“You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you,” Brennan tweeted at Trump.
When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you. https://t.co/uKppoDbduj
Mid-winter half a century ago was a dispiriting time in the office of Senator Robert Kennedy; at least if you were hoping Kennedy would challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination. There was no secret about how RFK felt bout LBJ (and vice-versa)—they hated each other. One day, the poet Allen Ginsberg stopped by the senator’s office, and with a bemused RFK and some of his staff looking on, chanted the Hare Krishna.
“What is that?” Kennedy asked.
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“It’s a mantra for the preservation of the universe,” Ginsberg said,
“You might want to take that to the fellow at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Kennedy replied.
This was more than the “mutual contempt” of Jeff Shesol’s great book on the RFK-LBJ feud. The Vietnam War was taking hundreds of American and countless Vietnamese lives a week, to no clear purpose. Back home, the country’s racial divisions were turning violent every summer. In Kennedy’s view, Johnson was simply unable to deal with the sense that things were spinning out of control. At times, he questioned whether four more years of Johnson would wreak permanent damage on the fabric of the country. He knew that both the polls and voices he respected—like longtime activist Al Lowenstein and journalists Jack Newfield and Pete Hamill—were beseeching him to run, warning that not to would cost him a part of his soul.
But then there was the harsh political reality: A sitting president had not been denied the nomination of his party since Chester Arthur back in 1884. His Senate colleagues, including some who had turned hard against the war, like Wisconsin’s Gaylord Nelson and South Dakota’s George McGovern, were urging him not to run, fearing that a divided Democratic Party would only hand the reins of power to Richard Nixon. His advisers from JFK’s days, and his own brother Ted, were offering the same guidance—noting that in most of the big, delegate-rich states there were no primaries; the delegates were controlled by White House loyalists, making an insurgent run highly improbable. Their voices carried more weight than those of his Senate staffers—Adam Walinsky, Peter Edelman, Fran Mankiewicz—who were saying, in effect, “you have to run” (as a 24-year-old staff assistant eight months out of law school I was not exactly a key voice in these deliberations).
So it was not a shock when Kennedy told a breakfast of Washington journalists on January 30, 1968, that “under no foreseeable circumstances” would he run for president. (That breakfast happened on the very day of the Tet Offensive, which ended in military defeat for the North Vietnamese and a massive psychologicaldefeatfor the U.S. military). But the declaration seemed to put an end to the matter; Walinsky, the most ardent advocate of a run, told Kennedy he was leaving the Senate staff.
But Kennedy soon changed his mind—why? In the accepted narrative, the deciding factor was Eugene McCarthy’s New Hampshire primary showing, and there is a good amount of truth in that view. RFK and McCarthy held each other, as the British might put it, in “minimum high regard.” McCarthy saw the Kennedys as exemplars of wealth and privilege, while Kennedy saw McCarthy as an indolent elitist, marginally concerned at best with the plight of the poor. At the start of McCarthy’s campaign, Kennedy said, “He’s running to increase his lecture fees.”
But as primary day grew closer, it was clear McCarthy had tapped into a powerful sense of discontent with the war. It was not one-sided; surveys later showed that a plurality of his voters thought the war should be escalated. But it was enough to suggest that LBJ was about to receive a political shock. Dick Goodwin, RFK’s friend and colleague who was spearheading the McCarthy campaign, was telling Kennedy just that. That possibility, added to Kennedy’s own instincts, turned him around before the New Hampshire primary votes were cast.
To a junior staffer like me, the signs were hard to interpret. Something was going on in California, where a winner-take-all primary made it by far the most consequential of primaries, and where California Assembly Speaker and Democratic boss Jess Unruh was encouraging Kennedy into the race. Someone (apparently RFK aide Joe Dolan) was sniffing out possibilities for putting together a Kennedy delegate slate there should Kennedy decide to jump into the face, while others were actively looking at ballot access rules for other states. Whatever the process, Kennedy had come to an apparent decision before the New Hampshire votes were cast. As his Legislative Assistant Peter Edelman tells it in an oral history for the University of Virginia Miller Center:
“On March 10th, two days before the New Hampshire primary, he goes to California[to be with farmworker union head Caesar Chavez]. He says, ‘March 9th I’m at a fundraiser in Des Moines anyway, so we’ll just keep on from there, we’ll go on out to California.’ So we do that. In Los Angeles, we’re getting on a private plane to go from Los Angeles up to Delano, to Cesar Chavez’s headquarters, and there [are longtime Kennedy colleagues] Ed Guthman and John Seigenthaler. What are they doing there?
