We still don’t know what transpired in Donald Trump’s unprecedented, ill-advised, two-hour private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. In the absence of information about the meeting—Putin says the two men reached agreements on nuclear weapons and Syria; Trump reportedly still hasn’t told his foreign-policy or national-security staff what was discussed—we are left to scrutinize photos for clues. Leaving the meeting, in most photos I’ve seen, Putin looked lordly; Trump looked humbled, chastened, miserable. On social media his critics were comparing him to Reek, the tortured, castrated Theon Greyjoy alter ego in Game of Thrones. We saw Trump suck up to Putin unbearably in their joint press conference, accepting his denials of 2016 election interference and entertaining his suggestion that the United States would turn over some former diplomats for Russian questioning.
Maybe, as we scrutinize the photos, we’re looking too hard to find evidence of what many have concluded this week: that Putin has something on Trump. He knows secrets. They may be financial misdeeds; they could involve Russian election subversion in 2016; Russian money-laundering over decades; they may be sexual. Or all of the above. That Trump is compromised would certainly be the most straightforward explanation for his uncharacteristic meekness and subservience to Putin.
This might also have been the week when things began to deteriorate for Trump, when even Republicans begin to reckon with his erratic governance, his inscrutable foreign policy, his corruption, his evasions and his many lies. At the Aspen Security Festival on Thursday, the nation’s elites were treated to the sight of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats bluntly telling MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he thought Trump’s one-on-one with Putin was a bad idea—and that he still had no idea what happened between the two men. While Trump had defied his national security establishment in Helsinki by accepting Putin’s assertion that Russia hadn’t interfered in the 2016 elections (he would later backtrack and ludicrously claim he meant to say “I have no idea why [Russia] wouldn’t meddle,” instead of the shocking claim that he “had no idea why Russia would meddle”), Coats forcefully reasserted that Russia had indeed been behind the DNC hack.
Asked if he’d considered resigning, given his differences with the president, Coats merely said it wasn’t something he’d discuss “publicly,” which sounded like a lot like “yes.” But the capper came when Mitchell shared the breaking news that Trump was preparing to welcome Putin to the White House later this year. “Say that again?” he asked Mitchell, obviously surprised. When she repeated it, he chuckled and said, “That’s gonna be special.” The crowd laughed too, which initially struck me as inappropriate—the gulf between Trump and his national-security staff over Putin isn’t funny. But on second thought, the laughter seemed like the nervous kind that can hit during a funeral, a type of gallows humor. What else is there to do but laugh at the idea Coats was surprised that Putin would be visiting the White House?
If Coats or Secretary Jim Mattis do resign, the departure of trusted Trump officials might encourage others in the GOP to begin to rein in this president. There are some growing signs of alarm within the president’s party. Texas Rep. Will Hurd, a former CIA officer, penned a New York Times op-ed headlined: “Trump Is Being Manipulated by Putin. What Should We Do?” (His assertions were bold although his solutions not so much.) Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who’s retiring, came close to calling Trump’s Helsinki performance treason on the Senate floor, accusing him of “giving aid and comfort to an enemy of democracy.” And the Senate passed a unanimous motion rebuking Trump for even considering turning former Russian ambassador Michael McFaul and others over to Putin for questioning.
And yet, this week brought news of a possible reason why most Republicans are unwilling to scrutinize the president’s Russian relationships. Federal officials charged a Russian gun enthusiast, Maria Butina, with being a spy who cozied up to the GOP through her ties to the National Rifle Association. Investigators are also looking into whether Russian funds flowed through the NRA to Trump and other Republicans. Though the NRA has been a piggy bank for pro-gun Republicans for many years, it dramatically escalated political spending in 2016, contributing $30 million to Trump alone. A few days before Butina’s arrest, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 men affiliated with Russian intelligence for interfering in 2016, from hacking Democratic Party officials’ e-mails and conducting a long social-media campaign to tarnish Hillary Clinton and advance Trump. Tucked in Mueller’s indictment was the news that a GOP congressional candidate approached the Russians seeking hacked material; his or her name was not released. Amazingly, despite the mounting evidence of Russian hacking, House Republicans blocked funding for state election security systems. As Michelle Goldberg wrote in Friday’s New York Times, “Perhaps, rather than covering for Trump, some Republicans are covering for themselves.”
If they wanted to impede Trump, there are many things Republicans could do. The investigative committees they control could subpoena his tax returns, for instance, to see if rumored Russian financial entanglements can be seen there. Any one of the outgoing GOP senators—Flake or Corker in particular—could caucus with Democrats temporarily, to give the opposition party the power to aggressively investigate Trump on multiple fronts. They could block his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on the grounds that somebody with as many legal troubles as Trump should not be appointing a justice who may well weigh in on his fate. (In an unusual development, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott actually blocked a Trump judicial nominee because of his racist writings, the first time a Republican had done so in this presidency.)
Despite a few flickers of independence from Flake, Hurd, and Scott, it’s hard to have faith that Trump’s bad week will herald worse trouble for him with his party (though Mueller is said to be very interested in Trump’s self-abasing performance in Helsinki). So far nothing has damaged his standing with his base; roughly 90 percent of Republicans approve of the job he’s doing. But that could change if Trump starts to seem weak, especially in his dealings with Putin. CNN’s John King took to calling their Helsinki meeting “the surrender summit.” Trump appears to be outplayed by Putin, and if Republicans emphasize that in their criticism—and the fact that he doesn’t seem to be as aggressively looking out for our national interests, at least when it comes to Russia—it might get through to a base that idolizes the boorish New Yorker for his faux alpha-male bluster. That’s if they want to counter Trump at all.