This week I was going to continue our discussion of Brett Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court, but our regularly scheduled programming has been preempted by this astonishing sight:
The alleged President of the United States, standing side by side with the dictator of a hostile foreign power that attacked (and continues to attack) the very core of American democracy, taking that dictator’s side over that of his own country.
More than one informed observer has noted that what Donald Trump did in Helsinki yesterday fits the textbook definition of treason. Former CIA director John Brennan certainly thought so, using that very “T” word, and going on to call Trump’s comments “imbecilic” and proof that he is “wholly in the pocket of Putin.”
Even some Republicans, including reliably batshit Trump supporters like Newt Gingrich, were openly appalled and said so to the press. John McCain said in a written statement, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
This on the heels of a week in which Trump did his best to destroy the NATO alliance, viciously attacked the leaders of two of our closest and most important allies (both women, not coincidentally), blamed the US—not Russia—for bad relations between the two countries, and called the EU a “foe.”
And believe it or not, our fake president did all that knowing full well what was coming down from Robert Mueller right before his meeting with the Russian leader: the bombshell indictment of twelve Russian intelligence officers showing in meticulous, granular, and irrefutable detail how Vladimir Putin directed the intelligence agencies of his country to attack the heart of the American electoral system, with the admitted goal of electing Donald Trump. Indeed, Putin bragged about his preference for Trump on camera to the press in Finland.
(In what might prove to be equally significant, the Department of Justice also indicted a Russian national named Mariina Butina as an agent of the Kremlin, working through American organizations including the NRA, in an effort to influence the 2016 presidential campaign—and here’s the important part—with the assistance of as-yet-unnamed Americans. Stay tuned.)
At the G-7 summit of the world’s most powerful economies, Trump flew out early, reneged on signing a joint communiqué outlining common goals, and insulted the host, the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, on Twitter. At the historic summit with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, Trump engaged in great theatre but got only a vague promise, with no specifics, that Pyongyang will denuclearize. At the NATO summit last week, Trump insulted the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as a “captive of the Russians” and demanded, unrealistically, that the twenty-eight other nations double, or more, their contributions to the world’s largest military alliance, then left the room. In Britain, he embarrassed Prime Minister Theresa May by telling a British tabloid how she should conduct Brexit negotiations, clumsily violated protocol with Queen Elizabeth, and generated headlines by sitting smugly for a photograph in Winston Churchill’s old chair. On Sunday, Trump called the European Union “a foe.” Now Helsinki.
“The last three months have substantially weakened the US position in the world,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “We are in a trade war with our most important economic partners, have created doubts in the minds of the European allies (as a result of our harangues over defense spending and our withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA) as to U.S. reliability and our willingness to speak truth to Russian power, and have failed to move North Korea closer to denuclearization while weakening sanctions and raising doubts in Seoul as to U.S. dependability.”
Deep breath, everyone.
I wrote last month about Trump’s disastrous and disgraceful summit with Kim Jong Un (Singapore Is the New Munich (Is What Fox Would Have Said If It Were Obama), June 13, 2018). But Singapore now looks like a paper cut in comparison with the gaping chest wound of Helsinki.
As the capper to a long pattern of mystifyingly Russophilic behavior, Trump’s performance in Finland is all but impossible to explain any other way than the most obvious: that he is an outright stooge of the Kremlin.
THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED
Not to state the obvious, but Trump’s insistence on meeting with Putin behind closed doors, with no other US officials present except his translator, was beyond outrageous—especially in light of the latest Mueller indictments—not to mention extremely suspicious.
Could Trump do anything more to signal that he is a Russian asset? I hope the CIA had a lavaliere mic in that translator’s lapel.
At the summit itself Putin showed up late and kept Trump waiting—as Trump did the Queen some days before—a blatant display of alpha male superiority by Vlad over his bootlicking American servant. In the meeting itself Putin’s bored affect and casual body language continued to signal his dominance over Trump to the global audience, and with almost sneering delight. (Let us remember that Putin is not only a veteran head of state with eighteen years of experience as an authoritarian strongman, but also a career intelligence officer who grew up in the not-so-nice KGB.)
By contrast, with the cameras rolling, Trump obediently parroted everything Putin said, pointlessly (but predictably) bragged about his “brilliant” victory over Hillary Clinton, spread tinfoil hat conspiracy theories, attacked his own FBI and Department of Justice, and continued to decry the Mueller probe as a witchhunt, citing that inquiry—not, say, Russian cyberwarfare—as the thing that is doing the most damage to the republic.
In short, he could not have served the Kremlin’s purposes any better if he had been reading from a script prepared for him by the GRU. (“Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?”)
Even as the latest Mueller indictments provide damningly detailed evidence of Russian interference in our elections (if this is a witchhunt, it turns out there are a LOT of witches out there), onstage in Helsinki Trump again rejected such findings—as he has since the US intelligence community first announced that conclusion in December 2016—taking instead the word of the Russian dictator that he didn’t interfere. “He was incredibly strong and confident in his denial,” said Trump, guilelessly.
This is the stuff of bad farce. Representatives of the Russian government and state-controlled media certainly cackled with undisguised glee, and who could blame them?
Trump continued: “My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me, some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, subsequently fired back, but Trump’s claim that he can’t imagine why Moscow would try to influence a US election beggars belief. I do not subscribe to the school of thought that we can chalk up Trump’s endless parade of idiocies to mental illness (at least not entirely), but it does sound like something a schizophrenic off his meds would say.
Perhaps—being VERY generous now—he merely meant that he can’t imagine why Moscow would prefer him to Hillary, given that, in his own mind, he is a Churchillian bulldog who is much harder on them than Mrs. Clinton or any other human being could possibly be. (“I alone can fix it.”) But even if that self-flattering masturbatory fantasy were so, such an assertion still requires him to reject the overwhelming assessment of the US IC (not to mention mere demonstrable reality) in favor of the word, hand to heart, of Vladimir Putin.
