In dictatorial states, a failure to applaud the Leader has often been a matter of treason. Last February, following the State of the Union address, President Trump flew to Blue Ash, Ohio, for a rally and accused the Democrats in Congress of that very crime. Their crime was a failure to stand and applaud sufficiently for the President of the United States.
“You’re up there and you’ve got half the room going totally crazy, wild-they loved everything, they want to do something great for our country,” Trump said. “And you have the other side, even on positive news . . . they were like death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said, ‘treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
It’s unlikely that anyone remembers that moment in Blue Ash-a moment that would be an enduring stain on any other President-and the reason is obvious: Trump’s penchant for bald deception and incoherence is not an aberration. It is his daily practice. The vague sense of torpor and gloom that so many Americans have shouldered these past two years derives precisely from the constancy of Trump’s galling statements and actions.
And yet what happened in Helsinki on Monday will not be so easily forgotten. Just as the President’s comments following the torchlit white-supremacist march last year in Charlottesville made it clear that racism was at the core of his character and his political strategy, the contemptible remarks he delivered alongside of Vladimir Putin seemed to mark a turning point, even for some of his most ardent defenders. In the course of a single European journey, Trump set out to humiliate the leaders of Western Europe and declare them “foes”; to fracture long-standing military, economic, and political alliances; and to absolve Russia of its attempts to undermine the 2016 election. He did so clearly, repeatedly, and with conviction. Republicans in Congress (but not enough of them) and a selection of commentators on Fox News declared that Trump’s performance in Helsinki had been disgraceful.
The President’s attempt to reverse the damage-clearly the result of a panicked White House staff-only worsened the matter. Speaking from the White House Cabinet Room on Tuesday, Trump tried to take his listeners for fools as he explained that he had merely been misunderstood by the press. This was one of the most shameless walk-back attempts in the history of the American Presidency. Reading from prepared notes, which always lends to his delivery a hostage-like cadence, Trump tried to half-apologize to the American intelligence community for equating its analysis with that of Putin and the F.S.B. And, with that, the lights suddenly went out. The President sat in darkness. Even before the worldwide commentariat had a chance to voice its incredulity, the White House electrical system had called bullshit on Trump. Or was it a higher power?
“Whoops,” the President said as the lights flickered back on. “They just turned off the lights. That must be the intelligence agencies!” Good one! Then the President declared, once more for the disbelievers, that he had “full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies.” He repeated it with the same conviction as a schoolchild being made to write on the chalkboard, over and over, that he is sorry that he stole from the lunchroom.
Trump is not a man given to contrition-as a student of Roy Cohn, he learned the “never apologize, never explain” approach to human relations-and, even now, he could not quite bring himself to accept one of his intended talking points, that, yes, yes, he really did believe that Russia was the singular actor interfering in the 2016 election. “Could be other people,” he said, going off script, and directly contradicting himself. “A lot of people out there.”
Then Trump’s unwinding became even more alarming. He tried to convince his listeners that his press conference in Helsinki, which he echoed afterward in his interview with Sean Hannity, was but a tiny slip, a flubbed contraction:
“I thought that I made myself very clear by having just reviewed the transcript. Now, I have to say I came back and I said, ‘what is going on? what’s the big deal?’ So I got a transcript, I reviewed it, I actually went out and reviewed a clip of an answer that I gave. And I realize that there is a need for some clarification. It should’ve been obvious, I thought it would be obvious, but I would like to clarify just in case it wasn’t. In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ The sentence should have been ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t or why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ So just to repeat it, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’ and the sentence should’ve been, and I thought it would be maybe a little unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video. The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative. So you can put that in and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
Trump’s performances in Europe, and now in Washington, clarified nothing. They only raised dark suspicions and aroused the sickening feeling that we are living in the pages of the most lurid espionage novel ever written. Robert Mueller and his investigators may never get to the end of the mysteries that they are exploring. They may never get to the end of the myriad corruptions, furtive connections, and double-dealings. But the collection of guilty pleas and indictments that have resulted are not to be dismissed.
Over and over, Trump has said that it’s a “good thing, not a bad thing” that the United States has a “good relationship” with Putin. And it is true that American Presidents have always met with adversaries. George Bush and Barack Obama both had the pleasure, on repeated occasions, of Putin’s acquaintance. But summit meetings are not a matter of exchanging friendship rings. They are matters of asserting and arguing interests, in finding hard-fought areas of agreement and progress; they demand patient preparation (which Trump refuses) and principle (which Trump lacks). Anything less courts confusion, misunderstanding, and even disaster. That was true in Singapore, and it was true in Helsinki.
At the press conference in Helsinki, Trump proved himself, at best, a heedless amateur, blind to the bogus arguments and offers being made by a shrewd adversary. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today, and what he did is an incredible offer,” Trump said. “He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the twelve [Russian intelligence officers who were indicted by Mueller]. I think that’s an incredible offer.” Incredible is the word, and not just for the offer. Trump’s incredible journey to Europe was an act contrary to the interests of his country. Now we will see who, particularly in the Republican Party, will stand up not to applaud the Great Leader but to find the capacity to say what is obvious and what is true.