“We get on the plane and on the way up, he tells us he’s going to run for President. This is important in a number of respects. One, it’s two days before the New Hampshire primary, so you can say, ‘yes, he knew what the polls were’, but still it’s two days before the New Hampshire primary.”
This timeline does not save Kennedy from the “opportunist” charge, particularly since he told the press the day after the primary that he was “actively reassessing” the possibility of running. (Political junkies know that President Johnson actually won the primary on a write-in. But McCarthy’s 42 percent was the headline story—perhaps the first example of a candidate winning the “expectations game” while losing the actual count.) Kennedy’s “reassessment” triggered a strong, understandable bitterness among McCarthy’s supporters that never dissipated. (Two days before the California primary, Jack Newfield and I went to the McCarthy hotel in California to argue that the loser of the California primary withdraw and support the winner. Said one McCarthy worker: “I’d vote for Richard Nixon over that SOB.”)
In the days that followed the New Hampshire primary, there was a strikingly ad hoc, highly organized series of moves that might have kept him from finally entering the race. RFK met with LBJ to talk about a commission, jointly appointed by the two men, to look for an alternative Vietnam policy What about a Kennedy-McCarthy alliance, with each supporting the other in different states?
But at every critical juncture, Kennedy drew the line; he had decided to run. The arguments for his candidacy were sufficiently disparate that, on the night before the announcement, three generations of speechwriters gathered at RFK’s historic home in suburban Virginia, Hickory Hill, to thrash out the statement. (For Adam Walinsky and me, one line that made it into the final draft was a sore point; Kennedy declared that what was at stake was “our right to moral leadership of the planet”—a line that to us echoed the expansive Cold War mindset that had lured us into Vietnam).
What was it that ultimately persuaded Kennedy to enter the race? His admirers will say that he felt he had no choice; detractors will say it was an overweening sense of entitlement. I would add one more factor. At the 1960 convention, RFK had struggled very hard to persuade his brother not to put LBJ on the ticket; it helped turn the mutual dislike that stretched back to Senate days into something much more intense. In failing to keep Johnson off the ticket, Kennedy held himself personally responsible for what he saw as Johnson’s feckless, even cowardly leadership. Running against him was, in this sense, an act of expiation for his own earlier failure.
One last point: We are in a time when candidates for president declare their intentions long before the first votes are cast; Democrats by the carload are already appearing in Iowa, New Hampshire and other key primary states. But 50 years ago, Kennedy could declare his candidacy seven weeksbefore the Indiana primary, and fewer than six months before the Democratic convention. In this sense, the last half century has not only brought us into a new millennium; it has brought us into a new political universe. And it is a universe that might have looked very different had Kennedy’s late leap into the presidential campaign not ended in tragedy in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen 85 days later.
Inside the leak-proof snow fort where counsel Robert S. Mueller III commands his Russia scandal gumshoes, the Trump investigation glowed fireball orange this week. The New York Times spotted the light and then reported it in a Page One, above-the-fold story in the Friday edition, stating that Mueller had subpoenaed business documents from the Trump Organization “related to Russia and other topics,” apparently for the first time.
“Investigation Nears President” touted the story’s subhead.
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Near, yes, but how near? Maybe not as near as you would like to think. It was easy to read the Times scoop in the context of the interview President Donald Trump gave to the New York Times last summer. Asked if Mueller’s inspection of his finances and his family’s finances “unrelated to Russia” would cross “a red line,” Trump said, “Yeah.” Further questioned, Trump said he would regard such inquiries “a violation” of Mueller’s investigative charter. He then retreated into a series of Russia denials: “I don’t do business with Russia.” As with so many of his disavowals, Trump pairs it with a rowback that empties the original statement of its mass. “I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows?”
