The summit in Helsinki between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first act in a piece of absurdist theater that has confounded the nation ever since.
The latest scenes ended Thursday with another cliffhanger that had Trump’s inner circle gasping: Putin summit redux. This came after press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had said the White House was “considering” a Putin proposal to let Russia “question” some Americans, including our former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, a harsh Putin critic. The ensuing protest was justified, and so fierce and bipartisan that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly called a roll-call vote to rebuke Trump for his deference to Putin. With minutes to spare, the White House announced that Putin’s offer had been rejected.
Credit the Senate for finally finding a spine and forcing Trump’s hand in a cat-and-mouse game; it voted 98-0 to dismiss the offer. But the GOP-controlled chamber has been derelict in its oversight, refusing to vote to support the intelligence agencies’ conclusion on Russian election meddling or to back special counsel Robert Mueller.
As for Trump, the White House statement was absurd. Saying he “disagrees” with Putin’s proposal — instead of “strongly condemns it” — was weak tea. Nor could he help but praise Putin, saying the proposal “was made in sincerity.” Does anyone think Putin is sincere?
That Trump didn’t say no to Putin in Helsinki is troubling. That the White House did not immediately reject the offer once it came to light — an offer Trump labeled “incredible” — is unfathomable. That he would think that turning over a diplomat to Russia could ever be possible shows his ignorance and the degree of his submission to Putin, and underscores that he should not hold such meetings alone. Top administration officials can’t even explain the “useful agreements” Russian officials claim Trump made with Putin. Now to double down on his critics, Trump plans to invite Putin to Washington, news that director of national intelligence Dan Coats learned from a TV host during a live broadcast.
These are scary times. The president ignores or fails to seek advice, and undermines the nation. The White House tries to clean up the messes he makes, but can’t. Dark days lie ahead.