President Donald J. Trump has returned to the United States from his worldwind tour – emphasis on worldwind – of Europe only to find that all Helsinki has broken loose.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle – along with members of former Democratic and Republican administrations, pundits and everyday citizens – have taken Trump to task for siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump – so famous for “telling it like it is” – failed disastrously to understand perhaps the chief diplomatic rule: You may disagree at home but you present a united front abroad. (Surely, anyone who has been dressed down by family in front of strangers recognizes why. Nothing else is quite as effective in stirring humiliation and division.)
Apparently, Trump has gotten the message. Reading today from a prepared statement in the indifferent manner of a truant forced by his parents to apologize, Trump explained that he misspoke. He said why would Russia have interfered in the election, instead of saying why wouldn’t Russia have interfered.
Oh, that explains everything, as comedian John Oliver might say. President Bill Clinton had the word “is” in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Trump has gone him one better. He has part of a contraction – “n’t.”
“Look, let me say: Politicians have always lied,” President Barack Obama said in delivering a speech in South Africa on the 100th anniversary of the birth of former South African President Nelson Mandela. “But it used to be that if you caught them lying, they’d be like, ‘Ah, man.’”
Now, Obama added, they just double-down. Or parse language in statements prepared by mortified staffers.
The fallout of Trump’s performance – in which he threw both Europe and American intelligence under the bus to shine up to the serpentine Putin – will be assessed at length in the days to come. And it may have some upsides – greater dialogue with the Russians on Syria and nuclear arms; greater awareness and vigilance on the part of Americans to safeguard democracy.
But that’s a bit like saying the advantage of cancer is that it makes you appreciate life more. Terrific, but couldn’t you have come to that conclusion without cancer? Who wants to have cancer to acquire a greater appreciation of life?
The immediate fallout of the U.S.-Russia summit is that America’s allies feel they cannot trust the U.S. anymore. (And that message has been finally driven home to the Republicans who have been reluctant to criticize the president, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – ever the diplomat where the president is concerned – tried to reassure our European “friends.”)
In this we see the consequence of treating people badly: They simply won’t be there for you. But Trump doesn’t care. He wants America to go it alone. Can it? I fear we’re all about to find out.
Obama – oh how I miss his comforting rhetoric – told his South African audience that despite the rise of strongmen leaders around the world, we have seen darker hours and lower valleys.
Yes, Mr. President, we have been to Helsinki and back.