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      •  What Just Happened?

What Just Happened?

Yesterday, in advance of Donald Trump's summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin, we wrote, "brace for something unexpected and/or outrageous." Predicting that much was not difficult, since "unexpected" and "outrageous" are Trump's stock in trade. However, nobody would have predicted exactly what did happen, and that the Donald would shoot himself in the foot so badly he might have used a Howitzer.

The fun got started before the summit was even underway, as the President decided to get on Twitter and share some choice thoughts about the relationship between Russia and the United States:

It's a truly staggering sentiment coming from anyone, much less the President of the United States. It would appear that the Russians are not only blameless for any interference with the 2016 election, but also for illegally annexing Crimea, taking sides against the U.S. in Syria, engaging in widespread human rights abuses, or for anything else. Trump should probably have gotten a clue that something was awry when the Russian foreign ministry jumped on Twitter to agree wholeheartedly:

But all of this was just the prelude—the real drama was yet to come.

The actual summit got started a couple of hours after that tweet (with Vladimir Putin fully aware of what Trump had written, by the way). They talked for roughly two hours, assisted only by one interpreter each (more on that below). Reportedly, they talked a bit about Syria, and a bit about North Korea, and a bit about China. However, most of their discussion was quickly relegated to "beside the point" status once the post-summit press conference got underway. When Trump was asked the question that at least a billion people around the world knew was coming—about Russian interference in the 2016 elections—he declared that he doesn't "see any reason why" Russia would be responsible, and said, "I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today." Trump also suggested that he was open to Putin's offer to interrogate the 12 Russians indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller last Friday. In short, the President of the United States is now on record as saying he trusts the FSB (aka KGB v2.0) more than his own intelligence agencies.

Trump has, of course, pushed counterfactual narratives before. Heck, he launched his political career on a foundation of Obama birtherism. However, he has never been more fully in denial than he was on Monday. The United States' five main intelligence agencies—the CIA, NSA, NGA, FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence—have uniformly agreed that Russia interfered with the elections. Mueller's indictments, particularly the ones from Friday, lay the case out for interference in great detail. The intelligence apparatus of key allies, most obviously the British Secret Intelligence Service, has said that the Russians meddled. Heck, at this point, even Putin himself has basically admitted it. In an interview with Fox News that aired on Monday night, the Russian leader said:

Russia as a state has never interfered with the internal affairs of the United States, let alone its elections...Listen to me, please: The information that I am aware of, there is nothing false about it, every single grain of it is true. And the Democratic leadership admitted it.

In other words, "We didn't do anything, but just in case we did, no harm done, right?" Putin's words bear a striking resemblance to the book O.J. Simpson wrote, in which he said, "I didn't do it, but if I had done it, here's how and why."

After the whole fiasco had played out, Donald Trump got onto his airplane and traveled back to the U.S. while the world responded to his words and actions. And, in short, just about everyone whose name does not rhyme with "Pike Mence" or "Hean Shannity" had their torches out. A sampling of the responses:

