fDonald Trump went to Europe to blow things up. At the NATO summit he blew up NATO. Each NATO nation must pay its fair share. They’ve all agreed to increase their military spending to two percent of their GDP by 2024 – something that was worked out in the Bush and Obama years. Trump wants two percent in the next two years. He said he really wants four percent. He wants them armed to the teeth and full of nationalistic pride, and maybe then they’ll take care of themselves. What was ever in this for the United States anyway? NATO is a bunch of freeloaders and deadbeats, and Angela Merkel was a tool of Russia, by the way – but they were all deadbeats. The next day he said the EU is America’s greatest foe. Blow that up too. The EU is much like NATO – open trade and open borders and a common currency are a sort of civilian defense pact, assuring a united zone of peaceful, prosperous, liberal democracies – a fine idea, for them. They were cheaters and deadbeats too. They sell lots of their stuff here but won’t buy our stuff. His massive new tariffs will take care of that. They’ll break up their “union” or he’ll ruin them. He wants the EU gone. Of course the UK wants out of the EU now. Trump will help. He told that May woman what to do – a hard exit – no trade or travel or diplomatic relations with the EU ever again, not until that “union” is dissolved. She disagrees. He called her a fool. Donald Trump blew up that “special relationship” America has had with England for generations – but that was what this trip was about, blowing things up.
That made sense to Donald Trump. Other nations, banding together for their common good, are other nations ganging up on America, even if as with NATO, they include America. Other nations, banding together, are a threat to America. Donald Trump said it would be America First now, so NATO and the EU must go – which, oddly enough, is what Vladimir Putin has been saying for decades. NATO and the EU must go. That’s a bunch of nations ganging up on Russia, a bunch of nations right next door, a quite real military and economic threat to Russia. He wants exactly what Trump wants. Trump is doing exactly what he wants – but that might be a coincidence.
That might not be a coincidence, given what happened in Helsinki, the final stop on his 2018 Destruction Tour:
President Trump stood next to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Monday and publicly challenged the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election, wrapping up what he called a “deeply productive” summit meeting with an extraordinary show of trust for a leader accused of attacking American democracy.
In a remarkable news conference, Mr. Trump did not name a single action for which Mr. Putin should be held accountable. Instead, he saved his sharpest criticism for the United States and the special counsel investigation into the election interference, calling it a “ridiculous” probe and a “witch hunt” that has kept the two countries apart.
Mr. Trump even questioned the determinations by his intelligence officials that Russia had meddled in the election.
“They said they think it’s Russia,” Mr. Trump said. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” the president continued, only moments after Mr. Putin conceded that he had wanted Mr. Trump to win the election because of his promises of warmer relations with Moscow.
“I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that was responsible for the election hacking, Mr. Trump added. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Anyone who had thought that the near-perfect alignment of his goals with Putin’s was a coincidence had to think again:
The 45-minute news conference offered the spectacle of the American and Russian presidents both pushing back on the notion of Moscow’s election interference, with Mr. Putin demanding evidence of something he said had never been proved, and Mr. Trump appearing to agree.
When asked directly whether he believed Mr. Putin or his own intelligence agencies about the election meddling, Mr. Trump said there were “two thoughts” on the matter: one from American officials like Dan Coats, his director of national intelligence, asserting Russia’s involvement; and one from Mr. Putin dismissing it.
“I have confidence in both parties,” Mr. Trump said.
That didn’t answer the direct question, but he had other things on his mind:
He then changed the subject, demanding to know why the FBI never examined the hacked computer servers of the Democratic National Committee, and asking about the fate of emails missing from the server of Hillary Clinton, his campaign rival.
“Where are Hillary Clinton’s emails?” Mr. Trump said.
He won’t let that go, but that hardly matters now:
His performance drew howls of protests from Democrats and some Republicans, prompting John O. Brennan, who served as CIA director under President Barack Obama, to suggest that the remarks warranted Mr. Trump’s impeachment.
“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors,'” Mr. Brennan wrote on Twitter, calling the president’s behavior “treasonous.” “Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”
The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, released a statement saying, “there is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy.”
And within hours, Mr. Coats issued his own strongly worded statement that contained an implicit rebuke of Mr. Trump.
