As readers of this column know, I have been generally supportive of President Trump’s policies since his election. I agree with him on reducing America’s tax and regulatory burdens and his push for fairer trade, for more effort from our NATO allies and for stemming the flood of illegal immigration to the U.S.
But even when I agree with him, his hardheadedness can make him tough to take. His performance in Helsinki was a case in point. Not since Franklin Roosevelt’s attendance at the post-World War II Yalta Conference, which ceded all of Eastern Europe to the dictator Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, has an American president come home to more vituperation and questioning about U.S.-Russia relations.
What Trump needed to say to Russian President Vladimir Putin was, “My intelligence agencies tell me your intelligence agencies tried to meddle in the 2016 election, which has built a wall around my presidency and made it harder to work with you when and where we should. So please, Mr. Putin, tear down this wall and stop trying to undermine American democracy. Russians have little to fear from a free America, and much to gain from a freer Russia.”
If the president had said these words, he would have come home a hero, like JFK and Ronald Reagan after their famous Berlin Wall trips. Instead, Trump came home a pariah in his own land, with his enemies crying treason and even his friends crying foul.
Of course Russia tried to meddle in the 2016 election. That’s what intelligence services do, just as the U.S. maneuvered in favor of the pro-U.S. Boris Yeltsin as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and as we did in Ukraine when we helped push out a pro-Russian president who had actually won an election.
Trump’s mistake was triggered by his outsized ego and his fear of acknowledging Russian meddling in 2016, because he wants to believe he won entirely on his own. The reality is, it was Hillary Clinton’s deep flaws as a candidate and her awful campaign that cost her the election, not Russian meddling at the margins. Her campaign couldn’t have been much worse if Putin had run it for her.
In the meantime, the Trump campaign figured out how to precisely target the key swing states that shifted the Electoral College vote to Trump. And he won those states because the U.S. political establishment had lost touch with the hardships of the American heartland. It wasn’t Russia that eviscerated our industrial economy and left millions of Americans out in the cold. Our clueless leaders did it, and they were roundly rejected in 2016. Trump just deftly caught that wave.
And despite the President’s namby-pamby performance in Helsinki, we should remember that the U.S. has stronger sanctions on Russia today than during any previous administration. And let’s also understand that Russia is a second-rate economic power, held back by Putin’s authoritarian regime. If the country ever becomes more democratic, its great people will enjoy greater freedom and prosperity than they do now. Russians must decide to cast off their authoritarian past and their comfortableness with strongmen, and embrace freedom.
In the meantime, Trump should work hard to turn this lemon into lemonade with a new press on Putin. After getting a virtual pass from Trump on U.S. election meddling, Putin owes him some help with defusing tension in Ukraine and the Balkans. Russia could also help with Syria, Iran-sponsored terrorism, Mideast peace and North Korean denuclearization. And we should restart talks to reduce the dangers and burdens of America’s and Russia’s sizable nuclear arsenals.
Here at home, there are legitimate concerns about the size and scope of our intelligence community. U.S. intelligence is bloated, with too many overlapping spy agencies tripping over themselves. Do we really need 16 different agencies, with 800,000 government employees and outside contractors holding secret security clearances? When everybody knows the secrets, are there really any secrets?
Until recently it was the American left that was complaining loudest about the “dark state.” Is the U.S. intelligence community collecting too much information about Americans? It’s a legitimate question. We should also recognize that U.S. intelligence has had some major failures, including in Iraq, where its misinformation created chaos.
And while we’re at it, it’s worth taking a hard look at the West’s post-Soviet policies, which pumped up NATO even as the Russian threat receded, and the turmoil we helped foment in Ukraine that threatened Russia’s only warm-water naval base in Sebastopol. Meddling has consequences for both sides.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.