President Trump’s critics were beside themselves in the days before his meeting with Russian Premier Vladimir Putin. A campaign to smear the President for his relations with Russia was in full swing, with writers calling him a traitor and “bought and sold” by Putin. The campaign rolled out speculations, accusations, rhetorical inventions and outright prevarications, but was remarkably short on specifics.
What most clearly disproves these deranged claims is the fact that the sanctions imposed and continued by Trump are doing serious damage to the Russian economy. That, to me, is far more important than the verbal denunciations or personal cold-shoulders that his critics seem to believe that Trump should be directing at Putin. As if Putin would care.
After the news conference, the President’s detractors really hit their stride, without any idea of what was actually said in the one-on-one meeting. They ignored all the potentially real progress that was made on other important issues in order to focus their bile on the President’s refusal to harangue his counterpart in public over election meddling.
The prejudgment of Trump’s performance at the meeting is exemplified by the thoroughly wacky claim by the avatar of the foreign policy establishment David Rothkopf that “the way Trump and the GOP deal with Russian attacks is ‘textbook treason.’’ To get there Rothkopf redefines acts of war to include snooping into electoral campaign emails, then calls the President a traitor for failing to denounce the perpetrators as stridently as Rothkopf would like. His evidence of this is the “ill-considered and unnecessary private meeting with Vladimir Putin” coming up this month.
Normally writing for a house organ of the deranged left like the Daily Beast, where this appeared, would be beneath an establishment type like Rothkopf. His willingness to do so just demonstrates how deeply that establishment is opposed to Donald Trump, and how far it is willing to debase itself in order to get him out of office.
Rothkopf’s indictment is summed up in his underlined statement that: “A hostile foreign power intervened in our election to help elect a man president who has since actively served their interests and has defended them at every turn.” With the last clause, Rothkopf switched from wackiness to out and out falsehood.
Then there is the Never-Trump Republican Michael Gerson who claims that Trump “acts precisely as though he has been bought and sold by a strategic rival.” Ignoring the reality of President Trump’s actions, Gerson sails off into fantasy with speculations about President Trump’s motivations:
Does it come from Trump’s bad case of authoritarianism envy? A fundamental sympathy with European right-wing, anti-democratic populism? An exposure to pressure from his checkered financial history? There are no benign explanations, and the worst ones seem the most plausible.
With this warmup, it was clear that anything Trump said or did after the meeting would be leapt upon by those whose prejudice had already been made clear. But the facts about actions taken by the President give the lie to any claim that he has been “bought and sold” or has “defended [Russia] at every turn.”
These are some of President Trump’s actions toward Russia:
Since 2017, he has applied additional and more onerous sanctions to the Russian energy sector and to key members of the criminal gang that Putin depends on for survival. These sanctions have been serious and effective. The Russian ruble and stock market dropped by 10% after the last round of sanctions were announced on April 6, and have since recovered only because of rising oil prices that would otherwise have driven them far higher.
Independent sources estimate that isolating and weakening Russia’s energy sector – its only globally viable industry – and restricting Russia’s access to the global financial sector will reduce Russian GDP by over 10%. Those are not slaps on the wrist and not what a President in the pocket of foreign interests would do.
He expelled an unprecedented number of Russian “diplomats” and orchestrated parallel actions by U.S. allies in response to Russian poisoning of a former KGB agent and his daughter.
He authorized calculated and effective air strikes to punish Assad’s poison gas attacks in Syria, and in an even more “in your face” move authorized attacks that succeeded in killing 200 Russian military personnel posing as “military contractors.”
At the European summit, he put pressure on those countries to abandon their planned investments in a natural gas pipeline that would benefit the Russian natural gas industry and harm European energy security. For this he was criticized by the same pundits who claim he is soft on Russia.
Going back to 2017, President Trump reversed Obama’s military abandonment of Poland, ignoring Russian saber-rattling. He approved the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine — Javelin missiles effective against Russian tanks — something else Obama could not bring himself to do.
