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While stroking Putin, Trump deepens clash with his own government

President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin

President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a joint news conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

The disconnect grows ever more remarkable.

President Donald Trump's widely criticized displays of deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin show no tangible impact, at least so far.

It is as if the Trump we see and hear is an outlier in his own government. 

U.S. sanctions against Russia endure. Nearly a year ago, Trump signed what is officially titled the "Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act," imposed on the Putin regime as well as North Korea and Iran. The GOP-run Congress is less than ready to ease up.

Russian compounds seized in the U.S. remain in federal hands. Talks last year to return them failed. Retaliatory moves by the Putin regime remain in effect. Trump's State Department still condemns Russian annexation in eastern Ukraine, and the U.S. is still due to proceed with big weapons sales to Kiev for potential use against Putin-backed separatists.

Despite Trump's televised description of Montenegro as "aggressive," NATO — designed to offset what once was called the Eastern Bloc — remains intact with Montenegro, its newest member.

At least for now, facts on the ground all over that region appear unchanged from Barack Obama's time in office.

So do the problems. Trump's hand-picked director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, is holding firm on federal agencies’ findings that the Russians in 2016 tried to “undermine our democracy.” Public words from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and FBI Director Chris Wray also contradict the boss.

The most recent actions of Trump's Justice Department also perforate his narrative. 

Last week federal agents arrested Maria Butina, a Russian gun-rights advocate who has been on the political radar in the U.S. for some time.

Her lawyer denied charges that she sought to gain influence as an unregistered agent for the Russian Federation by developing contacts with the National Rifle Association and other players in the conservative movement.

Back in July 2015, Butina got to ask a Russia-related question of candidate Trump at an evangelical event in Las Vegas. "I know Putin," Trump replied. "I don't think you'd need the sanctions. I think we'd get along very well." 

In Helsinki the president also raised, in distorted form, a debunked conspiracy theory regarding the hacking of Democrats.

Standing with Putin, Trump blurted out: "What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They're missing; where are they?"

The president was apparently trying to reference a former House information technology staffer Imran Awan who didn't actually work at the Democratic National Committee and pleaded guilty to a false statement on a bank-loan application. 

Trump and allies on the internet have been spreading stories about Awan for months involving spying and stolen government secrets. But after a detailed investigation, federal officials filed a sworn court statement refuting these claims.

The gap between Trump's noisy public depictions of reality and his own government's actions has never been so visible. How all these words and practices might fit together in some coherent form remains to be revealed.


 

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