Almost a year and a half into Donald Trump’s presidency, we’ve long since become accustomed to the president saying — and more often, tweeting — things that once would have seemed shocking coming from the man whose desk sits in the Oval Office.
But until Monday, during Trump’s press conference following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, we had reason to believe that Trump understood the almost immeasurable importance of the job to which he was elected.
Trump’s fawning acceptance of Putin’s denial that Russian agents tried to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was not, as some of his critics contend, including former CIA chief John Brennan, tantamount to treason.
But Trump’s statements were embarrassing to America and injurious to our global standing.
Moreover, they were unnecessary.
Trump seems to believe that improving relations between the U.S. and Russia — obviously a worthwhile goal — requires that he not only accept Putin’s denial about election meddling, but to endorse it both enthusiastically and publicly.
Trump should review the approach that another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, took during the much more turbulent days of the Cold War in the 1980s.
Reagan was adroit in mixing harsh rhetoric regarding the Soviet Union with a reasonable approach to diplomatic discussions with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
Reagan famously referred to the USSR as the “evil empire” and he joked about the imminent start to a bombing campaign against Soviet targets.
And although he had five summits with Gorbachev, Reagan, when he visited West Berlin in June 1987, made his best-known speech during which he exhorted the Soviet leader to “tear down this wall,” referring to the wall that had divided Berlin since 1961.
Trump, by contrast, has staked a position in which he takes the words of Putin — whose actions in many cases have been antithetical to America’s interests and, perhaps as important, to our principles — over the growing evidence compiled by our country’s intelligence agencies that Russia did conspire to influence the 2016 election.
Trump’s statement that Putin “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today” is ludicrous. Surely Trump didn’t expect Putin to admit to engineering the election shenanigans. And the president must have known that members of his own staff would contradict him, among them director of national intelligence Dan Coats, who in response to Trump’s statement cited Russia’s “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
Trump’s press conference blunder was especially puzzling because it so blatantly contrasts with the administration’s actual actions regarding Russia — actions quite different from the coddling approach the president’s statements imply.
The Trump administration has supplied weapons to Ukraine to help it combat Russian aggression. It has opposed Russian allies in Syria and Iran, including launching cruise missiles at the former.
Yet the president potentially undermined those policies by trying to flatter Putin rather than backing the people who work for him, and defending the sanctity of American elections.