What the heck is happening?
President Trump, standing alongside Vladimir Putin, seemed to reject the contention that Russia was attempting to influence American elections. A day later, he changed his comments, claiming he accepts the conclusion that Russia tried to do so.
Meanwhile, in an exercise of hyperbole run amok, some on the left accused him of treason. For a press conference. Seriously. Trump was accused of committing the only crime specifically mentioned in the Constitution, defined as “adhering to” the enemies of the United States, “giving them Aid and Comfort.”
For a press conference.
Everyone needs to take a deep breath. The president’s comments were wrong and wrong headed, but not treasonous.
President Bush famously said he “was able to get a sense of [Putin’s] soul.” President Obama told Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked presidential placeholder, “After my election I have more flexibility” to negotiate deals with Russia.
Several months later, Obama met Mitt Romney with snark when the latter suggested Russia was one of our top geopolitical foes. President Obama quipped, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
“Fixing” our Russian relationship was a goal of the Obama administration. Hillary Clinton offered a poorly executed “reset” stunt after becoming secretary of state. Riffing on the Staples “easy button,” she gave her Russian counterpart what she thought was a “reset” button. While seemingly custom-made to impress late night talk show hosts, the actual “button” prop read “overcharged” in Cyrillic, not “reset.”
The simple fact is, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has had a complicated relationship with Russia. After 9/11, the Russian government built a memorial in New Jersey to commemorate the fallen towers and lives lost. In 2009, to support the war in Afghanistan, Russia let NATO use its transport corridors to provide logistics to combat and training troops. This continues today.
On the other hand, Putin invaded the nation of Georgia in 2008. Two regions remain under Russian control today. In 2014, “unknown” actors attacked the Ukraine, resulting in the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The Russians’ support of the Syrian regime has led to numerous gruesome civilian deaths by chemical munitions, not to mention apparent assassinations carried out beyond their borders.
International politics are complex. Nations try to intimidate, beg, and cajole each other; sometimes, that includes reaching into the population in democratic countries to try and bring “grassroots” pressure to bear on leaders.
This can happen overtly, such as when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to endorse Mitt Romney in 2012 or when Putin expressed a preference for Obama in the same year. Or four years later, when President Obama pled with Britons to reject Brexit.
Or it can be surreptitious, as Russia apparently attempted in our 2016 election. Whether their efforts changed the outcome, we will probably never know. While the pollsters whiffed in their predictions, economic metrics — devoid of passion or party — pointed to a Trump win. Would that have happened regardless of Russia?
That brings us back to the president. Regardless of any external events, he won the election under the process ordained by the Constitution. It is incumbent upon him to conduct foreign policy on behalf of our nation to the best of his ability. To the extent he goes off course, the checks-and-balance inherent in our system will have to serve their role.
He’s unorthodox, to say the least. But maybe he can make headway with Russia where Hillary Clinton’s “reset” failed. Maybe he can reach rapprochement with North Korea, where decades of American diplomacy have come up short. And just maybe his seemingly erratic behavior can shock our European allies into reasserting themselves and living up to their part of the NATO bargain.
Time will tell whether his approach is mad as a hatter or crazy like a fox. But whatever it is, it is not treasonous. At least not for holding a press conference.