The problem with Trump’s call to Putin

I’m less concerned that President Trump called Vladimir Putin and congratulated him on his election than I am about Trump’s defense of that decision. If Trump was going to call Putin, I think it made sense to congratulate him. Otherwise, the call could be seen as a gratuitous insult.

Should he have made the call? I think the strong presumption should be against calling and congratulating an antagonist of America who has just won an unfair election and is in the middle of a high profile dispute with our closest ally over the poisoning on the ally’s soil of an ex-pat.

This doesn’t mean Trump should never talk to Putin. But it does militate against calling him in this context, in which not congratulating him would have been an insult.

The call and the congrats are not a big deal in themselves. Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron apparently called Putin and wished him success. If anything, given what Putin is trying to accomplish, that seems worse to me than congratulating him.

In any case, what matters most is the Trump administration’s policies toward Putin’s Russia. They have been pretty tough and certainly tougher than those of the Obama administration.

But what is Trump’s strategy with Putin? Are his tough policies a bargaining tool through which he hopes to reach an accommodation with Putin and solve the world’s problems together? Are they a way of fending off allegations that he is in Putin’s pocket. Or do they reflect a commitment to blocking the ugly ambitions of an evil adversary?

Trump’s tweets defending his call are not encouraging on this score. Trump began his defense by saying: “Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.” That depends on what is required to get along with Russia which, in turn, depends on Putin’s intentions.

Trump continued:

They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race. Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the “smarts.” Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET).

So the answer to my question a few paragraphs ago is: Yes, Trump apparently believes he can reach an accommodation with Putin and solve the world’s problems together. This is the same naive misreading of Putin that Bush, for a while, and Obama-Clinton, for a longer while, indulged in.

Trump tries to preempt the charge that he hasn’t learned from the mistakes of prior administrations by asserting that he’s smarter and/or more energetic than Bush, Obama, and Hillary Clinton. Here, he displays an alarming mixture of naivety and runaway egoism.

Trump’s predecessors didn’t fail to make Putin a constructive partner due to their personality and character. They failed because of Putin’s personality and character. He’s an evil thug bent on restoring the glory (in his pathological view) of the Soviet Union.

Trump might just as well argue that FDR wasn’t smart enough to solve Europe’s problems in tandem with Hitler or that Truman was too “low-energy” to work things out with Stalin.

Sixteen years, several invasions, and countless killings and maimings after George W. Bush looked into Putin’s soul and found him trustworthy, has Trump has peered in and found a peace partner? That’s how it looks.

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