Other news outlets didn’t find the subpoena news as incendiary as the Times did. Both Politico and the Associated Press noted that the Trump Organization had previously been cooperating with the investigation’s request for materials, implying that if a red line exists it had been crossed and recrossed long ago. Trump Organization lawyer Alan Futerfas, fluffing up the news like a goose down pillow and took a nap on it, couldn’t even bring himself to call the stories fake news. He called it something worse. “This is old news,” he told the AP. “In addition to the company’s record production, the White House and the Trump campaign combined have provided more than a million pages of documents to Mueller’s investigators,” the AP reported, making the rambunctious president sound like the model of accommodation.
Reading these competing Mueller probe accounts is like suffering heatstroke and frostbite at the same time. The investigation would seem to have “hotted up,” has as our British cousins would put it, because Mueller went precisely where Trump cautioned him not to venture. Remember, Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow, made similar threatening noises last summer, promising to file formal objections with the deputy attorney general if Mueller got too nosy.
But no Trump-on-Mueller war ensued. The day after Trump made what some people read as a threat, Mueller was retrieving Trump business information from the depths. Around the same time, House Democrats were calling for a complete bloodhounding of the Trump money trail. Sekulow’s wave off was similarly ignored in Summer 2017, as the New Yorker noted. Could it be that the Trumpian red line is a fiction and that the president, who enjoys a perverse relationship with the truth, was fibbing when he affirmed its existence? Maybe he should be impeached for temporarily draining all heat from the scandal and turning it red and hard like a cherry Popsicle.
Trump’s reluctance to start screaming about red-line violations can be easily explained. 1) The Mueller charter doesn’t place restrictions on where he can investigate wrong-doing, so it would be a fool’s mission to protest; 2) As President Barack Obama learned from his Syria experience, labeling something a red line forces you to defend when it’s crossed. If you don’t defend a red line declaration after making it, you look weak and indecisive. By ignoring the so-called red line, he avoids a fight he doubts he can win.
The scandal could be found galloping and crawling at the same time on other fronts. The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee issued its initial findings on Russian meddling, stating that no collusion had taken place between Moscow and the Trump campaign. The Russians weren’t “trying to help Trump,” Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, insisted. President Trump fired off an all-caps salute of the report on Twitter.
Blunting both Conaway and Trump’s celebration was Republican stalwart Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, late of Benghazi investigation fame, who repudiated the majority gist. Gowdy, who was the only committee Republican to read the underlying surveillance court documents from which the Republican memo was composed, said the intense Russian opposition to Hillary Clinton during the campaign had to be read as support for Donald Trump. Committee Democrats released their own statement, damning Republicans for stymieing lines of inquiry, and vowed to file a future report on their findings, upholding the longstanding congressional tradition of the two parties reaching opposite conclusions after hearing the same evidence.
Roger Stone took his turn in the old oaken-staved container this week. (Stone, you recall, famously tweeted on Aug. 21, 2016—just before WikiLeaks’ release of John Podesta’s stolen emails—that “Podesta’s time in the barrel” was soon to come.) Stone’s apparent foreknowledge of the Podesta tranche and his shifting account of what he knew about the emails, when he knew it, and the nature of his dealings with WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange, has drawn him into Mueller’s dragnet.
On Aug. 8, 2016, Stone predicted an October surprise for the election, saying, “I actually have communicated with Assange.” The Washington Post reports this week that Stone “later said he had not meant that he had communicated with Assange directly.” This Stone reversal, denying something that he said, was positively Trumpian. So was his explanation that his August 21, 2016, tweet was really a prediction that Podesta’s businesses were to come under investigation.
Today, from the confines of his bespoke barrel, Stone says his comments to Sam Nunberg about visiting Assange in London were a joke and a recent post on his own website about a backchannel to WikiLeaks should be excused as over-dramatization.
Trump and Stone can move the lines—red and otherwise—all they like. But they don’t know where the finish line is. Mueller does.
