Much of the media coverage of President Trump’s meeting and subsequent press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday has focused on Trump brushing off a question about whether Russian agents meddled in America’s 2016 election.
Here’s the clip that’s sucked up all the oxygen in the room.
Instead of pointing out the obvious — that Trump missed a chance to put America first and, rather than speak truth to power, punted in an effort to shore up relations with Putin throughout ongoing negotiations — his opponents are choosing to voice the stupidest criticism ever. Some are calling his press conference high treason, while others insist it is proof that Trump colluded with Russian officials to steal the election from Hilary.
Every single day, I find myself asking: what do the Russians have on @realDonaldTrump personally, financially, & politically? The answer to that question is that only thing that explains his behavior & his refusal to stand up to Putin. #ABetterDeal
— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) July 16, 2018
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
Art. III requires two witnesses to convict someone of the crime of treason. Conveniently, the 2-hour Trump-Putin session in Helsinki, which Trump says fully turned around our bad relationship with Russia, was conducted with no witnesses but the principals and their translators.
— Laurence Tribe (@tribelaw) July 16, 2018
In light of @realDonaldTrump full-on televised treason while standing next to our enemy, Putin, remember that @cnn's Jeff Zucker took orders from Trump during the primary, just as Trump takes orders from Putin. Zucker is as bad as Trump. Zucker forced Trump on us. Never forget.
— Cheri Jacobus (@CheriJacobus) July 16, 2018
At last week’s press conference in which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein indicted 12 Russians for hacking the Democratic National Committee, he made three things clear: 1. There was no evidence of Americans colluding with Russian officials to hack the DNC, 2. There weren’t any Americans involved, 3. The hack did not alter the election outcome. To insist otherwise is to contradict U.S. intelligence agencies, the very thing Trump’s critics are hitting him for.
To the surprise of no one, Trump’s critics never fail to say the dumbest things and to present them in the stupidest way possible. And many mainstream media outlets gave lots of airtime to the kookier critiques of Trump’s presser flap.
Trump’s Supporters Will Forgive If Soft Talk Bears Results
Trump’s supporters voted for a guy who promised different policies and tactics to improve relationships with countries the United States has long been at odds with, such as Russia. Taking a meeting with Putin — despite all the handwringing from the usual suspects that this violates decorum and the usual norms — is exactly what Trump promised that he would do when he ran for president. His political opponents (looking at you, Sen. Chuck Schumer) who say this meeting should have never taken place are just plain wrong, as maintaining the status quo with Russia failed miserably under presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton.
It’s also important to note that Trump’s supporters elected a tough guy who does not shy away from telling it like it is. He is not one to hold back and speak nicely to foreign leaders whose interests are contrary to ours (see: here and here and here and here). That’s a platform and demeanor he was elected on.
Watching a man who has historically never shied from hurling an insult — especially at someone whose interests do not put America first — switch gears is odd and goes against why many voted for him in the first place. Many of his supporters want to see the brash Trump they voted for stand up to the world’s bad guys and unabashedly declare that America is the best nation in the world and others ought to follow our example.
His insistence that Kim Jong-Un “loves his people” during last month’s historic summit with the brutal North Korean leader, and Monday’s decision to punt when asked who he believed about what went down in 2016, flies in the face of the character and brashness his supporters expected when casting their ballot in his favor.
But at the end of the day, his supporters, and by extension most Americans, will forgive Trump’s blunders if his actions bear the results he’s promising. If, in ten years, the Syrian civil war were brought to a peaceful close and Russia apologizes for annexing Crimea and ceases to occupy it, it will eclipse that time Trump punted on a chance to hit Putin onstage. That perspective is important to remember when criticizing his actions. One doesn’t need to exaggerate what Trump does in order to criticize him, because ultimately his legacy will determine whether his time in office was a success or a failure.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Throughout his tenure in office, Trump has made significant changes to U.S.-Russia relations. In the days leading to his meeting with Putin, Trump has criticized Germany for being too reliant on Russia for energy, saying that Germany was “totally controlled” by Russia.
“Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” Trump said last week. “They will be getting between 60 and 70 percent of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline, and you tell me if that is appropriate because I think it’s not.”
This line of rhetoric fits with a larger strategy of weakening Russia’s position, a strategy that has been borne out with additional sanctions imposed on Putin’s cronies as punishment for sowing discord in the United States. Trump has also not shied from punishing Syria, which has been acting as Russia’s Middle Eastern sock puppet, for using chemical weapons on civilians, even striking facilities believed to be manufacturing the weapons used on children.
Trump’s supporters are goal-oriented. They will forgive the president for saluting a North Korean general last month and for taking Putin’s side today so long as the end result is a better relationship with Russia and the United States on better international footing than when Barack Obama was in office. But their forgiveness is dependent upon action and results. If Trump is making nice with international bullies for nothing, that will not be forgiven or forgotten.
Trump’s critics should hit Trump when he gets things wrong and leave it at that. Trump’s response to a question about Russian interference in our electoral process at the presser wasn’t good. He had an opportunity to punch back at a bully and he didn’t take it. Making up conspiracies or enabling mentally unstable people by giving their tinfoil-hat theories airtime in an effort to make Trump look bad isn’t the right response.