Donald Trump was, according to many national security scholars, the most pro-Russian major party presidential candidate in modern American history. During his campaign, while Russia was under international sanctions for its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, and was operating at odds with U.S. interests in the Middle East, Trump said a series of nice things about Russia and Vladimir Putin.
Since winning, Trump has appointed people to major foreign policy jobs who espouse a mainstream Republican line of being tough on Russia. In confirmation hearings last week, Trump’s picks for secretary of state, secretary of defense and CIA director each articulated a view of Russia as a dangerous adversary meriting a tough American posture.
But the president-elect himself has continued to offer unsolicited praise for Putin and Russia, even as U.S. intelligence agencies have accused Russia of an unprecedented covert operation designed to interfere in the election, in part to favor Trump. After weeks of casting doubt on those findings, Trump last week appeared to accept them — but didn’t say whether anything should be done in response.
Instead, he has trashed Western institutions seen as bulwarks against Russian mischief, including NATO, the European Union, and the American intelligence community.
“It’s shocking,” said Mark Katz, a professor of Russian studies at George Mason University.
Here are some examples:
“I said a long time ago — that NATO had problems. Number one it was obsolete, because it was, you know, designed many, many years ago. Number two — the countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to pay.”
(Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov chimed in afterward, according to state news agency Interfax: “NATO really is obsolete and we also agree with that.”)
On the European Union:
“Personally, I don’t think it matters much for the United States. I never thought it mattered. Look, the EU was formed, partially, to beat the United States on trade, okay? So, I don’t really care whether it’s separate or together, to me it doesn’t matter.”
On who to trust, Putin or Germany’s Angela Merkel, a U.S. ally:
“Well, I start off trusting both — but let’s see how long that lasts. It may not last long at all.”
— All quotes above are from an interview published Jan. 16 in the Times of London and Germany’s Bild
On the 35-page “dossier” of unproven allegations against Trump:
“Well, you know, President Putin and Russia put out a statement today that this fake news was indeed fake news. They said it totally never happened. Now, somebody would say, ‘Oh, of course he’s going to say that.’ I respected the fact that he said that.”
—Trump news conference, Jan. 11
On his relationship with Putin:
“Well, if — if Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia. Russia can help us fight ISIS, which, by the way, is, number one, tricky. I mean if you look, this administration created ISIS by leaving at the wrong time. The void was created, ISIS was formed.”
“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability.”
—Trump news conference, Jan. 11
On a holiday greeting from Putin:
“A very nice letter from Vladimir Putin; his thoughts are so correct.”
—Dec. 23 Trump statement
On allegations Putin has ordered the murder of journalists:
“Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe. There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on and a lot of stupidity and that’s the way it is.
—Dec. 18 phone call with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on “Morning Joe”
On Putin calling Trump “bright and talented” or, by another translation, “flamboyant”:
“It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond. I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”
—Dec. 17 Trump statement
On the unanimous conclusion by U.S. intelligence that Russia hacked the election:
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
— Dec 9 Trump transition team statement
(Trump has since accepted the findings.)
Does He Have A Plan?
Russia experts like Katz aren’t sure whether Trump means it all, given that his national security nominees have taken traditional positions toward Russia.
Is Trump just doubling down on a controversial position, wonders Katz, or “does he have some cunning strategy [to soften Putin up]”?
But the idea that Putin is celebrating Trump’s election as a huge win for Moscow might be misplaced, said Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“The big hedge for Putin is that Trump is an unknown quantity,” Aron said. “Yes, he is generally predisposed toward Putin but Putin knows that infatuations are really fraught with reversals.”