In his wildest dreams, Russian leader (and former Soviet intelligence officer) Vladimir Putin could have never imagined the extent of his success during President Donald Trump’s first five months in office.
Trump’s move on Tuesday to terminate FBI Director James Comey puts another huge point on the scoreboard for Putin — especially given the FBI’s lead role in probing possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Truth be told, though, Russia’s already doing pretty well. In just a few months, Putin’s intrigues have probably influenced the outcome of an American presidential election and produced a basket of spoils for Mother Russia, including bitter feuds between the White House and the CIA, rifts between the US and its allies, damage to the American press’s legitimacy and public standing, a standoff between the White House and the federal courts over immigration orders, and the slow sabotage of American government through neglect and mismanagement.
If Putin were a Hollywood villain, it would be easy to imagine the scene in his lair on Tuesday night, as he watched the coverage of Comey’s ouster, cackling and stroking his evil pussycat while concocting his next scheme for world domination.
With a day of perspective after the Comey firing, it’s worth stepping back to take a broad view of all that Putin has already accomplished — and all the gains he may see in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.
Remember: Moscow may have handed Trump the White House
No accomplishment tops Russian influence on the outcome of the 2016 election. In Hillary Clinton, the Russians faced a formidable adversary who would have been quicker to confront Moscow on issues ranging from its support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad to its meddling in Ukraine. In Trump, Putin saw a businessman with whom he could deal, if not also someone whose amateurism and personal weaknesses he could exploit.
American intelligence agencies share a consensus view that Russia influenced the 2016 election through old-fashioned espionage, cyberattacks, and support for WikiLeaks, among other means. Whether the heavy paw of the Russian bear was enough to tip the scales toward Trump remains an unanswered question. Someday, a special prosecutor or bipartisan, independent commission might answer that question, but for now, Putin can bask in the knowledge that he played at least some role in deciding the 2016 presidential election.
The Kremlin has directly weakened the American national security state
Putin can also celebrate his successful work to undermine American trust in its intelligence community. During the presidential campaign and transition, Trump openly derided the integrity and professionalism of America’s spies, suggesting they were unhappy under the past two presidents and their work on Iraq and other subjects had been shoddy and unreliable.
This feud continued through Trump’s inauguration, with the president comparing American intelligence agencies to the Nazis and falsely complaining that President Obama had ordered the FBI to wiretap Trump’s offices during the 2016 election. Russian intelligence did its part here, fanning the flames through adroit use of Twitter and fake news. The net effect was a president who took office deeply distrustful of the CIA, the FBI, and the rest of the American national security state.
Things haven’t gotten much better since Trump moved into the White House. The president’s first speeches to intelligence community and military audiences flopped — in part because he treated the audiences as political allies, insulting their apolitical professionalism, and in part because he used those speeches as platforms to attack the press or other institutions of American democracy.
Instead of mending fences with the agency during a televised speech at CIA headquarters on his first full day in office, Trump — standing in front of a wall honoring CIA personnel who have died in the line of duty, and facing a wall inscribed with the biblical quotation “And Ye Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall Make You Free” — used the occasion to mock the press and reiterate his absurd calls for the American military to take Iraq’s oil.
Trump’s failure to fill senior positions in the Pentagon, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and Justice Department, have contributed to this dysfunction. It’s also been fueled by Trump’s decision to staff his White House with aides like Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a junior intelligence official and Michael Flynn acolyte who’s repeatedly sparred with the CIA; Sebastian Gorka, under fire for his anti-Muslim views and reported past ties to neo-Nazi groups in Hungary; and Steve Bannon, the architect of Trump’s Muslim ban and his harsh attacks on the press and the judiciary.
Bannon’s formal appointment to the National Security Council — though later revoked — had raised eyebrows because no political adviser had ever previously served on the arm of the White House charged with deciding vital questions of life and death. Trump further alienated intelligence agencies and the Pentagon with an initial reorganization of the NSC that downgraded the standing of the CIA chief and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (both later regained their earlier standing).
The net effect has been to create a stark and bitter divide between the president and his national security agencies, and to erode the vital relationship between a president responsible for keeping the country safe and the spies, soldiers and diplomats who actually carry out the hard work of doing so. And that’s another point on the board for Putin.
Putin wants to destroy NATO. Trump is helping.
