Let's begin by saying what must be said: Vladimir Putin is a strongman and a thug whose authoritarian regime rigs elections, regularly stamps out dissent, invades sovereign neighbors, 'disappears' journalists, abuses human rights, brazenly assassinates ex-spies on foreign soil, helps slaughter Syrian civilians on behalf of Assad, and meddles in foreign nations' internal politics -- including the 2016 US election. Mitt Romney was correct about the Russian menace, and Barack Obama's smirking dismissals were dead wrong. It is therefore troubling that the President of the United States decided to phone Putin to offer him a chummy, congratulatory attaboy for prevailing in Russia's latest dubious "election," wherein opponents were cowed into silence and disenfranchised. It is similarly dismaying to see the chief White House spokesperson duck and dodge direct questions, effectively giving the Kremlin cover for its illegitimate electoral machinations:
Sarah Sanders is asked whether the Russian election was free and fair: "We don't get to dictate how other countries operate." pic.twitter.com/kqEWvNFeOa— Axios (@axios) March 20, 2018
American leaders routinely criticize malfeasance and stand up for bedrock democratic values, even when they're also willing to work with the very objectionable foreign autocrats and regimes they criticize. Nobody is suggesting -- outside of some reactionary, Trump-deranged zealots -- that the Trump administration should sever ties with Moscow, or cease all attempts to improve US-Russo relations. But what Sanders offered in that clip is mealy-mouthed relativism that borders on appeasement. John McCain, a lifelong Russia hawk, teed off:
“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country's future, including the countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin's regime."
And lest there's any doubt about Putin's cronies putting their collective thumb on the scale to ensure a dominant-looking victory, read this and this. Putin's victory may be "legitimate" (insofar as we ignore his repression of vocal critics); his margin is certainly not. The White House should have the moral clarity to say that out loud. Perhaps the president's truth-telling UN ambassador will take it upon herself to do so. In any case, conspicuously absent among the global powers that sent well-wishes to Vlad after his tainted win were the Brits, for obvious reasons. The Trump administration's official policy is absolute solidarity with the UK in the face of Russian aggression, yet Trump himself parted ways with PM May with his Putin chat this week, during which Russia's unacceptable poisonings in London were apparently not even mentioned. This is capitulation and weakness. You know who agrees with me? Former top Obama adviser David Axelrod:
Was this a congratulatory call to the man who just authorized the use of nerve gas in Britain to murder an opponent and who continues to assault our democracy? https://t.co/gLqNo3Ztmw— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) March 20, 2018
And the predictable approbation of thousands of likes and retweets came pouring in. But guess who also called Putin to serve up a big 'congratulations' message after the last bogus Russian election? Ta da:
Pres. Obama phoning congratulations from AF-1 to Pres-elect Vladimir Putin of Russia.— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) March 9, 2012
Ah yes, 'Smart Power' at work. And spare me the "everything is different now" excuse for this blatant hypocrisy. When Obama dialed Putin up in 2012, the Russian leader's track record of invading US allies, cheating in elections, eliminating pesky reporters and opposition figures, intervening on behalf of Middle Eastern butchers, and hacking foreign institutions was already crystal clear. If Team Obama really wants to try to argue that Moscow's 2016 meddling really was an -- ahem -- red line, perhaps they'd have more credibility if they'd actually taken aggressive action to counter the threat when they could have made a difference. They didn't, for the same reason that they chose to flatter Putin after his previous election "win," and the same reason why their embarrassing "reset" policy resulted in exceptionally soft and permissive treatment of the Russians for eight years. We sold out our eastern European allies under Obama and cozied up to Putin (including infamous hot-mic "transmissions" about "flexibility") because the White House wanted the Russian regime on board to help secure Obama legacy projects such as the Iran nuclear deal.
What we're seeing on display today is the textbook definition of hackery: People who ripped Obama for kowtowing to Putin suddenly defending Trump's actions, and Obama loyalists suddenly aggrieved and offended by Trump doing precisely what their hero did a few years ago. Putin hasn't changed; domestic partisan roles have.