What do you get when you mix eight years of grudges, complex geopolitics and four world leaders — including incoming and outgoing American presidents with diametrically opposing views of the world — all convinced that this is a make-or-break moment with historic implications?
This week, apparently.
Presidential transitions tend to be quiet affairs, with the exiting and entering administrations almost merging for the 10 weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day. Foreign leaders usually respect that.
But President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump don’t trust each other. And world leaders who have been looking for a change have seized on the chance to leverage the politics of having two diametrically opposed American leaders at once.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who have come to hate Obama and the way he has dealt with them over the course of his presidency, have leapt at the chance, and Trump has moved quickly to encourage them.
Friday afternoon brought the stunner tweet (quickly retweeted by the Russian Embassy in Washington) in response to Russia’s decision to delay reciprocal sanctions in response to those Obama imposed Thursday as punishment for the hacking meant to influence the election for Trump: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”
On Wednesday, after criticizing the administration’s abstention from a United Nations vote condemning Israeli expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Trump tweeted, “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!” And it’s been less than a week since the president-elect tweeted approvingly of Putin’s dismissal of Democrats complaining about the election hacking as “humiliating.”
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway addressed the changing dynamics in an appearance on Fox News on Thursday, dismissing Obama as looking for “semicolons’ worth of his legacy” and promising that Trump will “have an opportunity to re-examine our relationships geopolitically across the globe.”
Russia certainly hopes so.
“It is regrettable that the Obama administration, which started out by restoring our ties, is ending its term in an anti-Russia agony. RIP,” tweeted Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whom Putin essentially controls.
Obama knows this to be the case and worries that the four years ahead could prove fatal in his hopes for a Russia weakened to the point of forcing reform and a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, according to people familiar with the president’s thinking. He is determined to be what he sees as the voice of reason in the waning days of his presidency, convinced he’ll be validated by history even if he’s providing his opponents with short-term political gains.
Trump has said that his election win — and the loss by Hillary Clinton, who ran Obama’s foreign policy as his secretary of state — is all the proof anyone needs that Americans don’t want what Obama has been pushing.
For his part, Putin appears to be aiming for an international realignment that elevates Russia and hopes Trump will be the American president who will help him get there.
And Netanyahu seems to be seeking license to do as he wants in perhaps the most complicated no-win situation in the world, all while quieting challenges from his own right and his left.
“I think it’s important that leaders of countries recognize that leaders of other countries act in the interest of those countries. The only person who acts in the interest of the United States is the president,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “So when you say, to take a specific example, we need to move on from the situation when a foreign government is interfering in our elections, you’re not, it seems to me, promoting America’s interest. You’re promoting Russia’s interest.”
Obama is daring Trump to walk back the sanctions on Russia, while daring Netanyahu to officially walk away from the two-state solution that he stopped pursuing in any practical way years ago.
Trump’s team, meanwhile, has tied the two issues together.
“We’re talking about sanctions against Russia just days after what I would call sanctions against Israel,” Conway said on Fox News, despite the fact that the U.N. resolution included no sanctions against Israel and that Russia voted in favor of the resolution, while Trump has forcefully attacked Obama just for abstaining from it.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has dispatched his ambassadors to the U.S. and the U.N.to cable news to gush about Trump, and claim that Israel has some unspecified proof that the Obama administration secretly worked in favor of last week’s United Nations resolution, which they say they’ll share with the new administration.
Putin and Netanyahu have even followed Trump’s lead by making their cases with goading tweets — Netanyahu more elliptically, by praising Trump from his personal account just as Secretary of State John Kerry was about to take the stage for his speech on Israel on Wednesday, and Putin with a level of distance to preserve deniability, having the Russian Embassy in London tweet a photo of a duckling with “LAME” written across it.
And Putin seems to be drawing support from unlikely channels: conservative Republicans who have traditionally been the harshest critics of Russia.
“Putin outplays Obama again,” tweeted former Rep. Jack Kingston, a Trump adviser who was recently in Moscow, in response Friday’s announcement by the Kremlin about holding off on the sanctions. “Obama embarrassing himself on the way out the door.”
“Vladimir Putin respects two things: strength and consistency. In the last eight years, President Obama has shown neither,” the conservative Heritage Foundation tweeted in its own response.
To Obama, most Democrats and many Republicans, this all seems to be a confusing allegiance to a man who runs his country like a despot, jails dissidents and journalists, encourages a kleptocracy that’s reportedly made him hundreds of millions, and has a thing for occupying former Soviet territory that currently belongs to other countries.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan both praised Obama’s sanctions, though arguing that they should have come earlier. McConnell made a point in his statement of including the line, “The Russians are not our friends.”
As Russia was making its announcement about the sanctions and Trump on Friday, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are tweeting photos of themselves in Vilnius meeting with the prime minister of Lithuania, reaffirming the NATO alliance, calling Obama’s sanctions overdue, but a small price to pay, and promising to introduce more when Congress gets back to Washington next week.
“What’s closer to treason? Political opposition to a candidate, or siding with a hostile foreign power in the Intel war?” wrote Republican operative Rick Wilson in a series of tweets on Thursday night, responding to the sanctions, and to people who’d accused him of treason for not supporting Trump. “Make no mistake; Trump and his lackeys, ball-washers and toadies today clearly demonstrated their allegiance is to Putin.”
Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in his daily transition briefing call with reporters on Friday that Trump has no plans to speak with Putin soon, though they have spoken several times since the election and exchanged letters.
But Conway gave an account of how this is striking at least some of the president-elect’s team.
“I will tell you that even those who are sympathetic to President Obama on most issues are saying that part of the reason he did this today was to quote ‘box in’ President-elect Trump,” Conway said in separate comments on CNN. “That would be very unfortunate if politics were the motivating factor here. We can’t help but think that’s often true.”
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.
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