President Trump is getting brickbats from all sides for his press conference with Vladimir Putin for not strongly confronting Putin over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election. Trump said he did confront Putin privately and at length, and Putin confirmed that. But Putin denied attempting to interfere in the US election. Trump also is under fire for saying that Putin made an “incredible offer “to have the people working on the case come and work with (Russia’s) investigators with respect to the 12 people” indicted by Robert Mueller. Trump also said he wants to know why the FBI didn’t get to examine the hacked DNC server these indictments are based on.
Trump is getting excoriated for being soft on Russia and criticizing American intelligence agencies, both by fellow Republicans and by Democrats who spent decades mocking anyone who criticized Russia as a Cold War troglodyte. They also used to hail Obama for his “smart diplomacy” in going around the world criticizing and apologizing for America.
Former Obama CIA Director John Brennan has made a reputation for ridiculous tweets, but even he outdid himself by ranting that Trump’s press conference was a “treasonous” offense. This is a man who seemingly was unperturbed by a President giving a sweetheart nuclear deal and a planeload of cash to a country whose parliament was chanting, “Death to America” on a daily basis. The fact that he was actually the head of the CIA sends a bigger chill through me than anything said at Monday’s press conference.
One reporter even set a new world “Dumb Question” record for actually asking Putin if Russia had gathered compromising information on Trump during a visit to Moscow several years ago. Putin denied that, saying he wasn’t even aware that Trump was in Moscow at the time. He also told Chris Wallace of Fox News that back then, Trump was just one of hundreds of business men who visited Russia; he built hotels and ran beauty pageants, and nobody imagined he’d become President or cared that he was there. But what did the reporter in Helsinki expect Putin’s answer to be? “Dah! Did you not hear about the icky videos in the Russian Dossier Hillary paid for?” He’s the former head of the KGB, not a moron.
As for the political and media outrage that Trump praised Putin and didn't attack him to his face, recall that every recent President has started out thinking he could deal with Putin before learning better, and nobody screamed that it was “TREASON!” George W. Bush looked into his eyes and read his soul. Obama kept the blinders on for years, offering Putin “more flexibility” after his reelection, basically turning Syria and Ukraine over to him, and mocking Mitt Romney for living in the ‘80s for warning that Russia was the biggest foreign policy challenge (and the same reporters who are now attacking Trump for his naivety toward Putin gleefully joined in the mockery of Mitt.) I also suspect that the way this issue dominated the media coverage, at a time where there are so many major issues for the US and Russia to address, was a sign of just how successful the timing of the announcement of those indictments was.
Would I prefer that Trump have taken a harder line in confronting Putin? Sure, and I hope he issues a strong clarification and condemnation. But this is his style. We saw it with Kim Jong-Un: he approaches these tyrants with ego-stroking and an open hand in person while maintaining steely opposition elsewhere, through sanctions, military build-ups and other means. It’s part of his deal-making strategy: make it very difficult to oppose him and publicly rewarding to compromise. You can agree or disagree with the style, but he’s the President and that’s his call.
Frankly, I think it’s better than bowing and capitulation. At least Trump always makes it clear that he’s giving foreign rivals the chance to change and cooperate, but if they don’t, the option of force remains on the table. Obama spent eight years dealing with despots like Putin, and left office bowing just as deeply to them as he did when he first came in.