Has Trump made Republicans pro-Putin? [with correction]

The Washington Post has published a piece by James Kirchick called “How Trump got his party to love Vladmir Putin.” The title is ridiculous. Republicans don’t love Putin, and Kirchick’s article provides no evidence that they do. In fact, although Trump takes too soft a line on the Russian leader, there is no basis for saying that he loves, or even likes, Putin.

The article itself is also over-the-top in places. For example, Kirchick says that “in Donald Trump, the GOP nominated the most pro-Russian U.S. presidential candidate since Henry Wallace, whose 1948 bid on the Progressive Party ticket was largely run by communists.” Even if this statement were true, it would be a cheap shot. Trump is nothing like Henry Wallace when it comes to Russia. Wallace is truly a red herring.

But is Kirchick’s claim true? In 2012, Barack Obama ridiculed Mitt Romney’s view that Russia poses a major geopolitical threat to the U.S. When he thought the mic was off, Obama told Russia’s president that he could be more accommodating after the election. But Obama had already been plenty accommodating, having launched his Russian reset and scuttled plans for a missile defense in eastern/central Europe.

Did the Washington Post invite Kirchick or some other Russia hawk to write an opinion piece about Obama “loving” Russia. If so, I missed it.

During his campaign, Trump was basically agnostic as to whether Russia poses a geopolitical threat. He claimed (apparently falsely) that he doesn’t know Putin, and he said it would be great if we got along with him so the U.S. and Russia could work together to defeat ISIS.

As distressing as this nonchalance and/or naivety towards an evil regime is, it seems no worse than Obama’s 2012 campaign utterances (on and off mic) on the subject of Russia. And Trump’s position certainly does not reflect “love” for Putin.

As for Republicans, Kirchick bases the claim that they are pro-Putin on the comments of a few talking heads (e.g., Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich) and outliers (David Keene and Dana Rohrabacher), plus a poll showing that 37 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Putin (up from 10 percent in 2014 after he annexed Crimea).

The poll shows that Republicans do not like Putin. The focus on Hannity and company obscures the fact that congressional Republicans remain anti-Putin.

Kirchick credits only Senators McCain, Graham, and Rubio as holding out against the good will towards Putin that’s allegedly engulfing the GOP. But at the hearing last week on Russian hacking, most Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee had nothing good to say about Putin. Only Thom Tillis appeared to break ranks.

Kirchick says that McCain and Graham, under pressure from Majority Leader McConnell, have backed down from their push to establish a select committee to investigate Russian election interference. But the decision not to form a select committee is reasonable and reflects no softness towards Putin.

The Senate, via its Armed Services Committee, has already held a hearing and other congressional committees may follow suit. The intelligence committee has weighed in with a report. The hacking story has prominently featured in the news for weeks.

What purpose, then, would a select committee serve? There’s only so much that can be said about this subject.

Kirchick is right to express concern regarding what Trump’s policy towards Russia will be. However, Kirchick’s indictment of the Republican party is not justified, and even his attack on Trump goes too far.

Unlike President Obama, Trump has made no concessions to Russia; nor, as far as we know, has he promised to make any. And there is good reason to believe that if Trump tilts pro-Putin, he will face intense criticism from the party establishment.

CORRECTION: Sen. Tillis’ office writes to say that at the Armed Services Committee hearing, the Senator did not say anything remotely positive about Putin. This is true. Like his colleagues, Tillis did not have anything good to say about the Russian leader.

To the extent that Tillis “broke ranks,” as I put it, he did so to argue that the U.S. has interfered in more elections than Russia. Making this point, whatever one thinks of it, did not constitute praise of Putin, and I should not have written my post in a way that indicated otherwise.

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