Six ways Trump’s Putin comments on Asia trip erode U.S. credibility

The following article by James Hohmann with Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve was posted on the Washington Post website November 13, 2017:

President Trump on Nov. 11 said he believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin is being truthful when he denies that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election. (Reuters)

THE BIG IDEA: After a week of impressive message discipline across Asia, President Trump reopened a wound Saturday when he indicated that he believes Vladimir Putin’s denials that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign.

“I asked him again,” Trump told reporters during a 26-minute gaggle on Air Force One, as he flew from Danang to Hanoi on the ninth day of his overseas trip. “You can only ask so many times. … He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did. … I really believe that, when he tells me that, he means it. … I think he’s very insulted, if you want to know the truth.”

Trump then lamented that the ongoing Russia investigations are an “artificial Democratic hit job” that could prevent cooperation on a range of issues, including stopping North Korea’s nuclear program. “It’s a shame … because people will die because of it,” he warned direly. Trump then blasted former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. as “political hacks.”

These remarks prompted immediate pushback from lawmakers in both parties and the CIA, which noted in a statement that Director Mike Pompeo – who was appointed by Trump – “stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community assessment … with regard to Russian election meddling.”

Asked again about Putin later, Trump tried to parse his remarks. “What I said is that I believe [Putin] believes that,” Trump said during a news conference with Vietnam’s president. “As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our [intelligence] agencies, especially as currently constituted.”

Still defiant, though, he also tweeted this:

When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. There always playing politics – bad for our country. I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!

— Here are six reasons that the weekend’s comments on Putin widen Trump’s credibility gap and, consequently, erode America’s standing on the world stage:

The Trump campaign and the White House have said there was no contact between anyone on their staff and Russia. This isn’t true. (Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

1. Trump looks weak and creates the impression, true or not, that he’s hiding something.

Why has he never talked tough on Putin — before, during or after the 2016 election? Trump keeps begging that $64,000 question. The president says he won’t rip into the Russians because working with the Kremlin is in America’s interest, yet he has no qualms about trashing leaders of his own party who he desperately needs to advance his domestic agenda, from Mitch McConnell to John McCain and Bob Corker.

Our fact-checking unit just posted a 5,000-word timeline to lay out all the *known* meetings between the Trump campaign and the Russians. We’ll keep updating it as more information becomes available. “Despite denials from the campaign and the White House, it’s now clear that members of the Trump campaign corresponded or met with Russians at least 30 times throughout the campaign,” Meg Kelly tabulates. “Knowledge of these communications went to the highest levels of Donald Trump’s operation — both Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort, two of the campaign’s three managers, were aware of it. Since the information about members of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians has come out in dribs and drabs, as a public service, we compiled a comprehensive timeline of what we now know from media reports and court documents detailing which members of the campaign met with Russians during the campaign as well as internal discussions about those meetings.”

Here is how Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes depicts the latest donnybrook:

2. Trump looks naive.

The two former intelligence chiefs who Trump called “political hacks” appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday to rebut the president:

“I think it demonstrates to Mr. Putin that Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and try to play upon his insecurities, which is very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint,” said Brennan. “I don’t know why the ambiguity about this. Putin is committed to undermining our system, our democracy and our whole process. And to try paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding, and, in fact, poses a peril to this country.”

“He seems very susceptible to rolling out the red carpet and honor guards and all the trappings and pomp and circumstance that come with the office, and I think that appeals to him, and I think it plays to his insecurities,” Clapper said.

Conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin says that Trump is “putty in the hands of wily autocrats”: “Trump and his followers are willing to believe anything because they want to believe anything that confirms their counterfactual world. It renders Trump susceptible — eager, even — to believe our enemies … He’s therefore the type of target that counterintelligence operatives dream of — an arrogant fool.”

From a writer for the Atlantic:

In my years of reporting on Russia, I too have found that if you ask a former KGB agent an accusatory question about his actions, he will generally be straight with you. 

President Trump with reporters aboard Air Force One as he flew to Hanoi, Vietnam, on Saturday.

Trump Says Putin ‘Means It’ About Not Meddling

President Trump said, “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”

From an editor at the Los Angeles Times:

Saying Russia will help “solve” Syria & Ukraine is like saying the arsonist is willing to help put out the fire.
1 “There” is not grammatical.
2 “haters & fools” is not presidential & neither is believing Putin over the unanimous opinion of your intel agencies 

From a former U.S. ambassador to Russia:

If by praising Putin, Trump can get Russia to leave Crimea, Assad to step down, & North Korea to give up nukes , I will praise profusely his Russia policy. 

For his part, Putin said at a news conference of his own that he and Trump “hardly know each other.” But he praised him as “very professional, very friendly (and) he behaves very appropriately.”

President Trump attempted to clear up confusion over whether he accepts Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. (Reuters)

3. Trump’s inconsistency means his words pack less of a punch. It’s hard for friends or foes to know where he stands, and it’s difficult for anyone to take Trump either literally or seriously when he might change his position on any given issue the next time he’s asked about it — as he appeared to do with the question of Russian interference.

From a former CIA official (who has given to Democrats):

This will follow the Charlottesville model:

1. He said what he inexplicably believes.
2. Advisors coaxed him into begrudgingly saying what everyone wants him to say.
3. He’ll repeat #1 before long. 

