By Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images.
The unlikely, unholy alliance between Rand Paul and Donald Trump, one a libertarian iconoclast, the other the cancerous center of the Republican party, has cemented itself in golf games and frequent phone calls. “They’ll talk on the phone and Trump will go on about Bedminster and golf and whatever else is going on; and Rand will drop in his libertarian ideas,” a source close to Trump recently told Axios. “And Trump will laugh and say, ‘This guy’s crazy’ . . . They won’t even argue. He’ll let him speak his mind.” Their friendship has manifested in a number of ways, including in Paul’s periodic abandonment of his principles to vote however Trump needs him to, and Trump’s apparent willingness to take Paul’s questionable advice. But while Trump’s affinity for Paul may, on some level, have been predictable—after all, they both love to needle Mitch McConnell—their friendship has recently veered in a less likely direction, as Paul comes to Trump’s defense on all matters Russia.
On Monday, weeks after Paul made an impassioned speech on the Senate floor in support of Trump’s Helsinki summit—“The hatred for the president is so intense that partisans would rather risk war than give diplomacy a chance”—the Kentucky senator visited Moscow on a private trip to strengthen relations between Russia and the U.S., a matter he called “incredibly important,” according to The Washington Post. (The U.S. Embassy in Moscow told the Post that Paul was not on an official diplomatic trip, and was traveling privately with a group.) Paul’s Russian jaunt reportedly included a visit with former Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, who U.S. intelligence suggests is a spy, and whose undisclosed meetings with Jeff Sessions and Michael Flynn led indirectly to Robert Mueller’s probe into the Trump campaign.
At the tour’s conclusion, Paul released a statement saying he was “pleased” to announce that the contact with Russia would continue: “We agreed and we invited members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Russia to come to the U.S. to meet with us in the U.S., in Washington,” he said. For their part, Russian politicians reportedly have a laundry list of topics to discuss with Paul, including nonproliferation, sanctions, and alleged Russian spy Maria Butina. According to Russian media, State Duma foreign-affairs committee head Leonid Slutsky asked Paul about Butina’s “early release,” adding, “We hope and expect that our colleagues will conduct the necessary consultations with Washington, and tomorrow we can consult about a road map and the plan of actions [on Butina’s case].”
In theory, Paul’s newfound zeal for improved U.S.-Russia relations fits with his libertarian ideals of limited government, stoked by his apparent distrust of the intelligence agencies urging Trump to retaliate against the Kremlin. “We’ve allowed too much power to gravitate to these . . . agencies,” he said last month during a speech at Turning Point USA’s high-school conference. But in practice, Paul, who has called the Helsinki summit “the sort of thing we should be doing”, is perhaps equally inspired by the president’s example, telling The New York Times that his trip would be “following up from the meeting that he had with Putin. Our goals are not necessarily, you know, finding world peace in one trip to Russia,” he added, “but our goals are to try to find some things that we could advance on.”
Perhaps better than anyone else in Congress, Paul’s unusual position on the political spectrum reflects the growing convergence between the far left and the far right, which have found common ground in isolationism, distrust of authorities, and an affinity for Russia—his father Ron, a libertarian icon in his own right, has followed suit, frequently appearing as a guest on RT, a Russian state TV network adopted by both the extreme left and the extreme right as an alternative news source. (The day of Trump’s conference in Helsinki, Ron Paul told RT that the president’s friendly attitude toward Vladimir Putin was “great,” adding, “[the] best step ever” would be “getting rid of the sanctions on Russia.”) Into this emerging paradigm comes Paul, who finally seems to have found a home for his otherwise heterodox views. Whereas Russia is one of the few areas where the vast majority of the G.O.P. breaks with Trump, condemning his slavish devotion to Putin, Paul is—for once—truly aligned with the president, occupying the space where the screwball right and the White House converge: in Moscow.