Let’s wind back the clock a few eons, back to, oh, Tuesday. Many commentators were all hot and bothered by Donald Trump’s abysmal Helsinki summit. Some people — like former CIA director John Brennan — dared call it treason. This word was too much for Kevin Williamson, however, who took to the Weekly Standard to warn about it being thrown around too casually:
President Trump, who has a little something of the later Roman emperors in him, is not engaged in making war on the United States, though it is galling to defend him from such charges given his own propensity for talking treason lightly.
He is not engaged in treason or anything like treason. He is engaged in hypocrisy and moral illiteracy. He is a frank admirer of caudillos such as Vladimir Putin, because in his mind ruthlessness, grasping, and amorality are associated with effective leadership. Hence the praise for Kim Jong-un. …
Donald Trump admires Vladimir Putin. There’s plenty to criticize in that without making up ridiculous claims about treason. Trump, and many of his Republican enablers, are irresponsible. Unhappily, they are not uniquely irresponsible. Whatever depths they sink to, the Left is ready to meet them there with a steam shovel.
I have no doubt Williamson thought he had hit the sweetspot of how conservatives should react to Trump’s European jaunt. Be appalled at Trump, yes, but be even more appalled at the hyperbolic language of the left in response. This had worked in past Trump outrage cycles *COUGH* civility *COUGH* so why not now?
The Weekly Standard published Williamson’s column at 5 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday. Later that evening, Fox News broadcast Tucker Carlson’s interview with Trump, in which the president questioned why the United States should honor its NATO commitments:
The trip was so bad that a histrionic leftist newsrag, by which I mean the Financial Times, published an editorial that did not use the T-word but came pretty damn close:
In an appalling display, the US president refused to endorse the verdict of his own intelligence agencies that Russia had deliberately intervened in the 2016 US presidential election. Instead, he gave equal credit to the “extremely strong and powerful” denial of such interference issued by President Putin. Mr Trump followed this up with a baffling and self-serving rant against his domestic critics — name-checking all his usual foes from Hillary Clinton to the FBI. …
Mr Trump has undermined his country and his office in a series of important ways. His performance in Helsinki made it absolutely clear that the US president places his own political survival and personal vanity above any belief in the rule-of-law.
As bad as that was — and it was really bad — it was just a prelude to yesterday’s revelations about what Trump and Putin had actually discussed in Helsinki. According to Bloomberg’s Toluse Olorunnipa:
President Donald Trump entertained a proposal from Vladimir Putin to let Russian authorities pose questions for the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday.
Trump made no commitments to the Russian leader when Putin raised the idea at a private meeting in Helsinki on Monday and is “going to meet with his team,” Sanders said.
Allowing the interrogation of a former American ambassador, who held diplomatic immunity while in Moscow, would be an unprecedented breach in protections traditionally provided to the nation’s foreign service. …
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Wednesday that such a grilling of a former diplomat “would be a grave concern to our former colleagues.” She said the Russians are making “absolutely absurd” assertions about 11 American citizens they want to question, although she declined to rule out the Russian proposal when asked about it repeatedly.
Why yes, yes it would be an unprecedented breach, and yes, it would be a grave concern to U.S. diplomats. How big a concern? The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman interviewed several current and former diplomats to gauge their reaction. It was … salty:
Current and former American diplomats are expressing disgust and horror over the White House’s willingness to entertain permitting Russian officials to question a prominent former U.S. ambassador.
One serving diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was “at a [expletive] loss” over comments that can be expected to chill American diplomacy in hostile or authoritarian countries — a comment echoed by former State Department officials as well….
“It’s beyond disgraceful. It’s fundamentally ignorant with regard to how we conduct diplomacy or what that means. It really puts in jeopardy the professional independence of diplomats anywhere in the world, if the consequence of their actions is going to be potentially being turned over to a foreign government,” the U.S. diplomat told The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile the State Department was also muzzled in its reaction to the anniversary of Russia’s downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine. According to Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer and Amy Mackinnon:
Officials there prepared a draft statement that was sharply critical of Russia for its alleged role in the attack. But for reasons the State Department has not explained, it was never issued. …
The State Department draft was set to go out as early as Monday but was quashed at the last minute. Officials were told to “stand down” on releasing it because Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “did not approve” the language, according to one official familiar with the deliberations.
The statement said the evidence “conclusively proves” the missile came from a specific Russian military brigade, “was brought into sovereign Ukrainian territory from Russia, was fired from Russia-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, and was then returned to Russian territory.”
Meanwhile, as my Post colleagues are reporting, senior U.S. national security officials are “scrambling” to determine what verbal agreements were reached between Trump and Putin in their two-hour, no-note-takers-allowed meeting in Helsinki. Forty-eight hours after the summit concluded, “[Pentagon] press officers remained unable to answer media questions about how the summit might impact the military, the paucity of information exposed an awkward gap in internal administration communications.”
Contra Williamson, today’s behavior by the Trump administration does seem uniquely irresponsible. Trump’s behavior does not seem based on ignorance, but something even more disconcerting. Last year, I speculated that Trump would engage in “omnibalancing”: “My fear is that the Trump White House will choose to tighten its relationship with foreign adversaries because they are viewed as less immediately threatening than either Congress or the special prosecutor.” Twelve months later, Congress has become very docile, but the special prosecutor has not.
Equally important, many Trump supporters have made the same call: better to side with the Russians than with fellow Americans of a different political persuasion:
Does this meet the constitutional threshold of “adhering to [America’s] enemies, giving them aid and comfort”? Maybe, but maybe not! Do not underestimate Trump’s super-ignorance.
Based on the actions of the Trump administration this week, reasonable people can disagree over whether treason is being committed. Let me repeat that: Reasonable people can disagree over whether treason is being committed by this White House.
I do not want to be writing those words. Much as I may have disagreed with previous administrations in my lifetime, I never doubted that the people in those administrations were trying to advance the national interest the best way they thought possible. After this past week, can that case be made with Trump and his national security team?
At some point, Trump will no longer be president. It will be tempting for whomever succeeds him to turn the page on history, declare bygones and move forward. Not me. The behavior of the Trump administration this week has been suspect. It demands a reckoning. A former CIA chief of Russian operations tweeted, “From a counterintelligence perspective, something is going on behind the scenes. Before Helsinki I was less sure; post Helsinki, I feel sick.”
I feel sick typing these words. But the words and actions of this president, his administration, and his loyalists sickens me even more.