It’s clear by now that the president’s family has enormous influence on him, even on foreign policy, so I pay close attention to what they say.
Eric Trump, the president’s son, told the Daily Telegraph that the cruise missile attack on Syria proved that his dad won’t be “pushed around” by Vladimir Putin.
In fact, he said, there would be “no one harder” on the Russians if they “cross us.” What’s more, the younger Trump, said, the president’s decision to launch the missiles was influenced by his sister Ivanka, who said she was “heartbroken and outraged” by Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attack that killed men, women and babies.
With Rex Tillerson arriving in Moscow yesterday, let’s take a step back from the debate over the Tomahawk strike itself and turn to the subject that has bedeviled Trump: Russia.
The congressional investigations into possible ties between Trump, his associates and the Putin regime have so far failed to uncover any evidence of nefarious dealings, rather than some routine contacts with the Russian ambassador.
What has been driving the suspicions, especially on the left, is that Trump spoke favorably of Putin during the campaign and expressed a desire to cooperate with the Russians. That is unacceptable to Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which dismissed Trump’s approach as impossibly naïve.
When combined with Russian hackers trying to hurt Hillary Clinton by illegally obtaining emails from her campaign and the DNC, some Trump skeptics assumed either collusion between the Republican candidate and the Kremlin or speculated that Putin’s gang had damaging information on Trump.
But now that the new president is confronting the harsh truth of geopolitics, his stance looks very different. As Eric Trump put it: “If there was anything that Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie.”
In the briefing room yesterday, Sean Spicer said “there’s no question Russia is isolated,” pointing to its alliance with North Korea and Iran as well as Syria. Nikki Haley told CNN’s “State of the Union” that nothing “is off the table” when it comes to imposing tougher sanctions on Russia as well as Iran.
And unnamed national security officials told White House reporters that “it is clear the Russians are trying to cover up what happened” through a “disinformation campaign.”
The president himself told Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo that Putin is aligning himself with someone who is "evil" and that "I don't think it's good for Russia."
Tillerson, for his part, pressed Moscow by saying that Assad is an “unreliable partner.”
“Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia's interests?” the secretary of State told reporters. “Or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle East countries that are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?”
Trump may not always listen to the low-profile Tillerson, but he’s surely not out there freelancing.
Putin, meanwhile, likened the missile attack to the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, while his government said another U.S. strike would be “unacceptable” and that U.S.-Russian relations are in the “most difficult period since the Cold War.”
I happen to think the president missed an opportunity by not addressing the country after the missile strike to lay out his vision of America’s role in intervening after foreign atrocities. That prompted stories like this one in the New York Times, which said “his administration has spoken with multiple voices as it seeks to explain its evolving policy. But one voice has not been heard from: that of Mr. Trump himself.”
But it’s clear that relations are already rocky between Trump and Russia. And you don’t have to be a member of his family to grasp that his optimistic campaign talk is being overtaken by reality.