At the start of this strange US presidential election cycle only a hubristic Vladimir Putin might have expected that he and the Russian-influenced world would play such a prominent role, beyond that is the usual Reaganesque invocations of the former Soviet Union’s inherently evil nature.
Yet the resignation of Donald Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and his preemptive sidelining by a new team of advisers, was at least in part a result of machinations out of Moscow. It came after increasing scrutiny of Manafort’s past involvement with Putin-aligned interests in Ukraine and Trump’s noticeable softening of the established Republican position on Russian revanchism in Eastern Europe.
The departure also followed the GOP candidate’s unprecedented invitation to the Kremlin to meddle in domestic US politics by releasing thousands of suppressed Hillary Clinton emails, which he supposed had been stolen from the former Secretary of State’s controversial private servers. Russian hackers were, of course, widely believed to be behind the release of the emails that revealed the Democratic National Committee’s bias against Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders.
The proudly non-politician Trump failed to see a problem in the origin of these hacks, just so long as they served to undermine his rival. Conventional wisdom – admittedly not very reliable in this contest – holds it’s not a particularly good idea to cosy up to Russia in a bid to win American hearts and minds. Indeed, owing to Putin’s increasing regional aggressiveness and his frustration of US foreign policy aims in places like Syria, the percentage of Americans who view Russia unfavourably is nudging levels last seen in the Cold War. Were the roles reversed, it’s not hard to imagine Trump running wild with conspiracy theories of Clinton as Manchurian candidate, installed by Putin to destroy America from within.
As things stand, there is still plenty of wild conjecture on the nature of Trump’s end game and how it relates to his increasingly chaotic campaigning. After all, Manafort’s resignation – which we can safely assume was a wholly forced departure – was also attributed by many to Trump’s desire to more fully embrace his stream-of-consciousness electioneering style.
New hires such as Breitbart News’ executive chairman Steve Bannon as campaign chief executive, and a typically shadowy role for former Fox News head Roger Ailes, seem to confirm a future emphasis on brash style over political substance. These individuals have their work cut out for them if they are to build a successful White House bid from where the pundits currently have the Trump campaign positioned. Fivethirtyeight.com gives Trump a 15.3% chance of winning in November while The New York Times puts it at 14%.
While the media and public's fascination with the Trump camp's strategy and tactics (or lack thereof) could be seen as starving the Clinton campaign of some of its oxygen, polling suggests this isn't a problem for her. Indeed, there is less and less reason for Clinton to do what she clearly doesn't like doing and front a media conference. As President Obama has acknowledged, the case for Clinton’s administration is being effectively made without her involvement. (And without the need to dice with public scrutiny, I would add.)
The public and media will now focus on seeing if there any changes in the Trump campaign post-Manafort that might allow him to more effectively challenge his opponent. It is difficult to see how he could become any more raw or unhinged than at present but time will tell as he and his new team attempt to recapture the spirit of the primaries.
Perhaps it would be more useful to track any evolution in the candidate’s views of the US vis à vis Russia post-Manafort. Trump’s previous perspectives – including calling into question American commitments to the Russia-countering NATO – have been firmly outside the worldview of typical Republican voters, who, it turns out, Trump does need after all. These views remain problematic despite Manafort’s departure, with many journalists and Democratic staff likely to continue probing the former chairman’s ties. To remain somewhat in the realm of conspiracy, there always the chance that these ties went much deeper than has been currently revealed, and this hastened the resignation.
A reversal on Russia and Ukraine would invariably raise questions about how much Trump was beholden to Manafort. On its own, it would also not be enough to turn the tide of public support in the GOP candidate’s favour. It could be an opening for larger and much-needed change within the flagging campaign but this would require the co-operation of the candidate. Trump still seems completely inflexible and unwilling to study any of the widely available political calculus that might affect his chances of success. It suggests there’s more to his affection for Putin than can be traced to Manafort, an affection that puts Trump at odds with his countrymen and women.
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