The depiction of President Trump as an unabashed instrument of the Kremlin has shifted into overdrive since his widely panned press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. The groundwork for this charge had been laid even before Helsinki by Jonathan Chait’s piece in New York magazine, which speculated that Trump has been a Russian intelligence asset since 1987. Post-Helsinki, former CIA Director John Brennan set the tone by calling Trump’s remarks “nothing less than treasonous.” The charge was taken up with great gusto by the Usual Suspects in the mainstream media. CNN provided saturation coverage for several days after the summit, heavily larding its commentary with the treason question. The clincher for the prosecution was the President’s apparent willingness in Helsinki to accept Putin’s denials over the judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Trump’s later explanation that he had misspoken was greeted with derision. The Helsinki remarks, some said, were proof positive that the U.S. President is a Russian agent, possibly under Kremlin control as a result of blackmail, and therefore must be impeached: “What further need have we of witnesses? We have heard it from his own mouth.”
What can we say about that ill-fated press conference with Putin? It would have been nice if Trump had taken the high road and avoided gratuitous swipes at his domestic opponents, including the inept boast that he had beaten Hillary Clinton “easily.” Alas, magnanimity is not one of the President’s characteristic virtues; moreover, we are living in a poisonous, scorched-earth political environment where no quarter is given and none asked. Regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Trump had leveled forthright (if overstated) criticism in Brussels about its negative geopolitical consequences, bluntly but appropriately taking Germany to task for the project. In Helsinki, by contrast, he blathered about American LNG competing with Russian piped gas on the European market, completely missing the real reason for opposing Nord Stream 2 and handing a specious argument to those who disingenuously claim that Washington is simply trying to displace Russian gas with more expensive American LNG on the European market.
Then there was the reprise of Trump’s campaign foray into moral equivalency (“I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.”), this time to proclaim that the United States shares the blame for bad relations with Russia. Using the press conference to dole out responsibilities for the deplorable state of U.S.-Russian ties was a no-win gambit to begin with, but Trump compounded the problem by seeming to pin the blame (at least on the American side) on the Mueller investigation, peppering his remarks with frequent avowals that there had, in fact, been no collusion. Phrasing his remarks differently, Trump might have sounded downright statesmanlike in acknowledging some U.S. shortcomings in its dealings with Russia. However, with all the American “guilt” laid on the shoulders of the Mueller investigation, it was hard to avoid the impression that the President doth protest too much.
Regarding the question of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, Trump had this to say: “My people came to me, [CIA Director] Dan Coats came to me and 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.” (Days later Trump issued a correction, averring that he had meant to say, “I don’t see any reason why it would not be.”) In Helsinki he added shortly thereafter, “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
I will not try to parse the meaning of these awkward remarks, except to note one thing: Those who accuse Trump of consistently denying Russian meddling are factually wrong, even based on the simple meaning of his words at the Helsinki press conference. Trump has not consistently said anything about Russian meddling, for the simple reason that he has not been consistent.
It is hardly a secret that Trump is a man with no filter, prone to talk off the top of his head and not overly fastidious about whether his remarks track with what he has said in the past. I have known people of similar disposition, but Trump is perhaps the first such person ever elected to our nation’s highest office. On the question of NATO, Russia, or a whole host of other issues, you could attribute widely varied—even diametrically opposed—points of view to Trump depending on which of his remarks you chose to cherry-pick. Anyone preoccupied with rhetorical consistency will be driven to distraction by the current President.
Moreover, Trump’s introduction as President to his intelligence community was essentially to be informed that his campaign was under investigation for collusion with Russia. Surprise, surprise, they didn’t get off to a great start. Trump’s relationship thereafter with the U.S. intelligence agencies has been a rocky one, for reasons that are neither frivolous nor incomprehensible.
Finally, Trump’s opponents have used the fact of Russian interference in 2016 to try to delegitimize his election. Of course, it is two entirely different things to maintain that Moscow interfered on the one hand, and to insist on the other hand that Russian meddling swung the election. Trump’s most implacable foes have insisted on conflating the two, and Trump himself seems challenged at times to keep the two strands separate in his own mind.
Ultimately, Trump has no one but himself to blame for his clumsy handling of the Russian-interference issue at the Helsinki press conference, and he is taking his lumps accordingly.
The charge of treason leveled against him, however, is quite another matter.
The U.S. intelligence agencies regularly make assessments, expressing varying degrees of certainty, about the whole panoply of foreign policy and security issues. These assessments are purely advisory and are in no way binding on the elected leadership. It is the latter that has the constitutional authority to make policy, not the intelligence services, who in any event have proven to be every bit as fallible in their judgments as the rest of us.
The notion that it is treasonous for an elected head of state to disagree with the conclusions of his intelligence agencies is therefore profoundly disturbing. It is the sort of scenario one might expect to see in a quasi-authoritarian state where a shaky elected government is grappling for authority with powerful security services intent on retaining their power behind a façade of democracy. Recently retired intelligence chiefs are certainly entitled to their opinions, but it is deeply unsettling to see such individuals in the vanguard of a movement for the removal of a democratically elected President.
Moreover, the notion of Trump as a Russian agent cannot withstand any serious scrutiny. As a number of analysts (many of them Russian) have pointed out, at the Brussels NATO Summit Trump pummeled allies to increase defense spending and subjected Putin’s pet Nord Stream 2 project to withering criticism and the threat of American sanctions. The Brussels Summit communiqué was as tough as ever on Russian behavior and solicitous of Ukrainian and Georgian interests. Trump is committed to a U.S. military build-up; has authorized missile strikes against Russia’s ally Syria; has expelled a record number of Russian diplomats; has demonstrated the U.S. commitment to defending NATO’s eastern flank in deeds, not just words; has expanded the provision of U.S. weapons and training to Ukraine and Georgia; and (perhaps worst of all from the Kremlin’s long-term perspective) has made it a priority to increase U.S. energy production. None of these actions is calculated to endear Trump to Putin or to further the latter’s nefarious agenda.
Yet for all that, Trump has declined to criticize Putin publicly, and many pundits will be unimpressed by anything the President does with regard to Russia until he pokes Putin (rhetorically, and preferably literally) in the eye. Evidently Trump is insufficiently rude for some people’s taste. At his next meeting with Putin he’ll just have to work harder to overcome his natural meekness and reticence.
It should go without saying that, if Trump were actually taking orders from the Kremlin, his behavior would be the exact opposite. He would be lambasting Putin publicly for show while slashing U.S. defense spending, patting NATO fondly on the head as it slides into irrelevance, hobbling U.S. energy production, and quietly directing U.S. financing and technology into building more Russian pipelines.
Those who dislike Trump’s personal soft spot for Putin (and—who knows?—perhaps even some other aspects of the President’s policies) have constitutional recourse. They can campaign, donate, and vote against his party in the upcoming midterm elections, and can work to unseat Trump himself in 2020.
Alas, 2020 is such a desperately long time to wait. An astonishing number of people on the left are so stricken with an apparently incurable case of the DTs (delirium Trumpens) that they seem quite content to trust the intelligence agencies both to determine ground truth on various matters and to declare that disagreement with such assessments constitutes treason. Truly, what bizarre times we live in!