Much has been made of the way Russian President Vladimir Putin meddled to get Donald Trump elected president. The prevailing view – in both Russia and the United States – was that a grateful or compromised Trump would do Putin’s bidding.
The expectation was that Trump would lift the sanctions that have been crippling Russia’s economy for years. Barack Obama imposed them in early 2014, through a series of executive orders, after Putin annexed Crimea and began destabilizing the rest of Ukraine.
Putin was banking on Trump wielding the kind of dictatorial powers in America he wields in Russia. Trump did nothing to disabuse Putin of this misguided symmetry.
Didn’t make sense
But I found it stupefying that so many American commentators were giving credence to this. They seemed oblivious to powers Congress and the judiciary wield as coequal branches of government. I, on the other hand, was acutely mindful of those powers, as I’ve previously written.
Sure enough, America’s ingenious system of checks and balances has so circumscribed Trump’s Putinesque impulses that all Putin has to show for his hacking and leaking is Russia suffering even worse economic sanctions and irreparable reputational damage. This pyrrhic effect is clearly not what Putin meddled for.
But I also found it stupefying that so many ignored the indelible and inexorable course of US foreign policy commitments, which would clearly preclude Trump appeasing Putin beyond idle flattery.
That is why I wasn’t at all surprised last week when Congress defied Trump by slapping Putin in the face, when the Senate voted overwhelmingly by veto-proof majorities in both chambers of Congress to pass a bill increasing sanctions against Russia and blocking Trump from easing them.
Incidentally, Trump boasted throughout his campaign that he would get Congress to rubber-stamp his legislative agenda, so much so that his supporters would “get tired of winning.” Therefore, the irony cannot be lost even on him that this sanctions bill, which he lobbied heavily to kill, is the only significant legislative achievement of his beleaguered presidency.
A duly disappointed Putin retaliated by seizing two American diplomatic properties in Russia and ordering the United States Embassy to reduce staff.
Putin is weak
This retaliation actually betrayed Putin’s weakness. US sanctions cramp the jet-set lifestyle of the oligarchs he depends on to protect and sustain his kleptocracy. It speaks volumes that the richest Russians, including Putin himself, have more money in American banks than in Russian ones.
This is why they are so susceptible to US sanctions.
Yet all he did was kick hundreds of consular staffers out of the country – many of whom are probably all too happy to leave. In fact, the only people who will be adversely affected are the Russians lining up every day for these staffers to process visas for them to visit America – many of whom will overstay their visas indefinitely.
The way he retaliated for the first round of US sanctions in 2012 only reinforces this weakness. Then, he merely banned Americans from adopting helpless Russian babies.
This is why I fear the day of reckoning is nigh, when Putin will have to play the only card he has to justify the strongman reputation he has so carefully cultivated. That, alas, would be to launch military action somewhere that compels the US to retaliate militarily.
Trump might be unwittingly encouraging Putin to do so because he must seem to Putin (and other world leaders) like a clueless, hapless idiot tweeting his presidency away.
He reinforced this impression by tweeting to no avail to get China to stop North Korea from launching ballistic missiles; to get the US military to ban transgender troops; to get Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Meanwhile, Trump has been conspicuous in his unwillingness to tweet a condemnatory character at Russia for meddling in last year’s election, and having the nerve to retaliate after being punished for doing so. Incriminating!
Anthony L. Hall is a native of The Bahamas with an international law practice in Washington, D.C. Read his columns and daily weblog at www.theipinionsjournal.com.