Stumbling into hellfire in Helsinki
How does Donald Trump test the patience, forbearance, loyalty and endurance of the millions who trusted him to drain the swamp, restore a strong American voice in the world, cast out evil-doers and deliver America from the clutch of those who would trash the dream? Let us count the ways. He put that trust to the test Monday in Helsinki, when he climbed into the lap of Vladimir Putin and purred like a feral kitten. Mr. Trump talked with the Russian president for four hours, two of those hours with no one around, and emerged to question the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
This was odd, because there has been little argument that the Russians were guilty of meddling. The only argument was over whether Donald Trump had colluded with the Russians to help them do it. The Democrats have been peddling this version of the story, in nervous anticipation that Robert Mueller would deliver the evidence. Speculation has been growing that Mr. Mueller, who has lately been striking out in several directions, won’t catch that unicorn in the Rose Garden, after all.
Several U.S. legislators and officials in previous administrations of both parties were astonished Monday that Mr. Trump seemed to align himself with the fanciful Russian version of the meddling story.
The president said he and Mr. Putin spent “a great deal of time” discussing the accusation that the Russians had meddled in the election and the Russian president “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
No one seemed more puzzled than Mr. Trump’s advisers inside the White House who had expected the president to “push Putin” at their press conference. Mr. Trump himself expected that a “confrontational approach” would surprise everyone and make him look strong and forceful. “Obviously,” an aide told The Wall Street Journal with dramatic understatement, “it didn’t happen.”
When Mr. Putin told reporters at their joint press conference that he had discussed inviting special counsel Robert Mueller to Moscow to grill the 12 Russians indicted in Washington last week if the United States would make a similar gesture, Mr. Trump interrupted him. “I think that’s an incredible offer.”
Mr. Trump, determined to establish a bromance with the Russian similar to what he thinks he established with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, seemed more excited by anticipation of an exchange of Valentines than Mr. Putin does. He blamed his own side for souring that relationship, but now he has fixed it. “Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” he declared. “However, that changed about four hours ago.” The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, couldn’t agree more, but he tried: The talks, he said, went “better than super.”
Certain officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, still rattled by President Trump’s scolding demand that they must pay their dues if they want the United States to continue to guarantee their security, were worried leading up to the summit that Mr. Trump might make damaging concessions on the Crimea, seized by the Russians three years ago, and reverse the established American and allied position that the Crimea belongs to Ukraine. But he apparently didn’t. Reassurance, such as it is, came not from President Trump, however, but from Mr. Putin, who said Mr. Trump’s position on Crimea was “well known” and he “continues to maintain that it was illegal to annex it. Our viewpoint is different.”
Disbelief bordering on outrage greeted Mr. Trump’s performance in Helsinki, and not just from the usual suspects who never say an encouraging word about the American president. The president’s bland acceptance of Mr. Putin’s occasional friendly words worries his friends and those willing to cut him a break when Democrats and sullen Republicans are busy trying to organize a lynch mob, with angry words if not a rope. Mr. Trump, like Barack Obama before him, yearns to “re-set” the U.S.-Russian relationship. “Putin’s fine,” he told a recent rally. “He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people.”
The president forgets that he’s dealing not with a golfing buddy or someone with a proposal to build a new hotel, but an old KGB thug with bloody hands and sinister disdain for human life. This is the adversary who dispatched assassins to murder a father and daughter with nerve gas in a public park in Britain.
Donald Trump is a man with excessive regard for himself and disdain for the abilities and opinions of everyone else. He arrived in Helsinki confident that he could wing it, and he couldn’t. Perhaps it was divine providence that protected America from Hillary Clinton. President Trump is still considerably better than a President Clinton 2.0. But the Donald is pushing it.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.