Just imagine being one of Mueller’s investigators, pawing through Trump Organization documents looking for evidence and knowing all the while that in 1997 Trump told the New Yorker, “It’s always good to do things nice and complicated so that nobody can figure it out.” If you’ve figured it out, send your findings to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts respond passively to all subpoenas. My Twitter feed fights them in court. My RSS feed avoids all service.
Nellie Liang spent six years running the Federal Reserve’s financial stability division, which was created after the financial crisis of 2008 to try to prevent another one. So she has paid close attention to the bipartisan legislation the Senate passed this week to loosen some bank regulations. Liberal critics like Elizabeth Warren have savaged the bill as a recipe for the next financial catastrophe, an egregious sellout to Wall Street, and a dramatic rollback of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms.
Liang’s expert analysis is: Meh.
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“It’s fine,” said Liang, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not perfect, but I was afraid they would do something terrible. This definitely preserves the core of the Dodd-Frank protections. I’m not upset about it.”
There are plenty of legitimate questions about why Congress feels the need to provide regulatory relief to banks that are already enjoying record profits, and whether some of the bill’s tweaks to Dodd-Frank will make the financial system less safe. But the doomsday rhetoric about those tweaks—and the political rift they are creating within the Democratic Party—seem extreme compared to their substance. The Senate bill leaves the vast majority of the Dodd-Frank reforms in place, which is why House Republicans who hate Dodd-Frank are already signaling they won’t allow it to become law. The critiques of the bill as a giveaway to Wall Street megabanks seem particularly overblown: Very few of its changes would affect the dozen or so institutions that pose the largest potential dangers to the financial system.
The Senate bill, drafted by Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo of Idaho and supported by 16 Democrats, mostly aims to boost smaller “community banks,” which do not tend to create much systemic risk when they fail. The nation’s 6,500 community banks have outsized political clout, and even Senator Warren supports relieving some of their post-crisis regulatory burdens, which they blame for their declining numbers, tepid rural lending, and any other business problems they face.
Still, while the bipartisan Senate bill goes nowhere near as far as a partisan House bill that would gut just about all of Dodd-Frank, it does relax some restrictions on larger regional banks with assets of between $50 billion and $250 billion. A few of the Senate bill’s provisions also introduce ambiguities that the critics believe will enable excessive risk-taking by Wall Street behemoths.
“No, it is not an undoing of Dodd-Frank,” said Michael Barr, who helped craft Dodd-Frank when he was an assistant Treasury secretary under President Obama. “But I think it is a significant mistake.”
Warren thinks the Senate bill is such a significant mistake that she’s called out its Democratic supporters for siding with Wall Street over working people, even though they’ve fought with her against President Donald Trump’s efforts to cut taxes and repeal Obamacare. “Republicans and Democrats came together today to deregulate the big banks and set the stage for another financial crash,” she said Wednesday after the vote. She’s argued that giveaways to megabanks are bad politics as well as bad policy, even for vulnerable Democrats in states that Trump won easily.
Red-state Democrats like Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri think that they know their own states better than Warren does. They believe they’ve survived in conservative territory by searching for common ground rather than reflexively opposing anything Republicans want. But they’ll need liberals to turn out to vote for them in November if they want to keep their seats, and that won’t happen if liberals think they’re Wall Street shills. With Trump’s approval ratings sinking and signs of a blue wave spreading, Democratic leaders are afraid this previously obscure finance bill could drive a wedge in the party and damage their chances of taking back the Senate.
The Democrats who support the Senate bill all voted for Dodd-Frank. They argue that bipartisan buy-in for modest adjustments to Obama’s Wall Street reforms would essentially enshrine their permanence, something they’ve tried but failed to do for Obama’s health care law. Trump has vowed to dismantle Dodd-Frank, which would eliminate important post-crisis financial reforms—including rules requiring banks to hold more capital and do less risk-taking with borrowed money; the creation of a financial stability commission that can impose even stricter rules on riskier banks; the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to crack down on rip-offs; new rules requiring safer and more transparent trading of complex derivatives; and new powers for government officials to close failing institutions in an orderly way during a crisis. The Senate bill would leave all those reforms virtually untouched, which its Democratic supporters consider a huge victory at a time when Republicans control Washington.
