First Munich, Now Helsinki

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint news conference in Helsinki Monday.

The scene was surreal: Two autocrats — one real and malicious, the other would-be and dangerous — stood on a stage in Helsinki and spoke from the same script. In his remarks, Donald Trump, the president of the United States treasonously allied himself with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, against diplomats and intelligence officials of the United States government. No, said the American president, Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. election: “[President Putin] just said it’s not Russia.” Just as Munich became synonymous with the craven cowering of the democracies before a dictator with an insatiable need for conquest, so Helsinki likely will become synonymous with Trump’s attempt to align the United States with Russia and undo the liberal world order created after World War II — which the American president so callously trashed at last week’s NATO summit. 

Lord Ismay, the first secretary general of NATO

The object behind the founding of NATO in 1949, in the pithy words of Lord Ismay, the organization’s first secretary general, was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” After the events in Brussels and Helsinki and with Trump referring, on the eve of his meeting with Putin, to the European Union as a “foe,” Europeans must be wondering if the Americans are in and who will keep the Russians out. As for Germany, the nation that twice in the last century plunged Europe into war and is now the continent’s unrivaled economic superpower, a small military has been penance for its warlike past. That may change.

Those geopolitical alterations are cosmic in scope and may take years, if not decades, to play out. For Americans, the immediate fallout from Helsinki is the obsequious display of fawning by Trump for Putin, as well as the American president’s weaving of a stunning web of conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s emails, his denouncing of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the American election, and his abrupt dismissals of allegations of collusion between his presidential campaign and Putin’s government. All while standing at Putin’s side.

“I think that the probe is a disaster for our country,” Trump said. “There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it.” Trump, once again, trumpeted his 2016 victory. “I beat Hillary Clinton easily,” he said. “It’s a shame that there could even be a little bit of a cloud over it.” The investigation into what he called “zero collusion” is “ridiculous.” 

Trump’s willingness to accept Putin’s word — “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, Trump said — comes three days after the special counsel indicted 12 Russian officials for their alleged role in hacking various Democratic targets in 2016. So, even though Trump conceded “my people came to me” and said Russia meddled in the election, he refused to point a finger at Putin. Instead, when invited to denounce Russian actions, Trump deflected the question, asking instead, “Where are those [Democratic] servers? They’re missing, where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? 33,000 emails gone — just gone.” 

John Brennan, former director of the CIA

Trump’s abject performance in Helsinki quickly drew condemnations. John Brennan, former director of the CIA, tweeted, “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???” (In case anyone misses the point, “high crimes and misdemeanors” is the standard for impeachment.) Most Republicans, as Brennan knows well, likely will  refuse to take substantive action, despite the obviously treasonous behavior of the president. But one, retiring Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, tweeted this: “I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful.” And, outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, issued a statement saying, “There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world.”

Presidents Putin and Trump shake hands before their bilateral meeting

The Trump-Putin two-hour, one-on-one meeting followed a tweet from Trump blaming the United States for the recent deterioration in relations with Russia: “Our relations with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” No mention in the presidential tweet of Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election nor of Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Putin, in their joint news conference, conceded that the United States and Russia differ on the status of Crimea, but there is no way to know what, if anything, Trump may have promised the Russian dictator during their private tête-à-tête. 

Trump’s willingness to accept Putin’s denial of Russian meddling — against all the evidence produced by U.S. intelligence agencies and the special counsel’s investigations — led to one reporter’s question — the final one of the extraordinary news conference — on whether “the Russian government [has] any compromising material on President Trump or his family?” Putin’s response:  “When president Trump was at Moscow back then, I didn’t even know he was in Moscow. I treat President Trump with utmost respect, but back then when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow.” Not much of a denial!

Trump certainly acts as if he is a pawn of the Russians. His final statement at the news conference pitted U.S. intelligence against President Putin, and Trump left no doubt who he believed: “So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” 

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French President Édouard Daladier, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, and Italy’s Il Duce, Benito Mussolini in Munich, September 1938.

After Munich, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain assured his war-weary nation that the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia  would bring “peace with honor. I believe it is ‘peace for our time.’ Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” Six months later, Germany gobbled up the rest of Czechoslovakia and less than a year later it invaded Poland. World War II had begun. What Russian depredations will follow Trump’s Helsinki performance? 

Posted July 17, 2018

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