Trump’s Weak Defense of His Meeting With Putin

The notion that America can simply move beyond Russia’s electoral interference is fantasy.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Even many Republicans who normally support or silently abide Donald Trump criticized the president Monday after his press conference with Vladimir Putin.

The Associated Press reporter Jonathan Lemire prompted the most controversial exchange by asking, “Just now President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. My first question, sir, is who do you believe? My second question is would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin—would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?”

President Trump responded, in part:

All I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others and 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, but I really do want to see the server. But I have confidence in both parties. I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server … So 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. And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators, with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer. Okay, thank you.

As my colleague James Fallows quickly observed:

At every step, he was advancing the line that Putin hoped he would advance, and the line that the American intelligence, defense, and law-enforcement agencies most dreaded … Trump’s answers were indistinguishable from Putin’s, starting with the fundamental claim that Putin’s assurances about interference in U.S. democracy (“He was incredibly strong and confident in his denial”) deserved belief over those of his own Department of Justice (“I think the probe is a disaster for our country”).

Amid a bipartisan outcry from observers making similar points, with Senator John McCain going so far as to declare the summit “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” Trump took to Twitter, his crutch, to defend himself, writing: “As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.’ However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along! #HELSINKI 2018.”

No one urged exclusive focus on the past. That Trump has great confidence in the intelligence community is directly contradicted by the regularity with which he undercuts their conclusions. And the rest of his defense makes even less sense.

Yes, there are times when countries ought to put bygone transgressions behind them. And yes, nuclear powers have a special responsibility to build a peaceful future. Indeed, the U.S. ought to build that sort of future with Russia.

But Russian interference in the 2016 election is not an issue that Trump can simply consign to the past, and not only because the press, the public, his partisan adversaries, and the nature of Robert Mueller’s probe will not allow it. Recent Russian election interference is an inescapable part of America’s future; the United States will hold another high-stakes election later this year. Then, in 2020, it will hold another presidential election. And every two years after that, there will be more elections in this republic, so long as we can keep it. How secure would those elections be if we only looked forward?

The republic would face a crisis if powerful foreign nations were permitted to interfere in those elections with impunity, or if most citizens began to doubt the integrity of elections because the government didn’t seem to care about past interference.

That is why patriotic members of Congress, intelligence agencies, an adversarial press, a civil society that cares about protecting democracy, and techies opposed to foreign intelligence services manipulating U.S. elections will all be scrutinizing the 2018 midterms for evidence of interference by Russia or others. The competitive nature of U.S. elections further guarantees that partisans on the losing side will cry foul if there is persuasive evidence of foreign interference.

Complicating matters further, false or exaggerated claims of foreign interference could also undermine American democracy by causing the public to wrongly turn on its institutions. A president fit for the office he holds would take every practical measure to reassure the public that Republicans and Democrats alike know interference to a degree that significantly affects or undermines an election’s results is possible—and that they’re united in trying to stop it.

Our actual president undermines that faith daily and thereby weakens the country. If he believes that he can render controversy over 2016 moot by simply urging that our two countries must “build a brighter future,” he is a fool. As a beneficiary of Russian interference, he can achieve that sort of reconciliation least of anyone.

That Russian interference remains a feature of American relations with that country is inevitable. Managing the issue without undermining our future elections or risking a needless, ruinous conflict with a great power requires deftly confronting the matter directly, in a manner that decreases the odds of a repeat performance and does not involve credulously taking the word of a lying adversary as though it carries any credibility, or indulging fantasies that the matter will go away.

Trump shows every sign of being incapable of that vital task. Unless Republicans impeach the incompetent head of state they elected, the United States is unlikely to have a president capable of the feat until at least January 2021.