The words spoken by the leader of the free world matter. Just a few utterances can impact economies, trigger conflict or resolve differences. An American President speaks not just for himself, but for the values of a free society that influences policy and practice around the globe.
President Trump, as we well know, relies on his instincts. He believes those impulses serve him well. Who can blame him for that conviction, since he won the presidency despite long odds by following his gut?
However, when it comes to a high-stakes meeting with a powerful and corrupt counterpart like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump should have relied more on preparation and nuance rather than winging it.
In just a couple sentences in Helsinki Trump undermined his successful America First mantra and threw the U.S. intelligence community under the bus, while raising grave doubts about whether he has the right stuff to lead a critical global counterbalance to an expansionist and thuggish Russia.
Trump said he didn’t see any reason why Russia was responsible for interfering with the 2016 election, adding, “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” I bet he was. I suspect KGB training includes the finer points of deception.
Trump continually conflates Russian tampering with allegations that his campaign colluded with the Russians. One can understand his merging of the issues, since partisans who have never accepted the legitimacy of his presidency already consider them one and the same while hoping the Mueller investigation proves it.
So far there is no proven collusion, but there is substantial evidence of Russian interference. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has said unequivocally that Russia tampered and that “efforts to undermine our democracy” are continuing.
Politically, Trump put his supporters in a bind. Do they stick with Trump’s version or call him out? Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia did not mention Trump by name, but she did pick a side.
“I trust our intelligence community in their assessment of Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election,” she said in prepared statement, adding that she has supported appropriations to improve U.S. election security. “Russia is an adversary of the United States, and we must continue efforts to hold them accountable.”
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who is in a tough re-election fight and who constantly reminds voters that he wants to work with Trump, said in a statement, “Let me be perfectly clear. The Russian government is not our friend. They interfered in our 2016 election and cyber attacks continue to this day.”
It’s possible too much is being made of the President’s press conference fumble. After all, Trump is known to be malleable, and he attempted to pivot yesterday, saying he “accepts” the findings of his intelligence agencies on Russian meddling.
He added that what he meant to say in Helsinki was, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.” That’s a curious turn of phrase, especially since the alleged Monday misstep could have been corrected minutes after the press conference.
America stands as a beacon of hope for the world, the leading architect of the ideas of freedom over oppression and liberty over oligarchy. Our enemies should fear us, while our friends should never lose faith that we are committed to these core values.
That’s why what the president says (and does) matters. The moral equivocating by the President in Helsinki and the awkward double-negative correction yesterday create doubt about Trump’s ability to reassure the world what America stands for, and what it will stand against.