The Wall Street Journal’s influential editorial board is known for being hard on presidents … OK, just the even-numbered ones, in recent years. That would be Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The bible of American finance — whose conservative editorial writers never met a corporate tax cut they didn’t like, or a Democrat that they did — could be ruthless toward the 42nd and 44th presidents, even encouraging some of the loopier conspiracy theories of the Whitewater era.
That’s why it was so jarring last week to see the Rupert Murdoch-owned broadsheet publish an editorial stating, “We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President" — when that president is a Republican, Donald Trump. The WSJ — which maybe isn’t as pro-Trump as that diner in southern Ohio that the New York Times has reported from 6,784 times now, but which generally likes POTUS 45 as long as he’s reducing marginal tax rates or dropping napalm on the Environmental Protection Agency — ripped the current commander in chief in a piece headlined, “Trump’s Cracked Afghan History.”
Yes, it’s a little weird that an editorial board that was nonplussed (or sometimes mildly “concerned”) about Trump’s 7,000-plus other lies, firing of Jim Comey, shredding of the emoluments clause, etc., etc., would wig out about the president’s strange thoughts on an invasion exactly 40 years ago by a country, the USSR, that technically doesn’t exist. But anticommunism both was, and is, central to the Wall Street Journal brand. Let’s hear them out on this one.
The editorial bashed Trump for asserting that Leonid Brezhnev’s USSR was justified in 1979 when it invaded Afghanistan, a move that was so vehemently opposed by the U.S. government that Jimmy Carter imposed an Olympic boycott and reinstituted draft registration for 18-year-olds. That, the Journal argued, was “ridiculous, adding: “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a defining event in the Cold War, making clear to all serious people the reality of the communist Kremlin’s threat."
Here’s the thing. Trump says crazy stuff every day of his presidency. But the Journal was absolutely right to home in on the weirdness and disturbing nature of this particular statement. For one thing, it’s surprising that the usually assertively anti-intellectual Trump has deep — albeit historically incorrect — thoughts about foreign policy in the late ’70s and ’80s, the decade he was busy trying to promote Herschel Walker and bed Marla Maples. Second, not one other person on this side of the Atlantic Ocean holds that notion advanced by the president: that the USSR invasion of Afghanistan was justified or was about anything other than world domination.
But now here’s where it gets much, much weirder — and much more disturbing. Because it turns out there is one prominent set of voices who — just in the last few months — started making the argument that the USSR was right to send those troops into Afghanistan, an action that even Russian higher-ups have conceded even before the USSR’s 1991 collapse was a horrible mistake, politically and morally.
That would be Vladimir Putin and his allies in the Russian government.
It’s doubtful that either you or Donald J. Trump read this online Washington Post opinion piece from Dec. 4 that outlines an otherwise little-reported push by Russian lawmakers allied with Putin for a resolution that would justify their country’s 1979 invasion and reverse an 1989 vote backed by then-USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev that had condemned it. The Putinists’ goal is to pass the resolution by the 30th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal, in February.
OK, maybe it’s a coincidence that a babbling Trump — who certainly gives the appearance of saying whatever pops into his mind — just happened to make the same obscure argument as Putin’s minions halfway across the globe. But on Thursday night, I and a couple of other million folks saw a remarkable report by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that tied together some wild threads (for which she credited other journalists such as Vladimir Kara-Murza, author of that Post op-ed, and New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, as well as her own Steve Benen).
It turns out Trump’s bizarre, historically incorrect Afghanistan riff is part of a pattern in which either the president or his administration has mimicked obscure foreign-policy points linked directly to Putin and/or Russian intelligence ops, and to virtually no one else — certainly not anyone in the American diplomatic community.
The most bizarre such episode happened early in Trump’s presidency. When Mike Flynn — who would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his phone calls with Russia’s ambassador — was still Trump’s national security adviser in the first weeks of the new administration, there was this little noticed report from the AP.
“According to one U.S. official, national security aides have sought information about Polish incursions in Belarus, an eyebrow-raising request because little evidence of such activities appears to exist,” the AP reported. “Poland is among the Eastern European nations worried about Trump’s friendlier tone on Russia.” Meanwhile, Putin’s interest in swallowing up Belarus — possibly using the fake “Polish incursions” as a pretext — has only intensified in the two years since the 45th president was sworn in.
Then there’s the strange matter of U.S. policy toward the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro, which in 2017 became the first new member of NATO in a decade. A few weeks later, Trump caused a lot of head-scratching when he went on Fox News with Tucker Carlson and the president (echoed by Carlson) lashed out at the idea of defending his new NATO ally. “You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. … They are very aggressive people," Trump said. “They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”
Actually, when it comes to Montenegro, Trump was arguably the “aggressive” one — with the viral clip of POTUS shoving aside the Montenegrin prime minister at a summit meeting two months earlier. Most viewers watched the clip for a laugh. What’s not so funny is that Russian intelligence officers had been involved in a 2016 plot to assassinate Montenegro’s leader — so determined was Putin to prevent the expansion of NATO. A goal that seems to have been shared by the current president of the United States.
These obscure Putin-flavored U.S. maneuvers have happened amid the highly publicized probe by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is tasked with finding out if the Trump campaign somehow colluded with Russia’s spies as they sought to interfere with and alter the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Although arguably a strong case for collusion has already been revealed, we won’t know the full extent of what he’s uncovered until later this year. None of Team Trump’s arcane moves on Belarus, Montenegro or Afghanistan is conclusive proof of a vast Trump-Russia conspiracy, but …
There’s a famous scene in All the President’s Men where Robert Redford as Bob Woodward says: “If you go to bed at night and there is no snow on the ground, when you wake up there is snow on the ground, you can say it snowed during the night although you didn’t see it, right?" When it comes to U.S. policy toward Russia under Trump, we are waking up to find 6-foot snow drifts outside. Beyond the bizarre echoes of Belarus, Montenegro and Afghanistan, we’ve watched the White House kowtow to Team Putin every chance it gets, from leaving Syria to dropping sanctions on Paul Manafort’s favorite Russian oligarch.
Thursday’s Maddow report was so alarming because it revealed the deep extent to which Trump — at least on Russia policy — is acting as a kind of “Manchurian Candidate” inside America’s seat of power. We don’t know the mechanics of how the Trump administration is receiving and absorbing these ideas like “Polish incursions into Belarus" or “aggressive Montenegro,” but the fact that he’s parroting the Putin line should be alarming enough. It’s one more reason why the nightmare of the Trump presidency needs to end long before January 20, 2021.
Look, I don’t want to see another Cold War, nor do I believe that’s necessary. That said, even those of us who prefer peace to rampant militarism can see that Putin keeps testing the limits of European expansionism — the same kind of aggressive fantasies that brought disastrous consequences within the last century. Putin is also not as strong as he likes the world to think he is. His ambitions can be contained — but only with U.S. policies that support our democratic allies and not the Russian dictator. If we’re not careful on this one, America could wake up from a long slumber with snow up to the second-floor windows, and then congratulations, you’re in World War III.