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Foreign Policy

Trump's Blunder Isn't the Only Story

A few bad sound bites allow his opponents to claim he's in the pocket of Vladimir Putin.

Lewis Morris · Jul. 17, 2018

President Donald Trump’s reset summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week has been boiled down to a few sound bites that allow Trump’s opponents to claim that he is in the pocket of the Russian strongman.

The media buys and sells sound bites because that’s all most Americans can handle – and it churns advertising dollars. Trump gave them a terrible sound bite yesterday, and that’s entirely his fault. But it’s the result of him refusing to concede an inch on the Democrat/Leftmedia narrative about collusion. They deliberately conflate two things: the phony idea that Trump colluded with Russia to steal the election and actual Russian election interference to undermine voter confidence.

Rather than explain that nuance, Trump did as he typically does — he let his ego obscure the issue as he blundered through a bad answer on the Russia investigation.

During a joint post-summit press conference, Trump first correctly insisted, “The [Russia] probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us apart. It’s kept us separated. There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it.”

He also said, “During today’s meeting, I addressed directly with President Putin the issue of Russian interference in our elections. I felt this was a message best delivered in person. I spent a great deal of time talking about it and President Putin may very well want to address it…”

Too bad he didn’t leave it at that.

In the sound bite that has people on both sides rankled, Trump went on to imply that he believed Putin’s denial about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election over his own intelligence agencies. “I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump said of their assessment of Russian interference, “but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” He also said, “[Putin] just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Oh really? The Soviets have only been interfering in Western elections for a century — sometimes at the invitation of Democrats (see 1984).

Notably, Democrats have, by way of the Trump/Putin collusion charade, done more to undermine election confidence than Putin ever could — which has been precisely their objective.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized Trump for his careless wording, saying, “President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.”

Political analyst Brit Hume concurred: “Gingrich is dead right about this. And he’s nowhere near the only Trump defender who’s appalled at Trump’s response today. And Trump’s subsequent tweet did not undo the damage.”

Current Speaker Paul Ryan was equally forceful: “There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world.”

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats defended U.S. intelligence, saying, “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”

Trump’s other assertion receiving a lot of attention was, as we argued yesterday, directed at the previous administration. “I hold both countries responsible [for bad relations]. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish.” Unfortunately, Trump’s wording was sloppy and left him harshly criticizing his own country on foreign soil, which presidents should not do.

Again, Ryan correctly responded, “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”

Political analyst Laura Ingraham protested: “Hint: Don’t use ‘strong and powerful’ to describe Putin’s denial re. election meddling. Use words ‘predictable and damaging to US-Russian relations’ to describe Russian meddling.”

The real problem is that Trump’s statements breathe new life into the collusion story by his appearing to side with the lying, murderous tyrant Putin over his own government. Trump has thrown the American intelligence community under the bus before, but to do it in so public a forum and while standing next to Vladimir Putin is unlikely to do him or the country any favors.

Trump is famous for working a long game that the media and his opponents don’t see, but it’s hard to fathom how his “Art of the Deal” strategy is working here. Perhaps he doesn’t want to upset negotiations with Russia, but the optics of Trump placating Putin are going to be hard to overcome. Either way, the fact remains that there is still no evidence of any collusion between Trump and Putin, and Trump seems uninterested in trumpeting anything else.

That said, if we want to see what Putin manhandling a U.S. president looks like, and if we want to investigate Russian collusion with a U.S. administration, then we should focus on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. From the silly “reset” button to Obama’s famous hot-mic admission to former Russian President (and Putin placeholder) Dmitri Medvedev to Clinton’s shady uranium deal and her family’s foundation hanky-panky, there is plenty of evidence that can prove collusion. But this isn’t the collusion the media or Mueller want to prove.

Trump has correctly placed much of the blame on his predecessor for the sad state of affairs between the two nations. Obama and Clinton, in her capacity as secretary of state, presidential candidate, and Clinton Foundation gadfly, did a fine job of mucking things up with their arrogance and shortsighted worldview. If they had not proved so anti-American, Putin would not have been emboldened to run roughshod internationally.

Mitt Romney famously pointed out in the 2012 presidential campaign that Russia was a problem that was only going to get worse. He was ridiculed only to be proven right over the next four years. Democrats are only coming around to this idea now because Trump is seeking better relations. In their Never-Trump worldview, whatever Trump seeks, they must seek the opposite.

It’s difficult to know at this point if any substantive ground was covered between Trump and Putin because the press conference overshadowed any other details from their meeting. There were a host of issues on the table beyond Russian interference in the American election, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin’s stranglehold on the press and political opponents at home and abroad, assassinations and attempted assassinations of political opponents in Russia and in Europe, what to do about Syria, and Russia’s breaking of the 1987 INF Treaty.

The two men met in private for over two hours before speaking with reporters, and there has been little indication that any progress was made in any of these areas.

It’s worth noting, as CBS’s Michael Graham does, that Trump’s record is key: “Despite all the pillow talk with Putin, Trump has kept Obama-era sanctions in place, added new sanctions of his own, reversed Obama policies by giving offensive weapons to Ukraine and missile-defense systems to Poland, and allowed our military to wipe out a large group of Russian mercenaries fighting for Syria’s Assad regime.” That’s in addition to economic pressure he’s applied via oil and gas in particular.

Trump went to Helsinki with hopes of improving relations with Russia, and both he and Putin said afterward that they made progress toward that goal. If Trump truly wants better relations, then he should follow Ronald Reagan’s model of peace through strength. Reagan never backed down from the Soviet Union and he never missed an opportunity to call out the Soviets on their bad behavior, even while maintaining a cordial relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. Trump has shown some backbone in his dealings with Russia, but he needs to be more consistent. Monday’s Helsinki press conference was a missed opportunity for him to put Putin in his place.

But there will be others.

On a final note, we’ll conclude with Trump’s strongest remarks: “As president, I cannot make decisions on foreign policy in a futile effort to appease partisan critics or the media, or Democrats who want to do nothing but resist and obstruct. Constructive dialogue between the United States and Russia affords the opportunity to open new pathways toward peace and stability in our world. I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics. As president, I will always put [first] what is best for America and what is best for the American people.”

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