U.S.-Russia relations have dipped to "an all-time low," in the words last week of a onetime Kremlin aficionado, President Donald Trump.
Trump made this assertion on the same day Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a frosty meeting with Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader claimed the Syrian gas attack was a "provocation" by the United States and Syrian rebels - meaning we did it or faked it. (Yet Moscow vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have authorized a U.N. inspection.)
But then, of course, Putin trades in dissimulation and outright lies: claiming Russia never invaded Ukraine, never hacked the U.S. election, and never interfered in U.S. or European domestic politics. Never mind tons of irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
Which raises one of the most dangerous quandaries we face in this new political era. How do you deal with a nuclear-armed Russian leader who denies, even in private, the most basic facts about the issues? And yes, you know where this question is leading. How can Trump rebuff the Kremlin's disinformation strategy when he copies the Putin playbook by promoting fake "facts" in his interviews and tweets?
The White House embrace of conspiratorial websites that promote outrageous lies aids Moscow's plans to sow confusion in Western democracies. Many of those alt-right sites are parroting Kremlinlike explanations of the sarin gas attack in Syria.
Take one example: Alex Jones' Infowars, an online radio show that is a favorite of Trump's. Jones blamed the gas attack on the White Helmets, a selfless group of Syrian civilian volunteers who rush to the scene of regime bomb attacks to try to rescue victims. Here's the Infowars version: "The White Helmets, an al-Qaeda affiliated group [a disgusting canard] funded by George Soros and the British government, have reportedly staged another chemical weapon attack on civilians in the Syrian city of Khan Shaykhun."
Trump has praised Jones as having "an amazing reputation" and appeared on his show during the campaign season. Jones also claims the Sandy Hook school massacre was a hoax perpetrated by the antigun lobby. Despite pleas from families of the children killed there, Trump has yet to repudiate Jones.
And then there is Mike Cernovich, a gadfly who livestreams endless conspiracy theories and is popular in the White House. He was recently touted by Kellyanne Conway, and Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that Cernovich deserved a Pulitzer Prize. Never mind that Cernovich helped spread the "Pizzagate" fable that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring out of a Washington pizzeria, which inspired a believer to shoot up the restaurant.
Now Cernovich says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was framed and suggests Sen. John McCain gave poison gas and Hollywood equipment to ISIS to stage the attack.
This may seem like nonsense, but these sites have a huge audience, including Trump and White House staffers. And, as their response to the Syria strike shows, they help create a political atmosphere in which facts become irrelevant and wild theories more attractive. They deepen the polarization in our country.
Trump's promotion of their contents serves Moscow's aims.
This climate of confusion is enhanced by the president's habit of denouncing any views he disputes as "fake news," thus further muddying the water about where truth lies - or whether there is any truth at all.
As the last week has shown, Trump is slowly coming to grips with, and wholly shifting positions on, facts he had previously disputed, on North Korea, Chinese currency manipulation, Kremlin behavior (at least on Syria), etc. But his learning curve is steep, since he resists detailed briefings, State Department expertise, or reading.
Moreover, the president's tendency to do 180-degree turns based on the last person he met (he said "10 minutes" with Chinese President Xi Jinping changed his take on North Korea) is unnerving. And his readiness to regurgitate claims from websites or cable TV makes him easy prey for Kremlin manipulation.
Remember when Trump proclaimed "I love WikiLeaks" last October? The emails posted by WikiLeaks were stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee, then passed on to WikiLeaks, which used them to undermine Hillary Clinton.
Yet the president still won't admit that Moscow, via his beloved WikiLeaks, tried to influence the U.S. elections. Even Trump's CIA director, Mike Pompeo, once a WikiLeaks fan, now seems to have gotten the message. "WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service," he said last week.
But we haven't gotten this message from Trump.
Indeed, the president still refuses to confront the reality that some of his campaign staff had dicey contacts with Moscow. These contacts didn't determine the election outcome. But they reflect an unprecedented level of interference in our domestic politics that can't be adequately confronted until the president acknowledges the Kremlin's game.
"This shouldn't be a big issue for a healthy democracy," said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center, at a Council on Foreign Relations conference last week in New York. "Hacking is nothing new. Putin is trying to use information to influence political processes."
But a healthy democracy requires a president who recognizes reality and prefers facts to conspiracy theories. When there's no respect for facts inside the White House, it's much harder to confront Moscow's meddling.
The scariest part of Russia's interference in our politics is that our fractured system has made it so easy. "Maybe you are not as confident in your political institutions as I and most Russians have believed all our lives," said Trenin, speaking of the political elite in America.
He's correct. And Vladimir Putin knows it well.
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