The Helsinki Summit Will Further Derange American Politics

President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The president really should let diplomats handle the diplomacy.

In Helsinki, President Donald Trump damaged his administration and harmed his own foreign-policy objectives. His press conference with Vladimir Putin is further deranging America’s political life.

Just as he did after the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un, President Trump demonstrated his almost bottomless credulity when he praised as an “incredible offer” Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that U.S. investigators come to Russia and work with Russian investigators to discover the truth about America’s election in 2016. Putin offered this as a trade in which Russian investigators get to work in the U.S., though Trump didn’t treat it that way.

And again, just as with North Korea, the conciliatory rhetoric from Trump will be belied by the operations of the executive branch, the positioning of the U.S. military, and our nation’s intelligence agencies. Trump’s gifts tend to be little more than rhetorical. Trump did not lift the sanctions on North Korea. Trump has not pulled the U.S. out of NATO. He has not lifted Russian sanctions. In fact, it was Putin today who advertised the adamantine American line on Crimea, saying that Trump’s position is clear; the Russian annexation was a crime.

The result of this press conference is the further deranging of American political life. By openly repudiating the conclusions of his own nation’s security institutions about Russia’s interference operations while on a stage with Russia’s president, Trump has widened a fissure at the center of American government.

When Trump says that Robert Mueller’s investigation is damaging American foreign policy with Russia, it looks like Trump does not exercise authority over the executive branch. And when the conclusions of the intelligence agencies within the executive branch make no impression on him, it looks like there really is a Deep State and a president who are in an intractable conflict. It cannot go on this way for long: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

But it isn’t just the operating of the government that is deranged, but American politics at large. Lately a portion of the American commentariat has taken to the idea that Trump has engaged in “open collusion” with Russia’s attack on American democracy. After Helsinki a portion of those are saying that Trump’s simpering behavior at Helsinki can only be a sign of open treason.

The most obvious explanation for Trump’s behavior is not that he is enacting a 30-year-long plot against American democracy. It is that his vanity utterly forbids him to acknowledge that Russian meddling in the 2016 election contributed in any way to his victory. And it is true that if he admits it — especially if he admits it under pressure to do so — the next wave of pressure will come from those asking him to resign.

The one truism of the Trump era is that his electoral success inspires his supporters and his friends alike to become more like him. Years ago he advanced the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, implying that he was an illegitimate president. At other times, Trump has implied that Obama had sympathy with Islamist terror. “[Obama] doesn’t get it, or he gets it better than anybody understands,” Trump said. Now Trump’s opponents have a ready explanation that Trump is the product of some kind of plot, that he is in league with someone attacking the United States.

And so the Helsinki press conference has inspired lots of loose talk of war and treason. #TreasonSummit began to trend across social media. These are serious words, and this level of rhetorical bludgeoning goes back to the most feverish parts of the Cold War. It is the kind of talk one hears in the parliaments of second-rate powers, whose internal politics really are subject to the manipulation of rivals and neighbors. And this kind of talk is likely to warp our politics long after Trump leaves the scene.

It isn’t just the operating of the government that is deranged, but American politics at large.

On a more personal note, I am in the minority of conservative writers who agreed with President Trump that the U.S. should be trying to achieve more peaceful relations with the world’s second-largest nuclear power. I agreed with Trump that the U.S. has made mistakes and contributed to the deterioration of relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War. But Trump is incapable of advancing these views from mere wishes into wise strategy, much less into reality.

Although not alone, Trump’s actions in Helsinki are setting back any chance at achieving long-term improvement in our relations with Russia. While Russia may see some short-term and perhaps long-term gain in the American political class driving itself crazy with conspiracy theories, the long-term effect of Trump’s denials, his lack of preparation, and his inability to manfully confront other heads of state face-to-face have made it more difficult to change American foreign policy. In the meantime, Trump has effectively recruited the Democratic party to Romney’s view that Russia is the top geopolitical foe of the United States.

While Republican voters have tended to follow the president’s line, Trump’s administration has done no work in winning elected Republicans over to a revised approach to Russia, and his party feels free to scold him for his dismal performance today. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” McCain fired after the Helsinki press conference.

No more summits, please.

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