President Donald Trump’s stunning news conference with Vladimir Putin becomes understandable once you recognize that he was advancing his personal interests, not those of the United States.
Trump faces political and legal jeopardy from the Justice Department investigation of his 2016 campaign and Russia. His former campaign chief sits in jail. His former national security advisor has pleaded guilty to a felony and become a cooperating witness for special counsel Robert Mueller. Long dependent on Russian money in his businesses, Trump has balked at answering questions from prosecutors himself.
Against that backdrop, comments that Republican Sen. Ben Sasse called “bizarre” make sense. Trump spoke most emphatically in discrediting the Mueller investigation.
American intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in 2016 to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. “I don’t see any reason why” Russia would have done so, Trump said, expressing confidence in Putin and noting the former KGB agent’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial.
Before their meeting, the president’s own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, suggested confronting Russia over its behavior and warning “we’re going to beat you.” Alongside the Russian leader, Trump called the cloud over his election “a shame” and denounced the Mueller probe as “a disaster.”
The Justice Department last week indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents in the hacking of Democratic e-mails. Putin offered to let US prosecutors question them in Russia – if Russians in turn could question the U.S. investigators.
Trump did not demand that Putin extradite those Russian agents for trial. Instead, he praised Putin’s “incredible offer.”
It was an incredible offer – for Trump. Russians share his interest in discrediting the FBI investigation.
It was not an incredible offer for the United States. By crediting it, Trump equated the American justice system with that of a lawless autocracy whose recent crimes, beyond the 2016 campaign, range from the seizure of Crimea to murder via nerve agent on British soil.
Ignoring those transgressions, Trump blamed his own country for the decline in U.S.-Russia relations in a pre-summit tweet. Challenged about that at the news conference, Trump said only, “we’ve all been foolish.”
His performance alarmed officials in both parties who have spent careers defending American interests. Coats publicly rebutted his own boss, calling conclusions about Russian interference “clear” and pledging “unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
The context, at home and abroad, made his remarks even more alarming. While ripping law enforcement officials investigating him, Trump has relentlessly attacked allies who for decades have helped America defend freedom, democracy and capitalism.
He imposed tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the European Union. He undercut Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He called the EU “a foe.” He cast doubt on his commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization safeguarding the free world.
Those actions bolster Russia’s goal of splintering the Western alliance that constrains Moscow. At the news conference, Trump complimented Putin as “a good competitor,” not an adversary.
Former CIA Director John Brennan condemned Trump’s words as “nothing short of treasonous.” Others, in less provocative terms, joined in harsh denunciations.
“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” GOP Sen. John McCain declared in a statement.
“The President has moved beyond disgraceful to dangerous,” said Kori Schake, once a top national security advisor to President George W. Bush.
“Bad for American national security,” added Richard Haass, who served three Republican presidents.
“An absolute dereliction of duty,” concluded former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns.
Burns referred to Trump’s constitutional duty to protect America. But Trump’s commitment to protecting himself is something different.
Trump typically frames his diplomacy in highly personal terms. Last week, he did the same on his meeting with Putin.
“He’s been very nice to me the times I’ve met him,’ Trump told reporters. “I’ve been nice to him.”
Putin, having intervened on Trump’s behalf in 2016, was nice at the news conference, too. He acknowledged he wanted Trump to win.
An American reporter asked if Russia possessed compromising information on Trump or his family. Putin noted “rumors” to that effect, but did not deny them.