BY AARON BLAKE
Donald Trump is very bad at making the case that he’s not Russia’s favored candidate in the 2016 U.S. election.
It’s not just the fact that he publicly called for Russia to hack into and obtain the emails Hillary Clinton deleted from her private email server. No, Trump actually said something else at his bizarre, fact-challenged press conference Wednesday that could bring a smile to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face.
Here’s the exchange, via a transcript:
Q: “I would like to know if you became president, would you recognize [inaudible] Crimea as Russian territory? And also if the U.S. would lift sanctions that are [inaudible]?”
A: “We’ll be looking at that. Yeah, we’ll be looking.”
To Trump, “We’ll be looking at that” is his go-to, throwaway answer when he’s asked about something he hasn’t thought about, as The Washington Post cataloged earlier this month. He does this a lot.
But recognizing Crimea as Russian territory is not something that basically anybody inside the American foreign policy mainstream is “looking at.” And were Trump to actually consider it, you can bet it would make Russia very happy indeed.
A little history: Back in March 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, an autonomous republic of Ukraine. After the ouster of the Ukrainian president, Russian troops moved in and held an unauthorized referendum in which Crimeans voted to rejoin Russia, of which it had previously been a part.
As The Post reported back then, it was “the first time that one European nation has seized territory from another since the end of World War II.” As such, U.S. and European allies roundly rejected the annexation. Since then, Vice President Biden has declared it an “illegal” occupation.
“The United States stands firmly with the people of Ukraine in the face of continued — and I emphasize continued — aggression from Russia and Russian-backed separatists,” Biden said in November.
So the official position of the U.S. government is that the Russian annexation of Crimea is illegal and dangerous. Trump, though, left open the possibility Wednesday of simply recognizing Crimea as a Russian territory and even perhaps lifting related sanctions.
And not only that, but a top Trump foreign policy adviser has previously said, in an interview with Bloomberg, that Russian business interests have expressed excitement to him about the prospect of a President Trump easing sanctions:
“A globe-trotting American investment banker who’s built a career on deals with Russia and its state-run gas company, Carter Page says his business has suffered directly from the U.S. economic sanctions imposed after Russia’s escalating involvement in the Ukraine. When Donald Trump named him last week as one of his foreign-policy advisers, Page says his email inbox filled up with positive notes from Russian contacts. ‘So many people who I know and have worked with have been so adversely affected by the sanctions policy,’ Page said in a two-hour interview last week. ‘There’s a lot of excitement in terms of the possibilities for creating a better situation.’ “
As I’ve said, Democrats may be a bit ahead of the intelligence community in their level of confidence that Russia is actively working to elect Trump as president, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence lending credence to that idea.
And if Trump wants to shake off that allegation, comments like that won’t help.
Aaron Blake is a columnist for The Washington Post.