Democratic Politicians:
  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY): "In the entire history of our country, Americans have never seen a president of the United States support an American adversary the way President Trump has supported President Putin."
  • Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA): "For the President to side with Putin over his own intelligence officials and blame the United States for Russia's attack on our democracy is a complete disgrace."
  • House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA): "This is a sad day for America, and for all Western democracies that Putin continues to target."
  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-CT): "Donald Trump was a patsy, a pushover and a puppet. Not a President."
  • Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT): "A truly disgraceful performance that puts our national security at deep risk."
  • Hillary Clinton (following up on a pre-summit tweet that read, "Great World Cup. Question for President Trump as he meets Putin: Do you know which team you play for?"): "Well, now we know."
Left-leaning Media:
  • Thomas Friedman, The New York Times: "Trump, in sucking up to Putin, betrays his country."
  • Preet Bharara, CNN: "No more lectures on patriotism from this president and White House. Ever."
  • Chris Cillizza, CNN: "The most shameful, stunning moment of the Trump presidency."
  • Markos Moulitsas, Daily Kos: "American traitor Donald Trump's shameful performance at the Surrender Summit has removed all doubt about where his allegiances lie."
  • Stephen Colbert, "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert": "If Trump's spineless toadying to Putin made you think, 'What's Vlad got on him?' you're not the only one."
  • Editorial Board, The Washington Post: "Trump just colluded with Russia. Openly."
Republican Politicians:
  • Sen. John McCain (R-AZ): "One of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory."
  • Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ): "I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful."
  • Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE): "This is bizarre and flat-out wrong."
  • Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI): "There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world."
  • Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY): "I am deeply troubled by President Trump's defense of Putin against the intelligence agencies of the U.S."
  • Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX): "I've seen the Russian intelligence manipulate many people in my career, and I never would have thought the US President would be one of them."
Current and Former Members of Team Trump:
  • Vice President Mike Pence: "Donald Trump will always put the prosperity and security of America first."
  • Anonymous Trump aide: "This was not the plan."
  • Anonymous Trump aide: "How bad was that?"
  • Anonymous Trump aide: "Trump looked incredibly weak up there. Putin looks like a champion."
  • James Comey, former FBI Director: "This was the day an American president stood on foreign soil next to a murderous lying thug and refused to back his own country. Patriots need to stand up and reject the behavior of this president."
  • Michael Cohen, former Trump lawyer/fixer: "I respect our nation's intelligence agencies who determined that Russia, had in fact, interfered or meddled in our democratic process. I repudiate Russia's effort...and call on all Americans to do the same."
Right-leaning Media:
  • Newt Gingrich, Fox News: "President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected—immediately."
  • Brit Hume, Fox News: "Because Trump is unable to see past himself, he sees the Russia meddling investigation as only about him."
  • Sean Hannity, Fox News: "[You showed] strength, not appeasement."
  • Joe Walsh, radio host: "What Trump did today was commit treason. He cannot be supported anymore."
  • Guy Benson, editor: "Appalling moral equivalence and equivocation—rooted in an embarrassing, juvenile, insecure, consuming obsession over his own legitimacy."
  • Myra Adams, "Is today the day that Trump lost congress for the GOP?"
International Media:
  • Andrew Buncombe, The Independent (UK): "Vladimir Putin just humiliated Donald Trump. And Trump humiliated America."
  • Chemi Shalev, Ha'aretz (Israel): "Even if Trump doesn't owe Putin a thing, he looked and sounded, to all intents and purposes, like his lackey, or like his puppet."
  • Editorial Board, The Guardian (UK): "It is not just the cold war that is over. The post-1945 order of international values and ethics may be ending too."
  • Jared Yates Sexton, The Globe and Mail (Canada): "We've certainly come to expect this farce of a president will cozy up to ruthless hatchet men, but Monday's press conference was another thing entirely."
  • Anthony Zurcher, BBC (UK): "European allies are uneasy. US-Russia relations are uncertain. And the US political world—and even the White House's own communications team—is unsettled."
  • Anthony Furey, The Toronto Sun (Canada): "You don't need to believe in Russian collusion to realize Trump messed up."

It was the New York Daily News, however, that really managed (as they so often do) to put a fine point on it:

Open Treason

It wasn't just the Daily News, either. There were a lot of op-eds on Monday arguing that (1) A state of cyber-war exists between the U.S. and Russia, and (2) That Trump just gave "aid and comfort" to the enemy, such that he did indeed commit treason. It is also the case that the top two trending hashtags on twitter on Monday were #Treason and #TreasonSummit. Given that Congress is, at the moment, entirely unwilling to press forward with impeachment proceedings, it's unlikely they are willing to charge Trump with treason and send him to the gallows. Nonetheless, it is never a good look for a politician's name and the word "treason" to appear in the same sentence.

While he was still on Air Force One, and as the negative responses were coming fast and furious, Trump seemed to realize he might have really stepped in it, and he tried to do some damage control, sending out this Tweet:

Someone at the White House reached the same conclusion, as they sent out some slickly-produced tweets like this one designed to change the narrative:

At least so far, these attempts to clean up Trump's mess have not done the administration much good.

