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Trump squanders an opportunity in Helsinki

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday. / AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais

If nothing else, the Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin news conference at the summit in Helsinki, Finland, undoubtedly qualifies as the strangest moment in Russian-American relations (including the Soviet era). The U.S. president stood next to a foreign leader whose agents have just been indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for conspiring to interfere in our elections — charges that are also backed by U.S. intelligence — and proclaimed that he believes the foreign leader’s denial while berating Democrats and Mueller’s probe.

In the anti-Trump camp, many — including former CIA chief John Brennan — are talking openly of “treason.” (#TreasonSummit has been trending on Twitter.) Even pundits who are usually careful to criticize leftist overreach in anti-Trump rhetoric, and to give Trump credit for what they believe his administration is doing right, are calling Trump’s performance at the news conference “disgraceful,” “indefensible” and “utterly grotesque.”

This extraordinary moment comes on the heels of an extraordinary week. During the NATO summit, Trump repeatedly berated our NATO allies for spending too little on defense. Whatever validity that criticism has was far outweighed by Trump’s hostile and bullying manner, his reported threat to pull out of the alliance, and his baffling mention of a new spending target — gratuitously doubled from 2 percent of the gross domestic product to 4 percent — that even the U.S. doesn’t meet. While Trump eventually signed on to a joint statement reaffirming NATO commitments, speculation that he is deliberately trying to torpedo the alliance had understandably grown louder.

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What is one to think when, after this performance, Trump heads to a meeting with Putin and acts as if he’s fully determined to live down to every caricature that depicts him as “Putin’s puppet”?

One semi-defense of Trump is that it would be absurd to expect him to deliver a harsh rebuke to Putin while standing next to him in front of the cameras. Of course, this argument ignores Trump’s harsh on-camera rebuke to Germany over its dependence on Russian gas at the NATO summit breakfast. What’s more, while Trump didn’t have to be rude to Putin at the news conference, he certainly didn’t have to go out of his way to be accommodating, to deflect every charge against Russia by finding fellow Americans (from Hillary Clinton to FBI agent Peter Strzok) to bash, or to stress that Russia was a “competitor” in a positive sense. Nor did he have to declare that the deterioration of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is the equal responsibility of both countries.

For many Americans, Trump’s performance validates the idea that he is an actual Russian asset — a theory advanced, albeit as speculation, by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine earlier this month. Others, such as Politico contributor and Republican security analyst Tom Nichols, believe that Trump is compromised by his extensive business ties to Russia.

Last week’s indictments issued by special counsel Robert Mueller do not allege active collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian agents who worked to influence the election; but nothing in the document conclusively exonerates the campaign. Indeed, most Mueller-watchers believe the indictment hints at more to come.

Collusion with the Kremlin is certainly not the only way to explain Trump’s actions. It could be simply an ignorant and arrogant view of foreign policy, combined with an affinity toward authoritarian strongmen — and with a narcissism that will not allow Trump to admit his “brilliant victory” in the election could be tarnished.

We don’t know what the Mueller probe will show in the months to come. But we should all be able to agree that Trump has squandered the benefit of the doubt.

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Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.