The critics being biased, unfair and wrong in the lead to Helsinki – and in most other matters concerning President Trump — does not make Trump right. For reasons that are virtually imponderable to comprehend, the President blew it big time. This was not only a flaw of personality – although that may be part of it. This was a monumental miscarriage of policy.
The case against the Russia of Vladimir Putin is incontrovertible. After a brief era of reform and democratization, the Cold War Russian bear has re-emerged under Putin. Trump’s mantra that it would be nice if Russia and the United States would get along, is a sentiment could have been expressed about Hitler. Of course, it would be nice – BUT, it is not possible under the current circumstance. And those circumstances are the activities of Russia on the world stage. They just cannot be swept under the rug in some romantic notion of détente.
The end of the first Cold War and the spirit of détente produced by President Reagan, and the years of cooperation between Russia and the United States, have been slowly but steadily slipping away since the rise of Putin and his ambition to restore the old Soviet Union.
Supporters of Trump and the more objective observers have cut the President slack in his dealings with Russia. It was believed that the superficial cordiality was the flip side of hardline policies. This was a legitimate belief in view of the actions taken by the Trump administration against Russian interests. The list is long and exceeds the actions taken by the past four or five presidents.
The ability of Trump to play both bad cop and good cop has a shelf life, however. There comes a point, where the soft approach has to yield to toughness in talk and, more importantly, in action. That time arrived in Helsinki and Trump missed his opportunity. In keeping with Trump’s favorite participation sport, the ball was tee’d up in Helsinki and he totally missed it.
There is a possibility that the more substantive issues were better handled better in private. We do not really know if Trump’s private meeting was the same namby-pamby political talk we heard in the post-meeting press conference or whether Trump figuratively shook Putin by the collar and demanded that he change his ways. We do not know, but it does seem unlikely.
The post-mortem of the meeting suggests that Trump blew it in three important ways. Rather than pushing back on Putin, Trump may have given the brutal despot a clear path to continue his criminal ways. One can recall that President Obama, upon learning about Russian meddling, said he told Putin to “Stop it.” No sanction. No booting diplomates. No seizing property. No resolutions in the UN. Nope. Obama merely told him to stop it. And, how well did that work?
Sadly, that may have been even more than Trump did. The President did not even tell Putin to cease his ambition to take over Ukraine. He did not tell Putin to get his bear butt out of the Middle East. He did not tell Putin to stop meddling in American elections and cease his campaigns to unsettle American comity.
The second unfortunate outcome of the meeting was that Trump gave undeserved creditability to his most biased and mendacious critics. CNN and MSNBC took a flight over the cuckoo’s nest in the extremity of their analysis. They made repeated use of a tweet by from CIA Director John Brennan in which he accused Trump of treason and for the commission of a “high crime and misdemeanor” – the cliché language of impeachment. Appointed CIA Director by President Obama, Brennan was one of the most radical liberals ever to head the agency. He had actually supported and voted for Communist Party candidates in 1980 while employed by the CIA. But, it is not just the liberal media criticizing Trump. FOX News was highly critical of the President’s performance – both in substance and style – although they did not go to the excesses of hyper hyperbole seen in the anti-Trump propaganda media.
Trump actually started to stumble prior to arriving in Helsinki. Trump used the word “foe” in terms of the European Union and offered up an Obama-like apology tweet that American mistakes – including the Mueller investigation – have been partly responsible for the bad relationship between Russia and the United States.
Those opinions expressed from the mouth of Trump, himself, were not only ill-advised and inappropriate, they were just wrong. When Trump speaks of Russia as a “competitor” and the EU as a “foe,” he seems to have gotten his descriptives reversed.
Also, the mistakes America made in the past are not the reason for the bad relationship that now exists between the two major nuclear nations. The mistakes – not coming down hard on Russia for seizing the Crimea, walking away from the red line in Syria (which led to the tragic, disruptive migration into Europe and the preservation of Bashar al Asaad) and meddling in our presidential election – were what enabled Putin to succeed in doing bad things – things clearly against the interest and security of the United States. But we should make no mistake. It was Putin’s ACTIONS that soured the already tenuous relationship. He took advantage of the Obama/Kerry weak and disastrous foreign policy and made the best of it.
The media’s claim that Trump’s failure in Helsinki was having the meeting in the first place. Not so. It was an opportunity to signal American resolve and strength in pushing back against bad actors on the world stage. Unfortunately, Trump did not do that. He made Putin look strong. Trump appeared to be taking on a challenger above his weight class. To extend the boxing metaphor, heavyweight Trump (America) lost on points to the bantamweight Putin (Russia).
And looking at Trump’s performance in Helsinki purely in political terms, he gave a lot of those “undecideds” reason to vote Democrat in the upcoming midterm election.
While the focus is on Trump, one cannot help but wonder what guys like National Security Advisor John Bolton knows and thinks. He is the last person on earth willing to play tidily-winks with Putin. Does he know something that we do not know? Can he explain and justify what happened in Helsinki? Bolton’s response could be the last shred of credibility Trump has on this specific issue.
This does not mean Trump cannot recoup. But, his options are limited. He has to do what he does best – pivot. He could return to the Oval Office, express his confidence in at least the indictments of the Russians and increase sanctions on Russia.
Yes, the #NeverTrump crowd will seize on this event in an attempt to justify all their biased past opinions and ill wishes. It is in keeping with their narrative that Trump has not said or done a single thing that is positive – and that virtually all Republicans and conservatives are deplorable.
Looking only at Helsinki, it is fair to conclude that on this one, Trump blew it big time – and there will be a lot of mess to mop up in the aftermath.
In a previous commentary I wrote, “If Putin comes out smiling with his chest out, things did not go well.” And, that is exactly how Putin walked out of the meeting.