The spectacle in Helsinki is over. Now it’s time for Congress—and the American people—to act.
Whether President Trump is a Manchurian candidate—cultivated for leadership here by an enemy nation to damage our country—or simply feckless is almost irrelevant at this point. It would be satisfying to know, but immaterial, given the president’s behavior. Trump’s actions, even if motivated by ill-founded concepts or desperate self-preservation rather than allegiance to a hostile foreign power, are deeply injurious to the welfare of the United States.
Rather than confronting Vladimir Putin for interfering in the 2016 election, Trump gave the Russian leader’s professions of innocence the same weight as the unanimous conclusion of American intelligence agencies: “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” The charge of Russian malfeasance had been reiterated by Dan Coats the previous day, and was repeated again by the director of national intelligence after the alarming press conference featuring Trump and Putin: “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 received that information in advance of the Putin meeting not only from Coats, but also from the Justice Department, which briefed him on the Mueller indictments before their issuance.
Rather than demand the extradition of Russian individuals named in the special counsel’s indictment for their personal involvement in election tampering, Trump invited Russia to interrogate the American intelligence personnel who had reached those conclusions. The president of the United States invited a hostile foreign power into the inner workings of our intelligence assessments and legal processes. Not only does that create a false equivalence between the rule of law in our country and in a country where political dissidents are shot in the streets, it would be a bonanza of sources and methods for Russian intelligence, improving their ability to subvert the rule of law and further foment bitter political divides in our country.
I passionately hope Stephen Sestanovich proves right, and that the president’s overt alignment with a murderous dictator proves a turning point for Republicans in Congress. The president has moved beyond disgraceful. He’s now genuinely dangerous.
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The early evidence, however, is not promising. Senator John McCain castigated Trump. “The president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world,” he said. McCain would; he has been a voice of conscience on issues of freedom and tyranny.
Senators Sasse and Flake likewise objected; to their credit, that was also predictable. Even Representative Pete King tweeted, “Wrong for President Trump to deny Russian interference in election. No moral equivalency between US and Russia. Putin is a liar and Russia is an aggressor. No purpose in denying that.” It is not too late for Republicans in Congress to exercise their constitutional prerogatives and hem in an unfit president.
The Senate sits Republican by one vote (absent McCain); it could legislate against the president’s dangerous actions, as it did by putting sanctions in place against Russia at the start of the administration and passing a non-binding resolution supporting the nato alliance.
There is yet much more the Congress can, and should, do. It should stop impugning the integrity of civil servants, particularly in law enforcement. It should legislate against presidential actions that damage national security. It should refuse to confirm nominees without extracting promises from the White House of compliance with the law. It should protect the Mueller investigation and ensure it has the resources necessary to continue its work. It should provide political penalties for breaches of political norms. It should ensure funds are expended with transparency and that the president’s financial dealings are exposed. It should reach across party lines to defend the rule of law. It should condemn the ostracization of journalists.
None of this will matter, though—indeed, none of it will happen—unless we as Americans demand good governance from our elected leaders. No one else is going to save us; we have to save ourselves.
I hasten to say to my friends in the administration, the good people striving to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic: Please don’t resign. You are urgently needed to bear witness and stand sentinel. We should not want the moral satisfaction and practical devastation of clearing out people of conscience and allow the president to replace them with more malleable or compromised people.
But Monday’s debacle is the Rubicon: Anyone who continues to defend the president’s foreign-policy choices colludes with his actions.
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