When It Comes To Russia, So Far Donald Trump Mostly Stands Alone

Jan 5, 2017
Originally published on January 5, 2017 8:34 am

The Republican Party has embraced President-elect Donald Trump's positions on immigration, trade, the deficit and conflicts of interest, but when it comes to Russia, Trump and his party are not even close to being on the same page.

Trump has repeatedly and consistently expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin and has refused to accept intelligence community findings that Russia hacked Democratic Party emails during the campaign. That puts him at odds with almost every other Republican in Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told CNN he is mystified by Trump's feelings toward Russia.

"What bothers me is that President-elect Trump seems to get the Chinese for what they are; the Iranian agreement is bad, he understands that; he understands the threat we face from ISIL; and he understands we can't let the North Koreans build a ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] to attack our homeland," Graham said. "When it comes to Russia, he seems to have a blind spot. And I'm completely perplexed, because the Russians are undermining democracy throughout the entire world; they're taking land owned by others by force; they did hack into our political system; they're doing it to other political systems, and they need to pay a price."

Vice President-elect Mike Pence seemed to reinforce Trump's effort to undermine confidence in the intelligence community. During a press briefing with House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday, Pence referenced Trump's upcoming briefing with the intelligence community. "We'll be looking at the facts and the information," Pence said. "But I think, given some of the intelligence failures of recent years, the president-elect has made it clear to the American people that he's skeptical about conclusions from the bureaucracy, and I think the American people hear him loud and clear."

But Trump has gone beyond skepticism. He has sided openly with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, a fugitive from justice and someone most Republicans consider an enemy of the state.

Ryan, the highest ranking Republican on Capitol Hill, told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he didn't share Trump's approval of Assange.

"I think the guy is a sycophant for Russia," Ryan said. "He leaks; he steals data and compromises national security."

According to Molly McKew — an expert on information warfare and a foreign-policy consultant who has advised the governments of Georgia and Moldova — the national-security community can't quite figure out Trump's unwavering devotion to the Russian line. But theories abound.

"I think the discussion in the region and intelligence services that deal with Russia," McKew said, "is that his behavior looks like someone who may be compromised or may be concerned about something and nobody knows what that is — if it's financial ties or financial leverage, if it's something more than that. I don't know. I think there's a lot of different things. I think there probably are long-term relationships with Russians and Russian oligarchs that we don't understand, that we don't see."

Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, a Trump supporter and a harsh critic of Putin, argues, though, that people should give Donald Trump a chance.

"I don't think the rubber has met the road on this yet," said Bolton, who is reportedly under consideration for a job in Trump's State Department. "It's one thing to exchange niceties and compliments before a president actually takes office. It's another when you confront concrete Russian behavior. That's the real test."

Bolton said the president-elect will draw his conclusions once he receives his full briefing by the intelligence community Friday.

What those conclusions will be will send an important signal to Republicans on Capitol Hill, and to the Russians, who, McKew said, are also unsure about the new disruptive president-elect.

"I think they're as nervous about Trump as the rest of us," she said. "And I think that's potentially a very big opportunity for Trump if he chooses to use it. I don't know what happened in the election. I don't know what his relationship with Russian financial interests or others are. None of us know any of that. What we do know is he will be the American president very soon. And if he wants to operate as a man defending our country's interests, he needs to have a smart, aggressive Russia policy that limits what Russia is doing to us and exposes what that is."

That's why the Friday private briefing for Trump is so important. His reaction to what he hears will be the first clue about whether the new president wants to stand up to Putin when he works against the interests of the United States.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be briefed by intelligence officials on Russia's alleged cyberattacks. Now, Trump has dismissed the agency's conclusions, even questioning their competence. And as NPR's Mara Liasson reports, there's also a big split between Trump and his own party on this issue.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The Republican Party has embraced Trump's positions on immigration, trade, the deficit and conflicts of interest. But when it comes to Russia, Trump and the GOP are not on the same page. Trump has repeatedly and consistently expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin. And he's refused to accept the intelligence community's findings that Russia hacked Democratic Party emails during the campaign. That puts him at odds with almost every other Republican in Washington. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said on CNN that he's mystified.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: When it comes to Russia, he seems to have a blind spot. And I'm completely perplexed because the Russians are undermining democracy throughout the entire world. They're taking land owned by others by force. They did hack into our political system, and they need to pay a price.

LIASSON: Tomorrow, Trump will hear from the intelligence community directly. And yesterday, Vice President-elect Mike Pence seemed to reinforce Trump's effort to undermine confidence in the agency's work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: I think, given some of the intelligence failures of recent years, the president-elect's made it clear to the American people that he's skeptical about conclusions from the bureaucracy. And I think the American people hear him loud and clear.

LIASSON: But Trump has gone way beyond skepticism. Yesterday, he sided openly with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange and against the CIA. Assange is a fugitive from justice and someone most Republicans consider a traitor. Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House, told radio host Hugh Hewitt that he didn't share Trump's approval of Assange.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE HUGH HEWITT SHOW")

PAUL RYAN: I think the guy is a sycophant for Russia. He leaks. He steals data and compromises national security.

LIASSON: Got that?

Molly McKew, an expert on information warfare and a foreign policy consultant, says the national security community can't figure out Trump's unwavering devotion to the Russian line. Experts are asking if this is something more than just Trump's sincere admiration for populist strongmen like Putin. Theories abound.

MOLLY MCKEW: The discussion in the region, certainly in intelligence services that deal with Russia, is that his behavior looks like someone who may be compromised or may be concerned about something. And nobody knows what that is. If it's financial ties or financial leverage, if it's something more than that - I don't know.

LIASSON: Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is a Trump supporter and a harsh critic of Putin. He says give the president-elect a chance.

JOHN BOLTON: I don't think the rubber's met the road on this yet. And it's one thing to exchange niceties and compliments before a president actually takes office. It's another when you confront concrete Russian behavior, such as extending their influence throughout the Middle East, such as further military action in the eastern Ukraine, such as threatening the Baltic republics. That's the real test.

I mean, he will now have the full briefing by the top leaders of the intelligence community. And they'll bring the evidence that they have, and he'll draw his conclusions at that point.

LIASSON: What those conclusions are will send an important signal to Republicans on Capitol Hill and to the Russians who, says Molly McKew, are also mystified about the new, disruptive president-elect.

MCKEW: I think they're as nervous about Trump as the rest of us. And I think that's potentially a very big opportunity for Trump if he chooses to use it. I don't know what happened in the election. I don't know what his relationship with Russian financial interests or others are. None of us know any of that. What we do know is he will be the American president very soon. And if he wants to operate as a man defending our country's interests, he needs to have a smart, aggressive Russia policy that limits what Russia is doing to us and exposes what that is.

LIASSON: That's why Friday's private briefing for Trump is so important. His reaction to what he hears will be the first clue about how the new president plans to deal with Vladimir Putin.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.