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Trump cowers before Putin

President Donald Trump and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin

President Donald Trump and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin hold a news conference in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday. Credit: Getty Images / Chris McGrath

Make no mistake about the consequences of what President Donald Trump did Monday in Helsinki.

The president of the United States aligned himself with a murderous tyrant who threatens the stability of the world. He failed to defend the United States and its democracy. And he showed himself to be obsequious and weak, at a moment that called for strategic thinking, independence and strength.

In a spectacle as embarrassing as it was disgraceful, Trump stood side-by-side with Russian President Vladimir Putin and attacked fellow Americans — naming critics, the news media and Democrats. He blamed our own nation for its poor relationship with Russia. And as Putin spewed lies at his podium, Trump nodded along.

The lowlight came when Trump was asked about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and whether he believed the American intelligence officials who came to that conclusion, or Putin, who denied involvement.

The president said he has “great confidence” in the U.S. intelligence community but that Putin was “extremely strong and powerful in his denial.” He also said he saw “no reason” why Putin would want to interfere in the election, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Trump even gallingly praised an offer from Putin to have his people work with special counsel Robert Mueller’s staff on the Russia investigation. Putin, who acknowledged wanting Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton, said that, upon proper request from Mueller, his personnel would “interrogate” the 12 Russian military intelligence officers Mueller indicted Friday.

Trump called the offer “incredible,” which is true only in the sense that it is not an offer we could credibly accept.

Putin’s track record

Putin runs an authoritarian regime that pretends it’s a democracy. He has political opponents jailed and killed. He has journalists who report the truth jailed and killed. He used nerve agent to attack a former Russian spy, his daughter, and now apparently two English citizens on British soil. He tries to undermine democracies around the globe. Fomenting division and chaos are the former KGB agent’s stock in trade.

We have come to expect Trump to refuse to speak the truth about many things, but to do so with regard to Putin is particularly disturbing.

Condemnation was swift, bipartisan and global, and rightly so.

Republican Sen. John McCain called it one of the “most disgraceful performances in memory” by a U.S. president. Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford) said it was “wrong” for Trump to deny Russian election interference, that “Putin is a liar,” and that there is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia.

The Helsinki debacle followed a week in which Trump trashed our allies in the European Union and NATO, and undermined British Prime Minister Theresa May. It followed Mueller naming the 12 Russian officers in an indictment stunning in its detail on how they hacked Democratic computers to try to turn the campaign toward Trump. It followed the assessment of Trump’s own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, who equated Russian cyberattacks with the alerts U.S. officials received about possible terror attacks before 9/11, saying, “The warning lights are blinking red again.” On Monday, Coats again defended the assessment of Russian meddling as “unvarnished and objective intelligence” in a statement that appeared not to have been cleared by the White House.

Deferential treatment

Shortly after Trump and Putin finished speaking, U.S. Justice Department national security prosecutors indicted on conspiracy charges a Russian woman acting as an agent of her homeland for using the NRA as a back channel to try to set up secret meetings between Putin and Trump during the campaign.

After the president’s deferential behavior, the view of the world is that Putin owns Trump. And, that the president is ignorant.

After flubbing repeatedly on NATO, Trump said in Helsinki that relations between the United States and Russia have never been worse than they are now — ignoring the Berlin Airlift, the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane over Russia and the Cuban missile crisis. Then he followed with the preposterous boast that all that changed “as of about four hours ago.”

Putin himself delivered a coup de grâce of sorts when he tossed a soccer ball to Trump, ostensibly because America in 2026 will assume the role of World Cup host just played by Russia. Trump accepted the ball, grinning, cementing a humiliating image of them as members of the same team.

Does Trump act this way with Putin because he lacks the depth to negotiate complex issues? Or does Putin indeed have something on Trump, despite the Russian’s smug protestation Monday that it’s “utter nonsense” that he has such compromising material?

The president called the Helsinki meeting the first step “toward a brighter future.” But it really was the latest plunge into a macabre funhouse where reality has no sway and denial is the coin of the realm.

Trump said wrongly that Mueller’s probe is “a disaster for this country.” On the world stage, that role is being played by the president.

Trump embarrassed himself, and the nation.