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.