“Shocked – but not surprised” was the response of many pundits and politicians following US President Donald Trump’s jaw-dropping comments at a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday in Helsinki. It was my first thought, as well. After a week of switching back and forth between the World Cup in Russia and reports of our unlikely President’s itinerary throughout Europe and the UK, I was fully expecting to hear the usual flabbergasting comments emanating from Trump’s snarling lips. Perhaps he would blatantly state before Putin that NATO was a joke and useless. Maybe he would insult Angela Merkel in some misogynistic way that would make everyone’s toes curl up. Perhaps he would spew more delirious untruths about the world-changing success of his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. One thing we could all count on, though, was that he would not say anything critical or insulting about Putin, as he had just done by putting down UK Prime Minister Theresa May in a newspaper interview that appeared even as she was hosting him and First Lady Melania at a formal dinner. No, Trump displays only deference and respect to Putin, who is clearly the “alpha male” in our global political zoo.
But in Helsinki on Monday, with Valdimir Putin by his side following a two-hour meeting that excluded any US aides, note-takers, and officials, Trump said that Putin’s denial of any Russian interference in the 2016 elections was good enough for him, despite the clear and damning findings of his own government’s intelligence agencies. “I don’t see why it would be Russia,” said Trump. Following a split second of stunned silence from the world media, Twitter, and Facebook, roaring accusations of “TREASON!” immediately flooded the airwaves and the Internet. The Independent of London informed us yesterday that Dictionary.com was inundated by internet users sharing the definition of “treason” to their social media feeds. Former CIA director John Brennan stated plainly that Trump’s failure to acknowledge intelligence reports about Russian meddling in his Helsinki statements was “treasonous” and proof of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Meanwhile, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria declared that “treasonous” was too weak a word to describe Trump’s comments. Anderson Cooper, also of CNN, chimed in, exclaiming that the president’s performance in Helsinki was “disgraceful.” Even some of Trump’s allies and supporters at Fox News said that Trump might have gone too far.
Trump’s immediate and easy acceptance of Putin’s denial of any Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential elections came just days after the US Justice Department announced the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence agents, accusing them of engaging in a “sustained effort” to hack Democrats’ emails and computer networks during the 2016 election. While Trump and his supporters dismiss the Mueller investigation as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt,” the US intelligence establishment does not agree. Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence (DNI), said on July 13th that there was clear evidence of Russian cyberattacks designed to influence U.S. elections, not only in 2016, but now as well.
When Donald Trump opens his mouth, anything can happen. During his election campaign in 2016, he bragged that his popularity was so great that he could “shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York City and still get elected.” Yesterday, the front page of the New York Daily News used this very boast in a drawing depicting Trump and Putin holding hands while walking along Fifth Avenue. The third figure in the drawing is “Uncle Sam,” taking a bullet to the head from a gun Trump has just fired. A shocking image for our shocking times, but no longer surprising.
Surprise at Trump’s gaffes and vulgarity usually gives rise to satire and increases humanity’s treasure trove of hilarious memes and hashtags. Shock, though, produces something else: Outrage, anger, and melodramatic statements lacking any irony. What is ironic is that the mainstream Left is now on the same side as the CIA, FBI, and Defense Intelligence, and that so many progressives are retweeting the damning comments of Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona that Trump had given us “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” (Of course, there is another Left in the US that likes and defends Putin, though not Trump. These idiots will be the subject of a forthcoming “Letter from America.”)
Has Trump gone too far for his most ardent supporters and media allies? Clearly, he felt the need to retract some of his Helsinki comments in a damage control briefing attended by Republican congressional leaders on Tuesday afternoon. Trump said he “misspoke” in Helsinki, that he meant to say “I don’t see why it wouldn’t be Russia,” rather than “I don’t see why it would be Russia.” But he also reiterated that there was “no collusion.” Mueller’s investigation is still looking into that. We don’t yet have proof that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election with the full knowledge and encouragement of Trump’s campaign team. After Helsinki, however, that looks more and more likely.
So, has Trump betrayed his country? I would confidently bet that he has. The real treason, however, is not in the statements and actions of our boorish and compromised president, but rather, in the very sinews of our democratic system: elections. Can we trust in election results in the future? Was the 2016 election corrupt? Do We the People really have any say in anything? The Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 Citizens United ruling that money equals free speech, thus opening the floodgates of billions of dollars in campaign contributions without limits, not to mention the arcane workings of the Electoral College, ensure that our elections are a dismal and cynical affair. That is not Trump’s fault. But as DNI Coats said last week, the “red warning lights are already blinking” indicating that Russia is gearing up to interfere in and influence the midterm congressional elections to Trump’s benefit.
We, the People will be the ultimate betrayers of our country if we do not speak out clearly and forcefully about this in one voice, get off-line and into the streets, and take concerted measures to review and reconstruct the US electoral system at every level by jettisoning Citizens United and enforcing term limits in Congress. This will take hard work. It’s much easier to post satirical memes to Facebook. There is no guarantee that the widely-shared shock at Trump’s comments in Helsinki will translate into effective action at the ballot boxes in November. And that is the most shocking reality of all.