“This is the kind of bipartisan bill the Senate used to do without too much handwringing or pandering on either side,” said one aide to a moderate Democratic senator. “Today, it’s like we’re trying to pass the apocalypse.”
The most powerful argument against the Senate bill has been that it sets the stage for a reprise of the 2008 meltdown. “It puts us at much greater risk that there will be another crash and another taxpayer bailout,” Warren said on CNN. “And you don’t have to take my word for it. This is what the Congressional Budget Office said.”
Actually, the CBO did not say the legislation would create a “much greater” risk of a crisis. It said the legislation would create a “slightly greater” risk, after noting the risk was already small. And judging from the CBO’s risk analysis, “infinitesimally greater” would have been a more accurate phrase. The agency noted that a crisis could require massive outlays to wind down failed banks, and singled out two provisions it believed would increase that risk. But it deemed the additional risk from those two provisions so minute that it only boosted its cost estimates for those outlays by $73 million over the next decade, or roughly 0.08 percent.
“I worry about memories of the crisis fading, but this would be a very minor step backwards,” one former senior Fed official told me.
The bill’s most controversial provision would increase the threshold from $50 billion to $250 billion for a bank to be considered systemically important. These so-called “too big to fail” banks must undergo mandatory Fed “stress tests” every year, complete a “living will” directing how they could be wound down safely if they failed, and face other stricter safety rules. Just about everyone seems to agree that $50 billion was too low a threshold, inundating banks that don’t really pose systemic risks and don’t really need living wills with heavy compliance costs and headaches.
But many experts believe $250 billion is too high. Countrywide Financial, a mortgage giant whose death spiral nearly sparked a panic in short-term funding markets in 2007, had $200 billion in assets. Banks like SunTrust and BB&T aren’t as big as Bank of America or Wells Fargo, but they’re big enough to slap their names on stadiums and arenas, and critics say they’re big enough to matter in a crisis.
Former Fed governor Sarah Bloom Raskin says public stress tests that model whether potentially systemic banks have enough capital to survive brutal surprises are the best way to detect problems before it’s too late. Less stress testing for safety and soundness, she said, would mean less safety and soundness. “The crisis showed you can have a major hit that wipes out your capital in a nanosecond,” said Raskin, a former Maryland banking commissioner who also served as Obama’s deputy Treasury secretary. “If we can catch something in advance with a stress test, why wouldn’t we keep doing that?”
But the Senate bill does call for periodic stress tests of banks in the $100 billion to $250 billion range, while leaving the timing to the Fed’s discretion. Raskin is skeptical that the stress-testing regime would be as rigorous without a congressional mandate, but Fed chairman Jerome Powell has said he intends to continue “frequent” stress tests of those banks. He endorsed the provision raising the threshold, as did his Obama-appointed predecessor, Janet Yellen. And the original too-big-to-fail regime would remain for the banks above $250 billion.
“The narrative that this bill is a huge thing for Wall Street, so we’re smoking victory cigars, that’s just ridiculous,” said one former government official who now sits on the board of a megabank. “The largest banks think this is mostly irrelevant.”
The bill does include complex and contentious language that eases capital rules for three large “custody” banks—State Street, Northern Trust, and the Bank of New York Mellon—that deposit a lot of super-safe assets with the Fed. There’s a plausible argument that custody banks, which mostly hold securities for clients rather than engage in speculation, should be rewarded rather than penalized for their relatively duller approach to banking. But there’s also a plausible argument that carving out any exceptions to blanket rules specifying how much capital a bank must hold against assets is a dangerous precedent that could later be extended to assets that might not be as safe as they look. The CBO has warned that there’s a 50-50 chance the Fed could end up interpreting the provision to give the same break to giants like Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase that happen to provide some custodial services.
Tim Clark, who recently retired as a deputy director of supervision and regulation at the Fed, said he’s worried that relaxing the rules that govern the very biggest banks could send the financial system down a slippery slope, even though the vast majority of those rules would remain intact. Even at the margins, he doesn’t want Congress to send a message to the Fed to reduce its vigilance. “It appears that there’s a general acceptance of the post-crisis reforms for the largest banks, and that’s good to see,” Clark said. “But these concerns are real.”
