Sen. John McCain once again demonstrated himself a voice of reason on foreign policy in the time of Donald Trump, blasting the president for congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin for winning re-election during a recent telephone call. “An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections," the Arizona Republican said in a written statement released Tuesday. "And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country's future, including the countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin's regime.”
Making the congratulations all the more disturbing was news, first revealed by The Washington Post and still not denied by the White House, that Mr. Trump had been specifically warned not to congratulate the Russian president in briefing materials with the less-than-subtle message “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” in capital letters. His national security advisers had also called on him to condemn the March 4 nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Great Britain. He didn’t do that. Nor did Mr. Trump avail himself of this additional opportunity to talk to Mr. Putin about his interference in the last American election or warn him not to meddle in the upcoming one.
Now, perhaps there are Trump defenders who will say going off script is what this president does or that the episode is a mountain made out of a molehill. Still others will no doubt point out that the briefing materials were classified and, in classic Trump what-about-ism, say the real story is how that information got leaked to the media (presumably by agents of the deep-state, their favorite strawmen). Unfortunately, such excuses don’t wash given the president’s track record on Mr. Putin, on dictators and election integrity. Words matter, both spoken and unspoken. Mr. Trump has sent a message to Mr. Putin that behavior many other Western leaders view as intolerable is plenty tolerable to U.S. leadership.
It was President Trump, after all, who congratulated Chinese President Xi Jinping on his consolidation of power and “extraordinary elevation” to president for life. He’s praised the Philippines’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, for ruthlessly killing 12,000 people in his drug war. But he’s had precious little to say about the brutal atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar where a new president is expected to be chosen in the next week. He seems to have a sympathy of authoritarian regimes unbecoming the leader of the free world. And that’s not even considering the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian hacking of the last election and the real possibility that special counsel Robert Mueller III is going to expose, if not outright collusion, a pattern of deception and obstruction by Trump insiders.
There’s also the matter of how President Trump’s failure to stay on script — or at least appreciate the difference between a sham election and a real one — is yet another sign that he is wholly incapable of negotiating with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. It’s been noted before that Mr. Trump seems not to have the ability to read his briefings and often has the shakiest knowledge of affairs of state. That Mr. Trump’s decision to even meet personally with Mr. Kim apparently was a spontaneous choice was an early indicator of just how problematic this encounter may prove. The stakes are awfully high for such an ill-informed neophyte to be left at the controls without proper supervision.
Finally, there is the possibility — taken as gospel in some anti-Trump circles — that Mr. Putin essentially owns the Trump presidency, whether through loans to the Trump empire, by providing a key assist with the Hillary Clinton email hack or just some kind of longstanding bromance between the two men. We would denounce such talk as more fanciful than factual, but President Trump keeps doing or saying things that only lend credence to these worst-case scenarios. Is Mr. Trump physically incapable of challenging Mr. Putin? Too admiring of his strongman ways? Too suspicious of his own intelligence agencies to listen to them? Surely, even the most ardent Trump supporter must find it odd, given that mainstream Republican views on Russia and Mr. Putin hew closer to Senator McCain’s than President Trump’s.