A similar dynamic has been at play with North Korea. Only a few weeks ago, Trump said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was wasting his time by trying to negotiate with Kim Jong Un and suggested that there was no diplomatic solution to Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Then he abruptly shifted his position in Seoul. “I really believe that it makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and to make a deal that’s good for the people of North Korea and the people of the world,” the president said. “I do see certain movement, yes. But let’s see what happens.”

Former CIA director John Brennan and other officials commented on President Trump’s response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of campaign interference. (The Washington Post)

4. For all the world to see, Trump’s comments about Putin highlighted continuing tensions between the intelligence community and the commander in chief. Adversaries can use that to their advantage.

Former CIA director Michael V. Hayden said he was so concerned by Trump’s statement that he contacted the agency to confirm that it stood by the January assessment,” Karen DeYoung, Ashley Parker and David Nakamura report. “He described Trump’s remarks as ‘egregious comments on the character of folks who have been public servants … [and] the public should know that these guys are thoroughgoing professionals, and what the president left unsaid is that the people he put into these jobs agree with the so-called hacks.’ Senior officials in the intelligence community will be dismayed by the disparagement of two respected intelligence veterans, Hayden said. ‘People have a right to ask at senior levels: ‘Does what I do make a difference anymore?’

“Michael Morell, a former acting director and deputy director of the CIA, said Trump was ‘biting hook, line and sinker’ the word of Putin, a former intelligence officer who is a ‘trained liar and manipulator.’ Although progress had been made in the intelligence community’s initial raw relationship with Trump, Morell said in an email, ‘this will most definitely be a step backward.’

President Donald Trump arrived at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 10. (Reuters)

5. Trump’s waffling undercuts the ability of the U.S. to forcefully respond to future interference. If the Russians believe there will be no consequences for meddling, they will be emboldened to become even more aggressive and blatant.

“Trump’s willingness to confront Putin will be tested in the coming months,” CNN’s Kevin Liptak notes. “Trump is required to impose new sanctions on Russian entities by January 29 under a law passed by Congress over the summer. … In his remarks on Sunday, Trump suggested that imposing new sanctions on Russia was misguided. ‘People don’t realize Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned,’ Trump said. ‘They were sanctioned at a very high level, and that took place very recently. It’s now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken.’”

Meanwhile, Trump continues to grant legitimacy to Putin without getting any concessions in return. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan “each softened their tone toward the Soviets in exchange for major arms control agreements — although neither ever ignored the underside of communism,” Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer writes on CNN. “Indeed, they were both careful to acknowledge publicly the unacceptable parts of Soviet behavior so they could enter into the negotiations with legitimacy among US allies and so that the Soviets understood the United States would not simply cave to every demand. Trump has systematically undercut the efforts of previous presidents and the current Congress to intensify pressure on Russia. Instead, as he has now done on this trip, he is Putin’s ally-in-chief.”

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shook hands on Nov. 11 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Danang, Vietnam. (Reuters)

6. Trump once again undercut his own staff, which makes it harder for them to do their jobs. Administration officials devote a huge amount of their time to squaring the president’s public comments with official policy. In addition to the CIA director putting out a statement siding with the career professionals who work for him over Putin, White House surrogates on the Sunday shows found themselves once again trying to explain what Trump really meant.

Marc Short, Trump’s liaison to Capitol Hill, suggested that the president was trying to say that — while he agrees with the intelligence community — “there is zero evidence of any ballotbeing impacted by Russian interference.” “What the president is trying to do right now is recognize the gravest threat that America faces is North Korea developing nuclear weapons,” Short explained on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And nuclear weapons in North Korea is a greater threat than Russia buying Facebook ads in America.”

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was asked in Hanoi yesterday about Trump’s latest flurry of tweets. He brushed aside the question, saying that he has told the West Wing staff not to react to them. “We don’t, I don’t, I don’t allow the staff to,” Kelly said. The tweets, he added, “are what they are.”

— Back home, on social media, lawmakers and thought leaders in both parties continued to express concern about Trump’s comments vis-à-vis Putin:

From the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee:

There’s nothing “America First” about taking the word of KGB colonel over US intelligence community. There’s no “principled realism” in cooperating w/ Russia to prop up murderous Assad regime. To believe otherwise is naive & places nat’l security at risk. 

From the former GOP chair of the House Intelligence Committee:

Our intelligence community concluded that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election. We should expect them to attempt to do so again. That’s a clear and present danger to our democracy.

From the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

.@realDonaldTrump believes an ex-KGB agent over 17 U.S. intel agencies. That’s outrageous..@POTUS ‘s denial of facts is troubling, & I continue to question his willingness to fully implement the Russia sanctions law overwhelmingly passed by Congress.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) served four tours in Iraq before leaving the Marines in 2008 as a captain:

When will the haters and fools look themselves in the mirror…?

I know you dodged the draft so it’s hard to appreciate this, but Russia has tried to kill Americans since WWII. That makes Russia what is called, to use a technical military term, our ENEMY. 

From a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee:

Trump again taking the word of Putin that Russia did not interfere. Just weeks after we exposed how Russia paid for digital ads in Rubles…

From a House Democrat on the intelligence and foreign affairs committees:

Trump’s strategy is to let Russia abuse American democracy in order to save Syria, Ukraine, North Korea. What happened to America First? 

From George W. Bush’s former communications director:

GOP is dead. 43: we have a political culture that “emboldens bigotry” – 45 trusts Putin not IC and conservative press defending a pedophile. 

From Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol:

Trump’s foreign policy seems to be less America First than Dictators First. Which was the case with the original America First as well.

Obama’s former chief strategist came across this sign:

View the post here.