WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his administration are too cozy with Russia, two experts said at a Tuesday discussion held by the Council on Foreign Relations.
Robert Blackwill and Philip Gordon, both fellows at the Council, coauthored a report last month on Russian interference in American democracy. The situation between the U.S. and Russia amounts to a “new Cold War,” they said, but the Trump administration’s failure to act against Russia has served the U.S. poorly.
“The rhetoric from the administration more recently has been strong on the issue of Russia,” Blackwill said. “But they fail on action. We know what the price of rhetoric without action does to the credibility of a country’s foreign policy.”
Their report, which was released in January, posits that alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election represents a direct attack on American democracy and a “growing geopolitical challenge.”
Russian officials think “the spread of U.S. regional and global hegemony since the end of the Cold War threatens Russian vital national interests and deprives Russia of its rightful place on the world stage,” according to the report.
Blackwill and Gordon argue that the Trump administration has not adequately responded to the situation, even though members of the intelligence community warned Tuesday that Russia would likely interfere again in this year’s midterm elections.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, during a hearing of the Senate intelligence committee.
Trump, as well as multiple administration officials, has repeatedly denied allegations of collusion with the Russian government and accusations that the Kremlin was a deciding factor in ensuring his 2016 win. But an ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into the Russian interference has subpoenaed multiple members of the administration, and Trump may meet with Mueller himself in the coming weeks.
Since the investigation began, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, his associate, were also indicted as part of the Mueller investigation, but have pleaded not guilty to being agents of the Ukrainian government.
Gordon said Trump’s reaction to the alleged election interference is surprising considering his forceful, “America First” foreign policy, which has included proposed new tariffs for U.S. benefit.
“The president treats the approach to Russia differently than he treats the approach to every other country in the world,” Gordon said.
Recent moves by the Trump administration have confused and angered Russia and its American opponents alike. On January 29, the Treasury Department announced a report on 210 senior Russian political and business figures. But then the State Department announced it would not impose stricter sanctions on Russia in response to the election meddling.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said Trump’s actions constituted “a grave breach of [his] responsibilities to reward President Putin by inaction for his intervention in an American election.”
“It represents nothing less than appeasement for an attack on our country’s democracy,” Smith told the New York Times. “It is time for us time to stand up for our country. We cannot let these actions to continue to go unpunished.”
While the Trump administration has yet to take concrete action on Russian interference that occurred roughly eighteen months ago, Blackwill and Gordon said it is not too late to act.
They argue that the only way to show Russia the United States takes election interference seriously is to act strongly and send an unmistakable signal. Gordon said that Putin sees his relationship with the U.S. as a “zero-sum game.”
Blackwill and Gordon’s recommendations for further action include plans like sending U.S. troops to Poland, imposing additional sanctions on Russia, and working with European leaders to deter businesses from dealing with the Russian defense and intelligence sectors.
Kara Frederick, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, said she thinks the immediacy of the Russian threat is “extremely stark.” She said the U.S. should use what it learned from the 2016 election interference and extrapolate it to this year’s midterms but acknowledge that Russian officials had likely improved and changed their tactics since then.
But real action can only come if the White House is the driving force behind the pushback, Blackwill said, which has not been the case.
“This would be very different if we had a president who at minimum acknowledged the issue, let alone did something about it,” Blackwill said.