by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Recently President Trump tweeted, “I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts. Total Fake News!”
The tweet was greeted with incredulity in some press circles. CNN called it “simply false.” “The facts suggest the opposite,” said the Washington Post. “Mostly false,” declared Politifact, noting the president’s statement “immediately drew guffaws among media commentators.”
The reaction left some Republican national security and foreign policy hands shaking their heads. How could one add up the actions that Trump has taken on Russia, compare them to Obama, and conclude that Trump was not tougher?
In a text exchange, I asked one GOP lawmaker: If you believe Trump has been tougher on Russia, what is the best evidence? He quickly came back with a list. The U.S. is, he said:
- Bombing Syria, Russia’s main client, and generally unleashing the U.S. military in Syria, including against Russians when necessary.
- Arming Ukraine.
- Browbeating NATO allies to increase defense spending.
- Adding low-yield nukes to our arsenal.
- Starting research and development on an INF noncompliant missile.
- Shutting Russia’s San Francisco consulate. …
… The items on the list were all solid, hard-edged measures designed specifically to push back against Russian aggression.
So why do so many believe Obama was tougher on Russia? It wasn’t that Obama took a harder line against Russian adventurism. Just the opposite. “Under President Obama, Vladimir Putin hardly had reason to fear that anyone would push back on anything,” John Bolton, the U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush, noted recently.
But some journalists cite the measures the lame-duck Obama took in December 2016 in retaliation for Russian attempts to influence the presidential election as a case-closed argument that Obama was tougher. “