During Donald Trump's campaign for president, he claimed that Barack Obama had weakened the United States and that the world was laughing at us. He promised to make "America strong again” and restore international respect for the nation, something many reasonable Republicans thought was necessary after Obama's failure to successfully conclude the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his inability to contain ISIS and his lack of action in Syria after President Bashar Assad crossed his "red line." Yet, Trump's stunningly disastrous performance in Helsinki on Monday perfectly encapsulates how he has failed to fix anything over the course of his presidency.
Monday’s summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was an utter failure for the United States and its allies but, as Trump tells it, America won because we are “getting along” with Russia now by virtue of forsaking our uniquely American values.
Calling Trump’s claims about relations with Russia ridiculous malarkey is an extraordinary understatement. So, let’s be clear: Vladimir Putin won while America and its allies lost.
The broader, pre-summit context makes that conclusion inescapable. The summit came just four days after 12 Russian intelligence officers in the GRU (the foreign military intelligence agency of the Russian military) were indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for their roles in cyberattacks in the United States to influence the 2016 election. A strong president would have either canceled the meeting or sternly confronted Putin and demanded that the GRU officers be extradited immediately to face justice.
Instead, mere hours before meeting with Putin, Trump signaled he would be as firm as ice cream under a hot summer sun. He chose to attack the United States when he tweeted, “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” The Russian foreign ministry, undoubtedly thrilled by the gift of Trump attacking his own country, retweeted it with the comment, “We agree.”
The summit then sent shockwaves around the world, as Trump's actions undermined not only America and the values for which it stands, but our allies and the American intelligence community too. In the joint press conference, Trump was asked by a reporter, “Would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn [Putin] never to do it again?” He did not answer, but gave a rambling answer that repeated lines promulgated by Russia investigation conspiracy theorists. All that was missing was Trump wearing a tin foil hat (presumably because his misguided tariffs have made them too expensive to make).
The message that Trump sent to the American intelligence community was that he trusts Putin, a former KGB operative who has been hellbent on destabilizing the United States and its NATO allies, over the Americans who put their lives on the line every single day in order to keep our country safe. “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, which elicited a smug grin from Putin. It was a punch in the gut to American intelligence operatives.
Further, the president sent a terrible message to the American people that he does not have our back. It unnerved even some of his more ardent supporters — who are on the cusp of grasping the reality that Trump can both literally and figuratively hug the American flag, but that does not mean he is a champion of America and its values. His record demonstrates a man willing to repeatedly denounce his own country in order to serve his own ego and/or debase himself in order to gain approval from authoritarian thugs. Trump’s Helsinki humiliation made that abundantly clear.
Our allies did not fare much better. A strong president would have confronted Putin on behalf of them — especially the United Kingdom who just last week saw one of their citizens die as the result of contact with the Russian nerve agent Novichok. (It is presumed to be left over from the GRU’s attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy living in England, in March.) The lack of challenge to, and confrontation of, Putin on behalf of our allies only emboldens him, and makes him feel that he can continue to attack them and us with impunity.
Donald Trump is clearly not the strong president he promised his supporters he would be. Instead he is a weak and cowardly one who seems to not believe in American exceptionalism and the greatness of the United States. He launches broadsides against our allies, insults their leaders — including in an interview on Saturday where he called the European Union America’s “foe” — and undercuts their democratically elected leaders at every opportunity. Not only do our allies believe that he is an unreliable partner and chaos president, but they also believe that the president of the United States isn't intellectually their equal.
However, when it comes to tyrants and autocrats, Trump has repeatedly created false moral equivalences between the actions of dictators and the United States. When asked in interviews to condemn the evils in the world perpetrated by brutal regimes, Trump chooses to attack America and its own past. He refuses to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors from both sides of the aisle and hold up the United States as the beacon of freedom and hope that the world knows us to be. Trump seems oblivious to the fact that people throughout the world bleed and die to achieve the very freedoms and values that we have been fortunate enough to be gifted.
These are not the actions of somebody who thinks America is great and believes our values are sacred.
Our allies are being pushed away and left shaken, while our enemies are being emboldened by a president who refuses to stand up for America and see it as the beacon of hope and freedom that oppressed people throughout the world know it to be. The Republican-held Congress can and should act forcefully by showing Trump that his actions are unacceptable. They must stand up to his egregious debasement of America, its institutions and our allies by censuring him. Such a move would be a forceful repudiation of a man whose ego knows no bounds — and a necessary one to show that it is imperative for Trump to do what presidents are supposed to do and stand up for the American values he does not seem to hold dear.
Evan Siegfried is a Republican strategist and commentator and the author of "GOP GPS: How to Find the Millennials and Urban Voters the Republican Party Needs to Survive."