At a joint press conference in Helsinki in July 2018, a reporter asked Donald Trump if he believes the U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Trump replied that when Putin, who was standing beside him, said “it’s not Russia,” he “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” So, Trump wanted us to disregard our evidence-based conclusions in favor of Putin’s denial simply because it seemed forceful. Trump then added that as to whether it was Russia, “I don’t see any reason why it would be,” then claimed he misspoke after facing bipartisan outrage.
A year later, despite the Mueller report’s conclusion that Russia interfered in our election “in sweeping and systematic fashion,” Trump is still showing as little interest in shutting down Russia’s propaganda campaign as he is in studying Dostoyevsky. On the contrary, when Trump met with Putin last month at the G20 Osaka Summit for the first time since the Mueller report was released, Trump turned the issue of Russian interference into a big joke that he gleefully shared with Putin in front of reporters.
One goal of Russia’s disinformation campaign is to harm Western alliances, and the drama that played out this week leading to the resignation of UK Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch yesterday may prove to be the latest example of what Putin can accomplish in this vein with Trump in the White House. The fact that an ambassador wrote something critical in a private communication is quite common, as the New York Times noted yesterday. What is unusual is that Darroch’s memos describing the Trump administration as “inept and incompetent” were leaked. The unflattering discovery prompted Trump to throw a tantrum, straining relations with our ally and leading Darroch to resign after serving as a diplomat for 29 years.
Correspondent Max Foster presented the larger concern on CNN this morning: “Government should be able to choose their own ambassadors and they shouldn’t be forced out by the host’s head of state over something like this, because all ambassadors, I would argue, send frank statements like this back to their home countries. Kim Darroch isn’t unusual like this. This is how diplomacy works. Should President Trump be allowed to dismantle that system, that’s the thing that worries many in European capitals and certainly here in London.”
Regardless of the circumstances behind the leaked memos, Trump could have brushed the matter aside or even laughed it off. Instead, Trump reacted predictably, unleashing his fury while drawing even more attention to the criticism. Playing Trump like a fiddle to sow discord with our allies is right up Putin’s alley. So, as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt confirmed yesterday, UK officials are now focusing their investigation on whether Russia hacked the secret memos, according to reporting from Business Insider. The British are pursuing this line of inquiry because, unlike Trump, they do not see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia. Stay tuned.