The blowback from Trump’s summit with Putin
President Trump faced bipartisan condemnation this week for his warm embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin at their summit meeting in Helsinki, during which he sided with the Kremlin in denying that it meddled in the 2016 presidential election. Asked about Russian hacking during the election at his joint press conference with Putin, Trump said, “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia,” adding, “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Trump’s own aides were reportedly flabbergasted by his direct contradiction of U.S. intelligence findings after they’d prepared him to press Putin on a range of issues, including election interference. Instead, Trump blamed “both countries” for deteriorating U.S.-Russian relations, saying special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation had offended Russia and “is a disaster for our country.” The blowback was immediate and intense, with even staunch allies like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calling Trump’s comments “the biggest mistake of his presidency.”
Trump grudgingly attempted to walk back his most inflammatory statements ahead of a meeting with congressional Republicans the next day, contending that he simply misspoke. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’” Reading from a script, Trump also said that he accepts the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but ad-libbed, “Could be other people also.”
Republican congressional leaders raced to contain the political fallout from Trump’s remarks. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both held press conferences to reiterate that they believe the Kremlin interfered in the election. Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, demanded concrete actions to restrain and rebuke Trump, including a formal censure. Former CIA Director John Brennan called Trump’s behavior “nothing short of treasonous.”
What the editorials said
President Trump’s half-hearted efforts at damage control are “too little, too late,” said The Washington Post. Nothing can change the fact that the president stood beside the leader of a hostile power and refused to condemn a blatant attack on American democracy. Nor did Trump rebuke Putin for any of his regime’s other manifold crimes, including invading Georgia and Crimea, assassinating dissidents on foreign soil, and downing a civilian airliner over Ukraine. The only question now is “whether Congress will move beyond tut-tutting and toward action that begins to restrain Trump.”
What happened to Trump’s “alpha-dog attitude”? asked the Washington Examiner. His supporters loved the way he steamrolled Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton while campaigning for president, and expected he’d take the same approach to international relations. But “faced with a real strongman,” Trump turned into a lap dog for one of America’s most implacable foes, embarrassing “himself and his country.” His liberal critics assume Trump is being blackmailed by Russia, said NationalReview.com, but there’s a simpler explanation for his “refusal to state the obvious.” In Trump’s mind, admitting that the Russians worked to help him win delegitimizes his election victory. “He can’t bear the blow to his ego.”
What the columnists said
“Trump has made his loyalties clear,” said Lili Loofbourow in Slate.com, “and they are not to the country he governs.” The president actively took the Kremlin’s side against U.S. interests. Dan Coats, Trump’s own director of national intelligence, has confirmed not only that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but also that Russian-backed hackers are actively targeting critical facilities in the U.S. nuclear, water, aviation, and manufacturing sectors, and will seek to hack the 2018 elections. But Trump cares only for his “naked self-interest,” and he thinks Putin is on his side.
All the more reason for us to see Trump’s tax returns, said Timothy O’Brien in Bloomberg.com. In the decade before Trump became president, he had multiple business dealings with Russians, and went on a $400 million spending spree on golf courses and new properties. “Where did the money come from?” His sons have said the company was getting most of its cash from Russia. “Imagine if Trump were acquiescent to Putin because financial favors were exchanged.” Americans have the right to know. “Get a grip,” said Danielle Pletka in TheAtlantic.com. Trump’s performance in Helsinki was “dreadful, even disgraceful—but it wasn’t treason.” Despite Trump’s ill-considered personal admiration for Putin, his administration has been tough on Russia. This White House signed off on increased sanctions for Russia, sold arms to the Ukrainians, and even clashed with Russian troops in Syria. Look at what Trump does, not what he says.
I’m deeply skeptical of the Left’s theory that Putin is blackmailing Trump with financial or personal kompromat, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. It’s more likely he defers to Putin because of his “intense affinity” for strongmen, like China’s Xi Jinping and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It’s also possible Trump knows his campaign did exchange information with the Russians. But even I have to admit that his obsequious attitude toward Putin was so bizarre that it’s making the darkest theories look more likely. After Helsinki, “everyone should hedge their bets.”
Don’t expect Republicans to go too far in rebuking Trump, said Mike Allen in Axios.com. Fearful of the backlash from GOP voters, many of them are already using the president’s tepid walkback of his comments as a “fig leaf” to soften their initial criticisms. “I’m just glad he clarified it,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “What really matters is what we do moving forward.” Still, Trump’s Helsinki “train wreck” could take the heat off Mueller, said Greg Walters in Vice.com. Until last week, “Trump and his allies appeared to be waging a successful campaign to diminish and undermine the Mueller investigation,” claiming the FBI was biased against Trump and demanding the probe be wrapped up. But fresh questions about Russia’s hold on Trump will make it harder for congressional Republicans to justify pulling the plug on Mueller.
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from AP, Newscom (2) ■