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Trump made a mess, but it wasn't an accident — and he won't clean it up

Analysis: Critics call the trip a foreign policy disaster. The president sees it as a win.
by Jonathan Allen /  / Updated 
Image:
President Trump touched off a cavalcade of criticism from lawmakers and Republican foreign policy experts for his performance in a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

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AMSTERDAM — The reviews are in: President Donald Trump blew it for the U.S. and its allies.

But there's little chance he'll clean up the mess he made at the joint news conference with Vladimir Putin.

Sure, Trump is taking criticism, even from some loyalists, for cozying up to the Russian leader, choosing not to hold him accountable for Moscow's attacks in its backyard and in the West, including the election meddling in 2016, and generally telling NATO countries to go defend themselves.

No U.S. president ever returned home from a foreign trip having so aggressively departed from the advice of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, and even his own advisers.

But don’t expect Trump to backtrack just because he’s being told, loudly, that he’s acting not just outside American interests but against them.

In his own mind, he didn’t make a mistake. Trump, who called the E.U. a "foe" just before he met with Putin in Helsinki on Monday, is taking the U.S. in a different — explicitly pro-Moscow, anti-European Union — direction.

Expect to hear him brag about how he’s upsetting the world order in the name of nuclear harmony with Russia and superpower hegemony on the campaign trail in coming weeks.

That’s a terrifying thought for most American foreign policy experts, who see Russia as a threat in part because Trump keeps enhancing the perception of Putin’s power.

Trump could have swept into Brussels and fortified the U.S. relationship with NATO. Instead, he pretty much punched American allies in the face.

He could have, unambiguously, propped up British Prime Minister Theresa May with a full-throated endorsement of the "soft" Brexit plan that is roiling her Conservative Party. But he hammered her, too, before relenting upon his departure.

And he could have told Putin that the U.S. won’t do business with him until Russia owns up to its role in the 2016 American election, stops undermining Western democracies and their cybersecurity, and retrenches from his incursions in Ukraine.

He could have shamed Putin on the world stage and put Moscow on its heels.

Instead, Trump drew lines of moral and power equivalency between America and Russia, his own country’s chief historical geopolitical adversary. He did it on foreign soil, standing next to the Russian president. And he enhanced his defense of Moscow by blasting fellow Americans over the investigations into Russian tampering.

From his perspective, the trip was a win.

It served his own interests, from discrediting the Russia probe to fracturing the liberal democratic alliance that has kept peace in Europe since World War II in service of promoting his brand of conservative nationalism abroad.

But his actions have come at the expense of American interests, according to Democrats and many Republicans.

“There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement. “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.”

Put another way, the Republican speaker argued that the Republican president doesn’t understand what he’s doing.

That’s a forgiving interpretation of what the president, who sided with Putin over his own national intelligence director, did to the credibility of his country and its intelligence community.

The less charitable version is that Trump, who fancies himself a disruptor, knew exactly what he was doing — that for one reason or another, be it a desire to destroy the liberal democratic model of the West, a reward for Putin’s help in making him president or pure admiration for the Russian strongman and his nation, Trump wanted to empower Moscow.

Whatever his motivation, Trump touched off a cavalcade of criticism from lawmakers and Republican foreign policy experts.

But there’s no indication that Republicans will take any serious action to rein in a president of their own party.

We’ve been here before.

Trump does something so indefensible that his loyal Republican allies criticize him publicly to distance themselves from the action, and the portion of Americans who don’t consider themselves part of Trump’s base wonder when, if ever, it will permanently cost him GOP support.

Many Republicans who have brooked his behavior in the past leapt to denounce his conduct at his summit-closing press conference with Putin, recognizing that it jeopardizes American security by encouraging Moscow to continue its campaign of information warfare and cyberattacks on the U.S.

Still, much of the outrage has come from longtime Trump critics in the GOP — including Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Bob Corker of Tennessee — and there has been little in the way of an organized push to circumscribe Trump.

This cycle has played out repeatedly in the past, most notably when video of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women surfaced a month before the 2016 election and when Trump said “both sides” were at fault when a rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly last year.

When many of Trump’s Republican allies repudiated him over the “Access Hollywood” tape, his foreign supporters with ties to Moscow — namely, Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks — began releasing stolen emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, to help him out of a hole.

While some Republicans threatened to abandon Trump over the tape, most of them quickly came back into the fold in service of electing their nominee.

GOP discomfort over the Charlottesville remarks died out quickly, overtaken by approval of Trump’s push to confirm conservative judges, slice up Obamacare and cut taxes.

Could this controversy play out differently? Maybe at the margins in the short term — but not in any sustained way that would truly counter Trump’s expressed view that Russian interests and American interests are more aligned than members of Congress and the foreign policy establishment believe.

Dan Coats and Jon Huntsman, his national intelligence director and Russia ambassador, respectively, could resign. They were both publicly humiliated by the Donald-and-Vlad show in Helsinki — so much so that one of Huntsman’s daughters, Fox News host Abby Huntsman, criticized Trump for throwing members of his own administration “under the bus.”

Congress could, as it has before, defy Trump and enact a new round of Russia sanctions.

But these aren’t really deterrents for Trump, who has exhibited no shame in the face of rhetorical and legislative rebukes from Republican lawmakers.

He simply has a different view of American interests than they say they do, and, because they share voters, he can make trouble for them at home if they truly stand in his way.

So the most likely outcome by far is that they’ll say they’re outraged — and maybe at the edges, they’ll counter his Russia policy — but there’s no indication that they will take him to task for elevating Russia and giving Moscow license to continue tampering with American elections.

The summit was a victory for Putin, Corker said.

“I think he gained a tremendous amount. I mean he has been ostracized on the world stage. You know, as many difficulties as Europe is having right now, one thing they've stayed together on is continuing to push back on the rules, the international norms that he broke in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Crimea,” he said. “I would guess he's having caviar right now.”

Trump seems content with that. And there’s little reason to think anyone will force him to change course.

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