Wednesday, July 18, 2018

President Stradivarius in Helsinki

AMONG THE hundreds or thousands of drawings, paintings, sketches and Photoshop illustrations of the man who would be president, Donald Trump, created since he took custody of the Oval Office, there’s one that’s especially memorable.

It’s an image of the president* in a deep and passionate liplock with Vladimir Putin, the maximum leader of the Russian Federation. I first saw it in a mural on a building on Yucca Street in Hollywood, about a year ago, as the relationship between the two was just starting to come to light. It turned up on the side of a barbecue restaurant in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, back in May 2016. There have been any number of sightings since then.

But it almost doesn’t matter how far back it originates. Monday’s events in Helsinki have revealed just how prescient that artist really was.

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In a summit that wasn’t so much a summit as a prom date for autocrats, Trump on Monday effectively renounced the country he presumably leads and accepted the denials of a foreign power over the proven findings of his own intelligence community, in the matter of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The American president* shocked the world and his own nation when he stood next to Putin and took the word of a dictator over his own countrymen.

At a joint news conference after the leaders’ 131-minute closed-door meeting, Trump was asked if he believed his own intelligence agencies or the Russian president when it came to the allegations of meddling in the elections.

“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said during the news conference. “President Putin says it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be.”

“Russia has never interfered in and is not going to interfere in US internal affairs, including the elections," Putin said, backing up the president who backed him up. “If there are any specific materials, if they are presented, we are ready to review them together.”

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TO AN administration for which the words “a new low” are an embodiment of the aspirational, the actions and statements by Trump are, or will be, deeply problematic for people at many levels and stations: for House Trump, whose inmates are desperately hoping to right the ship of state; for a dispirited U.S. intelligence community, now thrown under the bus by the man supposedly driving it; for our global neighbors in NATO, rightly concerned as to WTF is going on with the United States and just as rightly terrified of how it might affect them and the 70-year alliance; and for the American people, less and less sure of what it means to be an American in the face of a president* who apparently couldn’t care less about being an American.

The blowback began immediately.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a reliable Trump cheerleader, put his pompoms down today. “There is no question that Russia interfered in our elections,” he said in a statement, calling on Trump to recognize that Russia “is not our ally.”

“The President must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals,” Ryan said in the statement.

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Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said Trump's comments “made us look like a pushover.” And John Brennan, CIA director under President Obama and a career intelligence officer, called Trump's comments “nothing short of treasonous.” And more.

“Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of 'high crimes & misdemeanors,' ” Brennan tweeted. “Not only were Trump's comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”

Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense and a former head of the CIA, said Monday was “probably the most tragic day in the history of the presidency. Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker and no stranger to hyperbole, called Trump’s remarks “the most serious mistake of his presidency.” On CNN, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum called it “a betrayal of the United States.”

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EVEN “Fox and Friends,” Trump’s amen corner, took issue with his performance. “Nobody’s perfect, especially [after] 10 intensive days of summits, private meetings, and everything on his plate,” said host Brian Kilmeade. “But that moment is the one that’s going to stand out unless he comes out and corrects it.”

Abby Huntsman, a Fox News fixture and daughter of Jon Huntsman, Trump's ambassador to Russia, tweeted: “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.”

John McCain, as resolute a cold warrior and as ardent a patriot as this nation has ever produced, called the Trump Helsinki episode “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

And Ash Carter, former Obama defense secretary, invoked architecture to poetically grasp the gravity of what had just happened in Finland. For him, observing the Trump exercise in national defeatism “was like watching the destruction of a cathedral.”

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You knew something was afoot early; Trump looked off his feed before the press conference even started. You won’t see it in most of the still photographs, nearly all of which were focused on both men standing at their respective podiums.

But in other images and videos of the two men as they walked up before the media, Trump — shoulders slumped, frowning more deeply than usual — looked defeated, whipped, bearing the expression of a man on his way to either get bad news himself or give bad news to someone else.

Or is that the look of a man who knows he's utterly, privately co-opted? Speculation has been around for months: Maybe Putin's Got Something on The Donald. Maybe Trump was just personally reminded of what that leverage is. Whatever. Every picture tells a story. Look at the smirk on the face of Vladimir the Impaler. He may not have a musical bone in his body, but turns out the veteran Russian spymaster plays the American violin pretty well.

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THERE’S BEEN plenty of damage to go around. The injury done to Trump and his biography (assuming that the pedigree of his biography can fall any further) is bad enough. Trump’s performance also has a deleterious impact on the American presidency, its role as a foundational leg of the triad of our governmental system, its power as an inspirational force for positive change.

And whether they admit it or not, Trump’s antics — not just in Helsinki but also in the runup to the event — are having a corrosive effect on those in his inner circle. When Trump threw America’s 17 intelligence agencies under the bus on Monday, it also called into question just how much more of this crap can be tolerated by (among others) White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who took the unusual step of breaking with Trump by issuing a statement effectively refuting the comments of his boss.

What’s their threshold for self-respect? Have they got any? Have they got any left?

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But in an election year like this one, the party most grievously damaged in the short one is the party Donald Trump claims to represent. The Republican Party — heir to the triumphs of Ronald Reagan, still the party’s patron saint — faces a reckoning of its identity.

The aspect of the Republican brand that hews to the trappings and stagecraft of patriotism, an unalloyed and unstinting defense of the United States and its institutions has been damaged in recent weeks, and certainly since Monday. There’s no walking this back. No do-overs. Not while Trump inhabits the Oval Office. The GOP has vacated that high ground, and the party may never get it back.

The Republican Party doesn't stand for what it used to stand for, and that has to be a problem. The GOP can no longer invoke its customary nationalistic platitudes as a shibboleth, a political club to be brandished against the opposition. Those longstanding imagistic Republican benchmarks, those weaponized conservative optics, are no longer valid. They’re null and void. Donald Trump has damaged this core, existential component of Republican identity, the conflation of the fortunes of the party and the nation. And the Republicans have no one to blame but themselves. And Donald Trump.

Image credits: Putin-Trump kiss: numerous sources. Trump-Putin at Helsinki: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters. Traitor in chief protest: via Sky News. Corker: Talking Points Memo. Trump-Putin at Helsinki lower: via The Weekly Standard. Kelly: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

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