The Russian Cloud

Author: Gary Hart

Presidents in the past, most notably with Bill Clinton and Boris Yelstin and George W. Bush with Vladimir Putin, have committed what might be called the “buddy fallacy” where U.S.-Russian relations were concerned.  That is they thought even a modicum of personal congeniality could be the basis for U.S. policy.  President Trump seems to be repeating that fallacy.

At its best, friendship between the leaders of two great powers must be considered a plus.  At its worst, it confuses personal relations with complex disparities in national interests.

Thus, in one respect President Trump’s visceral belief that it is better to have Russia as a friend than an enemy makes common sense.  On the other hand, it blurs real differences between what Russia views as its interests and what we view as ours.  And, for a President with no foreign policy experience and still dubious prior relationships with Russia, it can lead to serious misunderstandings and miscalculations.

Compounding the confusion is the appointment of a Secretary of State whose considerable interactions with Russian officials have all been corporate commercial.  And now an Attorney General who swore, inaccurately, that he had not had contact with Russian officials.

Conflicts in interests are well known and documented: Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and de facto invasion of Eastern Ukraine; tacit pressure on the “near abroad”, especially in the Baltic region; troublesome relations between the Putin regime and expanding Western European right-wing political parties; and Russian military and political support for the Assad regime in Syria.

On top of all this is blatant Russian interference in the recent U.S. national election, clearly aimed in a partisan sense against the Democratic Party and its candidate Secretary Clinton.  Mr. Putin has longed believed that the United States has sought to manipulate Russia’s political structures and provided covert support for democratic insurgencies through non-governmental organizations.  This may provide the basis for a belief that he is simply retaliating in kind.

Against this backdrop there are what the media call “mixed signals” coming from the Trump Administration where Russia, among other topics, is concerned.  The President’s attitude (it cannot be called a policy) to date is simply that it is better to have Russia as a friend than as an enemy.  The new Secretary of State has been silent to date.  Our Ambassador to the United Nations has taken a traditionally critical position concerning Russia’s actions in opposition to us and our allies.  And, perhaps most ominously, senior “strategists” in the White House have signaled, at least indirectly, that they welcome the rise of the right across Western democracies that identifies with Mr. Putin’s nationalism, cultural conservatism, religious orthodoxy, demonization of immigrants, and resistance to social tolerance.

Likewise, the attitude (one must call it that instead of policy) toward the Atlantic Alliance, especially NATO, by the Trump Administration is untethered.  The President has called NATO “obsolete” but his Secretary of Defense confirmed our continuing commitment to it.  At the very least this causes confusion in European capitals.  Is the United States committed to its principal post-World War II security alliance, or should each nation make its own arrangement with Moscow?  At stake in all this is not simply the future U.S.-Russian relationship, but even more importantly the U.S. relationship with Europe and the democratic world.

It is difficult to imagine normalization of United States-Russian relations either in a traditional sense or on some new as-yet unarticulated basis until the mystery of the President’s personal attitudes toward Mr. Putin and whatever background they represent are clarified and laid to rest.  It is difficult to disprove a negative, to prove that something that didn’t happen didn’t happen.  But the only known way to do that is to turn over every rock not only where Mr. Trump is concerned but also the several individuals close to him who have dabbled in Russia in recent years.  Sunlight is the best disinfectant.  Unfortunately, one of the rocks that must be overturned has to do with Mr. Trump’s taxes and that seems an immovable stonewall.

Perhaps a new approach to clearing the air and the deck where the Trump Administration and Russia are concerned should be considered.  Because of the role it played in the recent election, whatever investigations the FBI is undertaking regarding Russian connections may be suspect or discredited.  Congressional inquiries, even with a Republican majority, will be partisan, politicized, and media saturated.

Consideration, therefore, might be given to a special panel composed of respected statesmen and women of both Parties empowered to compel testimony under oath, inspect personal and classified documents (including tax returns), and issue a public report that either eliminates all suspicion of prior Trump-related activities in Russia or identifies areas of conflict of interest.

Otherwise, it seems inevitable that a cloud will linger for years to come regarding how relations between the current U.S. Administration and the Putin government are being formulated and whether in response to some prior arrangements or personal understandings.  That will confuse whatever policies are adopted either to strengthen U.S.-Russian ties or draw lines against Russian actions in opposition to the interests of the United States and our allies.

5 Responses to “The Russian Cloud”

  1. Paul G Says:

    To paraphrase Churchill’s ironic prescience on “US-Russia post-Cold War (personal) policy confusion,” today’s premier expert/statesman on US-Russia post-Cold War relations, Gary Hart, says in essence:

    “Nations do not have friends; they have mutual interests.”

    “At its best, friendship between the leaders of two great powers must be considered a plus. At its worst, it confuses personal relations with complex disparities … Compounding the confusion is the appointment of a Secretary of State whose considerable interactions with Russian officials have all been corporate commercial … and now an Attorney General who swore, inaccurately, that he had not had contact with Russian officials.”

    https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/gary-hart-2/russia-shakes-the-world-the-second-russian-revo/
    http://nationalinterest.org/archives/by/2202

  2. Tim Conner Says:

    The fundamental error almost everyone makes is assuming Trump is a serious, thoughtful grown-up. He is not. He may have some of that ilk in his administration, but they do not hold much sway.
    He has marginalized and contradicted the two most sober people in his cabinet – Mattis and Tillerson – by insisting on Steve Bannon picking their deputy staff.
    He has included a likely money-launderer in his cabinet – Wilbur Ross – who reeks of Russian involvement.
    We daily confront new territory in Presidential politics and are likely to see a long trail of dropped shoes when we review his term- however long it lasts.