“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” Mr. Coats said. “We will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
So, Trump was wrong, or delusional, or kissing up to Putin, and his director of national intelligence may have to resign now, but no one expected this:
Some of Mr. Trump’s own advisers privately said they were shocked by the president’s performance, including his use of the phrase “witch hunt” to describe the special counsel investigation while standing beside Mr. Putin.
But they knew it was time to lay low:
Aboard Air Force One back to Washington, Mr. Trump’s mood grew foul as the breadth of the critical reactions became clear, according to some people briefed on the flight. Aides steered clear of the front of the plane to avoid being tapped for a venting session with Mr. Trump.
And this didn’t help:
“President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin,” Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House who has advised Mr. Trump, said on Twitter. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected – immediately.”
That’s not going to happen, but Andrew Higgins and Steven Erlanger report on the winner here:
President Vladimir V. Putin did not get President Trump to endorse his seizure of Crimea, lift sanctions, to halt a new arms race that Moscow can ill afford or to cut a deal on any of the other issues that have so poisoned relations between Russia and the United States.
But Mr. Putin did get what he needed most from the meeting in Helsinki: a statement by President Trump that, whatever America’s intelligence community might say about meddling by Moscow in the 2016 election – and whatever the damage caused by Russian actions in Ukraine – Mr. Putin is welcome back in the club of global leaders.
While Mr. Putin seems to have secured no major concessions from Mr. Trump, state-controlled Russian news agencies, quoting the foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, declared their meeting was “better than super” and “fabulous.”
That’s because Putin was in control:
By turns somber and jocular, Mr. Putin commanded a news conference the two leaders held, with his mastery of policy details and theatrical flair – and by getting Mr. Trump to take his denials that Russia meddled in the 2016 election more seriously than the conclusion of United States intelligence agencies that it did.
Mr. Trump cut a less imposing figure, leaving Mr. Putin to explain American policy on Crimea, and nodding while the Russian president scoffed at accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow as “utter nonsense.”
Mr. Putin even brought along a soccer ball, tossing it to Mr. Trump after being praised for Russia’s success as host of the World Cup. “The ball is now in your court,” Mr. Putin said.
Here, little boy, take the nice ball and go play, and Trump did seem to be a little boy here:
Emerging from his one-on-one meeting with Mr. Putin, which was followed by a larger lunch meeting with advisers, Mr. Trump cited a litany of factors that he said had stood in the way of better relations between the United States and Russia. He blamed Democrats’ bitterness over having lost an election that they should have won, and Mr. Mueller’s investigation.
But Mr. Trump claimed to have defused all of that tension in a matter of minutes.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” Mr. Trump said. “However, that changed as of about four hours ago.”
Yeah, right, Putin just smiled, because he had this guy’s number, a guy who could easily be manipulated into insulting his own nation:
Mr. Trump began his day on Monday on Twitter, blaming American “foolishness and stupidity” for years of escalating tension with Russia, as well as the “Rigged Witch Hunt.”
The comment appeared to absolve Moscow of many irritants in the relationship with Russia, including the election hacking, the annexation of Crimea, Russian backing for rebels in Ukraine and for the Assad government in Syria, and Moscow’s suspected use of a nerve agent to poison people in Britain.
In fact, Russia’s Foreign Ministry recirculated the comment, chiming in, “We agree.”
This may not be treason, but this was embarrassing, and Jamelle Bouie notes how things have changed:
For the better part of his presidency, conservative commentators and provocateurs dogged Barack Obama with accusations of disloyalty and subversion, questioning his commitment to American exceptionalism and accusing him of being a secret agent for foreign powers. But Obama never did anything remotely as damning as Trump’s inexplicable defense of Vladimir Putin on Monday, when the sitting president publicly sided with his Russian counterpart over the findings of American intelligence…
At no point did Trump criticize Putin for his anti-democratic behavior – from killing journalists, critics, and opposition politicians to raiding the country’s wealth with impunity. At no point did Trump offer even a mild challenge to Putin, deferring to the Russian president at every opportunity. There’s a reason observers were appalled at his performance: President Trump behaved as a supplicant, absolving Russia of any responsibility for the documented attacks on American election infrastructure.
Trump’s performance was shocking enough to make mild-mannered lawmakers like Virginia Sen. Mark Warner furious with indignation. “For the President of the United States to stand next to Vladimir Putin – who personally ordered one of the largest state-sponsored cyber-attacks in our history – and side with Putin over America’s military and intelligence leaders is a breach of his duty to defend our country against its adversaries,” said Warner in a statement.
