The US president isn’t a Russian agent. He just can’t countenance any suggestion that he needed the help of Putin’s hackers to beat the Democrats, whom he considers sore losers, says.
US President Donald Trump’s behaviour in Helsinki was both appalling and perfectly in character.
He was, as he has been before, gullible, or worse, about Russian president, Vladimir Putin’s lies. Trump treated the US and Russia, again, as morally equivalent.
He was unwilling or unable, once more, to respond to a foreign adversary’s interference in US politics in the manner one would expect from the leader of a self-respecting nation. He refused, yet another time, to credit the unanimous conclusion of our intelligence services.
Many Republicans, even ones who have typically been in Trump’s corner, are criticising his performance. Others are trotting out the usual excuses — former US president, Barack Obama, did something similar; Trump’s voters won’t care about it; all the rest of the ones you know by heart now — but these responses sound a little tinnier than usual.
People who have long been convinced that Trump is a Russian agent decided that his abject posture toward Putin in Helsinki proves their theory. Two prominent Democrats hinted at that possibility. I think there is a less extravagant explanation.
The US president has a long track record of admiring foreign dictators. He has long believed that treating America as a moral exemplar is an obstacle to diplomacy. And probably most important —
he thinks that any Russian meddling in the 2016 election detracts from the glory of his victory
That’s not the subtext of Trump’s remarks about Russia. It’s the text. At the press conference, a reporter asked Putin why Americans, including Trump, should believe his denials of interference in 2016.
Trump answered it himself, by saying that “the concept of that came up perhaps a little before, but it came out as a reason why the Democrats lost an election, which, frankly, they should have been able to win. . . . We ran a brilliant campaign. And that’s why I’m president.”
His aides, speaking off the record, and unhappily, to reporters, are offering the same basic explanation: Trump cannot separate the question of Russian interference from the question of his own legitimacy. It is an inability he has in common with some of his critics.
But it ought to be possible to acknowledge all of the following truths: Hillary Clinton was a lousy candidate. Trump was a better one than people thought he would be. Americans cast their votes with free will, their votes were counted accurately, and the result, under our electoral system, was that Trump was duly elected. And Russia manipulated the flow of information, to the extent it could, to help Trump get elected.
Trump may well believe that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and that neither he nor his top aides cooperated with Russia’s illegal activity. (We already know that Donald Trump Jr., based on his own emails, in advance of his meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, was willing to collude.) But Trump cannot even bring himself to admit, in any sustained way, that Russia interfered at all.
Like so many of the worst features of this presidency, what happened in Helsinki has at its root the president’s deep character flaws — flaws that, on this occasion, have made him incapable of defending either the US’s interests or its honour.