Analysis

Punishing Russia, Trump Is Caught Between Putin and a Porn Star

Heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow after the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats could hamper U.S. ability to abandon the Iran nuclear deal

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 11, 2017 US President Donald Trump (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk as they make their way to take the "family photo" during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang.
Donald Trump's decision to expel 60 alleged "spies" is the largest ever mass expulsion of Russian or Soviet officials from the United States, a senior administration official told AFP on March 26, 2018. "This is the largest single expulsion of Russians," including Soviet officials, the source said, underscoring the significance of the US response to the Kremlin's alleged poisoning of a former spy in England.
 / AFP PHOTO / POOL / JORGE SILVA
JORGE SILVA/AFP

The Trump administration took harsh diplomatic measures against Russia on Monday, refuting, ostensibly and temporarily at least, the allegations that the president is a lackey of Vladimir Putin. The expulsion of 60 diplomats and the closing of the Russian Consulate in Seattle in response to the attempted murder-by-nerve-agent that Moscow allegedly carried out on British soil was a reaction on a scale of the Cold War. Cynics will claim that Trump was happy to divert attention away from porn star Stormy Daniels, who continued to torment the president with a solid interview on 60 Minutes about their alleged one-night stand, but the bottom line is that Trump finds himself, intentionally or not, leading a Western front into direct conflict with his favorite authoritarian Putin.

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‘I was scared’: Stormy Daniels says she was threatened

To the West’s shame, it chose the worst possible day to try and punish or deter Russia. The massive and coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats - which encompassed not only Britain, France and other Western European nations but suspect immediate neighbors such as Ukraine and the Baltic states as well - would have triggered the famed Russian paranoia in any case. When the West’s public hazing of Moscow takes place a few short hours after Russians were informed of the tragedy in the city of Kemerovo, in which 64 people including many children burned to death, grief mixes with insult and public outrage can turn ugly and dangerous.

The decision whether to ride this wave of popular indignation to escalate or moderate tensions with the West is now in Putin’s hands, of course, but the intensity of the confrontation is already sufficient to have a negative influence on the national security challenges awaiting Trump over the coming weeks in Syria, North Korea and, first and foremost from Israel’s point of view, Iran.

A seething and snarling Russia will react differently to America’s international clashes; Moscow’s motivation to intervene discreetly or openly on the side of Washington’s adversaries can only rise. A U.S. military threat aimed at deterring Tehran from going crazy after Trump decides to abandon the nuclear deal, as many predict, would look far more precarious if Russia were to warn Washington in advance that it shouldn’t dare.

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The initiative for the diplomatic punishment of Russia didn’t come from Trump; his refusal to embrace British Prime Minister Theresa May’s unequivocal contention that the Russian state is responsible for the attempt to murder former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, along with his cordial congratulatory phone call with Putin, despite the nerve gas attack, only deepened the suspicions about Trump’s relations with the Putin. But U.S. intelligence services along with Republican lawmakers urged Trump to respond strongly, not only to the murder attempt but to Russian penetration of American infrastructure and energy computers.

The need to repair the damage Trump inflicted on the special relationship between the U.S. and the United Kingdom and the need to reassure NATO members that mutual defense is not a dead letter spurred senior administration officials to push for a coordinated Western response. This was most likely the advice given by Trump’s new appointees, Mike Pompeo at the State Department and incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton, who are both suspicious of the Kremlin. Trump ultimately approved of the policy, which is now registered in his name, but past experience leads one to suspect that he doesn’t necessarily think it’s a good idea.

Conspiracy theorists already smell a rat. The credit that Trump will gain as a fearless foe of Putin could strengthen his hand if and when he decides to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. I will stand with you on Russia, Trump might tell his intelligence chiefs, but let’s stop with this nonsense that Putin is somehow responsible for my election.

Anyone who sees a plot behind every corner might think that the entire diplomatic tiff is just an ingenious sting operation organized by Putin and his Federal Security Service, heirs to a proud tradition of KGB skullduggery, in order to enable Trump to shut down the Mueller probe and to protect what Russian security services regard, as the Washington Post reported in December, as their most successful psy-ops operation in history.

The intercontinental standoff helped Trump on the domestic front, by shifting focus away from the mass demonstrations for gun control that took place on Saturday and that reflected, among other things, the enthusiasm that could blow away Republicans in the upcoming November elections.

The diplomatic tiff will face a harder task trying to compete with Stephanie Gregory Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, who has morphed, willy nilly and in the height of irony, into a standard bearer of the feminine fight against Trump. Her cool and confident interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes not only substantiated Daniels’ account of her sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, it also made clear that she is a tough and formidable rival to Trump and the White House, which might actually be expected from a woman who rose to the top in the unruly and often brutal porn industry. Daniels also comes equipped now with a hotshot LA lawyer, Michael Avenatti, a charismatic litigator and part time racing car driver who delights in taking risks and bringing down the high and mighty.

Daniels’ efforts to revoke the agreement she signed with Trump attorney Michael Cohen a few short days before last November’s elections so she could tell all about her ties to the President is damaging for Trump but only on the fringes. Some Republicans may become more disillusioned but Trump’s loyal base won’t abandon him because he committed adultery with a blonde porn star or tried to buy her silence.

Avenatti, who once worked with Chicago mayor and former Obama adviser Rahm Emanuel, seems to be steering the conversation to possible campaign finance laws that Cohen may have broken by giving $130,000 of his own money to silence Daniels at a critical juncture for the Trump campaign. Such an infringement wouldn’t matter much, were it not for the possibilities it opens for Mueller to pressure Cohen to tell all about Trump or face jail instead. Thus the star of “Wet Sex 4” Stormy Daniels is fanning the whirlwind surrounding the Trump-Russia investigation, which, in turn, is linked to the maelstrom that is now shaking relations between East and West.