How Russia has distorted the Trump balance sheet (and it's not how you think)

The real debits and the real credits of the president’s first two years are being widely missed, for one reason and one reason alone

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 20 December 2018 11:58 GMT
Michael Flynn leaves court after sentencing is postponed allowing him to finish cooperation with Mueller probe

In a surprise seasonal gift to his supporters, Donald Trump has declared victory in Syria and ordered all remaining US ground troops home. On the plus side, he is honouring his campaign pledge to keep America out of foreign wars. But there is a downside: he is effectively recognising that Bashar al-Assad has won, and the US and UK-backed rebels have lost.

This is not how it is being spun, of course. Trump justified the withdrawal by saying that the Islamic State group was now defeated – so job done, and that is more or less true. But his decision risks Turkey declaring open season on US-backed Kurdish forces and leaves the UK embarrassingly adrift in Syria policy. A (quiet) UK disengagement can probably be expected in days.

Trump’s rethink on Syria, however, is not a one-off. It is actually a return to his instincts, after he was pressured by his top brass into agreeing that US troops needed to stay to curb Russian and Iranian influence. And it is part of a wholesale redrawing of US foreign policy that is getting scant recognition, either in the US or abroad.

Indeed, both the real debits and the real credits of Trump’s first two years are being widely missed, for one reason, and one reason alone: the distorting effects of the Russia inquiry, which continues to preoccupy Washington.

Eighteen months after he was appointed, Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is still beavering away on his investigation into Trump’s alleged links with the Kremlin and whether he colluded with Russia to snatch the presidency from Hillary Clinton.

While Mueller has produced a list of indictments and one person – Trump’s one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort – has been sentenced, no evidence has yet emerged that demonstrates any Kremlin intent to put Trump in the White House, still less any evidence of “collusion”.

Manafort was sentenced for tax evasion and money laundering – crimes that might be said to be all in a day’s work for many a professional lobbyist. There was no mention of Russia.

Michael Flynn, who was briefly Trump’s national security adviser, has just had his sentencing postponed, after admitting he lied about meeting a Russian diplomat and working with lobbyists (for Turkey) without registering himself as a “foreign agent”. (This provision, by the way, is something that Russia introduced on to its statute book to near universal western condemnation a few years ago, with nary a mention that it was actually modelled on requirements in the US.)

Ah yes, you may ask, but what about all the evidence that Russia exploited social media in a concerted attempt to sway US voters away from Clinton and towards Trump? Have not two more reports in recent days, one from no less an authority than Oxford University, charted massive Russian attempts at manipulation? Well, no, actually, not massive at all in the context of the social media. Nor very sophisticated.

One astute observer (Aaron Mate in Nation magazine) described the Internet Research Agency, the organisation supposedly masterminding the fixing of the US election, as “a Russian clickbait firm posting juvenile social media content mostly unrelated to the election”.

Others have found its motives to be less political than financial. Something similar applies to Russian diplomats’ efforts on the social media. Notching up “followers” pleases bosses who see numbers as a gauge of influence and reach, even though they may be nothing of the kind.

As for reports that Trump was negotiating to build a Trump tower in Moscow. Well yes, as a businessman who does that sort of thing, he may well have been. But even Chris Steele (ex-MI6) in his infamous dossier (remember, prostitutes, “golden showers” etc) had to admit that Trump had not actually concluded any business deals in Russia. No deals equals no money, equals no Kremlin hold over Trump.

Now it may be that Mueller still has something up his sleeve, and maybe Democrats will eventually get their Russia-related impeachment. But it does not look promising – the venerable news-hound, Bob Woodward, says he unearthed nothing while researching for his latest book. What is more, by staking so much on their theory of Kremlin collusion, Trump’s adversaries may be ignoring his real vulnerabilities.

One would be women – though voters seem already to have factored in his bad behaviour here. A much bigger problem could be money: less the technical matter of hush-money running up against campaign finance regulation, than ethics and legality in business. If anything is going to bring Trump down, “follow the money” might be the best advice. In shutting down his charitable foundation, which was not a typical Trump move, he was as good as conceding a certain vulnerability here.

But the smothering focus on supposed Russian electoral interference has had another effect, which is to obscure what Trump has actually achieved in foreign policy – and the pattern that is emerging. How often have you heard someone – an “expert” even – say that while they mostly don’t agree with Trump, on this one particular topic they know about, he might just have a point.

Put all those instances together, and a body of achievement emerges. But first you have to exclude Russia. On this one campaign pledge – to try to improve relations with Moscow – Trump has failed, or rather he has been thwarted by vested interests in Washington.

Elsewhere, though, his realist intentions are winning through. He took a risk on meeting North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. And the result, despite setbacks here and there, has been a defusion of tension and a galvanising of diplomacy across the whole of north-east Asia.

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In the Middle East, Trump has pleased Israel by transferring the US embassy to Jerusalem and reinstating sanctions on Iran. The fall-out from this is as yet unclear. He was condemned for his arch-realist response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul. But in underlining US commercial interests, he did no more than say what others (the UK) don’t say, but do.

What is more, he exacted a price. Would there now be talks and a partial ceasefire in Yemen without US pressure, post-Khashoggi, on Saudi Arabia? I doubt it.

Above all, Trump has been proactive towards China as no previous president has. The US congress has long been hawkish in its concerns about China’s growing power, but this was not translated into official policy. In pursuit of “fairer” trade with China, Trump has played the sort of hardball others have lacked the power and/or the will to do. Trump also wants a new military command for space – Space Force – for which future US presidents, given China’s open ambitions, may thank him.

In short, Russia aside, Trump is pursuing the foreign policy he said he would, and the foreign policy Americans voted for. It may not be to our advantage in Europe – or to our taste – but it is for us to decide on our response. The pity is that, with the fog of Russia-gate shrouding so much in Washington, the true strengths and weaknesses of the Trump presidency are rarely seen for what they are. Let’s hope the fog lifts well before the next election, so the Trump balance sheet is clear.

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