One of the many problems with the Donald Trump candidacy is that he’s ignorant about policy issues, particularly foreign policy. Another is that he’s such a careless speaker that it can sometimes be impossible to tell what he means. The combination of these two can create a uniquely Trumpian problem — the media hyping an outrageous thing that it sounds like Trump said, when the real problem is that Trump actually meant a different, equally outrageous thing.
Case in point are his comments on Ukraine and Russia to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos this weekend. The media has made this into an issue about Trump’s ignorance about basic facts, when it’s really more evidence of Trump’s appalling policy views about Russia.
This exchange is the source of the confusion:
TRUMP: Well, look, you know, I have my own ideas. He's not going into Ukraine, okay?
Just so you understand. He's not going to go into Ukraine, all right?
You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, he's already there, isn't he?
TRUMP: Okay, well, he's there in a certain way, but I'm not there yet. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama.
Here, it sure sounds like Trump is denying that Russian troops are in Ukraine — even though they’ve been there since 2014. And indeed, that’s how much of the media has reported it.
"Donald Trump said Sunday that Russian President Vladimir Putin won't make a military move into Ukraine — even though Putin already has done just that, seizing the country's Crimean Peninsula," CNN’s typical write-up said.
Donald Trump knows there are Russian troops in Ukraine
The problem, though, is that this clearly isn’t true. Trump has been talking about the Russian invasion of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine for years; he didn’t magically forget about it on Sunday.
Here he is talking about Crimea in a March 2014 Today show appearance, just after the initial Russian invasion. Here are some comments in in 2015 (reported, incidentally, by CNN). Here’s a third, barely three months ago, in an obscure newspaper called the New York Times.
Trump’s point instead appears to be that Russia won’t continue to send to forces into Ukraine in a Trump presidency; he thinks the incursion is emboldened by Obama’s "weakness" and that a strong president (like himself) could stop Putin.
Trump has said this over and over again, since the invasion began. "We have to show some strengths," he said in the 2014 Today show interview. "I mean, Putin has eaten Obama’s lunch, therefore our lunch, for a long period of time." Two Monday morning tweets clarified this is indeed what he meant — the rare Trump walkback that’s actually credible:
When I said in an interview that Putin is "not going into Ukraine, you can mark it down," I am saying if I am President. Already in Crimea!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2016
So with all of the Obama tough talk on Russia and the Ukraine, they have already taken Crimea and continue to push. That's what I said!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2016
The issue here, then, isn’t that Trump is completely ignorant of Russian involvement in Ukraine. It’s that when it comes to Russia, Trump’s idea of "strength" is astonishingly dangerous.
For Trump, "strength" means cozying up to Russia
The worst line in the Stephanopoulos interview isn’t the bit about Putin going into Russia. It’s the part where he echoes Russian propaganda about Crimea, saying that the Crimeans really wanted to be part of Russia and not Ukraine.
"The people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were," Trump said.
This is whitewashing of a blatantly illegal territory grab by Putin, one that almost no countries on Earth recognize. Indeed, it’s clear from the interview that Trump’s Russia policy is to replace Obama’s alleged "weakness" with a policy of cozying up to the Kremlin:
If our country got along with Russia, that would be a great thing. When Putin goes out and tells everybody — and you talk about a relationship, but he says Donald Trump is going to win and Donald Trump is a genius, and then I have people saying you should disavow. I said, I'm going to disavow that?
That’s the key point here. Trumps vision of being "strong" when it comes to Russia isn’t standing against Russian interests; it’s standing with them.
We know this because Trump has repeatedly expressed support for Russia’s policy in Syria. We know this because he’s repeatedly expressed skepticism about American alliance commitments to Russian enemies. We know this because he’s even expressed personal admiration for Vladimir Putin. We know this because several of his key policy advisers have direct or indirect ties to the Russian state.
This isn’t "news" in the traditional sense, as we’ve known it for quite some time now. It certainly makes for less sexy headlines than "Trump doesn’t know Russian troops are in Ukraine."
But it has the virtue of being true — and being much more troubling than mere ignorance.
Trump wants to encourage Russian expansionism, which directly threatens the norm against wars for territory that helped keep the peace after World War II. Trump’s wishy-washy stance on NATO and Russia is even scarier — the uncertainty it creates could quite literally cause World War III.
That’s what’s at stake when it comes to Trump and Russia. Much better to focus on that than to turn this into another round of "What about your gaffes?"