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Byron York column: Now they tell us — Trump was tough on Russia

Democrats and their allies in the press spent the last four years accusing President Donald Trump of being soft on Russia. And worse: Some called the president a Russian asset, a traitor, Putin’s patsy and much, much more. It was all nonsense, because behind the rhetoric was the stark reality that Trump, and his administration, have actually been tougher on Russia than many of his predecessors. Now, with the president on the way out, one lone voice in the anti-Trump press — CNN, specifically — has spoken the truth out loud.

On CNN’s “New Day” on New Year’s morning, the network’s Fareed Zakaria was asked how U.S. Russia policy under President Joe Biden might differ from policy under President Trump. “I think, in general, there isn’t going to be as much difference as people imagine,” Zakaria said. “The Biden folks are pretty tough on Russia, Iran, North Korea. You know, the dirty little secret about the Trump administration was that while Donald Trump clearly had a kind of soft spot for Putin, the Trump administration was pretty tough on the Russians. They armed Ukraine. They armed the Poles. They extended NATO operations and exercises in ways that even the Obama administration had not done. They maintained the sanctions. So I don’t think it will be that different.”

The dirty little secret??? It was never a secret at all. All of the actions Zakaria listed were well-known public policy during the Trump years. Any of Zakaria’s colleagues, at CNN and in the press as a whole, might have cited them. But many instead chose to contribute to the media’s Russia hysteria that began even before the president was inaugurated and continued through the years of Trump-Russia special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Flash back a few years. On Feb. 20, 2018, Trump tweeted, “I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts. Total Fake News!” Much of the media stood up as one to denounce Trump’s statement. “Simply false,” said CNN. “That’s not true,” said TIME. “The facts suggest the opposite,” said The Washington Post. “Mostly false,” declared PolitiFact, adding that Trump’s tweet “immediately drew guffaws among media commentators.”

But of course, Trump’s tweet was true, something that most of those media outlets cannot admit even today. But at the time, I texted with a Republican lawmaker who was baffled by the media denials. Of course Trump is tougher on Russia than Obama was, he noted. Then the evidence started coming in a fast and furious series of texts.

Trump had, the lawmaker noted: 1) Bombed Syria, Russia’s main client, and unleashed the U.S. military in Syria, including against Russians; 2) Armed Ukraine; 3) Weakened the Iran nuclear deal, and would likely soon end it [which Trump later did]; 4) Browbeat NATO allies to increase defense spending; 5) Approved $130 billion in new defense spending; 6) Added low-yield nukes to the U.S. arsenal; 7) Started research and development on a new missile after Russia deployed a missile that did not comply with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; 8) Shut down Russia’s consulate in San Francisco; and 9) Pumped more U.S. oil and gas, making the U.S. more energy independent.

Those were just the reasons at the time, in 2018. As time went on, Trump continued and expanded on all those Russia-limiting moves. Plus, he not only kept in place earlier sanctions against Russia, but he added new ones.

The short version of the story: Trump was right, and the media consensus was wrong.

Now the question is whether, with Trump leaving office, journalists can take a look in the mirror and see what they got wrong — and why they got it wrong. The Russia hysteria did not have to happen. The evidence was always there for any journalist to see. It was always possible to adopt a sober, critical, reasoned stance toward the Russian allegations, rather than engage in the hysteria that Trump’s opposition hoped would ultimately result in his removal from office.

Even now, it’s not too late to take a look back. With the Trump presidency coming to an end, perhaps some of the Russia hysterics will give it a try.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.

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