That’s fine, but Bouie has seen stronger stuff:
Compare that to the rabid conspiracy theories that greeted Obama from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who devoted show after show to wide-eyed attacks on the former president. Even mainstream Republican figures, like Kevin Hassett, now chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in a 2009 column that Obama was a “Manchurian candidate” giving the United States a “war on business” that could destroy the economy. Norman Podhoretz wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “as a left-wing radical, Mr.Obama believed that the United States had almost always been a retrograde and destructive force in world affairs.” There’s also Dinesh D’Souza, recently pardoned by President Trump, who pegged Obama as an “anti-colonialist” raging against “Western dominance,” and who sought to undermine the United States from within. Newt Gingrich endorsed this theory; as did David Koch, the conservative billionaire.
Where elites went, voters followed. In 2009, just 17 percent of Republicans said “Obama is a Muslim.” By 2010, it was 31 percent. As late as 2015, 43 percent of Republicans said Obama was a Muslim. An endless number of chain emails accused Obama of actively subverting the country, while a lucrative cottage industry of anti-Obama books and documentaries imagined elaborate conspiracies and detailed the president’s supposed plots against America.
None of this was true, and Obama ended his presidency without incident – except, of course, for the election of Donald Trump, who has publicly questioned American exceptionalism and given legitimate voices reason to question whether he’s in thrall to a foreign power.
But only one of these guys is white:
The anti-Obama animus had one obvious root: racial resentment. For millions of Americans, a black man in the White House was so upending – so destabilizing to their expectations of what America was – that they responded with primal anger, willing to believe anything about the man who sat in the Oval Office. Donald Trump powered his way to the White House on the strength of that anger, running as the savior of America’s racial status quo, and a promise to turn back that tide.
Many of those Americans surely believed that Obama was a Manchurian candidate of sorts. Now, faced with a president who is eager to please a hostile foreign power, they actively support the effort.
They’re supporting a Manchurian candidate, but James Fallows argues Trump is not that:
There are exactly two possible explanations for the shameful performance the world witnessed on Monday, from a serving American president.
Either Donald Trump is flat-out an agent of Russian interests – maybe witting, maybe unwitting, from fear of blackmail, in hope of future deals, out of manly respect for Vladimir Putin, out of gratitude for Russia’s help during the election, out of pathetic inability to see beyond his 306 electoral votes. Whatever the exact mixture of motives might be, it doesn’t really matter.
Or he is so profoundly ignorant, insecure, and narcissistic that he did not realize that, at every step, he was advancing the line that Putin hoped he would advance, and the line that the American intelligence, defense, and law-enforcement agencies most dreaded.
So he’s either a conscious tool or a useful idiot:
Those are the choices, though both are possibly true, so that the main question is the proportions. Whatever the balance of motivations, what mattered was that Trump’s answers were indistinguishable from Putin’s, starting with the fundamental claim that Putin’s assurances about interference in U.S. democracy (“He was incredibly strong and confident in his denial”) deserved belief over those of his own Department of Justice (“I think the probe is a disaster for our country”).
But that may not matter:
I am old enough to remember Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon telling lies on TV, about Vietnam in both cases, and Watergate for Nixon. I remember the travails and deceptions of Bill Clinton, and of George W. Bush in the buildup to the disastrous Iraq War.
But never before have I seen an American president consistently, repeatedly, publicly, and shockingly advance the interests of another country over those of his own government and people.
Trump manifestly cannot help himself. This is who he is.
He won’t change, so Fallows suggests others might want to change:
Those who could do something are the 51 Republican senators and 236 Republican representatives who have the power to hold hearings, issue subpoenas, pass resolutions of censure, guarantee the integrity of Robert Mueller’s investigation, condemn the past Russian election interference, shore up protections against the next assault, and in general defend their country rather than the damaged and defective man who is now its president.
For 18 months, members of this party have averted their eyes from Trump, rather than disturb the Trump elements among their constituency or disrupt the party’s agenda on tax cuts and the Supreme Court. They already bear responsibility for what Trump has done to his office.
But with every hour that elapses after this shocking performance in Helsinki without Republicans doing anything, the more deeply they are stained by this dark moment in American leadership.
