Policy

Trump Camp Playing Russian Roulette by Embracing Putin

Candidate's fondness for Russia raises concerns about U.S. interests

Donald Trump's recent comments about NATO could embolden Russian officials with expansionist ideas. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Long before Donald Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination, he had a singular admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brand of leadership.  

As the casino magnate got closer to sweeping the GOP primaries, he began to surround himself with advisers such as campaign manager Paul Manafort, a former lobbyist whose clients included Russian oligarchs and the deposed Ukrainian president who fled to Russia, and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who once appeared at a dinner banquet with Putin.  

The latest signal that Trump doesn’t intend to challenge Russian aggression came 24 hours before he was to officially accept the Republican nomination in Cleveland, when he told The New York Times that he doesn’t believe the United States should necessarily intervene to protect NATO members such as the Baltic states, which fear a Ukrainian-style Russian incursion.  

Such fondness for Russia from Trump and his associates has raised fears in Washington about what it means for U.S. interests.  

The experience of the 20th century shows that “when the United States tries to be isolationist vis-a-vis Europe, it tends to be pulled back in,” said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So it’s better to be involved.”  

[ Trump Surrogates Promise Global Wins But Scant Policy Specifics ]  

Although Russia may have no intention of attacking the Baltic states and risking a war with NATO, statements like those from Trump could prod some into thinking, “maybe we should,” Oliker said.  

Some Russian officials seem to love Trump because of his pro-Moscow comments, and even if they don’t see Trump making a rational and coherent argument about U.S.-Russia relations, they may view him “as a loose cannon who can be manipulated … as somebody who has a proclivity toward Russia,” she said.  

Trump’s admiration for Russia goes back decades, according to The Washington Post, which reported his business ties to the country dating back to the 1980s, including real-estate deals and beauty pageants. Russian investment made up a “disproportionate” part of Trump’s assets, his son Donald Jr. told a real estate conference in 2008, the paper reported.  

In a 2013 tweet, Trump hailed as a "masterpiece" a Putin op-ed in The New York Times criticizing American foreign policy.

In September 2015, candidate Trump told Fox News that, “In terms of leadership, [Putin is] getting an A and the president is not doing so well,” when asked about Moscow’s involvement in Syria and how it could affect the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State. “There’s very little downside with Putin fighting ISIS … and that’s to our benefit."  

Those weren’t just one-off comments. As the campaign rolled on, Trump repeatedly seemed to admire Putin and pointedly declined to criticize the Russian leader’s crackdown on dissidents and journalists. Asked if he condemned Putin for being tied to the deaths of reporters, Trump said: “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also.” He had to be pressed on whether he found it objectionable and said, “Oh sure, absolutely.”  

[ Trump Nails GOP Foreign Policy Impulses ]  

Trump has said that if elected president, he would push to change U.S. libel laws to allow suits against American news companies for articles that he deemed critical of his administration.  

Putin has had warm words for Trump, too, calling him a "bright and talented person without any doubt.” RT, a Russian government-funded TV network formerly known as Russia Today, has been praising Trump’s candidacy.  

As if to supplement Trump’s admiration of Russia, his campaign manager Manafort consulted for Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president and close Putin ally. Manafort and Yanukovych were reportedly introduced by Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov.  

Speaking to The New York Times in 2007, Manafort said of Yanukovych: “The West has not been willing to move beyond the Cold War mentality and to see this man and the outreach that he has extended.” Yanukovych won Ukraine's presidential election in 2010. Four years later, he was ousted in a popular uprising and fled to Russia.  

According to a 2008 disclosure form that public relations firm Edelman filed with the Department of Justice, the company was hired by Manafort's lobbying shop to conduct a media campaign to communicate Yanukovych's "reform program" and "his actions toward making Ukraine a more democratic country." Edelman was paid $35,000 a month for its services.  

Manafort's Russia connections don't end there. He's also been linked to questionable business dealings with Russian oligarchs Oleg Deripaska and Dmitri Firtash.  

[ Trump Presidency Could Veer Into Isolationism ]  

Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a retired three-star general and a Trump foreign policy adviser who was vetted for vice president, also has cozy ties to the Kremlin.  

The general, who had a prime time speaking slot at the Republican convention in Cleveland, is a regular on-air commentator on RT.  

Last December, Flynn was spotted at Putin’s table at a dinner in Moscow honoring RT.  

Flynn has declined to tell reporters if he is paid for his RT appearances or who sponsored his December 2015 trip to Moscow. His office did not respond by press time to a request for comment.  

Flynn’s view of Russia is not uncritical. He has, for example, included the state on a list of countries he sees as causing trouble around the world.  

But his writings and remarks generally emphasize America’s need to treat Russia with respect and to seek areas of mutual interest. On Syria, for example, Flynn advocated U.S.-Russian military cooperation long before the Obama administration hammered out agreements to more closely coordinate the nations’ operations there.  

Flynn’s take on U.S.-Russia relations stresses the need for cooperation and the avoidance of conflict.  

“Russia has its own national security strategy, and we have to respect that,” Flynn said in one RT spot.  

That accommodating tone sets him in bold relief amid a national security establishment that speaks with increasing antagonism about Russia.  

Despite Trump’s pro-Russia sentiments, the Republican Party platform states the conventional U.S. position on Russia, criticizing Moscow for invading Ukraine, and promising to meet its “belligerence with the same resolve that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.”  

The document, which is typically a blueprint for the party’s goals, also says that the United States will promote an independent judiciary, a free press and a civil society in repressive regimes such as Russia, and blames Moscow for mounting cyberwarfare during peacetime.  

Still, Trump’s advisers worked hard to ensure the platform did not mention providing offensive weapons to Ukraine to fight off Russian aggression, The Washington Post reported.  

Trump’s views on foreign policy, although at odds with Republican orthodoxy, may have some support within the party, said Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest, which earlier this year organized a foreign policy address by Trump.  

“Donald Trump clearly has a different worldview than most people are used to hearing from Republican political leaders,” Saunders said. “At the same time, I think it is a perspective that has a long political history and no small amount of support within the Republican Party.”  

Saunders noted that Trump has been upfront about his skepticism of the utility of U.S. alliances, yet he still handily convinced Republican primary voters to choose him as the nominee.  

Kate Ackley, John M. Donnelly, Ryan Lucas and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.

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