  3. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Senator Hart,

    You suggest and I agree that: “Consideration, therefore, might be given to a special panel composed of respected statesmen and women of both Parties empowered to compel testimony under oath, inspect personal and classified documents (including tax returns), and issue a public report that either eliminates all suspicion of prior Trump-related activities in Russia or identifies areas of conflict of interest.”

    However, considering the current political climate in Washington, DC, with a Republican controlled Congress and White House, how likely is it that this well reasoned approach will be adopted. I unfortunately do not see it happening, even though I long for something of this nature to be done.

  4. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    Those who support President Trump and this Republican controlled Congress would be advised to pressure the President and Congressional Representatives to insist on the creation of the panel you have described. I am convinced that only serious public pressure on our representatives to resolve the cloud of doubt that hangs over the Administration’s alleged relationship with Russian actors will be effective.

    I, for one, would be comforted in the knowledge that our elected representatives had the courage to face their constituencies without fear for their personal political well being and agenda. The President may find that We may be more forgiving than he imagines if he shows Us this Respect at least.

    We elected him regardless of what external factors may have played out in that choice. We must show the President the respect the Office deserves. If the office holder should prove unworthy in our eyes, for whatever reasons, we must remember that We are collectively responsible for his placement there and need to reflect on where We may have failed in the exercise of our civic duty as electors, elected and the free press.

  5. Eric C. Jacobson Says:

    Senator Hart: Sometimes you can see “see a World in a Grain of Sand” as William Blake wrote in his poem Auguries of Innocence. http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/blake/to_see_world.html

    I saw the putrefaction of the still-early 21st century U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) (far different than the one you briefly worked for as a newly minted attorney in the mid-1960s) “up close and personal” between 2006 and 2014 while litigating a single civil rights case against the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.

    I briefly recount the following experience because I would like you to keep it in mind relative to your proposed special panel to investigate the allegations swirling around the 2016 election, which now evidently include bombshell disclosures that the US DOJ sought- and received a court order in late 2016 to wiretap then presidential candidate Donald Trump.

    Little to no evidence has yet surfaced but I happen to strongly tentatively agree with virtually every word Alexander Mercouris has written in his recent trenchant articles on the subject in which he (in my view astutely, a judgment I make even after “considering the source”) deconstructs “what the hell is going on” (so to speak). See http://theduran.com/trump-wiretap-true-scandal/ and http://theduran.com/obama-replies-trumps-wiretap-charge/

    My civil rights clients were law-abiding Inglewood residents (6 African-American and 1 Latino) who lived (except for the Latino young man who was visiting his girlfriend) in the same suburban 3 bedroom house where a California parolee officially (and sometimes actually) resided by sleeping on the living room couch. One morning in early 2005 a task force consisting of 6 Inglewood police officers, 2 FBI agents and 1 LA County Probation officer burst in without a warrant to perform a “parole search”.

    After conducting a “protective sweep” (during which they confirmed the parolee wasn’t there) they doubled back and tossed the entire house, including the private bedrooms of the parolee’s 2 half-sisters. The first pass-through is strictly an officer safety measure and was legal; however the second thorough search of the private bedrooms of the parolee’s half-sisters was illegal under clearly established Fourth Amendment law prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures.

    In sum: The lawsuit had merit (and policy importance) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office knew it. See my US Supreme Court petition for rehearing filed after the Supreme Court denied certiorari: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5ilXuTzT1mlS0ctUzlibkpjOUE/view?usp=sharing .

    DOJ US Attorney personnel nevertheless contested liability tooth-and-nail for years and ultimately prevailed and went on to (ruthlessly) collect costs from my minority clients who held fairly low paying jobs.

    This thumbnail summary doesn’t begin to describe the depths of intellectual dishonesty and moral depravity displayed by federal employees I litigated against for 9 years. In late 2014 I sent Eric Holder a detailed letter summarizing the entire fiasco and requested his intervention; I never received a peep in reply.

    I attributed this stunning and appalling experience of betrayal by the U.S. government of 7 law-abiding U.S. citizens and their public interest lawyer, to the politicization of the DOJ that began in earnest under George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales, who (I gather from news reports) did despicable things like use semantics to legalize torture; turn the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility into a “roach motel” — “Cases check in, but they don’t check out” ( http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/the_roach_motel/ ¶13 ) –; and fabricate a “corruption” case against a Democratic Governor of Alabama who had done literally nothing of any remote consequence wrong; the governor was nevertheless railroaded into prison.

    Importantly: My civil rights case spanned both the Bush and Obama Administrations. It turned out “elections don’t matter”: Nothing changed. There was total continuity between the 2 Administrations and one long campaign of sharp practice by the same U.S. Attorney personnel. My complaints to the new supervising U.S. Attorney (an African-American) appointed by President Obama went unacknowledged. He was promoted by President Obama to the U.S. District Court. And so it goes.

    Senator: If your idea for a special panel were to go anywhere and you were to serve on same I hope you will be open-minded to the possibility (I believe high probability) that the picture painted by Mr. Mercouris is alas the correct one, and that what is going on here is the byproduct of an abuse of power by personnel in the Obama Administration at very high levels (DOJ or higher) of monumental proportions aimed directly at sabotaging the American democratic electoral process in 2016.

    If so, that is, as the president asserts, “far worse than Watergate”. And the culprits’ failure to succeed is no defense to prosecution. All an illegal conspiracy case requires is for the perpetrator to have taken one affirmative step to advance the plot.

    The Latin phrase “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” is pertinent. It means (as I vainly implored multiple judges in my civil rights case): “Who will guard the guardians?”

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