the national interest

Trump Went to the Mat for Putin at the G-7 Summit

Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Five years ago, Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine and stole a chunk of its territory, the first forcible redrawing of a European border since World War II. As punishment, Russia was expelled from the G-8, a blow to Vladimir Putin’s prestige. President Trump spent this year’s G-7 summit, as he had the previous one, pleading for the Russian dictator to be readmitted.

In a press conference, Trump testified that, before his capricious expulsion, Putin was a loved and valued member of the elite group. “I heard he was a great member of the G8 … People feel very much like me, many people.” He lamented the meetings weren’t of much use without Putin getting to participate. (“We had a lot of things that we were discussing and it would’ve been very easy if Russia was in the room. If he was in the room, we could’ve solved those things.”)

And Trump expressed confidence that Russia would accept an invitation to return — “I know one thing: if they were invited back, I think they’d be there” — which is Trump’s way of saying Putin told him he would like to rejoin the group. (Putin and Trump have spoken repeatedly in secretive circumstances, concealing the contents of his discussions even from his own government.)

But what about Putin’s invasion, the reason he was kicked out in the first place? Trump bizarrely presented this as Barack Obama’s fault:

[Crimea] was sort of taken away from President Obama. Not taken away from President Trump, taken away from President Obama. … President Obama was not happy that this happened because it was embarrassing to him. Right. It was very embarrassing to him and he wanted Russia to be out of the, what was called the G8, and that was his determination. He was outsmarted by Putin. He was outsmarted. President Putin outsmarted President Obama.

Trump mentioned Obama 18 times, repeating his charge that his predecessor was to blame for Russia’s invasion of his neighbor. He repeatedly used the passive voice to describe Putin’s invasion: “It was sort of taken away from President Obama … It was annexed during President Obama’s term … Crimea was annexed during his term.” Putin got no blame for invading a neighbor. Instead Trump gave him credit for outsmarting Obama.

Just how Putin outsmarted Obama, Trump did not say. When a big country invades a smaller neighbor, the only certain way to reverse the invasion is to go to war. Obviously Trump is not saying Obama should have invaded Russia. Short of going to war, the only options for stopping a military invasion are to impose diplomatic pressure (such as expelling Russia from the G-8) and economic pressure (as such sanctions).

Of course, Trump has set out to reverse those punishments, making his attempt to shift blame to Obama especially Orwellian. Obama is the one who imposed consequences for Russia’s invasion that might at least discourage further encroachments. Trump is the one working to undo those punishments, allowing Putin to reap the rewards of the invasion at no cost, and possibly to grab more territory if he desires. It is a completely Orwellian spectacle: the president trying to reward Russia’s attack is blaming the president who punished the attack for the invasion itself.

It is possible Trump is using this bizarre argument to sell his base on his Russophillic policy — using Obama as a bogeyman allows him to distract from the fact he’s acting as sidekick to a foreign enemy. It’s also possible Putin presented this argument to Trump, who harbors his own obsessive hatred and envy for Obama, and actually believes it.

Remarkably, Trump’s performance behind closed doors managed to go even farther in pleading Putin’s case. “Trump’s extraordinary promotion of Putin proved to be the most tense disagreement,” reports the Washington Post, which adds that Trump’s fervent advocacy for Putin “was coolly received by other leaders at the gathering,” and that the meeting “went off the rails when Trump blasted leaders for not including Russia.”

Sources from inside the meeting tell the Post Trump’s presence was tantamount to having Putin himself in the room:

But having such a forceful advocate for an authoritarian leader inside the room of democracies profoundly shaped the overall tone of the summit, one senior official said.

 

“The consequence is the same as if one of the participants is a dictator,” the official said. “No community of like-minded leaders who are pulling together.”

Robert Mueller failed to establish a criminal conspiracy between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, thanks in part to the refusal of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone to cooperate with him. He never delved into the counterintelligence question of just how deep and compromising Trump’s ties to Russia run. Whatever the answer, it remains plain that Trump is deeply committed to advocating for the man who helped get him elected.