Did Trump expel Russian diplomats to divert focus from Stormy Daniels episode?
US President Donald Trump played an unusual diplomatic offensive stroke vis-à-vis Russia by expelling its 60 diplomats - including 12 in the United Nations in New York - besides shutting down the Russian consulate in Seattle after the Kremlin was accused of carrying out a nerve agent attack against its former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in England earlier this month.
From a diplomatic point of view, this move was unusual since Trump has shown less intent in confronting Russia than his European allies during his term which is just over 14 months old.
He did not care to lend ears to the caution that his advisers gave against congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin after the latter won his fourth presidential term this month. Neither did Trump mention anything about the Salisbury incident during his call with Putin to give an indication that he indeed was upset with Russia like the UK and other European Union members.
The duo even spoke about a possible summit to rein in the arms race and boost economic cooperation even as Europe was fuming over the Russian "aggression" displayed through the Salisbury incident.
One viewpoint is that the Trump administration's stand on Russia is set to undergo a change after the arrival of Mike Pompeo as the Secretary of State and John Bolton as the national security adviser. Both these individuals are known to harbour a critical stand on Moscow.
Trump had little concern for Salisbury spy poisoning until recently
But White House officials claimed that it was Trump who played the central role in taking the decision to expel the Russian diplomats. What's even more surprising is that the White House described the act of expulsion as one that made the US safer by reducing Russia's "ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America's national security".
The US's domestic politics has been rocked by allegations of Russia's meddling in its 2016 presidential election and Trump, the winner of that election, consistently denied such a possibility. If the US did not feel it urgent enough to expel the Russian diplomats under those circumstances to safeguard its national security, then why suddenly now over an incident that otherwise found little mention in Trump's speeches?
The diplomatic purge came after Stormy Daniels interview
The decision to expel the diplomats came after Stormy Daniels, a porn actress who has claimed of having an affair with Trump in the mid-2000s and accused of being threatened if she opened upon it, appeared on a television interview on CBS channel.
Daniels in her '60 Minutes' interview though did not produce any evidence to back her affair with Trump but said that she knew of the legal repercussions of speaking about the episode openly as that could see her breaching the confidentiality agreement. Trump did not react to the interview which is again an exception to his general behavioural pattern of bashing and shaming women who claimed to have got involved with him in affairs.
The interview was a hit as it drew a massive viewership but now, the American diplomatic offensive against Russia is likely to eclipse the aftereffects of the Daniels interview and also the impact that the 'March For Our Lives' protest against gun violence had all over the country and across the world the last weekend.
Leaders fuel nationalist sentiments when in trouble at home
Political leadership across the globe - be democratic or authoritarian - always play the nationalism card when facing trouble at home. Putin has done no exception by enhancing the Russian pride to stay on in power even if there have been domestic hardships and Trump also did the same to divert the focus from his own tainted image to continue to enjoy the popular support for making America great (again).
Trump used the state machinery perfectly to dilute the domestic criticism - from communities or an individual - but it would be interesting to see how he bridges the gap with Putin from hereon.