Anyone still hoping for something that will deliver them from the torments of the Trump era must have been disappointed on Wednesday. The preliminary findings of a congressional investigation into the charge that the Trump campaign “colluded” with the Kremlin in 2016 have served only to confirm what we already know.
In a press conference, Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner insisted that their investigation was ongoing and no final determinations have been reached. And yet, 11 hearings, 100-plus interviews, and 100,000 pages of documentation later, their “initial findings” have not yet confirmed that Team Trump deliberately worked with Russian operatives to win the White House. Clearly, the Trump campaign was not overly concerned about the Kremlin’s efforts to penetrate or compromise its staff. The inclination of ranking Trump staffers, including Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr., to meet with a Kremlin-linked attorney indicates that they were open to being wooed. And yet, from the publicly available evidence, those looking for malice where carelessness suffices to explain the Trump campaign’s behavior are probably going to be dissatisfied with the investigation’s final results.
In many ways, however, the hunt for “collusion” is beside the point. Those who were taken aback by Trump’s conspicuous knowledge of and support for the Kremlin’s foreign-policy objectives in 2016 were not concerned that he, as president, would work for the Russians. They feared he would work with them and recklessly jeopardize American interests in the process.
One thing Senators Burr and Warner were clear on is that their investigation confirmed that Russian intelligence sought to interfere with the American electoral process. Trump refuses to definitively confirm this fact, often couching the admission that Moscow sought to influence the course of American political affairs with the caveat that any number of state or non-state actors might have also violated U.S. sovereignty. In casting doubt on Russia’s guilt, the president occasionally feels compelled to add that it was Barack Obama who “choked” when—not “if”—Moscow intervened in U.S. affairs.
For months, it appeared as though Trump was prepared to ratify Obama’s “choke” by doing nothing to respond to Russia’s brazen interference in American affairs. According to reports, in fact, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin even discussed the prospect of handing over control of the U.S.-based Russian diplomatic facilities Obama ordered shuttered in retaliation for Moscow’s meddling. Those negotiations stalled following the imposition of new sanctions on Russia, passed by veto-proof majorities in Congress. Talks utterly collapsed when the Kremlin responded to those sanctions by expelling American diplomatic staff from the Russian Federation, resulting in the reciprocal seizure of even more Russian diplomatic compounds by U.S. authorities.
The president likes to contend that he sends ally and adversary alike horribly mixed signals as part of a deliberate effort to convey unpredictability. When it comes to Russia, it is more likely the result of having no policy whatsoever. This White House’s commitment to improvisation when it comes to Russia may yet have consequences that extend beyond diplomatic rows.
The Trump administration inherited boots on the ground in Syria, to say nothing of the coalition assets in the skies. It also was bequeathed a conflict in which Russia had already intervened, and on behalf of a hostile foreign power deliberately trying to undermine the anti-ISIS campaign. Despite the occasional hostilities that erupt between U.S. forces and those loyal to Bashar al-Assad, the Trump White House relied on Russia to keep the United States from being dragged deeper into the conflict in Syria. The administration even went so far as to abandon the rebel groups the U.S. had been supplying for years, a concession to both Moscow and Damascus that neither deserved.
In the weeks that ensued, Russo-American tensions in Syria have only escalated. In late September, the U.S. accused Russia of violating its own de facto partition of Syria by executing air strikes on positions east of the Euphrates River. Russia responded by blaming America for the death of a lieutenant general, who was killed by Islamic State mortar fire. Russia has and continues to claim that the United States is, in fact, propping up the Islamic State group and remains “The main obstacle to completing the annihilation of ISIS in Syria.”
In a twist, coalition spokesman and U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon accused Moscow of maintaining strategic ambiguity about those organizations it regards as Islamist terrorists and those it sees merely as militant groups opposed to the Assad regime. In other words, Moscow’s vagueness is getting people killed and increasing the risk of accidental conflict. Col. Dillon should inform the president of this effect.
When it comes to Russia, the United States under Donald Trump has had no strategically coherent policy approach. The president had no coherent vision for what U.S.-Russian cooperation would look like. He could not articulate the tangible objectives rapprochement was designed to achieve, and he didn’t have a grasp of what concessions he could offer Moscow to induce cooperation. As a result, this administration has stumbled from ill-considered attempts at conciliation to disadvantageous conflicts, none of which advance American grand strategy. But even if Trump had an encyclopedic understanding of American and Russian objectives, the effort to outsource the maintenance of American interests to Russia would have failed as badly as it did under Barack Obama. Moscow doesn’t want to maintain the status quo; it wants to destroy it.
A full accounting of how Moscow intervened in American affairs in 2016 is valuable as a retrospective, but those who are looking for “collusion” are missing the forest for the trees. The president must internalize the fact that Russia is a strategic competitor. Deterrence is founded on clarity, and it’s time for Trump to make himself clear. Ambiguity begets miscalculations. And miscalculations can be catestrophic.