President Donald Trump tweeted, “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!”
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, you see, cannot prevent the president from revealing his self-delusions and own ignorance. Once again, we see Trump’s inability to recognize the danger posed to us by Russia and, worse, his own conduct in forcing Congress to act on its own initiative.
For starters, Russia brought this on itself by meddling in our elections and those of our European allies, invading neighbors, backing the murderous Syrian regime and engaging in domestic repression. Trump refuses to take issue with all that or to acknowledge that such conduct is contrary to U.S. interests. By blaming Congress, he once again does Russian President Vladimir Putin’s water-carrying. Blaming the West and casting Russia as the innocent victim come straight from the Russian propaganda playbook.
Trumps prefers not only to avoid identifying or punishing Russia but also shows no interest in protecting American democracy. Numerous intelligence officials have testified before Congress in open session that Trump has never asked them about Russian cyberespionage or anti-Western propaganda. Think about it. Trump will not acknowledge, let alone do something about the tactics of our chief international foe. He prefers that Congress do nothing — just appease and avoid Russia’s ire. That’s the sort of attitude conservatives in Congress and in the foreign policy community would have virulently criticize President Barack Obama for adopting (and did).
Trump’s refusal to engage on Russia has been mimicked by the State Department, in refusing to approve a funding request memo that would pry loose $60 million in mandated funds for the Global Engagement Center (GEC), which is designed to “counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining the [United States’] national security interests.”
Understand that Russia is not mentioned in the original GEC authorization in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, so the administration’s slothful behavior means we are not protecting ourselves and our allies from threats from Russia, China or other rogue states. (The attempt by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s staff to blame employees in the GEC for not creating a request is false, according to information provided to us; not one but two separate requests have been sent up the chain of command; the last has been gathering dust since June.)
Not only has the money not been obtained and spent, but also the GEC now operates with just a handful of people. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan testified last month that the GEC is a “high priority” and exceptions to the hiring freeze were available; however, a request for adequate staffing has yet to generate a response, according to a State Department source.
Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Tom Carper, D-Del., this week sent a letter to Tillerson, a copy of which was provided to us, asking Tillerson directly about the GEC. It requested six categories of information, including the “status of implementation” and a complete listing of personnel by Aug. 23. There is plenty of cause to worry not only about the $60 million but also about a new tranche of money from the recently passed sanctions bill.
In the latest sanctions bill, Congress authorized $250 million for the Countering Russian Influence Fund, which includes monies “to build the capacity of civil society, media and other nongovernmental organizations countering the influence and propaganda of the Russian Federation,” and specifically calls on the secretary of state to carry out the functions of the GEC “for the purposes of recognizing, understanding, exposing and countering propaganda and disinformation efforts by foreign governments.”
The sanctions law instructs the State Department to coordinate with the Defense Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and “other relevant Federal agencies” and requires the secretary of state to report back to Congress next April.
The question then presents itself: Is the president willing to counter an identified threat to U.S. national security, and will his administration follow the law in staffing and developing programs to do just that? So far the answer to both is “no.” Maybe the new chief of staff needs to remind the president that Russia, not Congress, is the enemy and prod Tillerson to comply with the law. That might require Tillerson to get out of his executive suite and engage with people doing the work of the State Department.