If there’s one man who is enjoying Donald Trump’s discomfort at the moment, it is Vladimir Putin.
On Wednesday, the Russian president was in high spirits, cracking wise during a press conference with the prime minister of Italy in Moscow. He defended Trump of charges of sharing code-word secrets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during an Oval Office meeting last week, joking that Lavrov “hasn’t shared those secrets with us.” He even offered to provide a transcript of the conversation for Congress, raising questions about whether the Russians sneaked a recording device into the Oval Office.
And, for good measure, Putin launched a general defense of Trump that echoed the one now heard on Fox News—namely, that criticism of the president is due to anti-Russian paranoia. “What surprises me is that they are shaking up the domestic political situation using anti-Russian slogans,” Putin said. “Either they don’t understand the damage they’re doing to their own country, in which case they are simply stupid, or they understand everything, in which case they are dangerous and corrupt.”
This is what’s known—in our country, not Putin’s—as spiking the football. As former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently told Congress, “the Russians have to be celebrating the success of what—for what they set out do with rather minimal resource expenditure.”
How can this be, Trump defenders will wonder, given that the president hasn’t delivered on Russia’s wish list of lifting sanctions or recognizing the annexation of Crimea? That’s true—though as much as Trump may have wanted to do a deal with Putin along those lines, it became politically impossible once Putin’s covert campaign to help Trump get elected became a matter of public knowledge and controversy.
But Trump also has not taken any steps to punish Russia for its intrusion into our democracy, and it is doubtful that he even raised the subject in his meeting with the Russian foreign minister. He did launch a few cruise missiles at an airbase belonging to Bashar Assad, Putin’s ally, but he has made no attempt to remove Assad and, in fact, appears resigned to his continuation in power. So from the Russian perspective, Trump certainly has not been as helpful as they had hoped, but nor has he been as much of an adversary as they feared Hillary Clinton would be.
The bigger picture here is that, according to the U.S. intelligence community, the Russians weren’t just intruding into our politics to elect Trump. They weren’t even sure that he could win. But no matter what happened in the election, the intelligence community concluded, the Kremlin sought “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process,” and “to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime.”
The credibility of the last U.S. election has been tarnished by the Russian interference and suspicions about whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians. And now, as a direct result of his attempts to impede the FBI investigation into those matters, the president is embroiled in a growing scandal over allegations of obstruction of justice. With the president distracted and under siege, the U.S. government, which has never functioned smoothly in this administration, appears to be increasingly paralyzed.
From the Russian perspective, happy days are here again. As Amie Ferris-Rotman reported from Moscow in Foreign Policy:
U.S. democracy may be facing one of its toughest challenges in hundreds of years, but for Russia, this is a time for heaping servings of schadenfreude. After decades of hectoring from Washington on issues such as unfair elections, a clampdown on the press, and widespread corruption, Moscow is happily watching chaos and scandal embroil the Trump administration. The more lawless Washington appears, the more Russians are howling with laughter.
Ferris-Rotman observed that Russian TV, after initially being fawning toward Trump, now depicts him much as “Saturday Night Live” does: a bumbling buffoon who is being outwitted by the cunning president of Russia.
Putin must know that his public defenses of Trump aren’t helping the president—and that’s precisely why he’s making them. He must figure that if he won’t get his full wish list from the White House, he can at least make life more uncomfortable for Trump and distract the United States to the point that it is unable to effectively oppose Russian designs.