Is Trump Being Tough on Russia? Q&A (Pt 3/5)
Watch Part 3 of Paul Jay and Aaron Mate’s interactive discussion with viewers about the controversy over Trump’s visit to Helsinki – From a live recording on July 18th, 2018
AARON MATE: I want to read a comment from another viewer. Julia Morris writes: Can you please point out how Trump has not been tough on Russia? He stopped arming the Syrian rebels last year when Putin told him to. He refused to enforce stronger sanctions. He invited Russian spies to the White House who had previously been banned from coming in the country. And Trump said today no one has been tougher on Russia. That’s got to be B.S.
Julia, I’m going to disagree with you. I’m going to actually argue the contrary. I’ll tell you why. If you look at what Trump has done since taking office, he has been far more- his policies, not his rhetoric- his policies have been far more hawkish on Russia than Obama was. I mean, critically, Obama refused to arm the Ukrainian government in its fight against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Obama came under very heavy bipartisan pressure for that in Washington. Pretty much everybody wanted to. But he reportedly said that he did not want to further inflame the proxy war on top of what the U.S. had already done there, because the U.S. played a critical role in setting off that entire mess in Ukraine. Trump has bombed the Syrian government, which is Putin’s ally, twice now. He has killed, the U.S. has killed Russian mercenaries in Syria. Firing on Russians in Syria, or even on the Syrian government, is something that Obama never did. He has conducted massive war- Trump has conducted massive war games on Russia’s border. He has admitted a new member to NATO, Montenegro. Although last night on [inaudible] he did say that he had mixed feelings about that. You know, that if he could do things over he might do things differently. But he still oversaw it.
He has signed some sanctions. And in terms of letting Russian spies into the country, well, the U.S. has admitted Russian intelligence officials as part of routine meetings, which everybody does. So there’s a very long list of areas where Trump has actually been harder on Russia than Obama was. Including, by the way, in Trump’s nuclear and defense strategy, where Russia is named in both cases as a major threat, especially in the defense strategy. Russia and China are named as bigger threats to the U.S. than even terrorism. Paul, I’m wondering if you have thoughts on this.
PAUL JAY: Well, I differ a little bit from what you’re saying, in the sense I think a lot of the moves that Trump made he made under great pressure, because he was he was going against decades and decades of U.S. foreign policy, which has Russia as the existential threat. And this, as I was saying earlier, I think in Trump-Bannonesque view of the world, Putin’s on the side of Western Christianity. And I don’t think we should underestimate the significance of that in these people’s view of the world. Not to say there aren’t deep economic interests. And one of those deep economic interests is when Tillerson Secretary of State, I mean, Tillerson, they had an enormous energy play ready to go in Russia.
You know, the plan was, and this is part of these pre-inauguration meetings that take place between the Trump camp and the Russian camp, is this deal about lifting the sanctions and embargo and such, and allowing this massive energy investment to take place. And Putin was going to, as I said earlier, there’s a lot of pent-up frustration in western capitals- money, amongst pools of capital, that they couldn’t play and get hold of Russian energy assets as easily and freely as they can in many other places. And this was going to be Putin saying, yeah, lift the sanctions and you can come in and do this big, Exxon, you can have this big play here. And Tillerson was going to engineer it all.
So I think there was a new kind of accommodation being planned by Putin, by Trump, with the Russians. I think there’s truth to that. And the measures that he took that look like they’re against Russia, he did under duress. And also, you know, the other thing that needs to be understand, as much as it’s ridiculous to say everything that goes on in Russia Putin controls, it’s just as ridiculous to think that everything goes on in the American state Trump controls. You know, the Pentagon is an enormous establishment that has a lot of independent decision-making power. Other sections of the state, they’re very strong. The apparatchiks, to use the Russian term, or Soviet term, in the American government. There’s a lot of power there. Trump isn’t just deciding everything. And I doubt, given who Trump is, he barely reads briefings. He hardly knows much anything what’s going on in his own government, would be my guess.
So, so I think there is something to that, that Trump’s, you know, Trump definitely was on a different course with Russia. Now, from that point of view of us, ordinary people in this country, is that so bad? A new, a different course with Russia. And I would argue that it’s not that much different to have more commercial relations with Russia than it is with, you know, any other country. Russia is not an existential threat to the United States. And even this idea that, you know, somehow, if it wasn’t for the U.S. Russia would march and take over Western Europe, it’s ridiculous. The idea of colonizing is nuts. Ever since England gave up Canada because it cost too much money to have colonies. Like, controlling other countries is extremely expensive. Even the United States when it wins wars doesn’t really want to directly run countries. It just costs too much. It’s way better to use what they call soft power, the power of money. Have local elites that are your allies. You know, they call that the system of neocolonialism. And Russia doesn’t have the resources to play in that kind of, that kind of competitive way with the United States. Someday, if China wants to go down that course, someday maybe China would have that kind of power.
