Reprinted with permission from Creators.
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side.
—James Russell Lowell, “The Present Crisis,” 1845
Donald Trump faced that moment Monday in Helsinki, meeting privately for more than two hours with Vladimir Putin and taking part in a news conference afterward. He made unmistakably clear which side he takes — and it’s not America’s.
It was a performance that was simultaneously predictable and astonishing. Anyone who has paid attention to Trump’s policies and attitude toward the Russian autocrat saw nothing more than the dismal culmination of his long pattern of accommodation and appeasement.
But it was still hard to imagine beforehand that Trump — even Trump — would conduct himself so obsequiously with Putin while blatantly defying his advisers, the U.S. intelligence community and Republicans in Congress.
Previous presidents considered pre-emptive attacks against our enemies to protect our security. This was the first pre-emptive capitulation, and it erodes our security. Given what we saw Monday, if Trump faced the prospect of impeachment, it would hardly be surprising if he sought political asylum in Russia.
He’s a modern version of Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian politician who urged Hitler to invade and gained his country’s presidency during the Nazi occupation. The term “quisling” soon became a synonym for “traitor.”
But Norway was a small, weak nation confronted with a strong, aggressive one. Trump is the leader of a superpower that has been under cyberattack from a government whose military is not even close to a match for ours. He capitulated not from prudence but from preference. He has the means to oppose Putin. He lacks the will.
The most plausible explanations for his contemptible fawning on a vicious dictator and aggressor are three. The first is that Trump is a gold-plated fool — a narcissist driven by his ego and outraged by the idea that he might owe his election to Putin, who acknowledged Monday that he wanted Trump to win. He may even be suffering from mental illness or dementia.
In this scenario, he is flattered by Putin’s support and naive enough to trust him. At the same time, he has to dismiss evidence that the Russians interfered, deny that he or his campaign collaborated with them, and heap contempt on Hillary Clinton.
The second possibility is that he’s a weak man who is congenitally incapable of standing up to strong ones — particularly if they share his disdain for democratic norms and the rule of law. Trump picks fights with the leaders of Western democracies, such as Germany, Britain and Canada. But he loses his nerve in the presence of the likes of Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
The most disturbing option is that Trump is the conscious, faithful servant of the Kremlin, doing its bidding at whatever cost to our national interests. Why would he betray his country?
Maybe Putin has scandalous information or material that could destroy Trump’s presidency. Maybe he has bought Trump off — which could explain his refusal to release his tax returns. Maybe Trump has huge debts to Russian oligarchs and fears they will expose crimes he has committed, bankrupt him or even harm members of his family unless he does the Kremlin’s bidding.
Motives like these would explain his strange insistence on meeting with Putin one-on-one — to keep those around him from knowing the extent of his desire to please the Russians. It would account for the craven public submission to Putin at their news conference. It would explain why over and over, he diverges radically from his advisers and congressional Republicans on matters involving Russia.
But whatever Trump’s motives, he has made his choice clear. That leaves Defense Secretary James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others with the choice of doing all they can to resist the bizarre and destructive policies he is pursuing — or being shamefully complicit in them.
The same grim choice faces the GOP leadership and rank-and-file on Capitol Hill. None of them is helpless. But are they finally ready to say, “Enough”?
Trump willingly humiliated himself in Helsinki. If others in the administration and Congress choose to swallow this disgrace, they can be sure it will not be the last — and maybe not even the worst.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.