Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
So much has happened in the fortnight since the previous column. Even in these most extraordinary of times, it’s worth remembering just what has taken place:
Brett Kavanaugh was selected by President Trump to be the next Supreme Court Justice (pending Congressional confirmation) in a prime-time television announcement that was beamed into TVs across America.
Scott Pruitt resigned as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, after months of ongoing scandals and misdemeanours.
Extending Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of Russian collusion even further, the Justice Department announced indictments against 12 Russian nationals, accusing them of engaging in a “sustained effort” to hack Democrats’ emails and computer networks.
Donald Trump visited the UK but was deterred from visiting London by an underwhelmingly tiny baby balloon, and endorsed Boris Johnson for Prime Minister before accusing The Sun of fake news for having the audacity to quote him verbatim.
And, depressingly, football didn’t come home.
Yet amidst all the chaos, the President’s extraordinary summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin stands out. It was a display of American weakness on the world stage at a time when Trump prides himself on an ‘America First’ agenda that means bullying allies and offending friends in the name of domestic gain, no matter the international cost.
Critics ask: why is the president is so deferential to Putin, seeming at times in awe of his Russian counterpart?
Ego, selfishness and a penchant for dictatorial strongmen are the three most plausible answers that don’t end up in a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories
The President’s cosiness with Russia stems in part form a refusal to criticise the Russian Federation for meddling in the election which he won. Obsessed with his own victory, proven by the rate at which he feels the need to constantly remind us of it, Trump won’t criticise Russia for election interference because it chips away at the legitimacy of his election win.
That puts the President of the United States at odds with the 17 US Government agencies who have concluded interference in the 2016 election was ordered and carried out by the Russian state. All of which begs the question: whose side is this president on?
At the Trump-Putin press conference, Trump did absolutely nothing to bat away those concerns. From a purely communications perspective, he didn’t even go through the motions of taking a rhetorical hard line on Russia. Undoubtedly a gifted orator, on this occasion Trump simply rolled over and accepted Putin’s explanation and excuse in front of the watching world.
The customary swagger and bravado of the US president disappeared in a puff of smoke, replaced by a leader incapable of accepting fact over his own internal fiction. Using his own FBI and Department of Justice as scapegoats, Trump put a relentless obsession for reminding the world of his election victory over the electoral integrity of his country. Putin, an absolute adversary of the United States, could barely hide his glee.
The press conference crystallised the notion that, for Trump, all roads must lead to personal benefit. It is the very embodiment of the CEO president who runs the country like he runs his company – manufacturing the positive spin and dismissing the negative, while hiring confidantes whose sole objective is to promote and protect the boss. It is no way to lead the free world.
Is this an inflection point?
We have been here before. Moments so beyond out of the ordinary that it feels like something must change. If this extraordinary moment of American presidential undoing is to mean anything, we will need to still be talking about in a weeks’ time. Rarely in this presidency has a single story been able to command that much of the mainstream media’s attention. In a White House dominated by pandemonium, we will likely have moved on to another scandal or scandalous remark by the week’s end.
Every presidency has a moment where something felt like it had to change, but everything stayed the same. Think back to President Obama’s tearful plea for gun reform after the Sandy Hook massacre, after which absolutely nothing changed. The Republican establishment must feel like something has to change now.
Their transactional relationship with a president they never wanted, for the majority, has paid off until now, no matter how uncomfortable it has felt. For all the volatility stemming from the White House, Trump has delivered a huge tax reduction bill and one conservative Supreme Court justice – with another on the way. The Russia relationship may be the first straw that begins to break the camel’s back.
Republicans who have quietly or begrudgingly accepted the trade off with this president now have sufficient political cover to vocalise their criticisms. Crucially, we must look beyond the usual dissident voices like Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain for condemnation. Following the press conference, Newt Gingrich, one of the most vocal Trump supporters in the GOP establishment, tweeted:
“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”.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said: “The Russians are not our friends and I entirely agree with the assessment of our intelligence community.” And House Speaker Paul Ryan added: “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia…”. Meanwhile, Fox News held the president’s feet to the fire arguably for the first time in his tenure.
America First (with exceptions)
Make no mistake, the Trump-Putin press conference was the single most staggering event in a Trump presidency that has featured moments of exclamation on almost daily basis. The leader of the free world sold out his own intelligence agencies and chose to side with a foreign adversary, who merely had to deny any involvement in election meddling in order to be let off the hook.
Few will have believed the President’s reversal a day later. Trump sees himself as a strongman on the world stage like the leaders he reveres for their power – Recep Erdogan, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Putin. Being so blatantly deferential to Russia runs totally contrary to the painted picture of a leader who goes into battle for Americans whether popular or unpopular.
For Democrats, manner from heaven ahead of the November midterm elections. For Republicans, a moment worthy of introspection. For the integrity of future US elections, a period of deep concern.