So but, but yeah, I think it’s fair to say that Trump, Trump was having, you know, wanted to have a more accommodating commercial relationship. Now, it may also turn out that Trump is up to his eyeballs in potentially illegal dealings with various Russian oligarchs. To me there’s a lot, you know, smoke and fire in that direction. And the Mueller investigation, that’s probably really where they’re going to find stuff. That’s quite different than whether Russia meddles in the elections and what the outcome of that was. No doubt, I mean, from what I can see there’s probably no doubt that Trump is, has all kinds of shenanigans going on with Russian billionaires. But that’s also kind of normal.
AARON MATE: Right. Well, it is normal, I actually don’t agree with that. From what I’ve looked at I just don’t draw that conclusion. I think if that was true we would have known about it by now. That amount of money I think it’s difficult to hide for so long. And you know, Mueller does have Trump’s tax returns, because the IRS, the IRS has them. So I suspect we would know about them. And by the way, Sy Hersh says this, too, according to what he knows, for what that’s worth.
But I think where we can definitely agree is that, and you alluded to this, is that the same thing-.
PAUL JAY: Wait a sec. Hang on. You’re saying you don’t think Trump has dealings with Russian oligarchs, and they didn’t help finance real estate dealings in New York?
AARON MATE: I think- it’s true that a major Russian oligarch bought one of Trump’s houses in Florida. We know that. And it’s true that-.
PAUL JAY: For way over value.
AARON MATE: Sure. Yes, that’s true. And it’s also true that some Russians have bought, you know, money in Trump properties. But what a lot of people miss, and this is, this is noted in David Corn and Michael Isikoff’s book Russian Roulette, Trump actually doesn’t make a lot of, doesn’t necessarily make money off of those deals. Because many of the properties that Russians have supposedly bought into are just Trump licensed properties; Trump properties where he’s already licensed his brand. So he’s already taken a small cut.
PAUL JAY: Maybe, maybe that’s true. Because that’s what, that’s the official version on the Toronto Trump Tower. But there’s quite a bit of evidence that that’s not true, that there’s a lot more going on. Anyway, I’m not on top of the detail of that, but we will see what comes out of the investigation. But there’s a lot of possible potential corruption and shenanigan in Trump’s relationship with, you know, on the financial side. But he’s not the only one. There’s all kinds of sections of the elites of various countries doing exactly the same thing.
AARON MATE: Right. Where we agree, I think, is that the, this, this question of has Trump been tough enough on Russia, presuming that being tough on Russia would be a good thing, ignores all the many harmful things about a confrontational posture towards Russia. Primarily the threat of nuclear war, as Trump has been noting, although probably disingenuously, because I don’t think he has any intention of reducing nuclear stockpiles. But Trump- the U.S. and Russia account for 90 percent of the world’s nuclear stockpiles. And cooperation with Russia on that front especially would be a good thing. And a political culture that incentivizes toughness on Russia is one of the reasons why the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences has raised their, their doomsday clock closer to midnight. And it’s one of the issues that have been overlooked in this focus on Trump and Russia.
PAUL JAY: But let me, just one other thing. I just want to hammer this again. What the Russians have done, compared to what the Saudis have done. You can’t compare Crimea, where the majority of people speak Russian, and most of the evidence I’ve heard is whatever referendum was held, the likelihood is the majority of people would have voted to join Russia, but you can’t compare whatever happened in Crimea to the Saudi war on Yemen. It’s not comparable. I mean, hundreds thousands and thousands- I believe hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in Yemen. So why isn’t there screaming about the Saudis in Yemen yet? There’s no, there’s no end to talk about Crimea, where even Henry Kissinger says Crimea is an exception, and shouldn’t be treated as a rule. And there’s an understandable argument why Russia took this position on Crimea. I’m quoting directly Henry Kissinger.
AARON MATE: Right. I mean, this gets to what happened in Ukraine. And the argument there is that basically no rational Russian leader, no matter how dovish and liberal, would have done anything differently than what Putin did. But based on the prospect he faced of his, his neighboring country, after a U.S.-backed coup, a coup that the U.S. was a part of, overthrowing Yanukovych in 2014, the prospect of that country then joining NATO where he had- and then taking Crimea as well, as Crimea was in Ukraine, after it was given to Ukraine by the Soviet Union decades before being a part of NATO. So Putin acted on that front, which we can discuss maybe at another time.
But all this speaks, Paul, I think to what you mentioned before, which is this notion of American exceptionalism. Not holding ourselves and our allies, like Saudi Arabia, to the same standards that we hold other people; where we hold the other people to standards that we’ve never applied to ourselves. Which speaks to how we are even discussing this issue as a national crisis to begin with, because what is Russia accused of doing to the U.S.? It’s accused of hacking emails and running a social media campaign which, by anyone who’s looked at the material, was pretty juvenile, and of potentially hacking into some voter databases, although that’s a murky story that is worthy of discussion.