Opinion writer

"Arguably, you sold your country out.” That admonition from Judge Emmet Sullivan to Michael Flynn is equally applicable to President Trump’s tenure as commander in chief.

During the presidential campaign, Trump lied to the American people about having nothing to do with Russia while acting as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s PR man. After the election, he continued to carry Moscow’s water, stirring doubt about Russia’s interference in our election, even taking Putin’s side publicly against the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion. In office, he has sown dissension among NATO allies, another gift to Putin. He misled the public and members of Congress about evidence regarding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And to top it off, he handed Iran, the Islamic State, Turkey and Russia a major victory in his abrupt pullout from Syria. He has made the United States less respected, less influential and less trusted than when he entered office.

That’s the starting point for the Democrats and for any Republicans seeking to unseat Trump (if he is still in office) in 2020. Democrats would be wise to heed the admonitions of Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who warns that even with his own huge, double-digit reelection victory, “when asked which party more reliably can keep America safe, even the Democratic-leaning Virginia electorate gives Republicans a seven-point edge.” Kaine notes that it is helpful to have candidates with foreign policy credentials. (“Our winning congressional candidates each had strong security backgrounds — Jennifer Wexton was a successful prosecutor, Elaine Luria a Navy commander, Abigail Spanberger a CIA analyst.") However, he argues that Democrats “are curiously absent on national security messaging.” He advises: “We should speak up and speak out on behalf of strengthening security, supporting our troops and veterans and restoring robust diplomacy and alliances to keep us safe. President Trump’s bumbling with North Korea, impotence against Russia, and emboldening of white nationalists have made us less safe today than we were two years ago.”

To be more blunt, we have every reason to question which side Trump is on — the American side or on the side of aggressive regimes where he might have financial and/or personal interests. Critiquing Trump’s disastrous policy choices is only the first step, however, for 2020 presidential contenders.

Jake Sullivan smartly urges Democrats to seize stewardship of “American exceptionalism," which is rooted in the American creed:

Crucially, the Founders believed not just in individual rights but in the common good. They were not small-d democrats but rather small-r republicans. They embraced the notion of interdependence—that human beings have shared interests and need institutions to pursue those interests, and that liberty can be preserved only through such institutions. They believed that a good society is the product of active citizenship combined with responsible and virtuous leadership. And they viewed these truths as universal—the United States was not coming into existence to rise and fall as other powers had, but rather to transform the world. ...

A place for values in the conduct of foreign policy is built into the character of a country founded on ideas. It is also essential to our interests, because freer, less corrupt, more open societies are less likely to threaten America’s way of life. Moreover, the U.S. cannot expect to lead if it is offering only pragmatism, and not aspiration. It can’t necessarily outbid China, which has much more cash to spend abroad, but it can out-persuade and out-inspire.

Sullivan urges a foreign policy built around enlightened self-interest, can-do problem solving and “creative, credible, and tenacious diplomacy backed by the threat of force, not force backed by the eventual hope of diplomacy.”

Democrats and GOP challengers must make the case that Americans are safer and more prosperous when our alliances are stronger, when we expand trade rather than engage in tariff wars, when we expose and weaken corrupt autocrats and when we combine sensible border security with robust legal immigration and humanitarian efforts. If we want a foreign policy that serves American interests, we cannot retreat from the world, repudiate our values, give aid and comfort to despots, start trade wars or adopt morally and legally indefensible immigration policies.

Foreign policy likely will not be the primary issue in 2020, but whoever faces Trump must be able not only to skewer him with his record of incompetence, disloyalty, cruelty and corruption, but also to set out a foreign policy that can both inspire Americans and clean up the mess that Trump will leave behind.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s not winning anything, anywhere

Max Boot: The world’s tyrants are laughing at Trump — and America

Marc A. Thiessen: Chaos or not, Trump is racking up a record of foreign policy success

Josh Rogin: Democrats prepare to investigate all aspects of Trump’s foreign policy