As much as the fact of the previously undisclosed tête-à-tête between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg at the G-20 meeting, the reaction to the news should alarm Trump’s shrinking band of supporters who now find it increasingly difficult to mount credible defenses for the president’s conduct, especially where Russia is concerned.
Walter Russell Mead observes, “Trump’s willingness to meet with Putin without even an American interpreter present was at best a sign that he hasn’t mastered some of the most basic elements of his job; whatever happened in that meeting, the impossibility of knowing what was said there will further diminish the President’s ability to lead the country.” Moreover, Mead argues that “stories like this that will endanger the legitimacy of the Trump presidency; the naive belief that something like this could be concealed is almost as troubling as some of the more sinister interpretations Trump’s most inveterate critics will place on this mysterious and unsettling encounter.”
In short, the president’s motives, judgment and loyalty are so suspect that the presumption of legitimacy — which Trump whined Democrats were trying to deny him — has all but disappeared. Sure, Trump is indisputably the elected president — the election results cannot be gainsaid at this point. Nevertheless, the impression is widespread that whatever actions he takes and statements he makes do not necessarily advance the interests of the United States. They might be designed to further his own legal position, to advance his business interests or to protect his family members. However, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he only defends American interests when they happen to coincide with his personal interests. When the latter (e.g. maintaining he won the election without Russian help) depart from national interests, the national interests (e.g. protecting America from an assault on democracy) take a back seat.
Cagey world leaders tell him what he wants to hear (e.g., Putin denied meddling, Israel’s prime minister defends Trump’s obsession with a wall) or publicly fawn over him to assuage his ego (as his Saudi hosts did on his Middle East trip), knowing that he will sacrifice American interests and values in favor of public adulation. He’s the dream pawn for foreign espionage operations, not only a “useful idiot” but a desperate one. He rushes to Putin’s side at the dinner table because he craves the appearance of camaraderie with the man his opponents accuse of attacking our democracy. Trump perhaps desires to show our European allies and domestic critics he has an “in” with Putin, or perhaps he simply needs Putin’s attention — in the same way he needs big crowds (or needs to think they are big) and “Fox & Friends” hosts’ sycophancy.
The news of the extended conversation between Putin and Trump — was it not disclosed because Trump’s eagerness to be in Putin’s presence was so cringe-worthy? — confirms our perception that Trump is dependent (for whatever reason) on Putin’s approval. But the incident also illustrates that at some level the White House knows the public no longer trusts the president to meet with America’s most formidable foe. We know — and the White House knows we know — Trump is a slave to his own ego, a compromised figure whose fidelity to America can no longer be assumed.