Nothing, it seems, can dampen Donald Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin. Amid a diplomatic row over spying between Washington and Moscow, Mr Trump expressed his admiration for Mr Putin’s conduct over the weekend, calling him “very smart”.
Yet in what may prove the first major test of his upcoming presidency, Mr Trump is facing a backlash in US congress as politicians on both sides of the aisle express rare bipartisan concern over his sympathetic attitude towards the Russian President and apparent unwillingness to take seriously Kremlin interference in the US election.
This week, John McCain, head of the US Senate’s armed services committee and a fervent critic of Mr Putin, is to launch an investigation into Russian hacking.
The Obama administration is also due to release a report on the full extent of the activity.
“If Trump ignores this, it’s going to be a pretty obvious national security concern,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm. “It won’t be America first, it will be Trump first. That has the potential to hurt him.”
Senator McCain, who spent New Year’s Eve with the Ukrainian army, Republican senator Lindsey Graham and several leading Democrats are calling for more sanctions on Russia to build on those imposed by President Barack Obama last week, when he expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the US for espionage.
A further complication for Mr Trump is the Senate confirmation hearing this month of Rex Tillerson, his pick for secretary of state. Mr Tillerson, the head of oil giant ExxonMobil, has already been criticised by hawks in US defence circles for his longstanding ties with Mr Putin, who in 2013 bestowed on him Russia’s Order of Friendship. The Democrats are set to place the issue front and centre during his hearing.
John Weaver, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator McCain’s presidential campaigns, said Russia could quickly become a damaging issue for Mr Trump’s presidency.
“This is going to suck up a lot of the oxygen for the new administration, and they don’t seem to understand they need to get ahead of it,” he said. “We could be on a confrontational path with the new president pretty quickly.”
Russia has long been seen as a weak point for Mr Trump, who has often professed admiration for Mr Putin’s strong leadership.
The issue flared up again last week after Mr Obama’s expulsion of diplomats, ostensibly in response to harassment of US officials in Moscow but also to Russian interference in the presidential election that brought Mr Trump to power. This has been confirmed by all the major US intelligence agencies.
Mr Obama also shut two Russian compounds, one in Maryland and one in Long Island, New York, said to have been used as a base for spying. The government issued arrest warrants for two Russians allegedly involved in illegal cyber-activity.
As well as providing some measure of a response to Russian cyber-activity, Mr Obama’s move creates a difficult political situation for Mr Trump, who could face questions over his legitimacy as president if the full extent of Russian hacking is revealed.
Although he may want to repeal the sanctions, he is unlikely to do so for fear of provoking a storm of criticism. Kellyanne Conway, appointed last month as Mr Trump’s counsellor, has accused Mr Obama of trying to “box in” his successor on Russia.
Initially it seemed as though Mr Putin would respond to Mr Obama’s aggression in time-honoured fashion: veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared on television to say he had recommended that Mr Putin expel 35 US diplomats.
Mr Putin then wrong-footed Washington by announcing he would delay possible retaliation, saying he would not lower himself to practise what he called “kitchen diplomacy”. “We will not expel anyone,” Mr Putin said, vowing to ignore the “provocative” and “irresponsible” politics of the outgoing administration.
In a direct challenge to the US president-elect to prove he is serious about improving ties, Mr Putin added: “Further steps towards the restoration of Russian-American relations will be built on the basis of the policy which the administration of president D. Trump will carry out.”
Mr Trump’s response — “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!” — which was retweeted by the Russian embassy in Washington, will hand further ammunition to those who say his position on Moscow is far too soft.
An earlier statement by Mr Trump did little to quell concerns. “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” he said. “Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
Russia’s critics in congress look unlikely to be quietened so easily.
“McCain, Graham, Marco Rubio — those members that are clear-eyed on Russia — want to see Trump move in their direction,” said Matt Mackowiak, president of the Potomac Strategy Group, a PR company. “Of course there will be a lot of other things happening in the first 100 days alongside these investigations, but it’s clear to me this issue is not going away.”
Mr Trump marked new year in a typically robust fashion, sending greetings to his 18.2 million Twitter followers — including “my many enemies”. He was due to see in 2017 alongside 800 guests paying at least $US500 ($694) for the privilege of joining him at his Mar-a-Largo estate in Florida.