Taking Putin's word

It’s not every day that a sitting U.S. president takes the word of a former KGB colonel over the assessment of U.S. intelligence services — unless, of course, you’re talking about Donald J. Trump. The 45th president was back in full deferential mode this weekend toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting with him Saturday in Vietnam and then telling reporters that he believed Mr. Putin was sincere when he said he didn’t meddle in the presidential election.

Yikes. Naturally, President Trump tried to walk back that observation — sort of. “What I said is that I believe [Mr. Putin] believes that,” he told reporters Sunday in Hanoi. Got that? Mr. Trump thinks Mr. Putin believed what he said. As for U.S. intelligence services, which have stuck to their assessment that Russia did meddle with the last election and that Mr. Putin directed that action, Mr. Trump said he is “with” intelligence agencies “especially as currently constituted with their leadership.”

That last bit was yet another dig at former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper Jr. whom he regards as political hacks. We know this because Mr. Trump actually used the words, “political hacks,” to describe the two veteran intelligence officials (as well as former FBI director James Comey), who believe Mr. Trump is getting played by Mr. Putin like composer Igor Stravinsky seated at the piano — masterfully. But then you don’t need to be able to write “The Firebird” to recognize the Putin formula: Stroke Mr. Trump’s ego with a lot of pomp and circumstance, and align your political interests as happened with the 2016 election and the various ties the Trump inner circle has to Moscow, and ta-da, you have a subservient ally at your beck and call.

For those who no longer find it jaw-dropping to hear a U.S. president go to such lengths to defend such an unsavory foreign leader who has demonstrated so frequently that he is no American ally, or even particularly trustworthy, pay attention to the words of warning from Messrs. Brennan and Clapper. They remind us that this simply isn’t normal behavior. “I don’t know why the ambiguity about this,” Mr. Brennan said during a recent appearance on CNN. “Putin is committed to undermining our system, our democracy and our whole process. And to try paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding, and, in fact, poses a peril to this country.”

Making this all the more frightening is that surely Mr. Trump is aware that in the midst of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling, his frequent and unjustified defenses of Mr. Putin make him sound downright desperate and subservient to the man. Why is the president so insecure about the last election? Why isn’t he willing to stand up to Mr. Putin? Why won’t he take Russian interference — about which there is no legitimate doubt — seriously? Where is the concern about the sanctity of the 2018 elections?

Here’s a typical example. Talking again about Mr. Putin’s claim of non-involvement in the election, President Trump observed: “Don’t forget, all he [Putin] said is he never did that, he didn’t do that. I think he’s very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.” So even raising the issue is not a “good thing” for the country? Mr. Trump is essentially suggesting the U.S. can’t get Mr. Putin’s help on North Korea or Syria if it insists on Russian accountability. Is that the new standard, throw our elections under the bus to get a foreign policy “win” for the Trump White House?

Finally, try to imagine if a Democratic president had openly sided with a Russian president over the U.S. intelligence community. The conservative media would be calling for his or her impeachment right about now. Instead, there’s a shrug of the shoulders from all but the most independent-minded Republicans in Congress like Sen. John McCain, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who felt obligated to issue a statement over the weekend reminding everyone that “Vladimir Putin does not have America’s interests at heart.”

To believe otherwise,” the senator noted, “is not only naive but also places our national security at risk."

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.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°