Trump’s Enduring Willingness to Give Russia the Benefit of the Doubt

“Who knows? I don’t know either.”

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty in 1987. (Reuters)

In explaining how he would enforce a treaty with the Soviet Union, America’s top adversary, to jointly reduce nuclear-weapons stockpiles, Ronald Reagan famously adapted a Russian proverb: “trust, but verify.” Donald Trump seems to be taking a different approach to Russia. Over the last year or so, he has repeatedly granted Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, the benefit of the doubt.

The Hacking of the Democratic Party

In the latest example, Trump has challenged media reports of a CIA assessment that Russia meddled in the U.S. election with the specific goal of helping Trump win the presidency. First, Trump attacked the credibility of U.S. intelligence agencies. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Trump’s transition team said in a statement. Then he questioned whether the Russian government was behind the hack of emails from Democratic Party operatives that were later released by WikiLeaks—something the Department of Homeland Security and Director of National Intelligence announced they were confident of this fall.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Trump told Fox News, in reference to the notion that Russia had tried to boost his candidacy. “I don’t believe that at all.” Not only that, but U.S. intelligence officials “have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place. … It could be Russia. I don’t really think it is. But who knows? I don’t know either.”

Trump had previously expressed disbelief in the October conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Kremlin had directed hacks and leaks to interfere in the U.S. election. He raised “doubt” about that conclusion during the third presidential debate, claiming that the culprit could be “Russia, China, or anybody else,” even though he had reportedly received intelligence briefings prior to the debate on Russia’s suspected role in the data breaches. The consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community, in other words, had not changed Trump’s opinion that, as he argued in September, the hack could be the work of Russia, China, or “lots of other people,” including “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” A couple months earlier, that list had included “some guy with a 200 I.Q. that can’t get up in the morning,” presumably because of his considerable weight.

The Killing of Alexander Litvinenko

As Politico’s Michael Crowley documented earlier this year, Trump’s position on Russia’s alleged intervention in the U.S. election is in keeping with his resistance to “intelligence, legal findings and expert opinion” that cast Putin and Russia in a negative light. In January, for instance, Trump disputed a British public inquiry’s conclusion that Putin had “probably” approved the murder of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London. “Have they found [Putin] guilty?” Trump asked. “I don’t think they’ve found him guilty. They say a lot of things about me that are untrue too. … People are saying they think it was him. ... But in all fairness to Putin—and I’m not saying this because he says ‘Trump is brilliant and leading everybody’—the fact is that he hasn’t been convicted of anything. Some people say he absolutely didn’t do it. First of all, he says he didn’t do it. Many people say it wasn’t him. So who knows who did it?”

The Downing of Flight MH17

Trump similarly questioned whether Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine had shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014, despite U.S. intelligence assessments suggesting that this was likely the case. The downing of the place was “disgusting and disgraceful,” Trump told CNN last year, “but Putin and Russia say they didn’t do it, the other side said they did, no one really knows who did it, probably Putin knows who did it. Possibly it was Russia but they are totally denying it.” The weapon used may have been Russian-made, Trump added, but the Russians “didn’t use it, they didn’t fire it, they even said the other side fired it to blame them. I mean to be honest with you, you’ll probably never know for sure.”

The Russian Air Campaign in Syria

In the fall of 2015, when the Russian military began striking “terrorist organizations” in Syria, CNN’s Don Lemon asked Trump what he made of the opinion of U.S. officials that Russia was in fact targeting Syrian rebels fighting Putin’s ally, Bashar al-Assad, rather than ISIS. “You actually believe that [the Russians are] fighting ISIS?” Lemon asked. “Well, I think they will be fighting ISIS and I think they are going to also probably try and prop up Assad and help him out,” Trump answered. “I’m hearing they’re hitting both” opposition fighters and ISIS, he added. “If Russia wants to go in and if Russia wants to fight, in particular, ISIS, and they do, and one of the reasons they do is because they don’t want ISIS coming into their country and that’s going to be the next step. So, that’s why they’re there.” (Earlier this year, the Obama administration’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition estimated in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that 70 percent of Russian airstrikes had targeted the armed opposition to Assad, as opposed to ISIS. The Russian and Syrian militaries, along with Iran-affiliated militias, have since driven the rebels out of all Syria’s major cities.)

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All of these cases—the hack of the Democratic Party, the Litvinenko assassination, the MH17 crash, and the military campaign against ISIS—are murky, with the nature of Russian involvement not entirely clear. There is reportedly disagreement within the U.S. intelligence community, for example, about the strength of the evidence that Russia deliberately attempted to tip the election for Trump. So Trump is right to urge caution in evaluating what we know and don’t know about these episodes. The question is why the president-elect is so intent on casting doubt on his own country’s intelligence agencies while giving the Russian government the benefit of the doubt.

The answer, of course, could have less to do with any loyalty Trump has to Putin than with Trump’s incentive to challenge intelligence assessments that call into question the legitimacy of his own election. That would still leave open the question of why, even before now, he’s doubted official assessments of Russian actions in Britain and Ukraine and Syria. But whatever the answer, the result is this: A man who campaigned on putting “America first” and reasserting U.S. sovereignty remains remarkably incurious about verifying who just interfered in his nation’s most important political exercise. As Trump’s transition team put it after news broke of the CIA’s findings, “It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”