This past Thursday, February 23, Day 35 of the Trump administration, was less a day of legislation and political action, and more a day of Machiavellian scheming in smoke-filled backrooms. To begin with, the FBI refused to deny or publicly dismiss claims that Trump’s associates were in contact with Russian officials during the election. This followed accusations over the past few months of the Trump campaign’s collusion with the Russian government to influence the election in return for the easement of sanctions once the Trump campaign won the election. There were also reports that Paul Manafort, one of Trump’s campaign managers during his run for the presidency, was blackmailed by a Ukrainian parliamentarian during the campaign. Manafort was noted for his work as a political advisor to the Yanukovych administration from 2004 to 2010 in Ukraine and close ties to the current Russian politburo before coming to work for the Trump campaign, and his dismissal during the campaign came as a surprise to many observers.
In other news, President Trump stated that the continued raids by immigration officials on illegal immigrants throughout the U.S. were “military operations.” Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, who has come under increased fire and scrutiny by the media, stated that the President did not mean “military operation” literally, but rather meant it as a metaphor for the efficiency of the immigration raids. Spicer continues to take heat amidst reports of increasing conflict and dysfunction in the Trump White House.
In news about the rest of the Trump administration, it appears that Trump has increasingly sidelined the State Department in the creation of U.S. foreign policy. Politico reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was looking for ways to raise his media profile amidst speculation that he was out of the loop on foreign policy decisions being taken by the Trump administration. Furthermore, Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly headed to Mexico for talks on drug trafficking and immigration with the Mexican government. The visit comes amid increasingly frayed relations between the two nations as Trump continues to sign anti-immigration orders as well as take a hostile stance towards the Mexican government. Kelly’s department of Homeland Security has also been asked by the President to build the legal case for his temporary travel ban.
In foreign policy news, ABC News reported that Senator John McCain, one of the Trump administration’s most vocal Republican critics, had made a secret trip to meet with U.S. and Kurdish soldiers in Syria to discuss how best to defeat the Islamic State.
The allegations regarding Trump’s connections to Russia are playing right into the hands of the Russians, who seek first and foremost to undermine the legitimacy of the American electoral process as a way to discredit Western democracy. More than any other country, Vladimir Putin likes to use foreign policy as a way to influence his own domestic politics. By discrediting Western democracy, Putin discredits it as an alternative to his own form of oligarchy, which has a somewhat tenuous hold on power. Putin does not particularly care if Trump is in the White House or not, he cares that there be doubts and aspersions cast over the legitimacy of the President of the United States, and that the Russian people accept Putin’s form of governance as the best of all the political options.