President Donald Trump was only half wrong when he tweeted last week that “Russia must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the U.S. tears itself apart.” Russian officials are laughing quite openly.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s trolling of FBI Director James Comey’s firing was relatively benign; ostensibly, Lavrov’s mock surprise at being told of the firing could be taken for a diplomat’s polite refusal to discuss the host country’s domestic politics.
This week, however, the Russian jokes at the expense of the U.S. got positively unpleasant. First, President Vladimir Putin offered to provide the U.S. Congress with a recording of Lavrov’s conversation with Trump, in which the U.S. president allegedly revealed highly classified information (the word Putin used, zapis, cannot really be translated as “transcript”, as the Kremlin later claimed). The suggestion, of course, was sheer mockery — it’s impossible to imagine the Congress making such a request of Putin, and U.S. legislators tried to answer Putin in kind, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, suggesting that if Putin sent the information by email, he “wouldn’t click on the attachment.”
Then, on Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry posted a short clip from Lavrov’s meeting with Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe. As the two sat for photographers, the Norwegian politician quipped, “These pictures won’t cause any problems for you?” To this clear reference to the U.S. uproar following the Russian publication of pictures showing Trump and Lavrov acting friendly, the Russian foreign minister replies: “Depends on what kind of secrets you pass on to me.” There’s general laughter around the table, Clearly, this is the kind of Russian humor that travels well in Europe.
It’s clear why Putin and his underlings are amused. The mess of intersecting investigations, leaks, pained howls and invective from pro-Trump and anti-Trump politicians is, to Putin and Lavrov, something right out of 1990s Moscow, in which President Boris Yeltsin — a big, clumsy populist not unlike Trump — battled the Soviet “deep state” as his family lined its pockets and tried to influence his decisions. Yeltsin, by the way, was nearly impeached for alleged “crimes” that included the Soviet Union’s breakup.
Putin, of course, is uncomfortable with the messiness of democracy. He has made sure since his rise in 2000 it never resurfaces in Russia. His take this week on what’s happening in the U.S. was especially revealing:
“You know what surprises me? They rock the domestic political situation in the U.S. under anti-Russian slogans, and they don’t understand that they’re harming their own country. Then they’re just dumb. Or they understand everything, and then they’re dangerous, dishonest people.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong about the effect the scandals are having on the ability of the U.S. to maintain its special place in the world. Headlines in the U.S. media scream that the Trump administration is falling apart; to Americans, this is Trump’s mess. But to outsiders, and not just to Russians, it’s an all-American mess; it’s about America’s weakness.
Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger wrote in a commentary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:
“Vladimir Putin can only laugh at the political chaos in Washington. One can see why. But damage to democratic institutions and the trivialization of the presidential office is not a laughing matter at all.”
The current media circus, which amplifies every Trump misstep and forces him to stumble again and again, is different from a previous global spectacle of similarly epic proportions — President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal. That one had to do with sexual indiscretions, something the world outside the U.S. doesn’t take as seriously as the American public. The current scandal is about constantly repeated allegations concerning U.S. politicians and officials doing the bidding of foreign powers. Trump’s enemies aren’t accusing him of being unfaithful to his wife — they’re calling him mentally impaired, unfit to govern, easily influenced by foreign masterminds such as Putin. Even though there’s still not a shred of public evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia last year, the constant airing of that accusation makes it look as though U.S. institutions have failed to stop a foreign incursion — and are still failing, because the noise around the investigations greatly exceeds anything they have unearthed. To outsiders, it looks as though people who are supposed to be stewarding the Western world are bickering among themselves instead, trying to create major problems for each other out of thin air.
As Trump prepares for its first foreign trip, that’s not the kind of advance publicity the U.S. — not Trump, but his country — really needs. On a visit to Washington on Thursday, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel made the point gently, in a far friendlier way than Russians have done.
“You are citizens of a real superpower, and if America is too much engaged with its interior problems, there will be a vacuum in the international sphere,” Gabriel said. A report in The Washington Post offers a range of similar worries under a headline that, perhaps unsurprisingly, blames Trump and not the other powers involved: “European leaders fear Trump’s political chaos is undermining U.S. power”.
The U.S. midterm elections are still 17 months away. It’s too early for the campaign-like heat that’s being generated in Washington. Trump will be around for a while in any case. He needs a breathing space so his visible panic doesn’t damage U.S. interests any more than it has already done. Trump’s political enemies, too, must understand that they are hardly doing the country any favors by harping on yet-unproven but extremely serious accusations. Investigators need some quiet if they are to get anywhere. And the world needs the U.S. as something more reassuring than a soap opera that’s getting increasingly harder for outsiders to follow because of its descent into domestic political and legal trivia. More seriousness, more common sense and less screaming from all quarters is urgently required.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.