The continuing existence and vitality of NATO irritates Russia to no end. It reminds the former Soviet state of its former greatness, as well as its former control over the satellite nations of the Warsaw Pact. NATO’s continuing march east, the aggressively pro-American foreign policy of new members like Poland, and the alliance’s steadfast support for Ukraine and other former Soviet states rankles Putin. It makes sense for Moscow to see opposition to NATO as a vital security interest — and to pursue any means available to undermine or neutralize an alliance expressly created during the Cold War to battle the Soviet Union.
Enter Trump, and his rhetoric of America First. Such rhetoric last appeared during the late 1930s, when it was deployed by American isolationists to keep America out of Europe’s wars and conflicts. Putin and his henchmen clearly understood the strategic value in having an “America First” proponent in the White House — it necessarily meant that the US would reduce, if not entirely eliminate, its support for NATO.
Trump’s rhetoric must have reassured Putin during the 2016 campaign when he cast America’s alliances in transactional terms and castigated America’s allies for not paying their fair share for Europe’s defense.
Since taking office, Trump has taken nearly every opportunity to insult, spurn, or diminish America’s allies in Europe (and elsewhere too). In his zeal to undermine the US intelligence community, Trump took aim at the British GCHQ intelligence agency, throwing around wild and false accusations that they’d helped Obama wiretap his offices. Trump barely tolerated a visit from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House, while pressing Merkel to spend more on defense.
After a tragic terrorist attack in France, meanwhile, Trump tweeted that far-right candidate Marine Le Pen would likely benefit from post-attack outrage, saying, “Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!” Trump’s tweet was both premature and incorrect, however; French voters overwhelmingly elected Emmanuel Macron, who had been formally endorsed by former President Barack Obama.
And Trump repeated his campaign statements about NATO’s obsolescence — until, presumably, being briefed on NATO’s continuing, heavy commitment to counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and other nations, at which point he said NATO wasn't actually obsolete after all.
As a political alliance, NATO’s survival depends on the ability of its leaders to set aside their many differences in pursuit of common goals. Until the 2016 election, NATO leaders were on the same page when it came to seeing a rising threat from Russia and seeking ways to beat it back. Trump has undermined this unity of effort within NATO since day one of his presidency. Can you hear Putin cackling now?
Thanks to Putin, our dysfunctional democracy has gotten much worse
For all of the dysfunctional politics of Washington, our national security agencies have evolved through major crises like World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, the Cold War, and our post-9/11 wars, into a relatively stable and functional (if bloated) machine. This machine depends on leadership and strategy from the White House.
Once a new president sets out his or her top national objectives and priorities, the immense machinery of the Pentagon, State Department, and intelligence community swings into action, deploying troops, diplomats, weapons systems, money, or other tools of statecraft to carry out American strategy.
However, for all his talking and tweeting since January 20, Trump has still not articulated a coherent national security policy for the United States. The White House website contains no articulation of a strategy for complex issues like defeating ISIS or handling a rising China. Twitter — Trump’s preferred mode of communication — doesn’t either.
In the absence of clear direction from above, Trump’s lieutenants are left to recommend what they think the US ought to do in moments of crisis, whether that means moving an aircraft carrier battle group to counter North Korea or launching cruise missiles to strike Syria. None of these actions are linked together by any underlying strategy. Indeed, many directly contradict President Trump’s prior articulations of an “America First” strategy and effectively maintain the status quo policies developed under Presidents Bush and Obama.
Relatedly, Trump has failed to staff his Pentagon, State Department, Treasury Department, Justice Department, and intelligence community with the senior and midlevel appointees necessary to actually implement an agenda — any agenda. These appointees matter because they actually handle the difficult day-to-day work of carrying out the president’s broad marching orders to specific agencies and departments.
Without deputy, under, and assistant secretaries in place, no president can manage the immense American national security state. Their absence compounds the failure caused by an absence of strategy, leaving these agencies adrift, driven mostly by inertia. This also deprives the president of a team of advisers who can guide him in sensitive negotiations, such as the summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, or develop options for important issues, like the war in Afghanistan.
Career officials at these agencies can do a relatively good job of managing current operations, but these agencies need political appointees in place to function effectively and mesh well with the White House. US ties with foreign countries also suffer when top officials from other governments meet with American officials that they know to only be keeping seats warm temporarily.
By this point, Putin has probably fallen out of his chair laughing at the dysfunction and chaos he has sown in Washington, and the extent to which Russia has benefited from Trump’s actions and missteps. We may never definitively know if Putin is the reason Trump won the White House — or the full dossier of Russian espionage and influence operations over the past year. But there’s one thing we can say with absolute certainty: The Russian strongman, to use a famous Trumpism, is winning so much that he might get tired of winning.