We all know by now that Trump and anyone on his ‘team’ – which includes almost every Republican member of Congress – are extremely uncomfortable talking about anything to do with Russia. Indeed, so all encompassing is this phobia that the President still finds it impossible to admit that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, and Republicans in general even find it difficult to support steps to take preventative measures to stop further interference in the mid-term elections to be held later this year.
Worse still, today (Friday) will likely see the release of a memo from the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee that uses cherry picked excerpts from classified information (supplied to the Committee on the basis that it would not be made public) to try to smear various individuals in the Justice Department and FBI. This then gives Trump the justification he needs to get rid of them, and thus indirectly or directly curtail the Mueller investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and potential obstruction of justice by the President.
Of course, prior to Trump’s election if even one iota of the events that have taken place in the White House and Congress since then had occurred Republicans would have been in seventh-heaven pursuing all manner of legal and congressional measures to punish those involved. But that was then, this is now. And in any case, the decent of the Republican Party into a political slime-pit is not the subject of this blog. So, back to the US and Russia.
Those of us of a particular age can well remember when the US and Russia were arch enemies. Indeed, with the exception of the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, recent decades have seldom witnessed good relations between the two countries. There are good reasons for this, not the least being that there are many features of the ‘managed’ democracy that Putin has put in place in Russia that are anathema to true democrats – as US citizens are brought up to believe they are – as well as seriously at odds with models of democracy built on an independent judiciary, the rule of law, a free press and free and fair elections.
We could question the degree to which the latter applies in some parts of the US, of course. But that aside, given the many and various abuses that go on under Putin’s form of managed democracy, and the US government’s long-standing objections, I have always marvelled at the depth and scale of the love-in with Russia – and Putin in particular – that infects the Trump administration. Aside from Trump’s fawning, unquestioning, attitude to Putin, Secretary of State Tillerson also has strong Russia supporting credentials, as did/do several other key (now ex) members of Trump’s team.
And yet, even with this degree of Russia/Putin sycophancy I was shocked to learn that in recent weeks the heads of Russia’s FSB (formerly KGB), GRU (military intelligence), and SVR (Russia’s equivalent of MI6 if I’m not mistaken) all visited the US to meet with Trump officials – specifically the Director of National Intelligence and Director of the CIA (both Trump appointees) and others. Supposedly these meetings were set up to discuss counter terrorism, but the inclusion of the head of the SVR (Sergey Naryshkin) ought to raise eyebrows because he has been excluded from travelling to the US since 2014 under US sanctions. Which means that to enter the US required the US Secretary of State (Tillerson) to grant a special exception.
Even more alarming, perhaps, is that this event only became public in the US thanks to reports of the meetings in Russian state media that were then picked up by Reuters (and subsequently covered in detail on The Rachel Maddow Show). In short, those involved on the US side kept very quite about what was going on. Now it doesn’t take much to work out why the Russian’s would report these meetings: they show how things have changed now we have the Trump/Putin love-in). But why the silence on the US side? Well, given the Russia related trouble Trump currently faces perhaps it pays not to publicise how fast the new love-in is progressing. Indeed, given what we know so far, I’ll speculate that the reason these three Russian gentlemen (and Putin representatives) were in the US was not to discuss counter terrorism but instead talk about something that Trump has already shown himself to be very attracted to – authoritarianism. And who better to pick up hints and tips on this from than Putin and his cronies.
My prediction is this, therefore. This meeting did not simply provide evidence of further behind the scenes bridge and relationship building between the Trump administration and Russia, but, far more importantly, signals the beginning of a planned and concerted push by Trump and his acolytes to create a US version of Putin’s managed democracy and all that goes with it. I say this in all seriousness and with a feeling of dread. But I will add that over the past year we’ve already seen many developments that could come straight from the Putin playbook – such as the demonization of the mainstream media, the incessant lying/falsification from the President and his team, and the degree to which he requires senior personnel in the FBI and elsewhere who swear allegiance to the US constitution to see this as secondary to allegiance and ‘loyalty’ to Trump and Trump alone.
Allied to these developments has been the destruction – not only by Trump but also by Republican politicians in the House and Senate – of Presidential, White House and Congressional norms and conventions at such a rate and scale that it has surprised and dismayed even hardened political sceptics. And all of this in just over a year! This is, of course, not a million miles away from what happened to the Russian Duma and Federal Assembly, which is now simply an extension of Putin’s Presidency, and thus part of the illusion of democratic activity that is central to a ‘managed’ democracy.
So, wake up America and be warned. And those of a liberal bent be particularly afraid. Your President worships a ruthless authoritarian and he and his acolytes like what they see of his ‘managed’ democracy. Which means a US version is on its way sooner than you think, and on the evidence so far you are powerless to stop it.