So, as the headline asks: What happened here? How did Trump blow it so badly? Here are some possible explanations that are bouncing around:

  • Trump Got Manhandled: This is at least part of the answer. As noted, Putin already knew when the summit started what posture Trump had adopted. Taking a page from Trump's own playbook, the Russian also made a point of keeping The Donald waiting for over an hour. Further, Helsinki is not terribly far from Moscow (about 600 miles), and is in the same time zone, so Putin was essentially playing on his home field. Once the summit started, Putin's approach was not unlike that of a boxer. Very well prepared for the meeting, and knowing that Trump wings it, and gets bored easily, he peppered the Donald with details (aka jabs), and then once he had been lulled into a stupor, hit him with the big stuff (aka the knockout blow). Trump never saw what was coming.

  • Kim Jong-Un, Part II: Donald Trump has proven himself to be a man of limited imagination. Undoubtedly, he saw this summit as identical to the one he had with North Korea's Kim Jong-Un. There, he waltzed in unprepared, exchanged some pleasantries with the dictator, got a pretty piece of paper to take home, and was lionized by the right (and given some grudging praise from the left). Trump did not ever seem to realize that, because of the historical relationship between the U.S. and Russia, not to mention questions about his own dealings with the Russians, this situation is much more fraught with difficulty (not to mention that Kim is a tough opponent, but he's bush league compared to Putin). And then, on top of that, Trump decided to replace a little bit of kumbayah (like he did with Kim) with an avalanche of kumbayah. A lot of errors and faulty assumptions there.

  • Selfishness: After Robert Mueller's latest wave of indictments, even the members of the administration seemed to bow to reality and to accept that the Russians had meddled in the 2016 election. The line coming out of the White House last week was "Yes, there was meddling, but there was no collusion." Trump was traveling then, and clearly was not a part of that change in messaging, as he's sticking with the "witch hunt" narrative. And he's doing that because he prefers to stick his head in the sand (and to subject the democracy to unhealthy stresses) than to accept anything that might call into question the legitimacy of his victory.

  • Kompromat: A lot of people, including some who were not willing to consider the possibility previously, are starting to think that maybe the Russians really do have some serious dirt on Trump. The most interesting development on this front on Monday actually came in Putin's Fox News interview. When asked point-blank about the issue, he launched into a lengthy answer that boiled down to, "A lot of prominent businessmen visit Russia, and we certainly don't have time to collect information on all of them." Note that is very different from "No, we don't have any kompromat on Trump." Also, if Putin has kompromat, it is more likely to be about money laundering than about fun and games in bed with beautiful Russian ladies.

  • The Bubble: Even the most outgoing, open-minded, personally popular president experiences isolation, and lives within a bubble. For less personable, paranoid, widely unpopular presidents (Dick Nixon, LBJ, etc.) the effect is even worse. One cannot know exactly how divorced Trump is from the reality that is available to those of us living outside the bubble, but what we did get on Monday was an object lesson in how the bubble is constructed and fortified. The President's first interview upon his return was, naturally enough, with Sean Hannity. And what was the first question about? Hillary Clinton and her e-mails, of course. From there on, it was a succession of softball questions and flattery, as the Fox host told the President that he's good enough, he's smart enough, and doggone it, people like him. Ok, those weren't the exact words, but that was the sentiment.

  • Moral Cowardice: Donald Trump has no problem criticizing people who he thinks don't like him. And he has no problem flattering people who he thinks do like him. What's tough for him (well, for anyone, but especially him) is condemning people who like him, but are bad actors. One thinks of Charlottesville, where Trump simply could not bear to speak out against people who, while bigots, are also supporters of his and probably voted for him. The President has spent all week talking about how friendly he and Putin already are, and how friendly he hopes to eventually become with Putin, and undoubtedly the Russian was more than willing to play the role of BFF to get what he wanted.

  • It's All Part of the Plan: It is not probable, at this point, that Trump is some sort of Jedi master, and has his moves planned out 10 steps ahead of everyone else. However, it is now clear that his instincts tend strongly toward nationalism and authoritarianism and away from liberalism and multilateralism. Or, to put it another way, he clearly wants to replace the post-WW II world order with the pre-WW I world order. In effect, his entire week of "diplomacy"—feuding with NATO, slamming Theresa May, insulting the Queen, deferring to Putin—has been in service of this philosophy. And while Trump might not have anticipated exactly what a firestorm his actions would trigger, it is also the case that his philosophy has not changed in his three or so years on the political scene, and that every time he's ruffled feathers with particularly overt expressions of his views, he's easily weathered the storm.

