Donald Trump finally said something slightly negative about Vladimir Putin. It is notable only because it’s the first time since becoming a presidential candidate that he has said anything less than bootlickingly positive about the Russian dictator. What shall we make of it?
Not much. Not yet.
Here’s what he said: Speaking of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, he said Putin was “backing a person that’s truly an evil person” and that Putin’s support for Assad was “very bad for Russia … very bad for mankind … very bad for the world.”
Trump’s missile strike against the Syrian airfield that launched a sarin gas attack last week resulted in a great deal of public confusion over what it might or might not mean. Some observers breathed sighs of relief that their government was back on familiar ground. Others, with whom I agreed, were skeptical that it meant much of anything other than confirming what we already knew—that Trump makes decisions from his gut, not from carefully thought-out strategies.
What was notable, I thought, was that while his surrogates–U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis–sent conflicting signals about the U.S. view of Assad, Trump himself for the entire week following the missile strike said nothing about Russia’s role when logic says he should have. His famously insulting Twitter account was dead silent on the subject.
Trump professed himself to be deeply disturbed about the sight of beautiful babies attacked by sarin gas but made no mention of Russia. He blamed President Obama for not attacking Syria after the 2013 gas atrocity, but never questioned Russia’s role in the current attack.
It was Russia who brokered the agreement by which Syria’s chemical weapons were supposed to have been destroyed, Russia who took possession of them and handed them over to the United States—via a Danish ship—for destruction. Russian personnel were present at the airfield where last week’s attack was prepared. And there were reports that a Russian drone flew over the hospital to which victims of the latest attack were taken hours before a Russian plane bombed it–perhaps to destroy evidence.
It would be reasonable to ask: did Russia know of the attack while it was being planned? Under the circumstances it is highly unlikely Assad would have ordered it without Putin’s approval or direction.
Almost a week later the White House released an intelligence report accusing Russia of covering up Syria’s role in the attack, and Tillerson and Haley both made accusatory statements. But Trump said nothing until this morning. If his concern for victims of this attack was genuine, why would he himself not have asked aggressively what Russia’s role was?
I would suggest that the precise opposite is true, and that the all president’s men and one woman are asking questions about Russia now so the White House will have asked the question and Trump can keep his nose clean. All of it distracts attention from the continuing investigations by the FBI and the Senate and House intelligence committees of possible collusion between Trump, his staff and Russia to elect Trump.