President Trump, the self-described “very stable genius,” delivered an unhinged performance in the news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their Helsinki summit. He used the global stage to savage Democrats and attack his own intelligence officials and the Mueller investigation, while once more boasting about his election victory.
Not surprisingly, Trump’s performance triggered a furious reaction. Former CIA director John Brennan termed it “treasonous.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the performance “proves that the Russians have something on the president.” In this toxic atmosphere, it is worth parsing the inane from the sensible in the president’s performance.
Trump’s bizarre comments on Russian interference in our elections made it clear that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation should continue. When asked about that interference, Trump launched into his standard claim of “no collusion,” while indicating that in choosing between the conclusions of his own intelligence officials and Putin’s denial, he leaned toward the latter. Yet on Tuesday, seeking to tamp down growing Republican criticism of his stance and statements in Helsinki, Trump said he accepts the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
What is surreal about Trump’s performance Monday is less his manic defensiveness about the legitimacy of his election victory than his apparent disinterest in defending our elections going forward. With Trump’s own head of national intelligence — former Republican senator Dan Coats — concluding that Russian interference is continuing to this day, Trump refused in Helsinki to publicly denounce that interference or warn Putin against continuing it. Foreign powers, corporations and billionaires may well see this as a green light for increased meddling in U.S. elections.
Worse, the administration and the GOP-led Congress have done virtually nothing to bolster free elections and protect them from interference. Our digital-age electoral system is vulnerable to would-be hackers based anywhere. We need more robust security for everything from voter-registration records to tabulation of ballots, as well as verifiable paper trails. In addition, the greatest threat to our elections comes from hyper-partisan politics — gerrymandering of districts, erecting obstacles to registration and voting, purging of voter rolls, gutting the Voting Rights Act, and of course facilitating the flow of big money into politics, much of it undisclosed. And right-wing donors and activists continue to push voter-suppression schemes at the state level — schemes that would be given even greater rein if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed as Supreme Court justice. Citizens will have to demand reforms and hold politicians accountable if they stand in the way.
Still, while Trump lies so frequently, just because he says something doesn’t mean it is false. He began the news conference by making the sensible case that it is better to negotiate than to isolate: “The disagreements between our two countries are well known and President Putin and I discussed them at length today. But if we’re going to solve many of the problems facing our world, then we’re going to have to find ways to cooperate in pursuit of shared interests. . . . Constructive dialogue between the United States and Russia affords the opportunity to open new pathways toward peace and stability in our world.”
The United States and Russia have a common stake in reducing tensions. Trump should not be scorned for simply convening a summit. If the two powers continue to talk and, as Putin summarized, restart the arms-reduction talks, revive a working group on international terrorism, work together to forge peace and provide humanitarian relief in Syria, and seek to enforce the Minsk agreements in Ukraine, important progress might be possible. In any case, the meeting itself helps reduce tensions that have been building in recent years. Trump is not wrong to say that is a “good thing.”
Although widely reviled for it, Trump is also right to say that both powers contributed to the deteriorating relations. The U.S. national security establishment maintains its innocence regarding tensions in Georgia and Ukraine. But it was the eminent diplomat George Kennan, not Trump, who warned in 1998 that the decision to extend NATO to Russia’s borders was a “tragic mistake” that would provoke a hostile response. “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” said Kennan at the time. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies.”
Last week, the Nation released an open letter signed by leading public scholars, activists and former officials that called for reaching “common ground to safeguard common interests”— taking steps both to protect U.S. elections and to ease tensions between the world’s two nuclear superpowers. The independent investigation of Russian interference in our election should continue to its conclusion. Reforming our electoral system is imperative. And engagement with Russia to reduce tensions and resolve crises is both sensible and long overdue.