It’s been two days since the majestic belly flop that was Trump getting his head stuck up comrade Putin’s behind, and the late night shows are all over it to provide us with some much needed mental health checks. We’ve had a chance to take a breath and calm down. We’ve had a chance to read a couple articles about what it all means. We’ve even had a chance to feel a bit better that even Republicans are denouncing Trump’s statements.
Former CIA Director John O Brennan tweeted, “Donald Trump’s press conference in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecile, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”
Almost as if in response Rep Senator John McCain said, “Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer followed up with, “His behavior is so inexplicable and so against the interests of the United States, so against what all of his advisors would tell him that Americans are scratching their head and saying, if that’s not the explanation, that Putin has something on him, then what is it?”
If you’re looking for a giggle and a heavy sigh, I recommend New York Times’ piece on the Republican response featuring 17 Republican statements of dissent, 1 of support, and 32 who sidestepped qualifying Trumps actions in Helsinki at all.
Yes Trump himself has even attempted to salvage the situation with a questionable debate on the use of the word “would” versus “wouldn’t”, and the director of National Intelligence (and current employee under Trump) has issued one of the most impressively tongue in cheek assurances I can recall:
“The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers. We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
But before we go back to chuckling the whole affair off, it’s worth looking at the truth behind Coates’ last sentence. The “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy” bit in particular.
So far, we’ve seen 12 Russian agents go down in the Mueller investigation and I’d hazard they are far from the last ones we’ll be seeing. But the truth of the matter is still:
It’s depressingly easy to influence the American populace with rumors and misinformation
The 12 agents were indicted more than half a year after the damage had been done
And like most crimes even when justice is served, we will always be at least 2 steps behind the offenders as they find new ways to exploit social media, technology, and social institutions to achieve their ends.
We must admit, that the FBI will not be able to police the web forums, news channels, and campaign machinery to prevent counter-democratic influence. Our very democratic process is designed so that the common people can influence major policies and decisions at home and abroad. If YouTube is now unintentionally sowing the seed for misinformation and bias, what does it take for one of the most powerful forces in the world and the ancestors of one of the top intelligence bodies in history to do one better? (Psst, Russia – I’m talking about Russia)
To know what we're up against, let’s look a bit closer at the evidence Trump provided us with on Monday. If you’re interested, the entire transcript of the summit press conference is available.
Trump and Putin both spoke about cooperation in Syria in general and in countering terrorism around the world. They both spoke of mutual respect and reconciliation over the bad blood of recent months. But judging by the questions asked and spontaneously volunteered statements from both Trump and Putin, the major subject under discussion was Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Trump denied it, Putin denied it (several times each), which by itself is eyebrow raising. But the jaw droppers came again and again when Reporters continued to give Trump chances to denounce Russia’s actions. Trump use his favorite word “both” again when he held “both countries responsible” not for interference in any election but for not opening this dialogue sooner. Putin at least acknowledged that “you can trust no one” before offering to volunteer his resources to start moving the investigation into [Russia] which I’m sure wouldn’t impede the integrity of the investigation at all (Did I say “wouldn’t”? What I meant to say was “would”). He later went on to openly admit to directing his officials to help Trump win.
But even with the slowest of softballs lobbed to Trump led with “Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did (have something to do with the election interference in 2016)” before asking “Who do you believe?” Trump repeatedly emphasized Putin’s denial of the accusation before dropping his infamous “W” bomb – “My people came to me, Dan Coats, came to me and some others they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Despite slapping an “n’t” on that baby later on, the statement seems pretty definitive either way, wouldn’t you say? I would.
Later it seemed the reporters were playing a game of Warmer or Colder as they asked about whether Trump had made any assurances about Crimea being recognized as a part of Russia and even whether Putin had anything on Trump to guarantee his acquiescence. Perhaps there’s something to be read into this, and perhaps not.
But the part that disturbed me most was when Putin offered the Trump the World Cup Football with the out of context comment,” I’ll give this ball to you. And now the ball is in your court.”
