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The bipartisan backlash

  • Published at 04:33 pm July 28th, 2018
Sending wrong messages?
Sending wrong messages? / REUTERS

Time for some soul-searching for White House officials

The serious bipartisan backlash in Washington has led Trump to claim that he, during his post-summit press conference, misspoke on alleged Russian election meddling during the 2016 US presidential elections. 

He ended up with efforts to reverse his remark. He has now claimed that he accepts US intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election -- despite declining to do so in Helsinki. He has also observed that he had misspoken on July 16, and had meant to say he saw no reason why it was not Russia that meddled. 

This evolving denial emerged after his original response to a question at a news conference following the summit with President Putin. This comment drew a barrage of criticism. 

Both Republican and Democrat politicians in the US, as well as intelligence officials, appear to have been dumbfounded that President Trump sided with Russia over his own intelligence officials during the press conference convened after the summit. 

Some members of the US Congress were also upset that Trump had not only refused to offer specific criticisms of Russia and President Putin, but had instead observed that both countries were responsible for the current poor relations. 

The political firestorm over Trump’s performance at the Helsinki news conference engulfed the US administration and eclipsed most of the other controversies that had erupted at different times during the president’s turbulent first 18 months in office. 

Taking direct issue with the president who appointed him, Director of National Intelligence John McCain, the senior Republican senator, joined the backlash by pointing out that Trump’s seeming acceptance of Putin’s denial was a historical “low point” for the US presidency. Another loyal Trump supporter, Newt Gingrich, mentioned that Trump’s comments were the “most serious mistake of his presidency.” 

House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called Russia’s government “menacing,” also noted that despite the friendly overtures made by Trump, he would consider supporting legislation aimed at additional sanctions on Russia. He also reiterated his support for US intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. 

The language used by Democrats was considerably harsher, including accusations of “treason.” Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer has mentioned that “for the president of the US to side with President Putin against American law enforcement, American defense officials, and American intelligence agencies is thoughtless, dangerous, and weak.” 

Analysts have remarked that this hard line appears to have emerged because, just prior to the summit, the US Department of Justice formally indicted 12 Russians for hacking Democratic Party computers. However, despite all the anger, it is unclear if Republican congressional leaders would eventually support such a move, or what new sanctions might be crafted.

Such a response on arrival in Washington led Trump to seek a way out of the growing criticism. The media subsequently reported that Trump pointed out that he had reviewed the transcript, and realized that he needed to clarify his remarks. 

“In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,” he said. However, he did not respond when reporters asked him if he would condemn Putin.

Anthony Zurcher of the BBC writing from Washington has observed that Trump’s assertion has been “a pretty weak way to confront the head of a nation accused of targetting the heart of American democracy.” Through this explanation, President Trump has given his supporters some leg room to stand on. The damage has, however, been done.  

Stephen Collinson of the CNN has nevertheless commented that: “As long as history remembers Donald Trump, it will be a day that will live in infamy.” 

He has also compared the situation to John Kennedy’s bruising at the hands of Nikita Khrushchev. 

Other analysts have also noted that the events that unfolded in Helsinki are likely to have significant and unpredictable political and geopolitical reverberations in the US and around the world. Many of them are mentioning that Trump has emerged from the summit a diminished figure. 

Many are referring to two different and controversial issues and asking associated questions: Why did Trump cave in so spectacularly to Putin, and what prompted the decision on his part to meet Putin alone for nearly two hours in Helsinki with only interpreters being present?

Collinson has suggested that answers to these two questions might remain cloudy in the near future, unless Special Counsel Robert Mueller finds evidence the president is beholden to the Russian leader in some way or the other. 

Whatever be the reason, according to the European media, this controversy has cast a shadow on the myth of Trump as an American strongman.

This evolving dynamic has also in its own way caused some important European countries to re-visit their analysis of the US’s existential leadership of the world. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has told the Funke newspaper group that: “We can no longer completely rely on the White House.” This means that Europe is becoming increasingly nervous; both in terms of sharing information on security by intelligence agencies as well as contentious aspects related to trade and business. 

Civil society groups on either side of the Atlantic are also getting worried about links. This has led Nicholas Dungan of the Atlantic Council to comment that America’s friends -- French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Merkel, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- need to adopt a dual track approach: “You need two different policies. You need one policy to the individual Donald Trump, because it’s clear that he doesn’t make the distinction between himself and his office. You need another policy toward the US of America.”

This is indeed a strong comment that will reverberate all over the European Union as well as in the Far East and Canada. 

There is also growing anxiety that after the comprehensive outpointing of Trump by Putin, there might be growing feelings in Russia that Trump is weak, and there is no price to be paid for warping US democracy. US intelligence officials are remarking that warning lights are blinking red again ahead of the US midterm elections in November 2018 and the 2020 US presidential election. Consequently, they will monitor carefully how Putin handles Trump’s invitation to visit Washington for the next summit by the end of the year.

White House and state department officials, one is sure, will now be undertaking fresh soul-searching after this latest development. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]