News analysis

Trump's Russia policy hit by inexperience and mistakes

More fallouts as evidence shows that his team members have had contact with Russians

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has become the latest member of the Cabinet of US President Donald Trump to come under a cloud over contacts with Russian officials.

As evidence mounts that he, the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner and other members of Trump's team communicated with Russian officials during and after the presidential campaign, what observers here are increasingly calling "Russiagate" threatens to scuttle attempts to reset the US relationship with Moscow.

Mr Sessions, a former senator just three weeks into his new job, was reported to have met Russia's ambassador to Washington, Mr Sergey Kislyak, during the election campaign . But, during questioning at confirmation hearings for his Cabinet post, Mr Sessions said he had no contact with Russians. That raises the question of perjury as the hearings are conducted under oath.

As a result, opposition Democrats are calling for his resignation and even some Republicans want the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate possible Russian involvement in the US elections.

Under such pressure, Mr Sessions at a press conference on Thursday read a brief statement recusing himself from "any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States".

The controversy has drowned out a wave of positive reviews of Mr Trump's speech at the joint session of Congress on Tuesday.  

Hours after Mr Sessions recused himself, President Trump took to Twitter to lash out at critics, saying: "Jeff Sessions is an honest man.

"The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election, and now they have lost their grip on reality. . . The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information."


Protesters calling for the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in front of the Justice Department on Thursday. He has said he will recuse himself from probes into possible Russian interference. ST PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Besides Mr Sessions, two other Trump team officials were reported to have met Mr Kislyak.

The revelations came on top of months of reports of Russian hacking of the Democratic Party's computers during the election, and contacts with Russian officials - mostly the ambassador - by Trump campaign officials.

Last month, Mr Trump's National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned after it was revealed he misled Vice-President Mike Pence over his own conversations with the Russian ambassador.

On Thursday, The New York Times reported that Mr Kushner was also in attendance when Mr Flynn met the diplomat in Trump Tower in December.

A veteran foreign diplomat who asked not to be named told The Straits Times that it is not unusual for senators and even campaign staff to meet foreign ambassadors.

"It's perfectly normal for diplomats to reach out to the campaign team," he said. "Sessions at the time was a senator as well, and on key committees."

Mr Trump and his team see allegations of Russian influence and connections as a campaign to delegitimise his election win, the diplomat added.

In an e-mail to The Straits Times, Mr Stephen Sestanovich, George F Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote:  "President Trump has almost lost control of Russia policy by his own and his advisers' mistakes. Inexperience tells.

"As we've said in this country ever since Watergate, nothing makes an ambiguous action look worse than trying to cover it up."

 Watergate refers to the scandals spawned by a break-in at the Democratic National Committee's offices in the Washington, DC building of that name in 1972 that prompted Mr Richard Nixon to become the only US president ever to resign.

Mr Rafael Frankel, vice-president of consultancy Bower Group Asia, told The Straits Times: "There's a huge current of opposition in the US towards President Trump's policies but policy gets adjudicated in elections.

"The Russia connections are potentially illegal and, as such, have the power to bring down powerful members of his administration, as we already saw with Flynn and we may now see with Sessions. The key for Trump himself is, what did he know and when did he know it?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2017, with the headline 'Trump's Russia policy hit by inexperience and mistakes'. Print Edition | Subscribe