The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP’s gaslighting on Biden, Putin and Trump

President Biden spoke to reporters in Geneva following a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, saying the meeting had a positive tone. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post, Photo: AP/The Washington Post)

Republicans got a lot out of the Trump presidency, including three Supreme Court justices, tax cuts and more of a fighting chance in future elections than Democrats would like to believe. One thing they did not generally get was the moral high ground or a coherent and consistent political ethos — beyond “Trump.” By constantly bulldozing norms and forcing his party to account for wild political shifts, Donald Trump often rendered his party mute when it came to its once-sacred values.

And perhaps at no time in the post-Trump era have the consequences of that come into focus as much as in the past week.

The GOP has focused like a laser on pitching President Biden as soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin. This despite Trump having repeatedly taken anything but a hard line on Russia. Trump often assured Americans that he was tougher on Russia than any president in history, and his administration took some harsh steps. Those steps seldom aligned with Trump’s own public statements, though, including on 2016 election interference, cyberattacks and human rights.

The GOP’s effort over the past week can hardly be described as anything but gaslighting.

When Biden embarked on his trip, the Republican National Committee released a statement declaring, “Giving Putin a meeting is just the latest win that Joe Biden has handed Russia.”

Trump himself added in a Fox News interview Wednesday night: “We gave a very big stage to Russia, and we got nothing.”

So, giving Putin a meeting is a win. What about giving him a meeting in which you also hold a joint news conference (which Biden didn’t do) and echo his denials of an attack on American democracy? You can object to Biden’s other policies with regard to Russia, including on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but the idea that the mere meeting is a gift can’t help but reflect on the former guy.

(Presidential meetings with Putin have also become the norm; both George W. Bush and Barack Obama also took part in them.)

It also would have been nice to know that the Republican Party regarded such meetings as a win for foreign dictators when Trump granted an unprecedented meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in the demilitarized zone. As with Trump’s claim on Fox, there was no apparent concession gained in return.

Which brings us to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). In a tweet earlier this week, he attacked Biden for not using his Putin summit to “hold Russia accountable for its long list of transgressions.”

“Instead, he gave Vladimir Putin a pass,” McCarthy said.

Again: election interference. Again: human rights. Again: cyberattacks. Trump declined to focus on these things when he appeared with Putin. There was essentially nothing in his news conference geared toward holding “Russia accountable.” Biden might not have been as specific as some would have liked on things like human rights, but he at least brought them up and criticized Russia on them. Trump, by contrast, declined to and regularly suggested that the United States shouldn’t judge Russia’s human rights record.

Trump’s display was enough to lead Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to declare at the time that the president had made a “conscious choice to defend a tyrant” and that he had taken part in “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Trump made the United States “look like a pushover.”

Following the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, though, McCarthy merely released a statement reinforcing Russia’s election interference but declining to criticize Trump by name.

Finally comes McCarthy’s Fox News interview. In a clip he promoted Friday, McCarthy criticized Biden for criticizing Republicans while overseas — something generally considered poor form in the past.

“Well, I remember past presidents who believe politics end at the water’s edge, but apparently, President Biden doesn’t believe that,” McCarthy said. “He complained about Republicans but he complimented Putin. I think he kind of has this backwards.”

Among those past presidents who believed politics stopped at the water’s edge was definitely not Trump. He kept tweeting about the Russia investigation while overseas and used his summit with Putin to attack the Mueller probe.

During a 2019 trip to the Far East, Trump also tweeted that he had “smiled” when Kim “called Swampman Joe Biden a low IQ individual, & worse.” Trump was even pressed on appearing to side with a dictator over a fellow American, and he doubled down.

“Well, Kim Jong Un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low-IQ individual,” Trump said in Tokyo. “He probably is, based on his record. I think I agree with him on that.”

McCarthy did not criticize Trump for this.

What’s more, Trump also complimented Putin at his summit — by his own admission.

“I called him a competitor, and a good competitor he is,” Trump said in Helsinki. “I think the word competitor is a compliment.”

If only Trump had been told this was not okay. At least his party is setting the record straight now.