WASHINGTON – It is now clear that President Donald Trump’s campaign sought anti-Hillary Clinton dirt from Kremlin-linked Russians, and that he’s been shamelessly lying about it for a year.
So what is Team Trump supposed to say now? It is not enough to argue that Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a gamey duo of Kremlin-connected individuals wasn’t strictly illegal. Arguing the fine points of law is not how a buzz saw cuts through plywood.
He could have tried to distance himself from the meeting, saying that his son had made a mistake. Instead, in his usual have-it-both-ways style, he said both that he hadn’t known about it and that “most people” would have done the same thing.
It also was specious to argue, as Trump attorney Jay Sekulow did on Sunday, that the U.S. Secret Service had no objection to the meeting. Trump Jr. wasn’t a “protectee” of the agency at that point.
No, you have to attack the attackers. But how? Well, Trump’s allies are doubling down on what others see as his weakness, arguing in effect that colluding with Russian President Vladimir Putin is what America should do.
In other words, yes, there are witches, but they are good witches.
As a matter of political strategy, this line isn’t as laughable as it sounds. Once again Trump may have more street sense than his enemies. Old-fashioned, ICBM-era Cold War rhetoric has lost its potency, and Trump’s cynical retro-realpolitik will sell with the only constituency he cares about: his hardcore voters.
The president began the pivot both behind closed doors and in plain sight in Hamburg, Germany. Minimally appeasing his critics, he privately raised with Putin the issue of Russia’s documented interference in the 2016 election. Putin – surprise! – stoutly denied it all; Trump, by his own account, all but shrugged his shoulders and moved on.
No blood, no foul, as they say on the playground courts of Palm Beach.
Then Trump vowed to “move forward in working constructively with Russia,” and suggested a joint cybersecurity task force so naïvely dangerous that even Republicans blanched.
The president’s own rhetoric is only one indicator of where the new message is headed, and where in the political substrata it’s coming from.
The Cold War officially ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union, and an entire generation of Americans has grown up with no memory of the days when school children were taught to hide under their desks if the Russian government were dropping the atomic bomb.
The new Cold War ― and there is one ― is not well understood by an American public that has been forced to live through a 16-year-long and largely futile war with so-called “radical Islam.”
The Russian government and the Chinese government for that matter are no less antagonistic to the United States and to democratic values, but have long since switched from brandishing missiles or banging shoes on table tops at the U.N. to subtler, even invisible, tactics.
Combine faded memories and ignorance with evermore partisanship – and justifiably weariness with war ― and you have an American public that is losing its sense of urgency about the Russia issue.
That is especially true among Trump supporters, who were and are ready to hear the message. Polls show that GOP voters tend to trust Putin and they, more than Democrats, want better relations with Russia. From pundits Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan to chief strategist Steve Bannon in the White House, Putin is at worst a lesser evil and at best a role model of headstrong, nationalistic leadership.
The mixed message of isolation and realpolitik hasn’t penetrated the GOP establishment in the Senate, which voted 97-2 to restrict Trump’s ability to lift punitive sanctions against Russia. The House has yet to take up the measure because the White House is trying to water it down if not kill it altogether.
Putin wants the sanctions lifted. Trump thus far hasn’t done so. If collusion is a good thing, as the president says, look for it to happen eventually. The meeting won’t be secret and it won’t be in Trump Tower. It will be at the White House, and there will be a press release.