It is of course far more likely that Trump has something to hide, and Putin knows what it is.
As Greg Sargent wrote in the WaPo: “Trump is currently in the process of repaying Putin for helping to deliver him the presidency,” meaning at the very least the hacking of the DNC, which Trump publicly called on Russia to do while speaking on national television, and possibly much more:
In blaming only previous U.S. leadership and the current Mueller probe for bad relations with Russia—and not Russia’s attack on our democracy, which is particularly galling, now that this attack has been described in great new detail—Trump is not merely spinning in a way that benefits himself. He’s also giving a gift to Putin, by signaling that he will continue to do all he can to delegitimize efforts to establish the full truth about Russian interference, which in turn telegraphs that Russia can continue such efforts in the future (which U.S. intelligence officials have warned will happen in the 2018 elections). In a sense, by doing this, Trump is colluding with such efforts right now.
Putin could not have asked for more than what Trump gave him on this European jaunt, capped by Helsinki, in terms of destabilizing the Western alliance, discrediting liberal democracy, damaging American credibility and influence, and sowing chaos within the United States at large. In a hundred years of Soviet and post-Soviet history, never has Moscow seen its aims so readily advanced by anyone, let alone a US president. If we are not in a genuine Manchurian Candidate situation, it damn sure quacks like one.
Indeed, the only way in which Trump is NOT behaving like a Russian intelligence asset is in the sheer clumsiness of his tradecraft.
WHAT’S MY MOTIVATION? (WHITE HOUSE EDITION)
Many have noted that Trump is often his own worst enemy in terms of self-inflicted wounds and unforced errors. But in Helsinki yesterday he may have topped himself. Who but the most Kool-Aid besotted Trump worshipper could witness what he did and not be gobsmacked at this man’s bizarre allegiance to Vladimir Putin?
For a guy who is pathologically obsessed with proving his own toughness and machismo— a 71-year-old man who repeatedly displays an adolescent refusal ever to back down even when he is undeniably proven wrong, one who has picked fights with the Pope, war heroes, and Gold Star Families—his willingness (eagerness, even) to kiss Vladimir Putin’s white Russian ass is beyond suspicious.
The New York Times’s White House correspondent Mark Landler called Helsinki “the foreign policy equivalent of Charlottesville” in shredding “all the accepted conventions…of how a president should conduct himself abroad”:
Rather than defend the United States against those who would threaten it, he attacked his own citizens and institutions. Rather than challenge Mr. Putin, an adversary with a well-documented record of wrongdoing against the United States, he praised him without reservation. His statements were so divorced from American policy goals, so at odds with the rest of his administration, so inexplicable on so many levels that they brought to the surface a question that has long shadowed Mr. Trump: Does Russia have something on him?
In fact, I would almost argue that Trump’s behavior in Helsinki (and consistently so on the subject of Russia) was so egregiously self-incriminating, so hamhandedly obvious, so flabbergastingly self-destructive that he could not possibly be in thrall to the Russians: no espionage asset or blackmail victim would behave in such a transparently guilty manner for all the world to see.
But Trump is not a man known for his subtlety or his concern for how ridiculously bad and self-damning his own behavior looks.
Even if Trump were thinking only in terms of his own political survival — his usual mode — he would be tougher on Putin, because he must realize that kowtowing to the Russian only strengthens suspicions of collusion. But Trump just cannot bring himself to do it. Is that because he hopes for more aid from Putin in the future — or because he is afraid of what Putin can reveal about him? Either way, he gives every impression of betraying his oath of office.
….(T)he question (of blackmail) came up at the news conference itself. The Associated Press’s Jonathan Lemire courageously asked “does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or his family?” Think of how extraordinary — how unprecedented — that moment was. Can you imagine a similar question being asked about any previous U.S. president?
PAGING MR. OCCAM
As more and more indictments come down in the Mueller probe and more and more is revealed, might we someday look back on the Helsinki summit as the moment the worm turned for Donald Trump? Or more precisely, will it be the moment at which public opinion finally began to swing definitively against him, as no reasonable person can any longer question that, for one reason or another, he is Putin’s poodle?
Maybe that is wishful thinking. I have ceased believing that there is anything Trump could say or do, or be shown to have done in the past, that would pierce the armor of self-denial in which his staunchest supporters have cloaked themselves. It is a kind of mass psychosis that future historians (and psychiatrists) will study for generations.
But for anyone with enough brainwave activity to measure on an EEG, the truth about Trump is now undeniable. At what point will American conservatives—to the extent that the term still applies—finally open their eyes and acknowledge this brazen traitor’s obvious fealty to Moscow? We are in a bad spy movie and the American right is twenty steps behind the obvious plot twist.
Ultimately, the motive behind Trump’s behavior is secondary in terms of the immediate danger to national security and the well-being of the American experiment. In his aforementioned criticism, John Brennan said Trump’s behavior at Helsinki “rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’” To that end, Trump’s actions on this European tour, culminating in the appalling spectacle in Finland, arguably justify impeachment in and of themselves independent of their underlying cause, whatever it might be.
The reasons for Trump’s striking behavior—whether he was bribed or blackmailed or something else—remain to be ascertained. That he has publicly refused to defend his country’s independent electoral process—and did so jointly with the foreign dictator who perverted that process—is video-recorded fact.
And it’s a fact that has to be seen in the larger context of his actions in office: denouncing the EU as a “foe,” threatening to break up NATO, wrecking the US-led world trading system, intervening in both UK 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….
(C)onfronting the country in the wake of Helsinki is this question: Can it afford to wait to ascertain whyTrump 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.