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Trump’s silence on the Russia sanctions hints at his fear of being compromised by Putin

Sean O'Grady

I am one of the few remaining listeners to the Radio 4 Today programme, by the way, and when I drowsily turned my radio on to catch the news, I thought I heard dear old John Humphrys say, quite distinctly, that the United Sates was imposing new sanctions on Russia over the Skripal affair.

You’d better stop dreaming and get up, I thought to myself. There hasn’t been some sort of overnight coup in the US that put Barack Obama back in the White House (now there’s a thought). Trump’s still there and, beyond having his picture taken with the Queen, and the welfare of Nigel Farage, he doesn’t care about Britain.

But no. It’s true. I was awake after all. There will be more sanctions imposed on Russia by the US, unless the Kremlin opens up more sites for inspection – unlikely. It’s all because of a law passed in the golden age of American politics, the presidency of the first, George HW, Bush, back in 1991. Like those cicadas that emerge, noisily, in Washington DC only every few decades, this forgotten piece of legislation suddenly sprung into life. A determination by the US Department of State that the Russians had used chemical weapons, as in Salisbury, automatically leads to sanctions. No intervention by President Trump is required or permitted, either way: what I believe the Americans term a “slam dunk”.

Still no word from the voluble chap, though. Maybe he’s consulting his advisers about how he can just abolish a law he doesn’t like much by executive order, like his dictatorial mates round the world – Erdogan, Kim Jong-un, Putin himself. You’d hope that someone, somewhere in the White House has had the gumption to say “no, Mr President”.

So the Americans have done the right thing, if only by accident, and we have the Congress of 1991 that passed the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act to thank for it.

It is refreshing. It’s like the old days again. Even after being entertained lavishly on his brief visit to the UK, by all accounts the attempted assassination of the Skripals, and the subsequent death of Dawn Sturgess and near death of Charlie Rowley, weren’t brought up during Mr Trump’s recent cosy chats with Vladimir in Helsinki. Not even a mention, en passant, on the way to the press conference. Not even a perfunctory “your guys wouldn’t do a thing like that would they, Vladimir?”. Not even a joke in poor taste about making sure that that powder they were putting in the president’s coffee wasn’t novichok.

Nothing. Nietski.

True, the Americans did feel obliged to withdraw some diplomats in the immediate aftermath of the attack, so credit there, but we’ve not seen much tough talking or action since, and certainly when he met Putin. The odd thing was how unremarked upon it was, as if we, the British, have long since given up on the US being willing to defend us and honour a long-standing, if sometimes troubled, partnership in international affairs. Wasn’t it Ronald Reagan’s alliance with Margaret Thatcher that helped win the Cold War? What about the intermingling of American and British blood in so many conflicts before and since? Fake news, I guess.

We will see what Trump does next. The fear must be that he will betray his British allies once again – America First! – and actually find some way to ameliorate or cancel the various sanctions the US has placed on Russia for its acts of international aggression. He will, very likely, carry on obstructing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election with a load of flak about Crooked Hillary (which might be true but is irrelevant). He will continue to deny, as he has recently, that collusion is a crime or that it even happened. Fake news, and all that.

All of which leads one to ask: what is it that the Russians have on Trump? What is it that makes him turn a blind eye to Putin annexing Crimea and eastern Ukraine? Why is he not bothered about them menacing Poland and Estonia? Why doesn’t he give a flying trump about the murder of British citizens? Why is the great deal-maker prepared to take the word of President Putin above any of his friends and allies – Merkel, nay, even the “Trump whisperer” Macron?

Blackmail? The biggest blackmail in history? One day we may find it is all because of “kompromat” that the Russians possess on him. There are wild rumours about it all over the internet, which we may treat as just that. But it is very odd, these golden Trumpian silences. Dreamlike.