Russia: Trump goes against his instincts

Michael Knigge / DW No Comments Share:

By expelling Russian diplomats and making the Kremlin close its Seattle consulate, Donald Trump made the right choice and acted in line with Washington’s European allies. But this was a forced outlier, and not the norm, argues DW’s Michael Knigge.

On Monday, US President Donald Trump did one thing that was extraordinary – in two essential ways.

Mr Trump ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats, forcing Moscow to close its consulate in Seattle. The move came in response to the Kremlin’s reported poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain.

Why was this extraordinary? Firstly, he acted in unison with America’s traditional European allies like Germany, France, Poland and many others, who also announced expulsions of Russian diplomats on Monday to show solidarity with Britain. Secondly, by punishing Russia, Mr Trump took a tough stance against the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Acting jointly with Europe is highly unusual for a president who has not only shown little interest in maintaining the trans-Atlantic alliance, but has instead continuously and openly attacked Washington’s traditional European allies, most recently by threatening to impose tariffs on them.

Punishing Russia is also highly unusual for a president deeply embroiled in a special counsel investigation into his campaign’s reported ties with that very country. It is also unusual because Mr Trump just recently – and against the explicit advice of his now-ousted national security adviser – personally called Mr Putin to congratulate him on his election victory.

What makes Monday’s move so interesting is that it goes so clearly against Mr Trump’s own instincts and long-established behavior. Being friendly towards the Kremlin and Putin personally, whom Mr Trump has repeatedly complimented as a great leader, has been a signature feature of his campaign and his presidency.

As a candidate he made repeated overtures for improving ties with Russia. As president he resisted Congressional efforts to slap serious sanctions on Russia; he denounced as “fake news” the conclusion of his own intelligence services that Moscow interfered during the US election. He fired high-level officials – including former FBI chief James Comey, who was in charge of the election meddling, and constantly undermines and attacks Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation.

So what made Mr Trump act now?

Some may argue that the nefarious poisoning in Britain may have prompted Mr Trump to finally see the light and reevaluate his accommodating stance towards Russia. Unfortunately, there is little indication of that. Only last week Mr Trump overruled his advisers to congratulate Mr Putin on winning what was widely seen as a neither fair nor free election.

What’s more, the official White House press communique on the expulsions is very carefully worded. Not only does the closing sentence again reaffirm Mr Trump’s long-held wish “to cooperate to build a better relationship with Russia”, but Mr Trump is mentioned by name only once.

No quote from the president himself is provided, and Mr Putin is not mentioned by name either. For a president who usually relishes every opportunity to tell the world in his own unique style of his accomplishments, his reluctance to do so in this case is telling. It is therefore not reasonable to assume that Mr Trump suddenly had a change of heart on his view of Russia and of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It is far more likely that something else forced the president’s hand on this: concerted, continued domestic and international pressure.

Lawmakers in Congress, Washington’s European allies, and NATO – as well as administration officials –were all on the same page advocating that the US could simply not afford to stand idly by. Instead, this issue required a show of solidarity with the UK and its European partners.

They were right. It would have been unthinkable for the US to not act in unison with Europe in punishing Russia for this aggressive act on British soil. Yet if there is one thing we have learned by now during Mr Trump’s tenure, it is that this president has shown repeatedly that he is very capable of doing things previously considered unthinkable. And that’s all the more reason to be glad he did not do so this time.

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