Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Would Trump really dare to reward Putin for his assistance?

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who back in the primary season was one of the more vocal opponents of Donald Trump within the Republican Party, says that he was notified by the FBI in August that his campaign had been hacked by the Russian government.

"I do believe the Russians hacked into the (Democratic National Committee). I do believe they hacked into Podesta's email account. They hacked into my campaign account. I do believe all the information released publicly hurt Clinton, didn't hurt Trump," Graham says. "But I don't think the outcome of the election is in doubt."

I agree with all that, including and especially that last point. Absent evidence of coordination between Trump and the Russians -- and that notion isn't as far-fetched as it ought to be -- Trump is our president-elect and should be sworn into office as scheduled on Jan. 20. He won the election -- maybe not fair and square, but he won it -- and the Constitution contains no mechanism for do-overs or take-backs.

However, that doesn't mean that this all goes away, as if it never happened. According to Admiral Michael Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency and commander of United States Cyber Command, “There shouldn’t be any doubt in anybody’s mind. This was not something that was done casually, this was not something that was done by chance, this was not a target that was selected purely arbitrarily. This was a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect.”

The efforts were not limited to the presidential race, but extended to some of the hardest-fought House races as well. And it just doesn't seem plausible that the United States of America would experience such an intrusion into its basic democratic functions by a foreign power and do nothing in response.

As Graham puts it:

While I applaud Graham's sentiments, the truth is that the reverse is more likely to happen. Instead of instituting "crippling sanctions" against Russia as punishment for its meddling, Trump appears far more likely to thank Putin for his help by eliminating even existing sanctions, which as president he can do by the simple signing of an executive order.

Trump has indicated repeatedly that he is open to such a step, and his nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has been a vocal advocate of ending sanctions against Russia. It's also worth noting that Trump surrogate and former Georgia congressman Jack Kingston is in Moscow right now, supposedly to brief U.S. businesspeople in Russia about Trump's plans for the future.

And what might those plans be?

"Trump can look at sanctions. They've been in place long enough," Kingston told NPR in an interview from Moscow. "Has the desired result been reached? He doesn't have to abide by the Obama foreign policy. That gives him a fresh start."

Again, it's just astounding. After directly meddling in our internal affairs, Putin is about to experience a Christmas the likes of which he could never have dreamed.

What's his biggest foreign-policy challenge in expanding Russian influence? NATO and its mutual-defense clause. In Trump, he now has a U.S. president who has dismissed the alliance as outdated and suggested that he might not honor the mutual-defense clause.

What's Putin's biggest domestic challenge? His economy, which has been wracked by sanctions imposed after his seizure of Crimea, his intrusion into Ukraine and the downing of a civilian airliner. Since 2014, the Russian ruble has lost almost half its value against the dollar, severely depressing the standard of living. But as noted above, Trump can end those sanctions with just a signature.

The question is whether Trump would dare to do so. Would the political backlash from within his own party be substantial enough to stop him? Maybe. But maybe not.

According to the latest YouGov poll , 37 percent of Republicans now have a favorable impression of Putin, up from a mere 9 percent back in July 2014. Back in 2014, 51 percent of Republicans reported a "very unfavorable" impression of Putin. Today, that number has fallen to just 14 percent. Overall, Putin has a net negative rating of just 10 percentage points among Republicans.

For comparison's sake, President Obama has a net negative rating among Republicans of 74.

That is simply stunning. What could possibly have happened in the 29 months between July 2014 and December 2016 to so dramatically change Republican attitudes toward Putin? Did the man cure cancer or something?

Until I hear a better answer, I'm left to conclude that many Republicans have become so intent on defeating their most hated enemy -- aka, their fellow Americans who vote Democratic -- that many are grateful for any assistance they can get, from whatever source, even if it's a murderous Russian dictator. And ladies and gentlemen, that does not bode well for this country's future.

It's important to note that the Trump team has consistently denied that it had contacts with the Russian government during the campaign. It is equally worth noting that according to Sergei Ryabkov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, communication with the Trump campaign had been an regular occurrence.

"There were contacts," Ryabkov told Interfax, a Russian news agency. "We are doing this and have been doing this during the election campaign."

"Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage. Those people have always been in the limelight in the United States and have occupied high-ranking positions," he said. "I cannot say that all of them, but quite a few have been staying in touch with Russian representatives."

And let's not forget that early last summer, well before the leaking of emails from the DNC and the Clinton campaign, Trump's people quietly altered the Republican national platform so that it opposed sending weapons to a Ukraine government trying to defend itself from Putin.

Nobody understood that at the time. Maybe, if Congress dares to launch an honest investigation, we will understand it a little bit better in the future.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.