the national interest

How Trump Turned the Right’s Biggest Russia Hawk Into a Dove

Bold, strong leadership. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Not long ago, it was harder to find a more devoted Russia hawk than Wall Street Journal columnist Holman W. Jenkins. The overriding theme of Jenkins’s prodigious commentary on the subject was that Vladimir Putin posed a dire threat that Western leaders were fecklessly ignoring. According to Jenkins, Putin’s “Western enablers” were “conspir[ing] in his rehabilitation” and the government that he runs “bears passing resemblance to the petro-regime of Saddam Hussein.” In addition to Saddam, Putin also reminded Jenkins of another mustachioed dictator (he “clearly seems to be lifting strategies from the Hitler playbook”).

Like those dictators, Jenkins argued, Putin was so aggressive and unstable he could not be contained at all. The Russian dictator’s aggressive strategy left “no prospect of happy retirement.” Incremental steps to oppose him were doomed, because “piecemeal actions just play into Mr. Putin’s hands, giving him a cost-free Great Satan to justify his deepening dictatorship.” Sadly, “pro-appeasement German business leaders” and other weaklings failed to grasp that “Putin’s reckless cynicism should not be underestimated, and that “a Putin regime crisis would be welcome.”

And then Donald Trump came along.

In a reversal so naked it would embarrass the editors of the Daily Worker circa 1939, Jenkins has turned from attacking the West for failing to treat Putin as a modern Hitler to attacking critics of Donald Trump’s slavishly Russophillic stance. Today’s Jenkins column may be his most inspired effort yet.

Jenkins begins by attacking the timing of Robert Mueller’s indictment, which — by immediately preceding Trump’s summit with Putin — shows Mueller’s nefarious partisan intent to undermine the president:

Robert Mueller did his reputation for nonpartisanship no service by launching his indictment of Russia’s military hackers on the eve of what 99% of the media now say was a disastrous performance by President Trump in his summit with Vladimir Putin.

This is the same Mr. Mueller who, as FBI chief, sat for five years on the indictment of a Russian uranium executive when it would have been embarrassing to Mr. Obama’s own Russia rapprochement—and doubly embarrassing to his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, because of the connection of the Clinton Foundation to the Russian uranium business in question.


Mr. Mueller’s timing on Friday was unnecessary.

Mueller’s timing was in fact dictated by Trump himself. The special counsel made the unusual accommodation of giving Trump advance notice of the coming indictment and allowing him to pick when it would be announced, a courtesy prosecutors do not ordinarily grant. This was publicly revealed two hours before the publication date of Jenkins’s column, but it was probably too late to withdraw his accusation, as it would have left a hole in his argument Jenkins could not fill. So, his column begins with a demonstrable falsehood.

Jenkins concedes that Trump’s Russia policy is imperfect, but no more so than any other president. “Truman and Eisenhower were assailed as agents of the Soviet Union by Joseph McCarthy. Reagan was accused (by George Will) of selling out to Gorbachev,” he points out. This is true! Except those other presidents did not have undisclosed financial ties to the Russians, did not defend the murderous repression of those governments as no different than what goes on in the United States, did not stand up for Russia’s right to menace its neighbors, and so on.

Continuing with the analogy, Jenkins argues, “Trump’s performance in Helsinki left a great deal to be desired, but he delivered the policy he has promised since the 2016 campaign. It is identical to the policy of his two most recent predecessors.” Putting aside the fact that Jenkins spent the Obama era in a fit of hysteria at the administration’s weakness toward Russia, it is obviously not the case that the policy is identical. Obama did not refuse to blame Russia for any bad behavior or hold the United States equally responsible for bad relations between the two countries; nor did he dismiss American intelligence reports about Russian attacks on the grounds that Putin strongly denied it.

Does Russia have covert influence over Trump? Jenkins waves away the possibility: “Of course, you can never disprove sinister influences, an impossibility on which certain fellow journalists will be hanging their reputations for years to come.” Note that he begins the sentence by accurately noting that it cannot be disproved, but then breezily calls it an “impossibility,” without giving any evidence for why. It’s impossible for a country to gain undue secret influence over a foreign politician? Yet somehow Putin has pulled off the impossible with a succession of right-wing politicians in the West.

This brings us to the most astonishing passage in Jenkins’s column, in which he asserts that Trump is beset by “hysterical” Russia hawks:

The hell of our situation is that 2016 created a big incentive for Democrats and others to adopt anti-Russia hysteria, likening Russia’s meddling to “Pearl Harbor,” a risky simile when two countries have enough nuclear weapons aimed at each other to make the world uninhabitable.


The only good news is Mr. Trump’s apparent indifference to the media’s attempt to shame him into adopting the media’s Russia policy. He may have no idea of the pressures and constraints under which Mr. Putin acts, but Mr. Trump is a one-man brake on a non-adroit hostility that doesn’t serve U.S. interests.

Jenkins is of course correct that Russia’s intervention to help elect Trump is less dire than Pearl Harbor. That hardly justifies Trump’s effective support for it. There is a massive space between likening Russia’s attack to the worst attack in U.S. history and denying Russian culpability altogether. Jenkins has, astonishingly, moved from one extreme stance to the other. Whereas once he was likening Putin to Hitler and calling for regime change, now he warns that even the mildest criticism of Russia might provoke nuclear war. He credits Trump for resisting what Jenkins calls “the media’s Russia policy,” which is in fact a far milder and more reasonable version of what used to be Jenkins’s own policy. What he used to dismiss as “appeasement,” he now dismisses as “non-adroit hostility.”

When Jenkins writes that “the hell of our situation is that 2016 created a big incentive for Democrats and others to adopt anti-Russia hysteria,” he is unintentionally revealing his personal torment. The election aligned Jenkins’s position against the Republican Party, forcing him to choose between his partisan loyalties and his own principles.

In Soviet times, communist intellectuals had to track the official line from Moscow. When Moscow was trying to make peace with Hitler, they would play down the evils of fascism and rail against the hypocrisy of the West. And when Moscow was attacked by Germany, they flipped their propaganda overnight. What was true for the communist left then remains true for the supply-side right today: When you are waging class war, there’s no room for other principles to get in the way.

How Trump Turned the Right’s Biggest Russia Hawk Into a Dove