America First Except When It Involves Russia

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

When it comes to Russia, is President Trump following his own guideline, America First, and if not, why?

The infamous May 10 Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak provided another example of the odd way Trump avoids being critical of Moscow.

I am not focusing on how he mentioned his firing of FBI Director James Comey, nor his ridiculous characterization of Comey as a “crazy, nut job.” That’s Trump’s petty need to diminish those whom he considers an enemy.

Trump was also reported as saying the firing relieved him of “great pressure because of Russia,” and now the pressure has been “taken off.” That seems Trump’s way of appearing a victim of the FBI inquiry, who now wants to move ahead with engaging Moscow.

In fact, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who attended the meeting, proposed just that in rationalizing notes of the meeting that were first publicly disclosed by The New York Times.

On Fox News Sunday, Tillerson said he thought Trump was saying, “I’m not going…to let that [the investigation of alleged Trump campaign staff coordination with Russians who intervened in the 2016 presidential campaign] distract from our efforts to see if we can engage with you, engage with Russia and identify areas where we might be able to work together.”

It has to be pointed out that, Russians being Russians, President Vladimir Putin last week offered the U.S. Congress “a record of the conversation between Trump and Lavrov.” Lavrov has said Comey’s firing had never come up. “We did not touch this subject,” Lavrov told reporters last Saturday. Enough about Russian honesty about what took place.

National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster told ABC News on Sunday, “I didn’t know in advance that the president was going to raise it,” meaning his firing of Comey.  McMaster briefed Trump the day before the Lavrov meeting on issues expected to come up.

So what was the purpose of the Trump-Lavrov-Kislyak meeting? It was originally scheduled to be a Tillerson-Lavrov session at the Arctic Circle meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska. But during a Trump-Putin phone call, the Russian president suggested Trump meet with Lavrov, and so the Russian foreign minister flew from Russia to Alaska via Washington.

“The real purpose of the conversation was to confront Russia on areas…like Ukraine and Syria, their support for Assad and their support for the Iranians,” McMaster told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday.

Has Trump ever publicly “confronted” or even criticized Moscow or any Russian officials for their support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?

On the other hand, when Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk missiles fired at the Syrian air base whose aircraft dropped weapons containing poisonous sarin on Syrian rebels and civilians, Putin’s spokesperson said the Russian president considered the U.S. attack to be an act of aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law, and that the strike “impairs” Washington-Moscow relations.

What’s missing from McMaster’s list of areas in which he said Trump “confronted” Lavrov and Kislyak was Russian hacking and public distribution of the e-mails of Democratic National Committee workers and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign director.

Under Trump’s “America First” slogan, shouldn’t that have been tops on the list?

When Stephanopoulos asked McMaster if Trump in the May 10 meeting “confronted” the Russians about their country’s intervention in the U.S. election, the response was, “There already was too much that’s been leaked from those meetings.” In short, McMaster ducked.

Has Trump ever publicly criticized Moscow’s role in his election campaign? In the ABC interview, McMaster claimed the president has complained about Russian “subversive activities across Europe.” But apparently never about such activities in his own country.

In fact, Trump recently seemed to back away from the U.S. Intelligence Community report last January—which he once grudgingly accepted— that the Russian election effort was directed by Putin to aid Trump’s election.

Trump and his staff in retrospect justified the president telling highly classified information about terrorist aircraft plotting during the conversation with Lavrov and Kislyak, citing the 2015 bombing of a Russian transport plane over Egypt.

What they ignored was that Moscow initially, and for another nine months, denied terrorists were involved in the incident.

Meanwhile, Russia has continued its operations in Ukraine, including recognizing breakaway provinces; support for Assad and Iranian fighters in Syria; and attempts to manipulate elections in France and Germany.

McMaster said frankly toward the end of this ABC interview, “I think what’s been hurting our ability to deal with Russia, more than any other factor, has been Russia’s behavior.”

Tillerson has said similar things publicly, as has U.S. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Has Trump? Why not?

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