One of the great selling points for pro-Trump conservatives during the campaign was that Trump would be constrained by wise, prudent advisors who would put guardrails around the president. Mike Pence, Ben Carson, John Kelly, James Mattis, and others would all push Trump toward better outcomes and they would make up for his historic lack of experience.
This system has worked where judicial appointments are concerned. Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society have been given wide latitude to put potential nominees in front of Trump and the President has stuck to the choices in front of him. This is the best case scenario for Trump. He knows little to nothing about the law and the judicial branch, so he farms out the task to others and sticks to the script.
When it comes to Russia and Putin, Trump has chosen, it seems, to ignore his advisors, shrug off days of preparation, and make a “game-time” decision to flatter Putin and try to make a deal. According to reports this morning, Trump did all those things and more as he departed from a tough line on Russia and Putin, which was urged on him by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Instead, Trump not only went soft, he used the opportunity to nurse his personal grudge against the Mueller investigation and undermine American intelligence agencies that have uniformly agreed that Russia sought to influence our elections in 2016.
The question for me is simple. Why slavishly adhere to advice in the one case but not the other? There are lots of possible answers. Presidents oversee vast realms of policy and they all have limited knowledge and time. Presidents must focus on some areas personally and delegate most others. Trump has decided that on Russia, he knows best. In brief, I think Trump views judicial appointments as procedural and as political payoff to conservatives. He is shrewd enough to know the potential costs associated with forging his own path with judges. Russia, though, is a different matter altogether. For Trump, Russia and Putin are personal matters.
The alarmists will use the Helsinki Summit as evidence of an untoward relationship between Trump and Putin. Either Putin has the goods on Trump or they are working in concert for some unknown end. There is no direct evidence of this. Anything resembling evidence is limited to a shady dossier with connections to Trump’s domestic political opponents. The better argument, I think, is that Trump respects or admires Vladimir Putin. He sees him as a “winner” like himself, someone who has achieved great things in the face of sizable obstacles. Putin is powerful, wealthy, and in control. Trump admires these traits and therefore hesitates to criticize Putin. We saw this first in his campaign and it has stretched into his administration. In short, Trump values power and wealth as he interacts with foreign leaders more than liberal democratic norms. I am not sure how else to square his affinity for Putin with his seeming contempt for Trudeau, Merkel, May, and Macron.
Connect this to Trump’s near obsession with the 2016 election. He believes, because of his self-image, that he MUST be responsible for the victory. If any other piece of evidence comes up to suggest other factors were at play, Trump dismisses them out of hand. This explains why he is either unwilling or unable to see the difference between a collusion investigation and a meddling charge. Russia could have meddled in the election (and the evidence is overwhelming that it did) without colluding with the Trump campaign. Trump refuses to acknowledge the meddling because it raises the potential of collusion, but meddling also suggests an external force shaped the campaign. This Trump cannot abide.
I think, though I am speculating, Trump sees our foreign policy with Russia in excessively personal terms. Instead of viewing Russia as an implacable foe that operates outside the boundaries of civilized nations and contrary to democratic values, Trump sees an image of himself and the specter of an illegitimate 2016 campaign.
I was a guest yesterday evening on Mark Elfstrand’s radio program on WYLL in Chicago. We were discussing the Helsinki Summit and the sometimes unhinged reaction to it. Former CIA Director John Brennan, for example, claimed Trump’s actions rose to an impeachable offense. I laughed for two reasons. First, Brennan is not the most credible witness against Trump. Second, I don’t think, viewed in narrow terms, Trump’s rhetoric at a press conference invites impeachment. In fact, in some areas the Trump Administration has pushed against Russia (in Syria, or by pressuring NATO allies to spend more on defense). If there was a clear picture that in policy and in rhetoric Trump was unable to represent American interests in our relationship with Russia, I would favor impeachment, for it would be a perfectly reasonable political remedy to a serious political problem.
I am not quite there, but yesterday’s summit pushed me closer. Trump’s supporters will tout his policies while his detractors will highlight his rhetoric and his obsequious demeanor in Putin’s presence. I think, in his heart, Trump believes he is advocating America’s interests, but with Russia he seems closer to advocating his own interests. If either firm evidence of collusion comes forward, or the Trump Administration’s policy bends toward an appeasement of Russia, impeachment would be justified.*
*Of course, a severe Trump critic might argue that destabilizing NATO is evidence of administration policy favorable to Russia. Such critics may be correct, but I think Trump could plausibly argue he has other motivations at work in his interactions with some of our allies. Trump’s focus on “fair trade” surely colors some of those relationships. Still, if we see a continued pattern of deliberate tension with NATO allies, we may have to reconsider this argument.