Not all of these theories can be correct, especially since some of them are mutually exclusive. But the truth is probably a mix of a few items on the list.

And now, an even bigger question than "What happened?" Namely: "What's next?" Here are some possible answers to that question:

  • The Tipping Point?: Joe McCarthy got away with murder for two years. Then, it all came tumbling down when he made the error of attacking U.S. army officers (and their grandfatherly counselor, Joseph Welch). Richard Nixon got away with murder for at least four years. Then, it all came tumbling down when he fired two attorneys general in one night. The point is that with these fellows, and many others, one key misstep proved to be the turning point which caused the whole house of cards to collapse. Is this Donald Trump's turning point? That is a question that cannot be answered right now, as these things are beyond the predictive powers of mortal man. However, what we can say is that the reaction to Monday's fiasco is as bad as anything we have seen during Trump's presidency, even Charlottesville, and is rivaled only by pu**ygate (and possibly the gold star family squabble). And yes, they are already calling it "Putingate."

  • Congress: In a related point, a recurring motif in the last 18 months has been "When is Congress finally going to assert itself?" Maybe that time has come. Jeff Flake is planning to introduce a resolution today that rebukes Trump for his words and affirms support for the Mueller investigation. Even assuming the resolution gets to the floor, it's a purely symbolic action from a Senator who is retiring and has nothing to lose. So, this may come to nothing. On the other hand, it could also be a starting point for Congress reasserting itself, particularly in terms of its Constitutionally-delegated powers to advise and consent on treaties and to manage trade with other nations.

  • Mueller: Speaking of the Mueller investigation, the Special Counsel is now close to bulletproof. If Trump tried to get rid of him after what happened on Monday, it would be political suicide.

  • The Trump Administration: While Mueller is certainly going to remain on the job for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that everyone else in the administration will. Trump has just insulted the American intelligence community on an international stage, and there is a very good chance that some of the intel pooh-bahs resign in protest. Most obviously, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who was so aggravated on Monday that, without permission, he released a statement pushing back against the President. It is also very possible that some folks who already had one foot out the door decide this is the last straw. In fact, it is more likely than not that at least one of these four folks is gone by the time the calendar turns to August: Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and U.S. ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman.

  • Trump: The President does not often admit mistakes, and even during his appearance on Hannity, he was clearly preparing to dig in for a siege. Lots of nasty tweets about Mueller, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the fake news, etc. are a virtual certainty in the next few days. The President also likes to create a distraction, so it would not be a surprise if something big happens on some other front.

  • The Allies: Monday's events were merely the cherry on the sundae; the whole week has been an object lesson for the United States' allies that they cannot rely on Trump. They can't avoid him entirely, of course, but they will be emboldened in forging their own trade agreements, their own defense pacts, and in otherwise ignoring U.S. input and U.S. interests. The question is to what extent "normal order" will be restored once Trump leaves office. It is clear that the allies are not only reaching some hard conclusions about him, they are also learning a few things about the weaknesses of the U.S. system of government.

  • Putin: Whether he has kompromat or not, Putin knows he's just been given a blank check to do nearly anything he wants without recrimination from the United States. If there were any doubts that the Russians would mess around in the 2018 and 2020 elections, they're gone now. Further, it would not be surprising to see a new wave of Russian military aggression—maybe in Ukraine, maybe in Syria, maybe somewhere else.

  • Future Summits: Trump and Putin both suggested that Monday's meeting was the first of many. Given how badly it went, either Trump and/or his handlers might decide that it really needs to be the first of one.

  • The Translator: There are four people who know exactly what Trump and Putin said to each other—the two leaders, and their two translators. U.S. officials say that the translator working for Trump is going to be debriefed; that process might produce nothing, or it may be very revealing, indeed. It is also worth noting that translators are not lawyers, nor are they executive branch employees. In other words, privilege does not apply. So, the translator could very well find himself with a subpoena or two from his friends in Congress or in the Special Counsel's office.

And there it is, 24 hours out. It is truly the only story today, and is going to be the main story for at least a few days, so undoubtedly we'll have more about it tomorrow. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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