If this was a Crichton novel or a Bond flick, I’d be inclined to criticize the writing. They’re making the villains too stereo-typically evil. That’s not what reality actually looks like is it? Well… I suppose here we are.
Now there remain several important unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions about Helsinki. First and foremost,
1) What did the two presidents discuss behind closed doors? We have their words on the issue (not that presidents have ever lied), but even if we accept their depiction of their conversation.
2) Why would they need to meet in private with only their interpreters for company anyways? They have offered no explanation for their need for privacy and it cannot be missed that it looks damned suspicious to the rest of the world. Last…
3) What agreements were made as a result of this meeting. We again have assurances of economic and military cooperation in reigning in a new era of peace and prosperity – something Trump and Putin are known for caring deeply about… But what else? Surely we’re not expected to believe that there was absolutely no other little quid quo pro that didn’t make it to the press conference.
“Now the ball is in your court,” Putin insists smugly. Trump is undeniably in a precarious situation. On the one hand, he has all of his intelligence officials insisting that the Russians were at least partly responsible for Trump’s win, and just recently he was forced to sort of kind of admit it with his “wouldn’t”. But on the other hand, Trump’s “toxic and malignant narcissism” (USA Today’s words, not mine) requires that he claim absolute responsibility for his electoral victory (which he does at every opportunity including during the Helsinki press conference in question) while inexplicably defending a man his officials repeatedly implore him to denounce. On the one hand, he has the American people and his own cabinet and on the other his vanity and secret self interests… Yeah, on second thought maybe it’s not such a hard decision for him. I have many feelings for Trump these days, but high hopes are not among them.
So where are we now? We have the president of Russia telling Trump on international television “the ball is in your hands,” every intelligence agency within the USA saying that the Russians did and will continue to interfere with the American electoral system. Regardless of what tragic decisions Trump might make about Crimea (Putin did say in his opening remarks that the US could be more decisive in nudging Ukrainian leadership) or pulling his military out of the East Asian “War Games” (As Trump himself admitted to doing after Putin, not Kim suggested it), we have a very real and present electoral crisis on our hands and I’m sorry, the best the FBI could do is offer up 12 agents 10 months too late.
When the “Leader of the Free World” can call take-backsies on even the most egregious of fronts to our Democratic institutions, when one of the most feared autocrats in the world can grab Trump’s ball and hand it to him, when clandestine meetings missing only an evil looking hairless cat and go on unquestioned – we have to, at last, figure out how to take back our Democracy ourselves.
You might not think it from this article, but I’m an optimist. I believe that although our Founding Father’s wrote the whole thing up hundreds of years ago before going back to their slaves and housewives, we have in our possession one of the last best shots at preserving the will of the people. I love to quote Winston Churchill when he said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” I believe that.
But we as a society are in a place we could never have dreamed we’d be in. We have at our disposal the largest collection of information ever compiled in history and it’s all for free (relatively). My favorite video on the subject shows just what can happen when we do and don’t take a moment to check our privilege afforded by this pool of information. The cliff notes version for the 1 minute 33 second video – it’s better if we fact check.
We know this. But if you had to make a guess right now, about how many people in our country actually stop to fact check when they encounter surprising information, what would it be? What would that number shrink to when considering those who fact check information they don’t find surprising? Best yet, how many new pieces of information have you yourself absorbed this week without the most recursive Google search to back it up?
Don’t be ashamed – we’re human. Implicit bias is real like Global Climate Change, Campaign Finance Corruption, and Russian Collusion in American elections. It’s the challenge of this the first generation to grow up in the information age, to come to grips with our own information responsibility. We have the ability to cast votes which will place “would” debating, mentally ill individuals into the White House and thereafter into President Putin’s pockets. We have the ability to cast votes to remove him as well. We can push for the abolition of obsolete institutions like ICE and the Electoral College, or we can vote for the person who’s voice doesn’t sound quite so shrill. We have the ability to reclaim Congress, the White House, and even the Supreme Court in the name of constitution loving Americans everywhere, as well as the ability to sit on our asses and do nothing.
President Trump chose his side loudly and proudly this Monday. Won’t you choose yours this November?