Donald Trump’s allies and aides are so eager to rebuff charges that the president is in Vladimir Putin’s pocket that they’re seizing on last week’s strikes on Syria as the latest proof for their case.
Amid a seemingly never-ending stream of revelations about the Trump campaign’s Russia entanglements, White House boosters are keen to note the bombing of the Bashar Assad regime, for its alleged chemical weapons attack, has fueled a major rift with Russia, a key Syrian ally.
“If Donald Trump is in bed with Putin, why did he just kick him in the balls?” longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone asked in an interview Wednesday — a sentiment echoed in less colorful terms recently by Trump’s son Eric, White House press secretary Sean Spicer and a number of right-wing commentators.
Congressional Democrats and liberal advocates, meanwhile, say the argument is the latest in a string of diversionary tactics meant to distract from Trump’s ballooning Russia scandal, which has already ensnared close advisers, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“I am disturbed that the president’s supporters would distract the American people from what our main focus should be related to Syria — Assad’s six-year long murderous rampage against the Syrian people, supported by President Putin,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.
“That they would try and make this false distinction again underscores why we need an independent commission to investigate Russia’s attack on our democracy,” Cardin continued. “The president also must lay out a clear strategy for ending the war in Syria.”
Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge, said Trump’s allies are “grasping at straws.”
"If this whole effort was launched to try and create distance between Trump and Russia — as his allies are suggesting — then the president is an even more disgusting person than we previously thought,” Singh said. “And that’s saying a lot.”
Since his inauguration, Trump’s White House has been under a growing Russia-related cloud, particularly over allegations that some of his campaign aides may have colluded with Moscow in its campaign to damage Hillary Clinton. Trump’s allies are desperate to change the topic and move on.
“So much for the idea that Vladimir Putin was believed to give Donald Trump the presidency,” CNN political commentator and Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord declared on Tuesday.
This week, though, has been particularly bad for Trump, with major new reports about two of his campaign advisers’ ties to Moscow.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the FBI got a warrant last summer to monitor former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page because of suspicions he was acting as an agent of Russia. And the Associated Press on Wednesday revealed further evidence that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort received off-the-books payments from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are investigating Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, as is the FBI.
The House panel has been in a state of turmoil of late, though some lawmakers are hopeful it can get back on track after embattled Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) announced he would step aside from leading his panel’s probe. Members of both parties have expressed confidence in the Senate investigation, which has begun conducting interviews with the intelligence analysts behind January’s assessment that Russia sought to sway the election for Trump.
But a number of Democrats, including Cardin, are calling for a more independent probe run by an outside commission or a select committee — something Republican leaders have rejected in favor of the investigations run by the secretive intelligence panels.
“In reality,” Singh said, Trump’s decision to bomb the Assad regime “changes nothing with respect to the multiple ongoing investigations of Trump’s ties to Russia.”
On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly praised Putin and expressed a desire to patch up relations with Russia after ties frayed under the Obama administration.
But in the first few months of Trump’s administration, it has become clear Russia and the United States are moving farther apart on key issues.
Trump’s cruise missile strike — which he said was retribution for Assad’s most recent use of chemical weapons against his own people — represented a major blow to U.S.-Russia relations, with Putin saying in a Russian television interview that under Trump the relationship “has not improved, but rather has deteriorated.”
Rex Tillerson, on his first trip to Russia as secretary of state, told reporters after a meeting with Putin Wednesday, “The current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point.”
Trump’s son Eric has pointed to the deteriorating relationship as evidence that there never was any connection between his father and Russia.
“If there was anything that Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie,” he told The Daily Telegraph Tuesday.
Asked at the White House about Eric Trump’s remarks, Spicer issued his latest broadside against those who accuse Trump of having nefarious ties to Moscow.
“Respectfully, almost every single day we’ve been asked about these so-called ties and back channels and whatever,” Spicer said, adding that it was notable the administration did not have a political discussion with Russia about its Syria strike ahead of time. “I think there is an acknowledgement at some point that if that was true, you would have seen some kind of [conversation] that clearly didn’t happen.”