The Russians Troll Trump

“He is acting in accordance with his competence, in accordance with his law and constitution. What about us? Why us?”

Russian President Putin takes part in gala match of Night Ice Hockey League in Sochi. (Reuters)

It’s hard to imagine how Wednesday could have gone any worse for the Trump White House. But it did, because the Trump White House didn’t see any reason to cancel or reschedule or somehow modify the president’s promise to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would receive Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office. Apparently, the day after firing the man investigating members of your campaign for possible collusion with the Kremlin is as good a day as any to receive one of the Kremlin’s most loyal emissaries.

Not only that, it was such a good day that it was only natural to say, sure, Sergei, bring in your official photographer, only to find out that it was actually a Russian wire photographer who immediately released photos of you having a jolly old time with both the Russian foreign minister and that honey pot of a man, Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak—even though it was a closed meeting and the American press was not allowed in. And so as Thursday dawned with concerns that the Russians had bugged the Oval Office and senators asking NSA director Mike Rogers if the agency had been consulted about Russians bringing electronics into the White House (no), anonymous White House staffers ranted to CNN’s Jim Acosta that the Russians “tricked us” and “they lie!” and Obama’s last national-security adviser Susan Rice openly mocked them on Twitter.

“No kidding!” she wrote.

By Thursday afternoon, an enraged Trump tweeted that “the Russians must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the U.S. tears itself apart over a Democrat EXCUSE for losing the election.”

It was remarkably close to the point of view of the Russians, who have long denied they had anything to do with the 2016 election and who were, in fact, loving every minute of this mess. Emerging from an arena tunnel like an MVP, Putin, clad in full hockey gear and ready to play what would obviously be a really hard-fought match with Russian pros, was caught by a carefully placed American reporter who asked Putin what he thought Comey’s firing would mean for U.S.-Russia relations. “There will be no effect,” Putin said, his face tight and grinning. “Your question looks very funny for me. Don't be angry with me. We have nothing to do with that. President Trump is acting in accordance with his competence, in accordance with his law and constitution. What about us? Why us?” He clearly took great pleasure in sticking to Russia’s standard line on such things: We don’t know what you guys are doing over there, but boy are we glad to be mature adults above the fray. And then he went off to score seven goals with the confidence of a man whose country is running smoothly.

Predictably, Russian newscasts led with the Trump-Lavrov meeting, followed by Putin’s condescending reply and very successful hockey match. Just one report addressed the firing of Comey, “a known Russophobe.” (By Thursday night, the guests of one of the country’s most popular political talk shows were discussing why a “strong hand” was better for running a country than the chaotic liberal Western model.) But in general the meeting was portrayed as the massive foreign policy coup that it was: The Russians were finally received in the White House, not as pariahs to be berated and lectured, but as respected equals.

As Susan Glasser reported in her excellent piece in Politico, the Russians have been pressing for exactly such a legitimizing visit for years—since 2013—and for years the Obama administration refused to give them one. For the Russians, protocol is policy and such visits—even if just to reciprocate Tillerson’s reception in the Kremlin last month—matter. They show honor, respect, legitimacy. Which is precisely what Obama refused to give them. Why honor the leaders of a country that violated international law by annexing Ukrainian territory and supporting a bloody dictator in Syria? Because Obama withheld such a meeting, the Russians got even more desperate for one, and Putin, sensing an opening, expressly asked for it in last week’s phone call with Trump. As I reported, the Russians had long been hoping for a personal meeting with Trump, a man who is now known for starkly reversing his positions if exposed to in-person pleasantries.

But if a visit to the Oval Office was out of the question from 2013 to 2017, it should have been yet less thinkable now, even before Comey’s firing. Not only have the Russians not given back Crimea, or stopped fueling a bloody war in east Ukraine and supporting Assad, now there is evidence they meddled in America’s 2016 elections as well as last weekend’s elections in France. Unless you’re going to take them to task, why encourage them?

The Russians clearly understood what the visit and its timing meant, which is why it was so prominently covered by the Kremlin media. The man investigating Russian meddling in the election had just been fired by the man whose campaign was under investigation. Which to the Russians meant Trump essentially agreed with their reaction to the alleged election interference—as Lavrov put it in his American press conference: “Guys, you cannot be serious.” It is why he praised this administration for being “business-like” and for “wanting to make deals,” which in Russian has a few other shades of meaning.

The word Lavrov used was dogovarivatsya, meaning to come to an understanding and come to agreements; it’s a key word both in Russian business and politics. At its heart is ruthless pragmatic compromise. There is no room for feelings and values, and certainly not for law. Only for interests and nebulous, subjective notions of fairness. “For us, fairness is above the law, including international law,” one Russian close to the Kremlin told me. “When it’s advantageous for us to appeal to the law, we do it. When it’s not, we ignore it.” It is why Lavrov said that he welcomed these talks with an administration who wanted to dogovarivatsya, people “who were free of the dogmatism of the Obama administration.”

It was all too perfect, starting with the idea of having Tillerson meet with Putin in the Kremlin—which created an obvious opportunity for Lavrov to reciprocate by meeting Trump in the White House—and ending with the choice of music piped in to the American journalists waiting for Lavrov’s presser (“All I’m asking is for a little respect.”) The Americans experienced the international equivalent of getting trolled—which is so often both the ends and means of Russian foreign policy. And this time, the Russians have a partner who is more than willing to respect them, make deals, and, as the Russians say, be led around by the nose.