Donald Trump, that self-described “very stable genius,” delivered a remarkably unhinged performance in his press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their Helsinki summit. Trump used the global stage to savage Democrats and to attack the Mueller investigation
and his own intelligence officials, while once more boasting about his election victory. Putin, clearly pleased to be accorded Trump’s public respect, noted that as “major nuclear powers, we bear special responsibility for maintaining international security.”
Not surprisingly, Trump’s remarks triggered a furious reaction. Former CIA director John Brennan called them “treasonous.” The liberal activist group MoveOn echoed the charge. Republican Senator John McCain called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi suggested that Trump’s behavior “proves” that the Russians “must have something on the president.”
In this toxic atmosphere, it is worth parsing the inane from the sensible in what the president said. Trump’s bizarre comments on Russian interference in the 2016 election made it clear that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation should continue. When asked about that interference, Trump reverted to his standard claim of “no collusion” and indicated that, in a choice between the conclusions of his own intelligence officials (followed up by the recent indictment of 12 Russian military-intelligence officials) and Putin’s denials, he leaned toward the latter.
What is surreal about Trump’s behavior is less his manic defensiveness about the legitimacy of his election victory than his apparent disinterest in defending our elections going forward. With Trump’s own director of national intelligence—conservative former Republican senator Dan Coats—concluding that Russian interference continues to this day, Trump refused to publicly denounce that interference or warn Putin against persisting in it. Foreign powers, corporations, and billionaires may well see this as a green light for increased meddling in US elections.
Worse, the administration and the Republican-controlled Congress have done virtually nothing to bolster free elections or protect them from such meddling. Our digital-age voting systems are vulnerable to hackers based anywhere. The solutions will require a much higher level of security for everything from voter-registration records to the tabulation of ballots with verifiable paper trails. But the greatest threat to our elections comes from hyper-partisan politics: gerrymandering electoral districts, erecting obstacles to registration and voting, purging voter rolls, gutting the Voting Rights Act, and, of course, facilitating the flow of big money—much of it undisclosed—into political campaigns. Under the Republicans, Congress has blocked sensible election-law reform. And right-wing donors and activists continue to push voter-suppression schemes at the state level—schemes that would be given even freer rein if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed as the next Supreme Court justice. Citizens must demand reforms, and hold politicians accountable if they stand in the way.
Trump’s serial lying is infamous—yet just because Trump says something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false. He began the press conference by making the sensible case that it’s better to negotiate than to isolate. “The disagreements between our two countries are well-known, and President Putin and I discussed them at length today,” he said. “But if we’re going to solve many of the problems facing our world, then we are going to have to find ways to cooperate in pursuit of shared interests…. Constructive dialogue between the United States and Russia affords the opportunity to open new pathways toward peace and stability in our world.”
Trump should not be scorned for simply convening a summit. The United States and Russia have a common stake in reducing tensions. Moreover, if the two powers continue to talk and, as Putin summarized the goals, if they manage to restart the arms-reduction talks, revive a working group on international terrorism, work together to forge peace and bring humanitarian relief to Syria, and enforce the Minsk agreements in Ukraine, then important progress will have been made. In any case, Trump is not wrong to say that attempting to reduce the tensions that have been building for years is a “good thing.”
Although he was widely reviled for it, Trump is also not wrong to say that both powers have contributed to the deteriorating relations. Leaders of the US national-security establishment protest our country’s innocence regarding the tensions in Georgia and Ukraine. But it was perhaps the wisest of them, the eminent diplomat George Kennan, who warned in 1998 that the decision to extend NATO to Russia’s borders was a “tragic mistake” that would eventually provoke a hostile response. “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” Kennan said presciently. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies.”
Earlier in July, The Nation released an open letter signed by a score of leading public scholars, activists, and former US officials calling for a “common ground to safeguard common interests,” including both protecting US elections and easing the current state of enmity between the two nuclear superpowers. The independent investigation into Russian interference should continue to its conclusion. Reforming our elections to ensure that they are free and fair is an imperative. And engaging the Russians to reduce tensions and resolve crises is both sensible and long overdue.