Of course, America has interfered or hacked into foreign states’ affairs. It’s part of any major (and quite a few mid-level) power’s portfolio of strategies and tactics. The problem, Mr. President, is when you assign moral equivalence to the acts of Putin’s Kremlin and its use of hybrid warfare: a form of aggression that Russia has developed and now uses as its predominant way to achieve Russia’s ends, which tend to be czar Putin’s ends.
It. Is. Not. The. Same. When America tries to influence events. Never mind what screaming radicals in Europe, the Middle East, or Latin America think, even in a case like Chile. Where possible, intelligence activity by America helped topple Salvador Allende’s socialist and increasingly authoritarian regime and ushered in Pinochet’s brutal and lengthy dictatorship. Chile is now arguably the most developed nation in Latin America and has joined the OECD with little problems of organized crime and corruption that haunt Mexico, for example.
It seems stubborn in a fussy way to deny any Russian interference in the 2016 elections. And the problem seems to be this. There is a conflation between interference and collusion. And yes, those in the media and the Resistance (whether part of the Democratic Party or progressive activists pushing the Democratic Party and its base) who deliberately conflate interference with collusion to weaken Trump’s legitimacy do it to try and somehow scare up a case for impeachment.
One assumes that, Mr. President, you understand this tactic and that it infuriates you. But here’s the real problem. When you cheerfully accept Putin’s smirking, thuggish denials and ridiculous offers in front of the world’s media, you only help those who wish to push the collusion narrative. Your denials and complicity in Putin’s lies only help the Resistance, Mr. President.
You Do Get That, Don’t You?
This is a game. A great game, unfortunately, in today’s image-driven, post-modern world where social media have co-opted the public square. You have managed to play the game in ways nobody expected would work, Mr. President. However, Achille’s heel in your strategy has always been your inability to balance between dismissing the collusion narrative and accepting the reality of interference.
Some people really want to hurt you. It’s true. Some people dislike you and who you are – like Senator McCain – but his criticism of your performance in Helsinki makes it worth that McCain is unwilling to step aside as a war hero graciously and long-serving public servant and relinquish his Senate seat. Doesn’t matter. His words today make it a gift to America that he clings to that seat.
And some people really want to help you. You should lend them an ear on occasion, Mr. President. Like Paul Bonicelli’s piece in The Federalist, a measured yet forceful plea for what might have happened in Helsinki. I quote:
President Trump went into this meeting with plenty of leverage—and the personality and reputation—to effect this outcome. We are incredibly rich, powerful, and highly regarded by much of the world, and feared by the rest. Further, the president carried with him the leverage that Putin is a clear malefactor in the world who threatens his neighbors, meddles in the Middle East to the point of war crimes, murders foreign citizens in their own countries, and bolsters rogue nations like North Korea. His deeds are wicked, and his words are lies, and everyone knows it.
None of this is to say that Trump needed to go into this meeting and verbally attack and abuse Putin. Diplomacy at the highest levels calls for restraint of words and tone. But it doesn’t call for one leader to defer to another leader’s views on anything. It definitely doesn’t call for a leader to make his domestic political concerns the issue, especially to the degree that he will not publicly support his own cabinet.
But Mr. President, you were at a loss over what to do or had clearly decided what to do, and that was not to cede an inch to your opponents back home. This is the true poison of the very Russian electoral meddling that you deny: it so dominates your mind that you cannot take the advice of your own cabinet and present a public show of strength that reflects a clear-eyed view of who Putin actually is. And this is because of the Mueller probe.
Mueller needs to wrap up his probe for the sake of America’s unity. And yes, President Trump has poorly stumbled in Helsinki, and he needs to realize that and somehow repair the damage he has wrought. Here’s Bonicelli writing in The Federalist again:
I applaud every action President Trump has taken against Putin and his efforts worldwide. But action alone is not sufficient to handle Putin. Prestige in global politics matters; perception matters. Putin thrives on the prestige accorded to bullies; by it, rogue regimes are encouraged, and we and our allies are diminished and discouraged.
Part of President Trump’s job is to publicly put the United States on the right side of the issues, as clearly as possible, whenever possible. He can treat Putin as a real partner in our common interests when Putin understands how he can have a good relationship with us, as a more normal nation. But treating him that way before he’s done anything to reform his actions in the world, when he’s lying to Trump, only strengthens Putin.
When the president of the United States defers a liar, a murderer, and a source of global conflict, nothing good for the United States can come from it. If this is the kind of relationship the president seeks, he’s seeking the wrong kind of relationship. If bluntness and toughness are called for with allies and have arguably worked for the president, surely it will work against a weak leader of a poor country who desperately needs the U.S. president not to punch him in the nose.
But as well, Mueller needs to wrap his probe up and reveal any incriminating evidence he may have. If those who despise Trump really did kickstart the Russia probe (before it became the Mueller probe in 2017) to weaken and perhaps impeach Trump, they should realize the damage they have done to America and her standing on the world stage, never mind the damage to America’s institutions. Yes, the President shares some of the blame here. But this seems a watershed moment. America needs to start thinking about ways to unite. This is too serious for any other way forward. Let us hope people on both sides of the aisle and the federal government realize this.