The critics have aired other valid concerns, particularly about the potential for more lenient treatment of foreign megabanks with U.S. operations, and a word change they fear will give Wall Street giants an opening to sue the Fed to push for weaker oversight. And they have complained about several issues unrelated to financial stability, including one provision that could expose mobile home buyers to more predatory lending, and another relaxing Dodd-Frank rules combating mortgage discrimination for small banks and credit unions that make fewer than 500 loans a year.
The bill’s supporters say these critiques are overblown as well. The exemption from anti-discrimination disclosure requirements, for example, would affect less than 4 percent of the nation’s mortgage data. And they say there are real benefits to the bill’s efforts to help Main Street banks expand their lending to families and businesses. The FDIC says the number of small banks has dropped by 14 percent since Dodd-Frank passed in 2010; Virginia lost only one community bank during the crisis and Great Recession, but has lost 21 community banks since 2010.
“Virginia’s community banks and credit unions did not cause the financial crisis, and they should not be held back by regulations intended for the big banks,” said Virginia senator Mark Warner, a Democrat who helped with the crafting of Dodd-Frank and now supports the Crapo bill’s adjustments.
It’s not clear how much of the consolidation in the banking industry has been driven by regulation, and how much by low interest rates and natural economies of scale. Former congressman Barney Frank, who worked with former senator Christopher Dodd to write the bill that bears their names, has suggested that the upsides as well as the downsides of the proposed rewrites have been exaggerated.
“This is a lot of yelling about not a lot of change,” one Fed official told me.
The most compelling arguments about the Crapo bill boil down to Democratic politics. For opponents, the bipartisan support for bank deregulations is tarnishing the Democratic brand, rewarding a big-money industry that is already swimming in profits and is poised to reap a new windfall from Trump’s tax cuts. They fear that this will represent the camel’s nose under the tent, a first step toward more aggressive bipartisan attacks on financial restraints.
“You can argue the additional risk is small, but the question you can’t answer is: Why?” said an aide to a liberal Democratic senator. “Banks are making tons of money and doing plenty of lending. What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? ‘It’s not that bad’ is a ridiculous argument for a piece of legislation.”
The bill’s Democratic defenders believe it’s pretty good, especially for a piece of Trump-era legislation. But they believe with more conviction that it’s an excellent way to satisfy a powerful industry’s pent-up demand for deregulation without serious damage to financial oversight. Congress tends to pass only one major banking bill a decade, and the Crapo bill, they argue, is a relatively harmless way to mollify the influential community bankers and signal a willingness to work across the aisle while preserving most of Dodd-Frank as the status quo. They’re incredibly frustrated that arcane disputes over “SIFI’s” and “HMDA” and “FSOC”—don’t ask—could end up fracturing a party that needs unity to fight Trump and take back Congress.
“Are we really going to kill each other over a carve-out in the supplemental leverage ratios for predominantly custodial banks?” an aide to a moderate Senate Democrat complained. “Right now, there are bigger threats to the world.”
When it comes to Russia, there is the Trump administration — and there is the president.
The Trump administration denounces Russia for using nerve agent on British soil. President Donald Trump says nothing for days, then calls it “a very sad situation.”
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The Trump administration castigates Russia for indiscriminate killing in Syria. Trump says nothing about it.
The Trump administration sanctions Russian hackers for meddling in the 2016 election. Trump muses that it could have been China or “many other people.”
The Trump administration condemns Putin’s unveiling of a new generation of Russian nuclear weapons. Trump remains silent.
Trump’s intelligence community stands by its conclusion that the Kremlin sought to help elect Trump in 2016. Trump insists the Russians actually opposed his election because he’s “a big military person.”
Trump’s national security adviser calls the evidence of Russian interference “incontrovertible.” Trump rebukes him on Twitter the next day.
The Trump administration pushes to harden America’s defenses for the 2018 midterms. Trump won’t even convene a meeting on the subject.
The Trump administration reassures NATO countries that America has their back against Russian intimidation. Trump complains incessantly that they need to pay more for their own defense.
