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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Why Is Trump So Afraid of Russia? - The New York Times

"The former C.I.A. director John Brennan pulled no punches on Wednesday when he was asked why President Trump had congratulated his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for his victory in a rigged election, even after Mr. Trump’s national security staff warned him not to.

“I think he’s afraid of the president of Russia,” Mr. Brennan said, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, of the phone call on Tuesday between the two presidents. “The Russians, I think, have had long experience with Mr. Trump and may have things they could expose.”

The possibility that Mr. Putin could have some hold on the American president has lurked in the background over the past year as Mr. Trump displayed a mystifying affection for the Russian leader and ignored or excused his aggressive behavior and nefarious activities, most important, his interference in the 2016 campaign, a subject of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Some Trump defenders noted that President Barack Obama also called Mr. Putin when he was elected president in 2012.

But the circumstances are very different. In the intervening years, Mr. Putin has become an increasingly authoritarian leader who has crushed most of his political opposition and engineered a deeply lopsided re-election this week. American intelligence officials say they are certain that he meddled in the 2016 American election on behalf of Mr. Trump and is trying to meddle again in the 2018 election, as well as in many European elections.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, is waging war in other parts of Ukraine and is enabling President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

While the administration recently imposed its first significant sanctions on Russia for election interference and other malicious cyberattacks and has faulted Russia for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain, Mr. Trump has refrained from criticizing Mr. Putin or calling him to account. The phone call reinforced that approach.

What Mr. Trump didn’t say to Mr. Putin was as significant as what he did say. He did not demand that Mr. Putin stop meddling in American elections or others, he did not even raise Moscow’s role in the poisoning.

He made no mention of the unfair political system that deprives Russians of a real say in their government. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, later reinforced Mr. Trump’s lack of interest, telling reporters it was not America’s place to question how other countries conduct their elections.

The disparity between Mr. Trump and his advisers, who seem to take threats from Russia more seriously, is becoming more pronounced.

A senior administration official told The Times that Mr. Trump didn’t want to antagonize Mr. Putin because fostering rapport is the only way to improve relations between the two countries. On Tuesday, the president said he hoped to meet Mr. Putin soon and discuss preventing an arms race — an arms race both leaders have encouraged with loose talk and investment in new weapons.

Engaging Russia and preventing an arms race are undeniably important. But it’s hard to see how praising and appeasing a bully will advance American interests. That’s not the approach Mr. Trump has taken with adversaries like North Korea or Iran, or, for that matter, even with some allies.

While Mr. Trump panders to Mr. Putin, his criticism of Mr. Mueller, is becoming harsher, as the investigation raises increasingly serious concerns about a web of ties connecting Mr. Trump’s associates to Russia.

Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has pleaded guilty to lying about his involvement with Russia. A former foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, has pleaded guilty to lying about his involvement with Russians. A former deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates, who had his own Russian connections along with a now-indicted former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has pleaded guilty to lying about Russian-related matters.

Mr. Mueller has subpoenaed Mr. Trump’s company for any documents involving Russia. Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee say Mr. Trump was “actively negotiating a business deal in Moscow with a sanctioned Russian bank” during the 2016 campaign season.

And Mr. Mueller has charged 13 Russians with conspiring to subvert the 2016 election and put Mr. Trump in the White House.

Mr. Brennan’s fears clearly arise from some of these elements.

Mr. Brennan knows more than most about possible threats to America, but he is not the only one speaking out. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, slammed Mr. Trump, saying “an American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.” Even the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who rarely crosses Mr. Trump, said calling Mr. Putin “wouldn’t have been high on my list.”

If Mr. Trump isn’t Mr. Putin’s lackey, it’s past time for him to prove it."

Why Is Trump So Afraid of Russia? - The New York Times

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