After more than 70 hours, President Donald Trump retracted his openness to handing former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul over to Vladimir Putin’s GRU goons for interrogation. Seventy-plus hours, and only just before the Senate voted 98-0, along bipartisan lines Thursday afternoon, to prevent it.
Had Trump tried to ship McFaul east, he would have been impeached. The storming of the Winter Palace would have been quaint by comparison.
Until just before that Senate vote — as near-impossible as it is to believe — the official position of the Trump administration, reconfirmed Wednesday by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was that it was still considering Putin’s “incredible offer” to swap McFaul for a dozen alleged Russian hackers indicted by the U.S. government for interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The fact that Trump even considered handing a U.S. ambassador over to a hostile foreign power for interrogation should take the breath away of even the most ardent Trump supporters. That would, literally, be the stuff of treason.
I was beginning to grow accustomed to President Trump over the past month or two. His antics and eccentricities were starting to look harmless, amusing even. For the first time I began to feel I was in on the joke.
But in the span of a week, first at the NATO conference in Brussels and then from a podium beside Putin in Helsinki, came the bracing reminder that the job of a U.S. president is stone-cold serious business. What he does and says changes history. What he doesn’t say can move armies.
It’s hard to say what’s more alarming at this point; the idea that Trump is somehow compromised by Russian intelligence, as I continue to fear, or that he has no idea what he’s doing on a world stage that he’s insisting on disassembling anyway, possibly just for fun. A third option, which I floated last June, is that Trump is strategically working to align the U.S. with traditionalist Moscow over the progressive European Union in a long-term play. But that now seems too sophisticated for this president, especially without the daily guidance of his former Rasputin-wanna-be chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
Whatever is driving Trump’s pro-Moscow actions, it’s now impossible to ignore. We’ve got a serious problem on our hands, and so do others.
Baltic nations bordering Russia, including Latvia and Estonia, are in a state of alarm. The very hint of the United States reneging on its commitment to the mutual defense of NATO countries puts them at risk of Russian aggression like that being waged against Ukraine. Trump’s use of the word “obsolete” in describing NATO, before later taking it back, is gasoline on the fire. So is labeling the European Union a “foe,” triggering a German diplomat to suggest publicly that America might potentially have to be seen as an EU “adversary” going forward.
How did we get there, and so fast? Surely there’s a way to demand a better shared cost structure with NATO allies without blowing up the alliance.
It looked in June as if Trump and his blind Republican defenders in Washington were winning. It felt like the Trump administration was finally stabilizing. By mid-July, the whole world feels unstable, more so than at anytime in a generation.
The Trump effect is taking hold. God knows where it leads. We are in new territory, comrades.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.