Add it all up, and it amounts to the deepest national security breach between a president and his own advisers in memory — a bizarre disconnect between an administration scrambling to respond to Vladimir Putin’s revanchist assault on the West, and a chief executive who openly admires the Kremlin leader and has yet to allay suspicions that his relationship with Russia was not on the level. It’s the greatest mystery in American politics: What, exactly, explains Donald Trump’s love affair with Moscow?
“There has always been a gap between what the U.S. government — whether it’s the State Department, Defense Department, intelligence agencies, Treasury Department —has been saying to steadily increase pressure on the Russian government and what the president has said,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is obvious there is pent-up frustration between the agencies to push forward.”
In recent weeks, that frustration has begun to translate into an increasingly confrontational posture toward Putin’s Russia. On Friday, the Treasury Department slapped sanctions on several Russians for interfering in the 2016 election. The White House’s January national security strategy slammed Moscow as a threat to global stability and a political meddler that “challenge[s] American power, influence, and interests.” And a Pentagon national defense strategy released soon after declared that Russia is “undermining the international order.” On March 1, the Trump administration even took a step vetoed by President Barack Obama. State Department notified Congress that it intends to sell some $47 million in antitank missiles to Ukraine for use against Russian aggression. When some top Obama national security officials recommended a similar step, Obama rejected the idea. Meanwhile, the headlines are awash with officials not named Trump slamming Russia on several fronts.
On Thursday, national security adviser H.R. McMaster tore into Russia, saying it was “complicit” in Syrian regime “atrocities” and warning that “all nations must respond more forcefully than simply issuing strong statements.”
At the United Nations, ambassador Nikki Haley has denounced the Kremlin so many times it has stopped being news, on issues ranging from Syria to Ukraine, over which Haley recently demanded “clear and strong condemnation.” As for cyber and political meddling, during Senate testimony last month, Mike Rogers, the departing head of the National Security Agency and Cyber Command, re-affirmed the conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election and warned that Putin would “continue this activity” if he doesn’t meet a firmer U.S. response.
And after Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee declared on Monday that the Kremlin wasn’t trying to help Trump get elected after all — but rather just seeking to sow chaos — a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the intelligence community stands by its October 2016 findings to the contrary. Finally, there was Rex Tillerson, who took the secretary of state job last year speaking hopefully of better dialogue with Russia — but closed out his tenure with several shots at Putin’s government, including a Monday statement saying he was “outraged” by the nerve agent attack and a warning, in his farewell remarks, that Moscow’s “troubling behavior” invited further isolation. A day after Tillerson’s sacking, his department also released a withering statement about Russia’s “sham” annexation of Crimea that declared that Russia “disdains the international order and disrespects the territorial integrity of sovereign nations.” It’s true that Trump has had to sign off on his administration’s tough policy actions. But that makes his refusal to criticize Putin all the more curious.
There have been some recent signs of a hardening, even on Trump’s part. Twice this week in remarks to reporters, Trump echoed the British government’s charges that Russia was behind the poisoning with nerve agent of a Russian double agent in London this month. “It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it,” Trump said in the Oval Office Thursday.
But Trump didn’t linger long on the subject, and didn’t summon anything like the outrage expressed by Tillerson and Haley, who called at the U.N. this week for “immediate concrete measures” against Moscow and warned that its next attack could come in New York City.
Perhaps the most deafening silence of all involves Trump’s non-response to Putin’s remarkably bellicose February national address in which he announced the development of new nuclear weapons — including one that “flies to its target like a meteorite like a ball of fire” — that he claimed can defeat U.S. defenses. An accompanying video Putin played showed one of the weapons slamming into southern Florida, in the approximate area where Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort is located.
Conley recalled Trump’s reaction after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatened, in a January address, that he could strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons. Trump angrily tweeted in response: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his.” In this case, a State Department spokeswoman mocked Putin’s video as “cheesy,” Defense Secretary James Mattis called the chest-thumping “disappointing,” and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders offered a mild critique of the weapons as “destabilizing.”
But more than two weeks after Putin’s threat, Trump has publicly said nothing.