On Monday, President Donald Trump begins a summit with Vladimir Putin, the brutal authoritarian who leads Russia, a country where political dissidents are murdered; journalists, minorities, and homosexuals are persecuted; neighbors live under the threat of military takeover; and multiple hackers with close ties to the Kremlin are under FBI indictment for interfering in America’s 2016 election.
It is necessary to meet with such men. Yet to love truth or liberty or democracy or justice or human rights or mere decency is to disapprove of Putin. And Trump has lavished praise on his Russian counterpart for years—long before he was in office and the pretext of diplomacy could be invoked—even singling out his “strength over his country” and comparing his leadership favorably to then-President Barack Obama.
The substance of Trump’s bygone words is so repugnant and morally degenerate that Americans should feel upset he is representing our country in bilateral talks. At best, the values implicit in Trump’s bygone statements are un-American—they explicitly value a foreign leader’s brutal, repressive strength more highly than the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness it has undermined.
Because he has been similarly obsequious when talking about other murderous dictators, and because his personal life is so rife with senseless cruelty, I think his depraved personal values are sufficient to explain his disconcerting words.
Other critics insist that the way he flatters Putin suggests something even darker when seen in the context of his suspicious business ties to Russians, his determination to hide the details of his finances, the closeness of his political associates’ corrupt ties to Moscow, and Trump’s flagrant lies about those associates. With a publication as mainstream as New York titling a cover story, “Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart—Or His Handler?” it is clear that the president is regarded by many of his countrymen as every bit the possibly traitorous usurper that Birther Trump kept implying his predecessor to be.
Whatever the reason for Trump’s sycophantic relationship with Putin, this is a hugely consequential and embarrassing geopolitical moment for a very divided United States. And it ought to be a lesson for much of the anti-Trump establishment, including those who believe Trump is merely morally compromised and those who believe he is compromised by financial leverage, as-yet-revealed evidence of collusion with Russia, or some other kind of blackmail.
The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, and many of the think tanks and political organizations that allied with them, spent 25 years advocating for various expansions of presidential power, often based on the premise that some feature of the modern world required a muscular executive to get things done.
Critics who worried that the Constitution’s separation of powers was being subverted in ways that would ultimately haunt the country were dismissed by establishment conservatives, centrists, and progressives. “The founders’ anxieties about executive tyranny have proven erroneous,” Eric Posner wrote during Obama’s second term. “The president is kept in check by elections, the party system, the press, popular opinion, courts, a political culture that is deeply suspicious of his motives, term limits, and the sheer vastness of the bureaucracy which he can only barely control. He does not always do the right thing, of course, but presidents generally govern from the middle of the political spectrum.”
Because of those establishment elites and the myriad ways that they championed executive power at the expense of the legislature, whether with visions of pragmatic technocracy or “national greatness” or advancing “social justice,” Trump exercises far more control than he otherwise would over matters as diverse as war, foreign trade, international treaties, and military alliances.
Perhaps Trump will prove all his critics wrong in this week’s summit. But if he undermines America’s values or interests in some way that is at odds with how most members of Congress and a majority of the public would’ve had things done, one lesson will hold regardless of whether his actions flowed from corrupted values or corruption—the lesson that a strong legislature offers greater protection against destabilizing anomalies. There is no way to eliminate the dangers that an unfit president poses. It is best not to elect one in the first place.
Still, no House or Senate would pass a resolution praising Putin in the manner of Trump, or blurt out something that compromises the NATO alliance; and while an individual representative or senator could be compromised, a foreign-intelligence service can more easily corrupt a president than a whole legislative majority.
For those who think Trump unfit, wouldn’t it be nice if there were a few more subjects about which Putin would know that he does not exercise significant control?
Many Trump-hating elites long assumed that America would never elect so unfit a president, and so dismissed all worries about what such a person could do in a room with a foreign adversary of whom they are bizarrely fond. That isn’t the only reason that Congress should reassert greater control over war, foreign trade, international treaties, and military alliances, and downgrade the president’s power in substance and in the eyes of foreign governments.
But it is yet another reason to do so that most of the American establishment undervalued during its generation-long push for increasing the power of the presidency far beyond what the Constitution or the wisest of the Framers intended.
Is Trump’s meeting with Putin, or the broader phenomenon of his presidency, enough to cause anyone to revise their bygone view of executive power? As yet, I’ve read a lot more formerly influential people calling this moment “an emergency” for our democracy than grappling with their role in exacerbating it.