'The intervention was a surefire winner': Trump's presidency has created the 'unbelievable turmoil' Putin wanted all along
"The whole environment is one of disfunction in the Trump administration," Sen. John McCain told reporters on Tuesday, one day after National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign following revelations he had discussed US sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the US while still a private citizen.
"Nobody knows who's in charge and nobody knows who's setting policy," McCain said.Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the military's Special Operations Command, put it even more bluntly in what amounted to a striking comment from a sitting general.
"Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil," he said during a recent conference. "I hope they sort it out soon, because we're a nation at war."
The US intelligence community is still investigating Russia's hacking campaign targeting US Democrats during the presidential election, and whether Trump aides who spoke to Kremlin officials throughout the campaign had anything to do with it. Meanwhile, bipartisan calls in Congress to more closely examine Trump's ties to Russia are growing louder.
"I've never been so nervous in my lifetime about what may or may not happen in Washington," Leon Panetta, a Democrat who served as chief of staff, secretary of defense, and CIA director over 50 years and under nine presidents, told The New York Times.
Reports have emerged in recent days that the Kremlin is getting nervous about the chaos, because the government has been counting on Trump to improve the US-Russia relationship.
But some experts say that, on the contrary, Putin is likely feeding off of the chaos and the extent to which it has furthered his own domestic agenda - that is, to convey to ordinary Russians how ineffective Western democracy can be.
Ironically, that agenda may have been undermined by Trump's victory in November: Had Clinton won the electoral college and Trump won the popular vote, "the Kremlin would have then had a popular US figure ready to vocally attempt to undermine the democratic legitimacy of the Clinton administration," said Joshua A Tucker, director of NYU's Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia.
"That would have left US actors calling out US democratic elections as fatally flawed," Tucker added. "Such a scenario could fit Kremlin domestic concerns perfectly: the US could still be the enemy causing all of Russia's problems, while Trump and his supporters would be undermining the viability of the US political model as an alternative to Putinism."
Mark Kramer, program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, largely agreed.
"Putin was trying to meddle in the elections to stir public doubts about the legitimacy of the elections in part because he expected Clinton was going to win, and he wanted to portray her election as unfair and illegitimate," he said.
"That would enable him to say to his domestic constituents: 'See? Elections in the West are just a sham, and they're nowhere near as fair as our elections, which give the outcomes that popularity ratings would predict. We're more democratic than the West is,'" Kramer added.
From this perspective, Russia is now "the dog that caught the car," Tucker added. Trump winning the election was nominally the goal of helping him during the campaign, but Russia never actually expected him to win.
Hackers who infiltrated the emails of Democratic National Committee and Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, were sloppy and left digital footprints that clearly linked them to the Russian government, according to cybersecurity experts. Calls intercepted by American eavesdroppers between foreign nationals and Russian officials allegedly discussing the presidential campaign were equally sloppy, moreover, given the open secret that intelligence agencies routinely spy on each other.
Thus, while the reality of Trump's presidency meant "the loss of the known [Kremlin] foil in Clinton and the emergence of an uncertain negotiating partner in Trump," as Tucker put it, the near-daily revelations about the Trump campaign's contact with Russia - largely stemming from those easily traceable hacks and phone calls - is on track to create the type of crisis in American democracy Putin may have wanted all along.
Putin, for his part, is rolling with it. On Thursday, he ordered state media to stop its "fawning coverage" of Trump, creating the conditions to reestablish the US government as a dysfunctional foil to the Kremlin.
Putin knew when he first decided to interfere in the US elections that Trump was "volatile, unpredictable, and unreliable," said Steve Fish, an expert in democracy and regime change in postcommunist countries and professor of comparative politics at UC Berkeley. "He believed, and still does, that a Trump presidency presents as many problems as it does opportunities from the standpoint of U.S.-Russia relations."
But from the standpoint of subverting democracy, Fish said, "the intervention was a surefire winner."