The president’s performance in Helsinki wasn’t defensible—but neither was it treasonous.
President Donald Trump’s press conference with Russia’s Vladimir Putin was a debacle. The president went from an anodyne prepared statement to a question-and-answer session that ping-ponged between stunning and appalling (with a bit of emetic thrown in for good measure). Suffice it to say, it was a new low from a chief executive who is redefining the term.
But the reaction on Twitter from the foreign-policy establishment was almost as untethered as Trump himself. John Brennan, who served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama, 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???
The former presidential candidate Evan McMullin piled on:
Trump’s behavior this week has made his betrayal of American interests clear. It has also made clear the betrayal of House Republicans who have relentlessly undermined the FBI and the Special Counsel as they’ve heroically worked to protect the nation. Time for a change.
There’s plenty to say about Trump’s Helsinki performance, none of it good. The man was made a cat’s paw by Putin, and that’s the least of it. Working together in Syria? Moral equivalence between Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Putin? It was dreadful, even disgraceful—but it wasn’t treason. And the immediate reaction from many establishment figures was too much. But why?
In 2016, Republicans, who had been writhing in Ben Rhodes–induced agonies of irritation over the latter Obama years, were desperate to win back the White House. But for many GOPers waiting in the wings in D.C., Donald Trump was their last choice. After all, what was there to like in a brand manager cum talk-show host cum skirt-chaser? Trump was anathema. And of the many who felt Trump unqualified, those who seemed to feel it most keenly were in the national-security world.
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It made sense: The Constitution makes clear that the president’s most important role is commander in chief. The defense of the nation is the government’s paramount responsibility. And Trump was a guy who had literally said that Senator John McCain, an American hero, was a loser. That and 99 other reasons were why so many in the world of conservative national-security affixed their names to letters opposing Donald Trump.
So now much of the foreign-policy establishment—I count myself a proud member, though not a letter signer—is a little angry. They didn’t vote for the man. They don’t like the man. He is terrible. But he did get the necessary majority in the Electoral College and, being Trump, his attitude toward all those letter signers has been—I win, you lose. So, to paraphrase Bill Clinton: That’s President Terrible to you.
But it’s Trump’s words that are terrible. His policies are, in the main, not. The United States has crushed Russia beneath escalating sanctions, pulled out of the dreadful Iran deal, armed the Ukrainian opposition to Putin, stood up to China’s theft of American intellectual property, actually bombed Syrian chemical-weapons sites, and increased defense spending. Sure, there’s plenty to dislike in Trump’s foreign policy, including his trade wars, his dismissal of allies, his toying with NATO, and his Obama-esque desire to skip out of Syria. But his stupid rhetoric masks a mostly normal, if not always sensible or desirable, foreign policy. And Trump’s national-security strategy is at least coherent when compared with the incoherent global retreat embraced by the last administration.
But that’s substance, not feelings. Many in the national-security establishment are mad at Trump. Mad he’s still mad at them, mad he sounds like a fool, mad he brought in Rex Tillerson to screw up the State Department, mad he’s rude to America’s friends—and mad that he’s not interested in sage advice. But mostly, they are mad that Trump just can’t bloody well be bothered to be an adult and do his homework and stop obsessing about Mueller.
For a good part of the Trump-hating right, and those who have publicly parted ways with the right over Trump, among Trump’s greater sins is his own unhinged, egomaniacal rejection of anyone who ever tweeted a bad word about him. And for too many, their response is to mirror the man, crackpot move by crackpot move. My Twitter feed, including people I regard, has included allegations that Trump is a Russian agent, is being blackmailed by Russia, or is a traitor bent on destroying America. That’s just crackers.
Yes, Trump is a shallow, vain, not terribly bright, lazy president of the United States. He might even have been interested in dirt Moscow scraped up on Hillary Clinton. And he will do some damage—which is to be expected, as our last few presidents have also done some damage. Maybe he will do more. But he can also do some good. He is not the anti-Christ, any more than Barack Obama was a Muslim, or Hillary Clinton was trafficking in children. Frothing conspiracy theories about Trump only drag everyone into that world. Nonstop outrage is exhausting and counterproductive.
Perhaps Twitter has dragged us all away from the considered responses this presidency requires. Perhaps Trump is driving us all mad. But it’s time to get a grip.