For Donald Trump And President Obama, 2016 Isn't Really Going To End — Thanks To Russia By refusing to respond to the sanctions, Russian President Putin spurned Obama and kept up what has looked like a public bromance with the president-elect, who in turn called him "very smart!"
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Thanks To Russia, 2016 Isn't Really Going To End For Obama And Trump

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Thanks To Russia, 2016 Isn't Really Going To End For Obama And Trump

Thanks To Russia, 2016 Isn't Really Going To End For Obama And Trump

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I guess we should get used to saying this. President-elect Donald Trump complimented Vladimir Putin on Friday. He said in a tweet, quote, "I always knew he was very smart." Trump was referring to Putin's decision not to sanction the U.S. after President Obama announced new sanctions against Russia and said that he would expel 35 Russian diplomats. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Did Donald Trump clear up any doubts anyone might have had about how he views Vladimir Putin and Russia?

ELVING: The bromance continues, if that's what you mean. There do seem to be a lot of questions, though, about what this is really all about and whether it really is some sort of flirtation between these two leaders. Why does Trump seem to go out of his way to flatter Putin, to take the Russian point of view against that of the entire U.S. intelligence community? With respect to the Russian hacking of the campaign, the intelligence community says it was clearly them. Many of them say that they were doing it to help Donald Trump get elected. He rejects all of that. Some ask if this has to do with business relationships that might be deep in those unglimpsed (ph) tax returns. But others say he just wants to shake up all the old assumptions about who our friends and enemies really are in the world and use the uncertainty to cut some better deals and forge some more productive alliances.

SIMON: Senator John McCain on Friday said the Russian hacks are an act of war. There are a lot of Republicans and Democrats who don't, obviously, share Trump's admiring view of Putin. Where does this leave the Congress in what looks like it might be the first major foreign policy question for the new administration?

ELVING: The new Congress is sworn in on Tuesday. McCain has a hearing in his armed services committee on Thursday. So he wants to go right after this right away. Then, there will be hearings in the Senate Intelligence Committee. And there are a lot of Democrats and, certainly McCain, who would like to have a select committee. That's the kind we had for Watergate in the '70s or Iran-Contra in the '80s, but that does not appear to be happening. The leadership does not want to make that commitment. They have an agenda. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, in particular has said that he thinks the regular committees can handle it. And he and Speaker Paul Ryan over in the House have a big, long agenda of Republican issues, conservative issues that they want to get to, from repealing Obamacare to changing the tax code, and they don't want to see the media spotlight go somewhere else.

SIMON: Ron, the U.S. has done this before - impose sanctions on Russia, and Russia ran the table in Syria. They haven't loosened their grip on Crimea. Putin says they haven't suffered economically because of sanctions. So are these new sanctions and tossing out the diplomats just for show?

ELVING: We should say this is a multi-level chess game, and we can only see the top level - the overt actions, not the covert. But these diplomatic measures that we can see do seem like gestures, really, only. And economic sanctions are the real deal. Russia has suffered economically in recent years from sanctions. They do hate those sanctions. But, of course, what they really hate is low oil prices.

SIMON: Has the Obama administration been late to recognize the threat from Russia?

ELVING: Perhaps not to recognize the threat but slow to get serious about it. After the Crimea sanctions, there were lots of other provocations, Syria being the worst, Obama clearly not willing to go to war in Syria. So Russia has had something of a free field of fire as it were. But as far as the cyberhacking of this election campaign, the administration did sound the alarm last fall, but they did not go to the mat, in part, because they didn't want to appear to be interfering with the election themselves. And let's face it, they thought Hillary Clinton was going to win anyway.

SIMON: Ron, this was the administration that said we needed to do a reset with Russia. What happened?

ELVING: President Obama and his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, believed that his coming to office, and the departure of George W. Bush and the shelving of the Iraq War, if you will, at least for the moment, in 2009, was going to be a reset with everyone and that we could deal with the Russians on a new basis with a new set of personalities. That is, perhaps, what every administration thinks when it first comes to power, and then, the years of reality set in - certainly as they have for the last eight. Now, we have a new president who deeply believes that he can redefine the relationship not only with Vladimir Putin but with Russia more generally. We shall see.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

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