Late last month after news reports suggested that the Russians had hacked into the Democratic National Committee's database, Donald Trump offered this response: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing."

Though Trump later brushed off this comment as sarcasm, this hardly seems a laughing matter and especially so for a candidate for the presidency. But what is perhaps even more troubling has been Trump's apparent embrace of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Putin's interests are not aligned with ours, and his actions constantly undermine our national security. It is one thing to recognize that we must deal with Russia on a range of issues, it's another for Trump to trumpet his admiration for Putin and demonstrate ignorance of Russia's record of human rights violations and foreign aggression.

On a personal level, Trump has praised Putin for having "better leadership qualities" than those of President Barack Obama. Putin in turn has called Trump "very ... talented," saying that he welcomes Trump's promise of "closer, deeper relations." In response, Trump said he was "so nicely complimented" by this "highly respected" man: "When people call you brilliant," he said, "it's always good."

In April, Trump said, "I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia — from a position of strength only — is possible, absolutely possible. Some say the Russians won't be reasonable. I intend to find out."

Recently, Trump offered this vision for U.S.-Russian relations: "I would treat Vladimir Putin firmly but there's nothing that I can think of that I'd rather do than have Russia friendly. … Wouldn't it be nice if we actually got along with people?" In fact, cozying up to Putin's Russia will make us less safe, not more.

Though Trump's campaign does not seem tethered to facts, a few facts about Putin's Russia are helpful to consider.

First, human rights conditions inside Russia are bad and getting worse. The U.S. State Department's most recent Human Rights Report found:
"The [Russian] government increasingly instituted a range of measures to suppress dissent. The government passed new repressive laws and selectively employed existing ones systematically to harass, discredit, prosecute, imprison, detain, fine, and suppress individuals and organizations engaged in activities critical of the government, including NGOs, independent media outlets, bloggers, the political opposition, and activists. Individuals and organizations that professed support for the government of Ukraine or opposed the Russian government's activities in Ukraine were especially targeted."

The State Department's report also catalogues a wide range of other abuses in Russia including "allegations of torture and excessive force by law enforcement officials that sometimes led to deaths, prison overcrowding as well as substandard and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions, executive branch pressure on the judiciary; electoral irregularities, extensive official corruption, violence against women, limits on the rights of women (especially in the North Caucasus), trafficking in persons, discrimination against persons with disabilities, social stigmas against persons with HIV/AIDS, and limitations on workers' rights."

MSNBC's Joe Scarborough confronted Trump on these issues, saying that Putin "kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries." Trump replied that "at least he's a leader."
Trump went on to say, "I think our country does plenty of killing also." He later added, "It has not been proven that he's killed reporters."

Second, Putin continues to destabilize our world, as is evident by Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for an ongoing armed opposition in Eastern Ukraine. In response, when asked whether he would recognize Crimea "as Russian territory" and would lift sanctions, Mr. Trump said: "We'll be looking at that. Yeah, we'll be looking."

This isn't the first time we've seen Putin mischievously involve himself in the affairs of other countries. In Syria, for example, Russia has provided extensive air support to Bashar Assad, despite that regime's unspeakable brutality. Putin also has sided with the extremist Golden Dawn Party in Greece, provided financial support to Marine Le Pen in France, and stood by the Jobbik Party in Hungary.

Vice President Biden warned about Putin's efforts in these and other places in a speech at the Brookings Institution: "President Putin sees such political forces as useful tools to be manipulated, to create cracks in the European body politic which he can then exploit."

And now it seems Putin is fixing his gaze towards the U.S. and our fall election, a move that, given his recent comments, Trump seems to have embraced. Given Putin's dismal track record on human rights and democracy, both at home and abroad, and his aggressive interference in other countries, we should not underestimate his determination to undermine our own political process. In this already tumultuous campaign, Putin's active involvement is a most unwelcome development.

The writer is former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Democracy and Labor under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is now a Jerome Kohlberg Professor of Ethics and Finance Professor at NYU Stern School of Business and co-Director of the Center for Business and Human Rights.


August 14, 2016

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