­cans, Trump would have been pil­lo­ried even be­fore he got home from his Euro­pean trip had he not broached the sub­ject. The pres­i­dent can now point to the Putin meet­ing when chal­lenged on whether he’s been tough enough on the Rus­sians.

But it’s still to be seen how force­fully Trump will deal with the is­sue go­ing for­ward to pre­vent fu­ture med­dling and to en­sure con­se­quences for what’s al­ready oc­curred. On Satur­day, he didn’t ad­dress spe­cific ques­tions about the meet­ing with Putin, de­scrib­ing it as “tremen­dous”. “If any­thing, we’ve seen Rus­sia con­tinue to pur­sue sim­i­lar tac­tics in the French election. If any­thing, it feels to be in­ten­si­fy­ing, and if we now say we’re done with this, we are not ad­e­quately pro­tect­ing our coun­try,” said Heather Con­ley, a Europe ex­pert at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, a Wash­ing­ton think tank.

Rus­sia’s For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov said af­ter the meet­ing that Trump ac­cepted Putin’s as­sur­ances that Moscow didn’t med­dle in the 2016 US pres­i­den­tial election - an ac­count that ap­peared at odds with that of US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son. With­out know­ing ex­actly what Trump said to Putin on the is­sue dur­ing in their two-hours-plus meet­ing, it’s hard to know whether Trump’s ap­proach to­ward to the mat­ter has shifted sig­nif­i­cantly.

Tiller­son, who sat in on the meet­ing and briefed jour­nal­ists af­ter­ward, said Trump opened the ses­sion by “rais­ing the con­cerns of the Amer­i­can peo­ple re­gard­ing Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 election”. Trump pressed Putin on the mat­ter more than once, Tiller­son said. Putin, in turn, de­nied in­volve­ment and asked for proof. “The fact that the is­sue came up should not be a sur­prise,” said Derek Chol­let, a for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial and se­nior ad­viser for se­cu­rity and de­fense pol­icy at the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund in Wash­ing­ton, adding that it “would have been a shock had the is­sue not come up”.

Mixed sig­nals

What mat­ters, Chol­let said, are the specifics of what the two pres­i­dents dis­cussed about election med­dling, the points Trump agreed or dis­agreed with, and how much Putin dom­i­nated the con­ver­sa­tion. Tiller­son said the lead­ers agreed to work to­gether on stay­ing out of each other’s elec­tions pro­cesses. But Trump has sent mixed sig­nals about how se­ri­ously he re­gards the mat­ter. Deeply frus­trated by the sug­ges­tion that his 2016 vic­tory may have been tainted, Trump has held back from fully en­dorsed the find­ings of mul­ti­ple US in­tel­li­gence agencies that Rus­sia med­dled in last year’s pres­i­den­tial election to help him win.

Just Thurs­day, the day be­fore he and Putin met, Trump lev­eled his lat­est cri­tique of Amer­ica’s in­tel­li­gence ap­pa­ra­tus while stand­ing on Pol­ish soil, waf­fling on whether Rus­sia was in­volved and say­ing that Moscow was prob­a­bly be­hind the med­dling but that other coun­tries may be guilty, too. “No­body re­ally knows,” he said.

Trump has tried to shift the fo­cus away from what steps he will take to safe­guard US elec­tions to what then-Pres­i­dent Barack Obama did af­ter he was briefed be­fore the election about what Rus­sia was up to. Trump has al­leged that Obama didn’t do any­thing to stop Rus­sia be­cause he ex­pected Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton to win any­way. Obama, for his part, has said that he con­fronted Putin about the is­sue when they were at an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence last year and told the Rus­sian to knock it off.

Tiller­son said Trump and Putin are “rightly” fo­cused on mov­ing re­la­tions be­tween their coun­tries for­ward from what he called an “in­tractable dis­agree­ment”. But US Sen Mark Warner, a Vir­ginia Demo­crat and vice chair­man of the Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee, said that what­ever Trump told Putin would have car­ried more weight if the pres­i­dent hadn’t “equiv­o­cated” about who was be­hind the election in­ter­fer­ence. “It would also have had more force if he had not again crit­i­cized the in­tegrity of our in­tel­li­gence agencies, among whom there is un­wa­ver­ing agree­ment about Rus­sia’s ac­tive in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 US pres­i­den­tial election, ”Warner said.

Thomas Wright, a se­nior fel­low and di­rec­tor of the US-Europe cen­ter at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion hasn’t shown it­self to be sin­cere about want­ing to pre­vent fu­ture at­tacks and has shown a de­ter­mi­na­tion to build a part­ner­ship with Rus­sia, de­spite the wor­ries of some Euro­pean al­lies who fear Moscow’s ag­gres­sive tac­tics. “They’re ba­si­cally check­ing the box on cer­tain things they feel like they’ll get in trou­ble if they don’t do,” Wright said. Trump will get some credit for rais­ing the elec­tions is­sue with Putin. But he still has plenty of con­vinc­ing to do re­gard­ing his re­solve in stand­ing up to the Rus­sians.

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