Donald Trump’s Helsinki behavior – his grotesque pandering to Vladimir Putin — drew international outrage from across the political spectrum, including U.S. Republicans and even “Fox and Friends.” He had already repeatedly demonstrated his admiration for “strong-man” dictators, including North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Putin himself. Trump dodged the detailed briefings of U.S. intelligence professionals documenting Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election. He made the feeble claim that Putin had strongly assured him that Russia did not meddle.
Trump seemed hell-bent to ingratiate himself publicly before the ruthless former KGB officer, in front of the international media. Then, the New York Times exposed the fact that key U.S. intelligence officials had briefed Trump even before his inauguration, on the details of how Russian military intelligence officers attempted to interfere with the elections. Who could argue with Brennan’s assessment?
Democrats had already complained of Trump’s failures to carry on the U.S. aggressive foreign policies that have centered on traditional alliances with the Europeans. The U.S. routinely led the NATO nations in putting military pressure on the Soviet Union, and after its demise, on Russia. Trump’s rude and dismissive behavior toward allies at the NATO summit exemplified his frequent abusiveness to traditional allies. Suddenly, the Democrats seemed to stand to the right of Republicans on foreign policy.
Republicans, on the other hand, the traditional enablers of aggression around the world with U.S. leadership of NATO as a key element in the actions of empire, found themselves cornered. They were desperate to retain their positions on foreign policy. Yet they felt compelled to support their increasingly unstable president, even as he violated all the norms of taking a tough stand against “The Russian Threat.”
The political heat generated by Trump’s public dissembling, with Putin standing beside him, became unbearable. He wound back his statement that he “did not see why Russia would have interfered with U.S. elections, claiming he had misspoke the word “wouldn’t” by saying “would.” Yet, the tone of his remarks said otherwise; and he could not resist adding the diversionary claim that “others” may have been involved.
Personal Perversity of a President
Trump contradicted himself on Russian interference at least four times since Helsinki. Something drives Trump to hold to his avoidance of saying or doing anything that might upset Vladimir Putin –directly contradicting the hard evidence that CIA, et al, showed him. What makes Trump so afraid to cross Putin? Is it the mystery “golden showers” video? Why did he try to take back his statements while still affirming them? Is it that Trump’s Helsinki behavior — pandering to Vladimir Putin — drew such international outrage from across the political spectrum? Did he have to respond to that pressure while bowing to Russian pressure as well? It would seem so.
Trump had repeatedly demonstrated his perverse personal admiration for “strong-man” dictators, including North Korea’s ruthless Kim Jong-un and Putin himself. Dismissing the fact-filled briefings of U.S. intelligence professionals in favor of accepting Putin’s “strong assurance” that Russia did not meddle in the U.S. 2016 presidential election would be laughable if not so serious. Trump seemed hell-bent to ingratiate himself before the callous former KGB officer, no matter what. Was it merely his narcissistic sociopathy at work? Or, does Putin really have something on him? Most likely, both.
Treasonous Business as Usual
Former CIA Director John Brennan characterized Trump’s acquiescence to Putin’s claims as treasonous. Who could argue with that assessment? But what drives it? Is Trump’s financial indebtedness to Russian oligarchs close to Putin at play? Nobody knows, except perhaps Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigators. I expect that it will all come out in further indictments. Meanwhile Trump’s enterprises profit immensely from his presidency.
Trump delights in fomenting confusion among those around him. His outlandish behavior violates all patriotic protocols of civil international diplomacy, national pride, and the basic precepts of national security. Yet, when the diatribes and dissembling are set aside, what is left? I would argue that in the foreign policy arena anyway, his actual policies as exercised follow conventional practices rather closely. Clearly, he operates closer to the edge and without understanding or caring about the real issues between nations, except where they affect his financial interests and personal pride. Therein lies the danger.
Yes, Trump blusters, dissembles, lies, and consistently contradicts himself. His domestic and climate policies grossly circumvent federal law to allow polluters free reign while the planet burns. But we sometimes focus too much on words and not enough on deeds. As Glen Greenwald of The Intercept has argued, Trump’s foreign policies, disastrous as they are, do not veer very far from those of Obama. More clandestine troops, more killer drones, are just more and more of the same. Certainly, Obama would not have committed his callous abuse of the children of people legitimately seeking asylum from the violence that U.S. foreign policy has enabled in Central America. Racist sociopaths, on the other hand, have no capacity for empathy or compassion, even for children, especially brown ones.
Donald J. Trump exercises business as usual with an ugly face. In doing so, he is looking out for number one without regard to the national interest, nor the interests of humanity itself. But, then, neither have the smooth talkers of the political establishment that he claims to decry while playing their very own game with the added barbarity of being Mister Nasty.