It’s taking a while for the near-universal stunned reaction to today’s joint Trump–Putin presser to yield to analysis. But this immediate take on the Fox Business Network wasn’t a good sign:
This is the aspect of the encounter with Putin that may haunt Trump long after the arguments over its substantive meaning — in terms of U.S.–Russia relations, U.S.–E.U. relations, and the investigations into Russian election meddling and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign — have either faded or given way to horrifying new revelations. In the brightest international spotlight side by side with the foreign leader he has most admired for his toughness, Donald Trump looked weak and submissive, incapable of expressing any sort of righteous indignation at even the most blatant bad behavior by Russia. His soon-to-be-infamous suggestion that he thought Putin might be more credible than U.S. intelligence agencies on the subject of Russia’s election interference is obviously disturbing in itself. But delivered in Putin’s own presence it came across as the act of a toady or at least someone who is extremely conflict-averse — which is exactly 180 degrees away from the persona Trump has worked so hard to present.
The fatal “w” word seems to be popping up in many reactions from people normally predisposed to defend Trump:
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina thinks President Donald Trump looked weak in his press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday, labeling the event as a “missed opportunity” for the president to “deliver a strong warning regarding future elections.”
At the Washington Examiner, conservative foreign policy analyst Tom Rogan stressed Trump’s fecklessness:
Trump described Putin’s offer to host special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators in Russia as “incredible” in its generosity. That gambit from Putin is as basic a KGB distraction method as they come. Trump, however, supposedly the ultimate-patriot-toughest-galactic-negotiator, ate it up like a stoned poodle.
What else of this epic disaster of a press conference? Well, a ridiculous Putin commitment to support dialogue in Syria (a lie measured by Russian bombs and chemical weapon scrubbing teams), and Putin’s call for Ukraine to support peace accords that Russia rampages over every day. Again, witnessing these vintage Putin games, Trump just nodded along.
Perhaps most remarkably, Ross Douthat cited Trump’s obsequious behavior as evidence that he’s not actually a Russian spy, since a Russian spy would be smarter than that:
Characteristically, Sen. John McCain had the bluntest GOP reaction:
Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory….
No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are—a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad.
As Republicans recover from this huge unforced error (exactly what the GOP didn’t need at this point in a perilous midterm election cycle) and start spinning this event, we will hear some imaginative interpretations of Trump’s behavior in Helsinki (the jet-lag theory, unfortunately, won’t fly, since POTUS arrived for the summit after a relatively brief flight from Scotland). And Trump himself may do some dangerous things to recover his reputation for machismo.
But unless some big developments quickly obliterate the images from Helsinki, it is going to be difficult ever again for Trump and his allies to suggest that his administration has made America Great Again by impressing friends and enemies alike with the bristling courage and plain-spoken nationalism of Donald J. Trump. After crashing through Western Europe, insulting America’s oldest and strongest allies, the 45th president confirmed that he has a weak spot for a Russian leader who is a real authoritarian bully-boy, not just someone who pretends to be tough on television or the campaign trail. It’s not a good look for the man who claims to put America First.