On Tuesday, one day after President Donald Trump’s disgraceful deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin — a press conference capitulation by a U.S. president to a strongman dictator unmatched in modern history (and perhaps ever) — even the usual Trump apologists on Fox News and similar friendly venues were having trouble processing what happened in Helsinki. The president’s refusal to stand up to Mr. Putin, his siding with an adversary over his own intelligence agencies, his failure to challenge Russian actions in Crimea or in the murder of political opponents and journalists, and above all else, his willingness to accept Mr. Putin’s denials of his country’s deliberate and extensive efforts to affect the outcome of the last U.S. election, were simply too nauseating to ignore.
Oh, there were some lame attempts. The most obvious was President Trump’s own efforts to walk back his Monday comments on Tuesday, telling reporters he accepts the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that Russia’s “meddling in the 2016 took place” adding that it “could be other people also.” He also denied collusion, again, although his actions in Helsinki seemed tantamount to openly colluding with Mr. Putin. Certainly, Mr. Trump had every opportunity there to talk about the dozen Russian nationals indicted last week by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but he did not. Instead, Mr. Trump spoke of how Mr. Putin’s denial of Russian involvement in the election was “extremely strong and powerful.” President Trump offered no new pronouncements on that front Tuesday.
The fact is no amount of excuses, whether from pundits or actual White House advisers not to mention half-hearted presidential clarifications, is going to prove adequate to take away the strong case of the jaw-drops from Americans who watched their commander-in-chief do his best impression of the Manchurian Candidate. Between Mr. Trump’s refusal to publicly challenge Mr. Putin’s election manipulations — behavior universally acknowledged by every major figure in the U.S. intelligence community — and his equally appalling recent attacks on our NATO allies (countries he has characterized as “foes,” a tag he has steadfastly refused apply to Russia), how could anyone be certain of President’s Trump’s true allegiance? The president might as well have invited Mr. Putin’s GRU to manipulate the midterms as well.
Such bizarre and un-American behavior requires more than a clarification; it demands a repudiation more than a tut-tut from the usual suspects in Republican circles, most of whom — with the glaring exception of ailing Sen. John McCain and a few others — appear to have put their courage in a blind trust. Mr. Trump’s historic denial of this nation’s basic principles, its fealty to the rule of law, its insistence on free and fair elections, demands more than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s bland insistence that the “Russians are not our friends” or the “not helpful” criticism of the president’s refusal to acknowledge Russian meddling in the 2016 election by Sen. Susan Collins.
Senator McCain put it best in a statement in which he called it "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory." Kudos also to Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska who chaffed at the president’s claim that both countries were equally responsible for the deterioration in their relationship. "When the President plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs,” the Republican senator said Monday. They are singing the right tune, but their chorus is too small.
What’s needed right now — as soon as possible — is for the full Congress to rebuke President Trump’s behavior at the Helsinki summit and reiterate this nation’s position that if Mr. Putin wants a better relationship with the United States and its allies, it needs to stop acting like an outlaw and a bully. It’s not this country’s fault that Russia faces substantial economic sanctions, it’s the product of Mr. Putin’s malign activities around the world, including his efforts to subvert Western democracies. We seek peace. We seek better relations. It begins not with the United States, however. but with the country that invaded Ukraine, devastated Syria and hacks foreign elections.
Perhaps a formal censure from Congress is too much to expect. It’s only happened once in this nation’s history — to Andrew Jackson in 1834. But a simple resolution making clear that President Trump is a man alone in his acceptance of Mr. Putin’s assurances (particularly given this president’s affection for the dictator and his indifference toward the truth) would go a long way toward calming the fears of U.S. allies and putting Mr. Putin on notice that interfering with a U.S. election is not some minor trifling. Voters will eventually have their say on how they feel about the Trump-Putin fiasco in 2020, but that’s a long time away. It’s now up to the GOP majority in Congress to show the United States still stands for something other than the ego, naivete and ignorance of the current White House occupant.
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.