Opinion

Opinion

Editorial of The Times

Posted July 16, 2018 11:12 p.m. EDT

Why Won’t Donald Trump Speak for America?

The last time President Donald Trump claimed that “both sides” were responsible for bad behavior, it didn’t go well.

That was nearly a year ago, after a march of neo-Nazis descended into violence and a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing a woman.

On Monday, Trump again engaged in immoral equivalence, this time during a gobsmacking news conference after his meeting in Helsinki, Finland, with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. A reporter referred to last week’s indictments of 12 Russian military officials for a coordinated cyberattack on the 2016 election and asked Trump if he held Russia responsible. “I hold both countries responsible,” Trump said.

Even in a presidency replete with self-defeating moments for the United States, Trump’s comments Monday, which were broadcast live around the world, stand out.

The spectacle was hard to fathom: Trump, standing just inches from an autocratic thug who steals territory and has his adversaries murdered, undermined the unanimous conclusion of his own intelligence and law enforcement agencies that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 election with the goal of helping Trump win.

“My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me, and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said at one point, speaking of his director of national intelligence. “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.” (In a statement Monday afternoon, Coats reiterated that, in fact, it was.)

Trump called the special counsel’s Russia investigation “a disaster for our country” and then performed a selection of his greatest solo hits: “Zero Collusion,” “Where Is the DNC’s Server?” and finally the old chestnut, “I Won the Electoral College by a Lot.”

Even top Republicans felt moved to speak up.

“The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” Paul Ryan, the House speaker, said. “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said, “The Russians are not our friends, and I entirely believe the assessment of our intelligence community.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was more direct. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” McCain said.

Not to worry, Trump assured us: Putin “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.” So he must have been telling the truth.

Putin, for his part, was happy to admit that he wanted Trump to win the election: “Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.” He mocked the idea that he had compromising material on Trump — though without denying it — perhaps because Trump’s own words were compromising enough.

Putin offered to have Russian intelligence work with its U.S. counterpart to get to the bottom of the meddling case, on the condition that Russian authorities were allowed to question U.S. intelligence officials as well — which Trump called “an incredible offer.” Yes, incredible.

And still, the indictments related to Russian infiltration keep coming: On Monday, the Justice Department, acting independently of the special counsel’s investigation, charged a Russian with acting as an agent for her country in the United States to cement ties between the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association. The 29-year-old woman, who allegedly has ties to a top Russian official, is being held without bond.

Trump has said he wants to revive a relationship with Russia that badly deteriorated under President Barack Obama. His opening statement to journalists proclaimed the goal of continuing “the proud tradition of bold American diplomacy” and emphasized that “diplomacy and engagement is preferable to conflict and hostility.”

In theory, such objectives make sense. But Trump seems to be singularly naïve, or deliberately ignorant, about why his own senior national security advisers have identified Russia as one of America’s chief geostrategic adversaries, along with China.

Despite a weak economy, corruption and other domestic problems, Putin has crushed most political opposition at home and is aggressively asserting Russian power abroad. His agents — possibly those from the same military intelligence service that interfered in the U.S. election — have used chemical weapons that poisoned four people in Britain, one of whom died.

He is working hard to sabotage America’s ties to NATO and the European Union and to weaken U.S. influence in the Middle East. Russia poses such a cyberthreat to the United States that Coats last week said “the warning lights are blinking red again.”

There used to be no doubt that American leaders could be counted on to defend the interests of the United States and the democratic alliance it led. President Ronald Reagan did so in 1987 when he exhorted the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall. So did President George H.W. Bush when he told Gorbachev that Germany would remain in NATO after unification in 1990. And Obama did so before the 2016 election when he told Putin to knock off the hacking.

Other than according Putin the honor of a meeting that begins to erase the ostracism he suffered for invading Ukraine, it is hard to see what Trump accomplished. The two men talked about forging a new treaty to replace the New START Treaty, which constrains nuclear weapons and is to expire in 2021, and also discussed cooperating on Syria, though they seem to have passed up a chance for concrete action.

There has been no sign that the United States has derived any benefit from Trump’s obsequiousness toward Putin, though Trump himself has now at least gotten a shiny new soccer ball.

It remains a mystery why the president, unlike any of his Republican or Democratic predecessors, is unwilling to call out Russian perfidy. He has no trouble throwing his weight around when he is in the company of America’s European allies, attacking them as deadbeats and the European Union as a “foe,” or when he excoriates the news media as “enemies of the people.” Put him next to Putin and other dictators, and he turns to putty.

All that’s clear is that a president who is way out of his depth is getting America into deep trouble.

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