Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and a fatal attraction

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After Flynn’s resignation, smiles are turning to scowls in Moscow

By Philip Stephens
Donald Trump imagined he could do as he pleased in the White House. It fell to the ninth federal circuit court in Seattle to draw the limits of the president’s authority at home by overturning an executive order barring migrants from seven Muslim-majority nations. Now the enforced departure of national security adviser Michael Flynn has mapped some of the constraints on the conduct of foreign policy. Y

ou could say the president has been humbled, except that humility and Mr Trump will never sit comfortably in the same sentence.

The opening weeks of the presidency have been as disastrous as anyone could have feared. Mr Trump has behaved in office as he did on the campaign trail. Chaos and belligerence in the White House has been mirrored by the casual disarming of allies and the empowering of adversaries abroad.

America’s standing in the world could scarcely be lower. All this as the fires continue to burn in the Middle East and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un tests a ballistic missile that may soon be tipped with a nuclear warhead. Mr Trump’s hopes of some sort of grand bargain with Russia’s Vladimir Putin have dissolved.

Firing Mr Flynn for lying to vice-president Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in Washington will not staunch the disquiet about the administration’s contacts with Moscow before inauguration day.

Mr Trump and his aides face three sets of questions from legislators and law enforcement agencies about the ties. The first asks how wide and deep were the exchanges: who exactly was involved, what were the subjects of conversations, and were there any bargains struck, implicit or explicit, about the direction of US policy once Mr Trump reached the White House? The second requires the examination of Mr Trump’s financial ties with Russia — the detailed investigation that should have happened during the campaign and now demands open access to the president’s tax returns.

The third, made more urgent by the lengthy delay between the White House’s discovery of Mr Flynn’s mendacity and his sacking, asks the old Watergate question — just what did the president know and when? More from Philip Stephens Keeping us all secure after Brexit Even with goodwill from UK and EU, doubts linger over a notional ringfence Raging against those responsible for leaking classified material will not do it for Mr Trump.

This is a politician who publicly applauded Russian hacking of the Democratic party presidential campaign. So far Mr Trump’s infamous tweets against the agencies and the media have done nothing but validate various reports in The New York Times and Washington Post and on CNN about the extensive nature of contacts with Moscow.

Why is it, one stubborn question asks over and over again, that Mr Trump refuses to admit even the slightest doubt about a Russian leader who has invaded a neighbouring country and trampled on the rules and norms of international behaviour? Whatever the answer, the smiles in Moscow are turning to scowls.

The necessary investigations into the Trump team’s contacts with the Kremlin will run for months, if not longer. Mr Putin’s hopes were for a deal that would see the US president lift sanctions and acquiesce in Russia’s revanchism in return for notional co-operation in fighting Isis. Such an agreement would always have faced opposition from sizeable numbers of Republicans in Congress. Now it looks impossible. Some good may come from Mr Flynn’s departure. The retired army intelligence officer showed himself to be a conspiracy theorist and Islamophobe.

He led “lock-her-up” chants directed against Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. His presence in the Oval Office inner circle played to Mr Trump’s worst prejudices. He seemed to share the president’s infatuation with Mr Putin. Mr Trump will now be obliged to appoint a more conventional figure as his senior foreign policy adviser.

More from Philip Stephens Peace and prosperity: it is worth saving the liberal order For all its faults, the existing system is better than the alternatives Optimists — there are not many around these days — say that the checks and balances in the US system have been shown to work, albeit through the unconventional route of intelligence leaks. The change at the top of the National Security Council will bolster the authority of James Mattis at the Pentagon and Rex Tillerson at the state department. Mr Trump may also face pressure to remove Stephen Bannon, his soulmate and chief strategist, from the NSC. Mr Bannon, an extreme nationalist, appears to relish a civilisational clash with Islam and thinks war with China is inevitable. That said, Mr Trump is still the president.

He disdains the basic values and norms that have informed US leadership. He is more inclined to berate old friends — think of his blazing outburst against Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull — than he is to nurture alliances. Mr Flynn offered a glimpse in his resignation letter of the Alice-in-Wonderland world that is today’s White House. In three short weeks, he said, the president had restored “America’s leadership position” in the world.

And, yes, the departing general might have added, the crowds at the president’s inauguration were the largest — really the most gigantic — ever seen in human history. Things just cannot go on like this, one weary administration official was heard to say this week. Mr Trump would have to change. Can he? And if not, for how long can things go on like this? What has it come to when the world view of a US president seems as fanciful as the notion of Mr Trump as the Siberian candidate?

philip.stephens@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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