Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen argues that America is now in unprecedented danger due to two related crises. A new and more dangerous Cold War with Russia that is fraught with the real possibility of hot war between the two nuclear superpowers on several fronts, including Syria. And the worst crisis of the American presidency in modern times, which threatens to paralyze the president’s ability to deal diplomatically with Moscow. (To those who recall Watergate, Cohen points out that, unlike Trump, President Nixon was never accused of “collusion with the Kremlin” or faced reckless, and preposterous, allegations that the Kremlin had abetted his election by an “attack on American democracy.”)
What Trump did in Vietnam last week was therefore vitally important and courageous, though uniformly misrepresented by the American mainstream media. Despite unrelenting “Russiagate” attempts led by Democrats to impeach him for “collusion with the Kremlin” (still without any meaningful evidence), and perhaps even opposition by high-level members of his own administration, Trump met several times, informally and briefly, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Presumably dissuaded or prevented by some of his own top advisers from having a formal, lengthy meeting, Trump was nonetheless prepared. He and Putin issued a joint statement urging cooperation in Syria, where the prospects of a US-Russian war had been mounting. And both leaders later said they had serious talks about cooperating on the crises in North Korea and Ukraine.
What Trump told the US press corps after his meetings with Putin was even more remarkable—and defiantly bold. He reiterated his longstanding position that “having a relationship with Russia would be a great thing—not a good thing—it would be a great thing.” To this Cohen adds that it would be an essential thing for the sake of US national security on many vital issues and in many areas of the world, and should be the first foreign-policy principle of both political parties. Trump then turned to “Russiagate,”saying that Putin had again denied any personal involvement and that in this Putin seemed sincere. Trump quickly added that three of President Obama’s top intelligence directors—the CIA’s John Brennan, Office of National Intelligence’s James Clapper, and the FBI’s James Comey—were “political hacks,” clearly implying that their declared role in “Russiagate” had been and remains less than sincere. He also suggested that Russia had been too “heavily sanctioned” to be the national-security partner America needs, a point Cohen reminded listeners he himself had made many times.
The immediate reaction of liberal and progressive “Russiagate” adherents was, Cohen continued, lamentably predictable, as was that of their Cold War allies Brennan, Clapper, and Senator John McCain, who never saw the prospect of a war with Russia he didn’t want to fight. Racing to their eager media outlets, they denounced Trump’s necessary diplomacy with Putin as “unconscionable.” New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow accused the president of “a betrayal of American trust and interests that is almost treasonous.” He quickly deleted “almost,” declaring Trump’s presidency to be “a Russian project” and Trump himself “Putin’s dupe.” (In full retro Cold War mode, Blow also characterized the US president as Putin’s “new comrade,” apparently unaware that both leaders are known to be anti-Communists.) Blow may be among the least informed and most hyperbolic of national columnists on these matters, but from his regular perch at the Times and on CNN, he speaks to and for many influential Democrats, including self-professed progressives.
From these recent developments, Cohen draws several conclusions, which he and Batchelor discuss:
§ The promoters of “Russiagate” seem to have no concern for America’s actual national-security interests and indeed, in this regard, are actively undermining those interests. To the extent that “Russiagate” and the crippling of Trump as a foreign-policy president is becoming a major part of the Democratic Party’s national electoral platform, can the party really be trusted to lead the nation?
§ But Trump’s diplomatic initiatives with Putin in Vietnam also demonstrate that a fateful struggle over Russia policy is under way at high levels of the US political-media establishment, from the two political parties and Congress to forces inside Trump’s own administration. Whatever else we may think of the president—Cohen reiterates that he did not vote for him and opposes many of his other policies—Trump has demonstrated consistency and real determination on one existential issue: Putin’s Russia is not America’s enemy but a national-security partner our nation vitally needs. The president made this clear again following the scurrilous attacks on his negotiations with Putin: “When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
§ Another indication that Trump is prepared to fight for his Russia policy was also remarkable. He sent his own CIA director to speak with William Binney, a leading member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, which recently published a study concluding that the theft of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential campaign was not a remote hack by Russia—the foundational allegation of “Russiagate”—but an inside job. “Russiagate” zealots quickly dismissed Binney as a “crackpot conspiracy theorist,” but he is hardly that. A retired longtime NSA official, he and his colleagues produced a serious alternative explanation of what happened at the DNC. Highly technical aspects of the VIPS’s report have been seriously contested, including by members of the organization itself—see the discussion in the Nation—but it cannot be lightly dismissed and certainly is no more “crackpot conspiracy theorist” than was the January 2017 “Intelligence Community Assessment”—itself a founding document of “Russiagate”—which alleged, without the slightest evidence, that Putin personally ordered what became known as the “attack on American democracy.” (Trump pointed out, as have others, that the ICA report was not the conclusion of “17 intelligence agencies,” as purported, but instead a few “analysts” chosen by Brennan, Clapper, and possibly others. Cohen wonders if Trump is suggesting, as Cohen has, that an Intelgate, instead of “Russiagate,” should be investigated.) This too enraged Democrats, who now defer to US intel chiefs as iconic truth-tellers, apparently having no knowledge of the Senate Church Committee investigation of intelligence agencies in the 1970s and its stunning revelations, or even their malpractice during the run-up to the not-so-remote Iraq War.)
We are, Cohen concludes, clearly at a fateful crossroads in US-Russian relations and in the history of the American presidency as an institution. The crux should be American national security in the fullest domestic and international respects, not whether we are Trump supporters or members of the “Resistance.” Reckless denunciations make the two crises worse. The only way out is nonpartisan respect for verified facts, logic, and rational civil discourse, which “Russiagate” seems to have all but vaporized, even in once-exalted places.