The other "moral equivalency" campaign.

Photographer: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

On Russia, Trump Is a Code Pink Republican

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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After watching his interview on Fox News this weekend, it's worth asking whether President Donald Trump is now the leader of the Code Pink Republicans.

This is the term coined by the conservative author and radio host Mark Levin to describe those on the right who valorize Russian President Vladimir Putin. Like Code Pink, the sign-waving hollerers known for disrupting congressional hearings to demonstrate against alleged U.S. aggression, the current president does not appear to believe America is a morally exceptional nation.

How else to explain these remarks to Bill O'Reilly that aired before the Super Bowl? When asked why Trump says he respects Putin, given that Putin is a killer, Trump responds: "There are a lot of killers. We got a lot of killers, what? You think our country's so innocent?" Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin couldn't have said it better.

And yes, while it's true that the U.S. government has certainly killed its enemies before, there is no comparison to Russia.

The U.S. conducts drone strikes against terrorists. Putin poisons, disappears and exiles his domestic political opposition.

The U.S. since the late 1970s openly funds non-governmental organizations that push for the rule of law and democratic elections. Putin authorizes cyber-thefts and disinformation campaigns on behalf of far right and far left political parties in Europe and his near abroad.

The U.S. broadcasts news into foreign countries in several languages through Voice of America. Russia funds media that promote conspiracy theories like the 9/11 truth movement.

It's also true that Trump is not the first president to engage in this kind of moral relativism. When President Barack Obama was selling the Iran nuclear deal, he was fond of comparing Iran's hardliners with U.S. Republicans, an analogy that both demonized his political opponents and burnished the image of Iran's rulers. 

Trump's moral equivalency toward Russia is part of a pattern. In December 2015, he was asked on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" about Putin's killing of journalists. Trump responded: "Our country does plenty of killing also."

During the Republican convention, Trump's surrogates stripped language from the Republican platform calling for the arming of Ukraine against Russia.

After winning the election, Trump appeared to begin to walk things back. He made it clear in interviews that he thought the NATO alliance was important, though he also said he believed it was obsolete. (Code Pink agrees on that last point, for what it's worth.)

Trump's choices for key cabinet posts also indicated he was moderating his views on Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his confirmation hearings last month said he would not support recognition of Russian claims to Crimea without the agreement of Ukraine. Last week, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, condemned Russian-backed separatists for the recent uptick in fighting in eastern Ukraine. She said: "Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine."

That's good news. But it's also insufficient. Haley referred only to the specific sanctions related to Crimea. There are still sanctions on Russian officials for their role in the murder and torture of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who discovered a huge tax fraud scheme inside the country's interior ministry. There are also separate sanctions against Russia for its aggression against Ukraine, independent of those levied in regard to its annexation of Crimea.

What's more, it's not clear whether Haley was speaking for the Trump administration. When asked about sanctions on Russia on Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Vice President Mike Pence was inconclusive: "If we have opportunities to work together, I think the president is looking for an opportunity to begin that relationship anew. But, make no mistake about it, those decisions will await action. And they'll be very dependent on how the Russians respond in the days ahead."

As Trump might tweet: Sad! Pence distinguished himself in October during the vice presidential debate by taking a tough line on Putin. He called him a "small and bullying man," and promised a Trump administration would be tougher on Putin than Hillary Clinton would be.

Pence's position on Putin was in line with that of most of his party. On Sunday, Republican congressional leaders would not defend Trump's comments on Putin to O'Reilly. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Putin a "thug" on CNN on Sunday, and said there was no moral equivalence between the U.S. and Russia. 

Trump's remarks were closer to those of Republicans like Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, who is an occasional guest of the Kremlin. These days this former cold warrior devotes his energies in Washington to the fight against Russia sanctions. Last summer, Rohrabacher entered into the congressional record an account of the Magnitsky case that claimed the whistle-blower was a thief, borrowing the same alternative facts pumped out by Russia's numerous propaganda outlets.

For years, because of Rohrabacher's pro-Putin sentiments, the leaders of his party treated him like a crazy uncle. But Trump's the party leader now. And the Code Pink Republicans appear to have one of their own in the Oval Office.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net