Never have President Donald Trump’s loyalists been put to a sterner test than they were in the wake of his Helsinki press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. His comments, which put as much faith in Putin’s protestations of innocence in meddling in the 2016 election as the verdict of U.S. intelligence agencies, set off a storm of protest that seemed to dwarf the many previous instances in which the president had outraged his opponents.
The spectacle of a U.S. president taking sides against his own government while standing alongside a hostile foreign leader abroad was too much, even for many congressional Republicans. Yet while they struggled to come up with a stance that would make clear the party’s willingness to stop Russia — even if their president wouldn’t — much of the Trump base remained loyal, especially the crucial contingent of Fox News prime time hosts.
Following the lead of the devoted Trump followers on social media, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham did their best in the days following the Helsinki debacle to rally the troops and reassure them that what Trump had done was not so bad. Nor were those efforts lessened by Trump’s halting and ultimately self-contradictory efforts to walk back his gaffe by saying that he trusted the verdict of the U.S. intelligence community — a mere matter of a grammar slip up, he tried to argue.
As with every past Trump gaffe or outrage, liberals have turned to conservatives and demanded whether this will finally cause them to abandon the president. But even though Helsinki disgusted many Republicans, the answer to that question is still “no.” The overwhelming majority of Republicans would not trade control of the judiciary or accomplishments like tax reform, the pullout from the Iran nuclear or the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, even if it meant ensuring that an end to such moments.
The Republican Party isn’t on the verge of schism, with Never Trumpers going one way and the Trump base going another. There are too few of the former to make a real difference, and most of those who identify with the GOP have made their peace with the president, because he has governed like a conservative.
Even after Helsinki, the “but Gorsuch” arguments (now augmented by the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court) are enough to keep Republicans loyal. Indeed, Trump delivering on most of his campaign promises to the GOP base explains why his approval rating among Republicans is comparable to George W. Bush’s poll numbers after 9/11.
But while that is enough to silence criticism of Trump under normal circumstances, the extraordinary nature of the encounter with Putin has led many Republicans to insist that they must make some sort of gesture to ensure that the Russians understand his theatrics don’t represent U.S. policy. That should, among other proposals, entail new, more stringent sanctions on Russia.
But any effort to push back against Trump will generate anger from the base. Many of his supporters, like some of the his apologists on Fox, are trotting out arguments intended to either rationalize or downplay what happened in Helsinki.
These should be examined. The first argument excusing Trump centers on the fact that most of his supporters don’t really pay much attention to his statements, whether they are true or not.
Salena Vito’s insight about the 2016 campaign still holds. Trump’s supporters take him seriously but not literally. His opponents take him literally but not seriously. Trump’s refusal to admit that the Russians interfered in the election — likely motivated by his inability to separate that fact from unproven allegations about collusion with the Trump campaign — even when his hand-picked director of national intelligence contradicts him, is just noise to his supporters. Same goes when he sticks to a willingness to back up America’s NATO treaty obligations. His supporters prefer instead to look at his policies and dismiss anything he says as irrelevant.
That is possible even with respect to Russia because, as Republicans can rightly insist, his administration’s policies contradict Trump’s soft words. Look at the policies enacted by the State Department and Congress in terms of maintaining sanctions on Moscow, beefing up NATO commitments to the Baltic states that are threatened by the Russians and arming Ukraine, for example.
But the reality is that a president treating Putin’s disingenuous claim of innocence on equal footing with the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies is in fact a policy. Trump’s supine posture in Putin’s presence undermines all the good that his administration has done, because neither the Russians nor U.S. allies can be sure the U.S. will ever stand up to Moscow as long as Trump is president. His signals about disregarding America’s article 5 NATO obligations are the sort of noise that drowns out other U.S. actions.
The next excuse for Trump’s indifference to Russian election interference consists of reminders that the United States has also interfered in other country’s elections. While this is a classic case of whataboutism, it is also true.
U.S. governments have interfered in foreign elections numerous times. From America’s post-World War II efforts to back democratic elements against communists in the ruins of a shattered Europe, to the present day, both Democratic and Republican administrations have intervened to promote favored candidates and parties.