David Frum agrees with that:
Denouncing the EU as a “foe,” threatening to break up NATO, wrecking the U.S.-led world trading system, intervening in both U.K. and German politics in support of extremist and pro-Russian forces, and his continued refusal to act to protect the integrity of U.S. voting systems – it adds up to a political indictment whether or not it quite qualifies as a criminal one.
America is a very legalistic society, in which public discussion often deteriorates into lawyers arguing whether any statutes have been violated. But confronting the country in the wake of Helsinki is this question: Can it afford to wait to ascertain why Trump has subordinated himself to Putin after the president has so abjectly demonstrated that he has subordinated himself? Robert Mueller is leading a legal process. The United States faces a national-security emergency.
Ezra Klein sees that:
At this point, we know an enormous amount about the connections between Trump and Russia, about Russia’s role in the 2016 election, about the Trump Organization’s efforts to hide its contacts with Russians, about Trump’s efforts to impede the investigation into the subject, and about Trump’s treatment of Russia and Putin and NATO since getting elected.
“Every single time we’ve heard of that the Russians reached out to offer something – dirt on Hillary Clinton, access to another trove of emails, secret meetings, back channels – the common theme of every single individual in Trump’s orbit was, ‘Yes. Help us out,'” says Susan Hennessey, a former National Security Agency official and the executive editor of Lawfare. “That is the really astounding picture that has emerged.”
The case that Trump sought to obstruct the investigation has passed an almost comical point of definitiveness. He fired the FBI director investigating him, publicly demanded his attorney general do more to protect him, and lied to the public about key events. So what are we still waiting to learn? What is it that we don’t yet know that would mean more than what we’ve already found out?
It’s time to act, but Klein wonders how:
The Trump campaign coordinated – privately or publicly or both – with Russia to steal documents from Democrats and win the election. In the aftermath, as president, Trump has pursued a pro-Putin foreign policy and fought efforts to investigate or punish Russia’s crimes in 2016. What is the remedy for that? And even if there was one, who has the incentive and credibility to impose it?
There may be no one:
Congressional Republicans know their future is tied to Trump’s survival. Anything that weakens his administration weakens their 2018 reelection prospects, their ability to fill judgeships, their ability to pass tax cuts. Their political lives depend on Trump’s political strength.
While it’s an interesting counterfactual to imagine the way the GOP would be reacting if all of these revelations were attached to President Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, it is fantasy to imagine they will do anything save protect Trump to the best of their ability.
Congressional Democrats don’t have the power to do anything right now, and as such are focused on taking back Congress in 2018. But even if they win the election, their priority will turn to retaking the presidency in 2020, and that’s going to mean focusing on health care and Social Security, not Russia and the 2016 campaign.
For that precise reason, the 2018 and 2020 elections cannot and will not act as a clear vehicle for accountability on Trump and Russia. From Supreme Court justices to tax policy to Obamacare’s future to environmental regulations, there is too much at stake in any given election, and there are too few choices available to voters, for them to answer a problem as complex and unusual as this one.
And forget the legal system:
There’s nothing necessarily illegal about Donald Trump publicly asking Russia to hack the Clinton campaign’s emails, just as there’s nothing illegal about him pursuing a stunningly pro-Putin foreign policy in the aftermath of receiving Russia’s aid. The actual hacking of the emails was illegal, but who’s going to hold Russia accountable for it? The Trump administration that asked for, and benefited from, their help?
The ridiculousness of both the question and the answer makes the point. Mueller’s indictments were announced just before Trump and Putin’s summit, and it first led to talk of whether Trump might cancel the meeting (of course he didn’t), and then speculation over whether and how he might confront Putin over Russia’s actions.
But everyone knows that Trump’s actual response to Russia’s intervention on his behalf has been gratitude and solicitousness – what other response is there to a world power doing exactly what you asked of them in a time of political need?
The President of the United States did stand next to Vladimir Putin, who personally ordered a massive state-sponsored cyber-attack on those same United States, and he sided with Putin over America’s military and intelligence leaders. That may be a breach of his duty to defend our country against its adversaries, but in a way, that’s understandable. He was grateful. That may be even quite legal. And he did go to Europe to blow things up, to stop all those nations from ganging up on us, to put America first. In a perverse way, that’s understandable. Trump is also doing exactly what Putin wants – but that might be a coincidence.
It’s not. There are no coincidences – not this time.