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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Eight months after Mueller, Trump-Putin link only gets more intriguing

Russian Federal Security Service Director Alexander Bortnikov, Russian

Russian Federal Security Service Director Alexander Bortnikov, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Director Sergey Naryshkin on Thursday in Moscow. Credit: Pool / EPA / Alexei Druzhinin

One need not cling to a hostile Cold War view of the Kremlin to find the public-private relationship between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump more than a bit strange.

True, the lingering efforts of some Hillary Clinton loyalists to blame her loss primarily on Russians and hacking fall short.

Sure, the caricatures of Trump as a "Russian asset" can get out of hand.

But still.

Last Thursday, Putin criticized the U.S. House of Representatives for having impeached Trump the day before. Putin's talking points clearly echoed those of the White House.

Or vice versa.

Putin called the American vote "the continuation of domestic strife."

"Your members of Congress should know better," Putin said at his annual marathon news conference in Moscow. After Trump won the 2016 election, Democrats tried to "achieve results through others means, accusing Trump of colluding with Russia."

"Later on, it turned out there had been no collusion, so this cannot be the basis for impeachment," Putin said. "Now they are referring to alleged pressure on Ukraine. I don't know what it is all about."

While lecturing Americans about political dissidence, Putin may in fact "know what it is all about." As noted by U.S. intelligence officials with no evident motive to undermine the Trump administration, the Kremlin long has sought to blame its electronic election meddling on Kyiv.

Trump grew more insistent after meeting privately with Putin in July 2017 that Ukraine tried to beat him in the election, according to The Washington Post. It's one of those topsy-turvy conspiracy stories that his attorney general, William Barr, and his private attorney, Rudy Giuliani, still would love to flesh out.

One former senior White House official told the Post that Trump even said at one point he knew Ukraine was the culprit because “Putin told me.”

For a while, administration policy maintained a hard edge against Russia even as Trump came off as a Putin admirer.

Sanctions weren't lifted; in fact, more were added. Ukraine, in armed combat against Russia since its 2014 annexation of Crimea, had a U.S. pipeline for weapons. Last year, as Trump's then-UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said: "Look at what Russia is doing. They continue to be involved with all the wrong actors."

Yet since then, Trump has aligned with Putin on several fronts.

In Venezuela, Putin-allied Nicolas Maduro remains in office, and the Trump administration seems to have lost interest in the crisis there.

In France, Trump said he wanted Russia returned to the Group of Seven economic organization, from which it was booted after the Crimea invasion.

In Syria, the recent U.S. troop pullout was widely seen as strengthening Russia's hand in the region.

And congressional pressure was key to getting Trump to cancel his controversial hold on Ukraine security funding.

Maybe there is merit in all these policies.

Certainly they coincide with the Kremlin's interests.

What's particularly remarkable is that only a handful of Trump's GOP allies echo his sour view of the current Ukraine government or his skepticism of Russian culpability in election hacking.

The Mueller report in April summed up numerous contacts between the Trump campaign and Kremlin-connected individuals that added up to a certain web of collegiality, if collusion is too strong a word. It also documented sophisticated propaganda efforts by a "troll factory" in St. Petersburg, Russia, owned by a Putin friend.

During the House impeachment debate, a Trump ally sought to use criticism of Putin in a pretzel-like argument against the Democrats.

"In 2016 Vladimir Putin and his cronies waged a war on our elections with the goal of sowing discord and division in America," said Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.). "Do you think he's been successful? Somewhere in Russia right now, Putin is laughing at us today."

Maybe it wouldn't be a shock to see Putin with a speaking role in a Trump campaign commercial this time around.

"Russia, if you're listening ...”


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