Nor have all of those efforts been confined to efforts to defend democracy against totalitarians. In one of the most egregious examples, the U.S. has done its best to elect governments in Israel that it thought would be more willing to make concessions to that country’s Arab foes and thereby prop up the Middle East peace process.
George H.W. Bush successfully undermined the Likud government led by Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 by threatening to withdraw aid and to deny loan guarantees to fund housing for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, leading to the victory of Labor government that handed the West Bank and Gaza over to PLO leader Yasir Arafat.
Bill Clinton failed to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 despite pulling out the stops to back Shimon Peres’s failed campaign.
Barack Obama worked hard to defeat Netanyahu but failed in 2009, 2013 and 2015. In the latter instance, American intervention was even more brazen than anything the Russians did in 2016, as the State Department even funneled money via non-government agencies that wound up funding a political action committee that worked to defeat the prime minister.
Nor have U.S. electoral interventions in the Middle East been confined to Israel. The George W. Bush administration sought to boost the supposedly more moderate Fatah against the Islamists of Hamas in the last Palestinian election. And Obama first helped oust longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. He then demanded that the Egyptian military allow a Muslim Brotherhood government to be elected before a popular uprising led by the armed forces ousted it.
But the fact that the U.S. is also guilty of this offense doesn’t excuse Russia or deal with the possibility that Moscow will try again this year. More to the point, every instance of U.S. intervention was a case of a major power seeking to work its will on what Washington considered a client state. That was an insult to Israel and every other ally. But it isn’t likely that any future president will refrain from throwing America’s weight around if it might serve the nation’s interests.
If we shrug our shoulders at the Russians doing what Americans have done, that is more or less accepting the notion that Moscow’s nefarious efforts to undermine U.S. values and democracy are morally equivalent to American actions. Doing so also implicitly acknowledges the idea that Russia is a great power that can do as it likes here — something that no patriot could possibly accept. All of which means the “we do it too” excuse won’t wash.
The other “whataboutism” that resonates for Republicans is comparing Trump’s stance toward Russia to President Obama’s frequent apologies for past U.S. sins. It’s true that Obama’s repudiation of American exceptionalism and willingness to appear contrite to the Third World in general and Muslim countries in particular, as his June 2009 Cairo speech indicated.
But there is a difference between even that dismal performance and Trump seeming to bow to Putin’s will after he flouted U.S. laws. The Obama was worse argument also fails, because being no worse than someone Republicans considered a disgrace hardly exonerates Trump.
Another excuse for Trump is the hypocrisy of the left about Russia. As some of the president’s defenders have rightly noted, the current hysteria among Democrats about the threat from Russia exceeds that of the most ardent conservative Cold Warriors prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whereas a generation ago, liberals bent over backwards to rationalize and downplay Soviet imperialism and violation of norms, they now seem to be demanding something close to a declaration of war against Putin’s regime.
But while liberals are hypocrites about Russia, it’s arguable that Trump apologists are even worse, since now it is they who are rationalizing and excusing what Mitt Romney rightly labeled as America’s greatest geopolitical foe. It ill behooves Republicans who rightly lambasted Obama for promising to be more flexible with Putin after he was re-elected, to excuse even more brazen appeasement from Trump. For conservative media outlets like Fox to treat leftist opponents of American security like Glenn Greenwald or Russian apologists like Stephen F. Cohen as credible sources is nothing short of outrageous.
It’s true that any president should be willing to meet with an important adversary, and that Russia and the U.S. can cooperate on issues like terrorism and getting Iran out of Syria. But that doesn’t absolve Trump from abasing himself in front of Putin, giving the Russians a pass for criminal activity, or for undermining the credibility of NATO deterrence and America’s treaty obligations.
Republicans shouldn’t be expected to defect to the Democrats like some of the Never Trumpers have done. But it is necessary for Congress to do something to restore American credibility. If Trump continues to govern as a conservative he will not lose the support of his party. But those who make excuses for Trump’s egregious failure at Helsinki, or who think the GOP must be silent about it, are doing neither their party nor this administration any favors.