Almost everyone, left and right, has criticized President Trump for his response to the question whether he trusts the US intelligence agencies or President Putin. The immediate reaction is that the US president should of course, support our intelligence agencies over the word of a “thug”, our adversary, a despot, a really bad guy — you name it. It certainly feels good to stand up to bad guys and support the home team, but was Trump wrong?
First, we have watched Trump over the last several years and realize that he operates in ways that confound the pundits as a general course of action. When he threatened Kim, he was viewed as a madman who would get us into WWIII. A nuclear war! But when Kim expressed an interest in talking and Trump said some nice things about him, everyone went crazy. Kim is a despot, a tyrant, again you can name it. But this strange behavior actually resulted in a dialogue that could bring the Korean War to a peaceful conclusion and lead to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Who would have guessed that?
Trump also praised Xi and once again Trump was attacked. China is a threat to the region, if not the entire world. However, China now seems to be supportive in our talks with North Korea. Trump confronted China on trade but at the same time complimented them. Wow, our president is dangerous, a traitor almost everyone howled. Certainly, relations with China have evolved quickly and it looks like China may be less of a threat because of it.
Every president since Kennedy has tried to work with the USSR or Russia and mostly failed. Before Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt actually formed an alliance with Stalin that saved American lives but helped lead to the Cold War. Reagan confronted Gorbachev and the Berlin Wall came down. But even that success didn’t put an end to the adversarial relation with Russia. Jimmy Carter decided to boycott the Russian Olympics over Afghanistan and Russia wasn’t deterred. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and found him trustworthy and Putin made Bush look foolish. Obama tried to reset the relationship but did so out of weakness and Putin was able to walk all over the community organizer from Chicago. Obama gave away the Polish missile defense system which was a huge deal. Obama allowed Russia to take a lead role in Syria, did nothing except talk about the Ukraine and of course, promised to be flexible towards Russia.
The disappointing events of the past make Trump’s refusal to condemn Putin pale in comparison. But Trump is not viewed in the same light as our past presidents and everything Trump does, good or bad, is often criticized. Trump enjoys a reputation of being non-conventional and seems to go out of his way to bolster that reputation. He is usually second-guessed when he negotiates with world leaders. Clearly he has been an exceptional negotiator which has lead to successes in business and in politics, whether or not he receives just credit. Most of the pundits and politicians who find fault with his style have no clue how to conduct a negotiation, but are not deterred from giving advice none-the-less. Was Trump setting up Putin in Helsinki? In the words of Trump, “we’ll see”. What we do know is that smooth talking, politically correct approaches of the past have not produced much. Its just possible Trump can make Putin look good but yet tame the aggressive bear. That would be a good thing in spite of the nay saying. As a successful negotiator, I believe there is nothing more satisfying than giving the other side “the sleeves out of my vest” and having the other side think they succeeded. That attitude generally leads to successful implementation of agreements. We’ll see. What we do know is that before making Putin look good in Helsinki, Trump had first strengthened his hand by rebuilding our military, by pushing NATO, by forming relations with China and N. Korea and by confronting Russia in Syria when they allowed Syria to cross the “red line”.
Second, regarding supporting our intelligence community it should be remembered that it is this community, which continues to pursue the narrative that Trump colluded with Russia, without any proof. This is the community that has fired or demoted a number of anti-Trump high level operatives, including the FBI Director, Deputy Director, and Chief of Counterespionage. Who knows how many anti-Trumpers are still left? This is also the community that laid out a compelling case for Iraq possessing WMD that led to the invasion of Iraq which cost of many lives and much money. The stakes could not have been higher and yet they were wrong.
Also, it may have crossed the president’s mind that the intelligence community has admitted that for decades the Russians have interfered in our elections, but yet took no action until Trump was involved in the election. This is also the community that acknowledged that hackers, Russian, Chinese, N. Korean and others have hacked into this country’s most secure systems, IRS, DOD, credit cards, etc. and yet there was no effort equivalent to the special prosecutor’s to pursue the wrongdoers and make certain it didn’t happen again. Only when Trump is part of the equation is a special effort required. Should Trump show blind confidence in that intelligence community?
The question posed to the president was itself devious. When is it proper to ask a president during a one-on-one meeting with a world leader if his counterpart is a liar? When is it proper to ask the president’s opinion on a pending prosecution? If the special prosecutor really believed his 12 indictments were legitimate and would lead to a prosecution, he would not want to prejudice the outcome by having the president of the US say he believed in the guilt or innocence of the accused. However, if it were believed that these indictments were for show right before the meeting, then of course there was no harm in asking the question. It seems obvious what purpose the indictments served. Opinion writers boil the issue down to whether Trump will acknowledge that Russia meddled or not without regard to the accusations of collusion. They ask what harm would it be to call out the thug and support your people. That simplistic approach overlooks the implications, namely to answer “yes” means Putin can expect nothing to “save face” and politically it will be difficult, if not impossible, in the future for Trump to accept any concessions without admissions of guilt. It’s the traditional approach that’s never worked, and leaves little reason for Putin to want to make real concessions. It’s probably not the way Trump views the art of the deal. By hedging a bit, Trump leaves open the possibility of allowing Putin to make concessions and still retain his image. If peaceful resolution of decades of distrust is more important than optics, it’s not a bad approach.
There may have been more politically correct ways to answer the question at the Helsinki press conference but it’s also possible that Trump saw a way to set Putin up for the next round of negotiations. We’ll see.