To Russia, With Love, From Donald Trump

On January 6, U.S. intelligence agencies briefed the President-elect about Russia’s role in the 2016 American presidential elections. The agencies unilaterally assessed that Russia attempted to interfere with the election, and demonstrated a clear preference for Trump, but the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that the “intelligence community did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.” Soon after, Trump told The Associated Press that he “learned a lot” during the meeting.

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Evan Vucci - Associated Press

A statement released by his staff shortly after said, “While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”

He did not wait long, though, to let the world know how he felt about taking the U.S.-Russia relationship forward. On the next day, he took to Twitter to say the U.S. would do well by maintaining healthy ties with Russia. His tweet read, “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only "stupid" people, or fools, would think that it is bad!" He added, "Have enough problems around the world without yet another one."

A tweet posted on the same day spoke of how the U.S. and Russia can come together and solve some of the world’s pressing problems. He wrote, “Both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the world.” He also opined that, “Russia will respect us far more than they do now.”

During the U.S. Presidential elections, Trump praised Putin as a strong and decisive leader. Since the allegations of Russian interference in U.S. elections emerged, Trump has continually downplayed the news, suggesting that the accusations were nothing more than “a political witch hunt.” His skepticism directed at American intelligence agencies along with his enthusiasm to build better ties with Russia have alarmed many political analysts.

Most assume Putin will continue calling the shots in his relationship with Trump. However, Trump and his team should, and just might, make efforts to put the Russian leader at a disadvantage.

Putin has to face re-election in early 2018. He surely does not want a repeat of the mass demonstrations that took place in Moscow, when thousands of Russians challenged his landslide victory. His belief that Hillary Clinton was behind the mass protests against his regime in 2011 and 2012 might well be the reason he supported Trump.

Until the collapse of global oil prices in 2008, Russia’s economy was going strong. Since then, it’s been going downhill. During the Russian elections in 2012, oil prices stood at around $100 per barrel. Now, they have almost halved. Russia reluctantly joined an OPEC agreement with the aim of boosting oil prices. However, if the U.S. decides to up its oil production under the Trump administration, it will end up putting further pressure on oil prices, which is not at all in favor of Russia. Moscow, of course, would love to curb U.S. oil output.

Putin, without doubt, is trying to get Russia back to its Cold War superpower days. To do so, it must become a key player in sensitive regions the world over. Russia has, to some degree, pushed the U.S. out of the Middle East. It has established itself as a peacemaker in Syria. It is an ally of Turkey and a formidable foe of ISIS. It remains a member of NATO. Putin might continue to try and keep the U.S. on the outside wherever it can. However, if Trump can understand Putin’s aims, the U.S. can reestablish its presence in areas where it has already been marginalized.

However, it may be too soon to tell how Trump will act toward Russia once he’s inaugurated. Shortly before his pro-Russian tweets, he officially nominated retired Indiana Sen. Dan Coats as director of national intelligence. Coats has been a fiery critic of Putin, and has shown little fondness for Russia. While he served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Coats asked Obama to impose stricter sanctions on Russia after Crimea’s annexation in 2013. Subsequently, Russia banned Coats from entering the country. Furthermore, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated on Sunday, "I don't think it's all that unusual for a new president to want to get along with the Russians. I remember George W. Bush having the same hope. My suspicion is, these hopes will be dashed pretty quickly."

How these two countries take their relationship forward is yet to be seen. Trump’s stance, though, has done more than just damage morale within the American intelligence community. Political observers remain puzzled about whether Trump is making a strategic decision or if his move is a result of probable business deals with Russia. Time will tell.

Obama’s Long Goodbye Nearing Its Close

Barack Obama is bidding farewell to the American people at the end of his tenure as President through a series of addresses, essays and memos. His official farewell address is to take place on January 10, in his hometown of Chicago. In an exit letter released on January 4, he outlined his proudest achievements and biggest regrets in the last eight years. The letter included 27 individual exit memos written by top officials who are part of his administration.

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Jacquelyn Martin - AP

One aspect Obama strongly regrets is his failure to secure gun control. He previously shared this sentiment with BBC in July 2015 and with CNN in December 2016. In the letter, he wrote, “There’s still so much I wish we’d been able to do, from enacting gun safety measures to protect more of our kids and our cops from mass shootings like Newtown.”

Stressing the need to improve how the U.S. looks at immigration, he also wrote that the country needs “commonsense immigration reform that encourages the best and brightest from around the world to study, stay, and create jobs in America.” Adding that there remains more work to do on the employment front, he wrote, “For all the incredible progress our economy has made in just eight years, we still have more work to do for every American still in need of a good job or a raise, paid leave or a dignified retirement.”

During a Fox News interview in April 2016, he said that lack of planning to deal with the aftermath of Gaddafi’s ouster in Libya was the biggest mistake he made when in office. After Gaddafi’s exit, the country spiraled into chaos, coming under attack from extremists. In the same interview, he said his worst day in office was when he travelled to Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. This was after a gunman shot six staff members and 20 children in an elementary school.

The letter released on January 4 also listed what he considered notable achievements. These included securing Obamacare, shifting from coal to solar power, as well as pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq. As before, he took pride in how his administration helped the country recover from the 2008 financial crisis. He wrote, “Eight years later, an economy that was shrinking at more than 8 percent is now growing at more than 3 percent. Businesses that were bleeding jobs unleashed the longest streak of job creation on record.”

The letter mentioned how no terrorist organization successfully planned and executed any attack on American soil in the last eight years. Obama reminded people that “terrorists like Osama bin Laden have been taken off the battlefield.” The letter also highlighted the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations and the Iran nuclear deal.

Acknowledging that he could not accomplish all he wanted to as President, he wrote, “Still, through every victory and every setback, I’ve insisted that change is never easy, and never quick; that we wouldn’t meet all of our challenges in one term, or one presidency, or even in one lifetime.”

What will Obama do once he leaves the White House? In a June 2016 interview with Bloomberg, he said, “Had I not gone into politics, I’d probably be starting some kind of business.” He also added that “the skill set of starting my presidential campaigns — and building the kinds of teams that we did and marketing ideas — I think would be the same kinds of skills that I would enjoy exercising in the private sector.”