Itâs almost proverbial to say that every bully is a coward at heart. But thatâs wishful thinking. In politics, many strongmen are like Vladimir Putin, ruthless, cunning and sadistic. As the world witnessed in Helsinki, a posturing blowhard like Donald Trump is simply no match for the Russian dictator.
Faced with a real thug, the trust-fund poser cowered.
Thankfully, Putin is also a bloody-minded realist. Because the disgraceful spectacle of Trump belittling Americaâs NATO allies, lying about it, and then cringing before the Russian dictator might otherwise tempt him to do something reckless. If the U.S. president is weak, the western democracies are still far stronger than Russia. But events are definitely moving in Putinâs direction.
Breaking up NATO and the European Union has been the goal of Russian foreign policy as long as those alliances have existed. Trump has done everything he can to help. If heâs ever done one single thing to make Putin unhappy, itâd be hard to say what it was.
Protesters in London took pains to say they marched not because they dislike America, but because they love it. Trumpâs visit to Britain began with a classic demonstration of his intellectual sloth and dishonesty.
First Trump gave an interview to TheÂ Sunâa London tabloid owned, like Fox News, by Rupert Murdochâtrashing Prime Minister Theresa May as weak and stupid. After that backfired, he praised her leadership and denounced the Sun as âfake news.â The newspaper then published the entire audio recording of its interview with Trump, proving that its original story was completely accurate.Â
In the U.S. Trump followers routinely swallow such lies whole. Remember when candidate Trump mocked a disabled New York Times reporter on national TV, and then denied that it ever happened? Disbelieving the plain evidence of oneâs senses is essential to political cults.Â Â
Brits, however, definitely noticed. Polls there show disapproval of Trump at 77 percent, rivaling even Putin himself, whose operatives are believed to have poisoned English citizens with nerve gas. Many thousands marched in London, Glasgow and elsewhere protesting Trumpâs visit. A balloon float depicting Trump as an angry, diapered toddler was everywhere.
The Washington PostâsÂ invaluable foreign affairs columnist Anne Applebaum worries that âeventually, this dislike may coalesce into a more generalized anti-Americanism.â
Such misgivings are common among Americaâs democratic allies. Most would like to think that Trumpâs presidency is a freakish political accident, but theyâre beginning to wonder. Asked by CBS News to list American foes, Trumpâs first choice was âthe European Union.â
As for the farce in Finland, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) put it succinctly: âTodayâs press conference in #Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trumpâs naivetÃ©, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”
Former CIA director John O. Brennan tweeted: âDonald Trumpâs press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of âhigh crimes & misdemeanors.â It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trumpâs comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???â
Hiding from Trumpâs high poll numbers among the GOP base, is where. Even the normally sycophantic Newt Gingrich, however, said Trump had made âthe most serious mistake of his presidency.â Other Republicans made similarly cautious noises. Alas, itâs safe to say theyâll be back on Team Trump within days. Judging by my emails, Trump supporters remain fiercely resistant to reality.
Asked how he could take the Russian dictatorâs word over his own intelligence director, Dan Coats, Trump said, âI donât see any reason why it would beâ Russia. In short, he hasnât read the actual intelligence assessments. Thatâs probably because he canât. The president appears semi-literate at best, unable to parse detailed evidence. So he falls back on bluffing and play-acting.
And two days later he said he misspoke. Yeah, right. Sure he did.
But why Russia? Why Putin, the head of a gangster state that invades its neighbors, shoots down domestic airliners, murders journalists and political rivals, and assassinates people in foreign countries with radiation and nerve gas?
New Yorkâs MagazineâsJonathan Chait makes an exhaustive and quite plausible case that Trumpâs a kind of Manchurian Candidate whose suspect ties with Russia date back to 1987. Given his vanity, his sexual recklessness, and his greed, it would be surprising if Russian intelligence hadnât compromised him years ago.
Chait: ââRussians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,âÂ saidÂ Donald Jr. in 2008. âWe donât rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia,âÂ boastedÂ Eric Trump in 2014.â
Case closed? Not yet.
But Putinâs clearly got something on Trump. And Trumpâs obviously terrified that Robert Mueller will find it.Â