Just as increased military spending under President Trump shifts the power balance in US favor vis a vis Russia, his insistence that other NATO members pay their promised share will ultimately strengthen the alliance. Every President since George H.W. Bush has tried to accomplish the same, so that the idea that Trump is “destroying NATO” by demanding an end to free-riding by countries well able to pay is ludicrous.
Finally, he appointed Michael Bolton, the strongest hawk on Russia to be found, to be his national security advisor, and Mike Pompeo, his current Secretary of State, has consistently spoken out against Russian aggression. They were present in Helsinki.
The anti-Trump bandwagon never mentioned these facts in its attacks.
After the press conference, it just got worse. Anderson Cooper became the hero of the anti-Trump bandwagon by calling it “the most disgraceful performance by an American President” – though as usual what he had in mind was far from clear.
What no one mentioned is that both Trump and Putin made clear in the press conference that all issues of concern were discussed. They mentioned Syria and cooperation on terrorism explicitly, and that they had a long discussion of Russian interference in the last election.
No other result should have been expected. Abject apologies were not going to be offered by Putin, and no President would be foolish enough to attempt to extract them. Nor was there any reason for Trump to imitate the buffoons who ran the Soviet Union before its collapse by pounding his shoe on the table and haranguing his counterpart in public.
How this adds up the most disgraceful performance by a President is unfathomable. Diplomacy done well is not done for an audience of reporters. For all we know, Trump’s conversation with Putin could have been a strong – and even vulgar – explanation of the consequences if there were any future Russian meddling in our elections.
Thus all there was for the press to latch on to was the President’s unfortunate mention of the Mueller investigation and his statement that there was “no collusion.” The President’s use of the word “collusion” seems to have strained the vocabulary of his critics. They twisted his words to make it appear that he exonerated Russia from the charge of meddling in our elections: based on President Trump’s past usage of the word, it is clear that he was only reiterating that there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russian hackers. Indeed, by putting it that way he implicitly acknowledged that some parties in Russia did interfere with the election.
The concentration of the press on this topic seems planned. From Schumer to Rothkopf, his critics attacked the President for failing to cancel the meeting in light of the indictment of 26 Russian spies.
This elevation of the importance of those indictments is particularly disingenuous.
The public announcement of the indictments makes it certain that the culprits will never be caught and punished.
Friends who have done this themselves tell me that the normal tactic of a serious prosecutor would be to obtain sealed indictments and then lure the suspects to a country where they could be detained and extradited. The failure of the Mueller team to do this suggests that the indictments were a political stunt from the very beginning. If so, Trump wisely did not take the bait.
The smoke screen laid down by Trump’s critics over this issue – no doubt aided by some of his more unfortunate ways of communicating – obscures the potential good outcomes of his meeting with Putin. No meeting addressing so many topics could possibly reach final agreement on any. The outcome to hope for is that it will identify and start a process on some. It did. The topic that stands out to me is Syria. Any reports of these promising results were drowned out by the howls over the President’s failure to castigate Putin in public.
Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu also visited Putin recently, and Haaretz, the Israeli equivalent of the Washington Post, speculated that his goal was a deal with Putin to get Iran out of Syria and to guarantee a return to the pre-civil war status quo with Assad. That would not be a bad thing. Getting rid of Assad is likely to make circumstances worse in Syria, if primary goals are toleration for minorities, ending fighting and repatriating refugees. Even if there is no way for the good guys to finally win, sometimes we can keep them from losing.
President Trump’s intervention may be encouraging Putin to work toward Netanyahu’s proposal, according to their statements in the press conference. That outcome would simultaneously end fighting and protect Israel’s security. If it happens, Trump would have accomplished far more by pretending to be friendly than he could have by adopting the grandstanding tactics his hypocritical opponents wanted.
David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy. He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America, David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.