There are three parts to my headline. (1) Trump is unfit for office - any office. (2) By his actions in the Helsinki Summit, and many before that, he provides aid and comfort to another country. (3) That other country, Russia, by its actions, is at least an adversary and quite probably qualifies as our enemy.
Some will now, and some have already, called Trump’s performance in Helsinki as “treason”. Lawyers already are splitting legal hairs about the applicability of that term. (See, for example, this analysis in the Washington Post.) Legal wrangling will just get in the way of resolving the most important question. What hold does Russia and Putin have on Trump? What could have motivated such slimy behavior on the part of the President (the President of the United States of America, for God’s sake)? What could have led Trump to such abasement, such obeisance , such bootlicking before a foreign dictator?
Another line of questions need to be explored. It seems that every new transgression by Trump merits consideration as “the bottom” - as in “have we hit bottom yet?” More specifically, what would it take to line up the Republicans in congress in taking action against Trump? How can they, all of us really, rationalize not taking action? Do they think that Russia is our friend? That we as a nation deserve such treatment as is specified in the Mueller indictments? And if this is acceptable and not yet at bottom, then imagine, please, what would “bottom” look like. That vision bodes ill for our nation.
How Helsinki stunk
In disastrous press conference, Trump defended Putin, blasted Americans is a good summary by Steve Benen (MSNBC/MaddowBlog) of what went down in Helsinki. Here are highlights.
- Putin, standing alongside Trump, insisted Russia never interfered in U.S. elections. This faced no pushback whatsoever from the American president.
- Asked specifically if he believes American intelligence professionals or Putin, Trump gave every indication that he considers the latter more credible – Trump praised Putin’s “strong and powerful” denial, effectively endorsing the Russian leader’s line – before whining for quite a while about Hillary Clinton emails. (Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was mentioned by name as someone whose judgment Trump chooses not to fully believe. The appropriate move would be for Coats to resign today.)
- Despite the Republican line that Russia simply wanted to create division and chaos in 2016, Putin conceded today that he wanted Trump to win.
- At no point did Trump condemn Russian election interference – apparently because Trump doesn’t really believe there was any Russian election interference.
Historians can speak to this with more authority, but this may have been the worst performance on an international stage for any American president, ever. Trump traveled to Finland, defended an American adversary, took cheap shots at Americans, and rejected the judgment of American intelligence professionals. I felt like I was watching our president launch an assault on his own office, siding against his own country, for reasons the White House will struggle to defend.
And this was Trump’s public performance. It’s worth taking a moment to consider what, exactly, Trump told his Russian benefactor in private.
Former CIA Director John Brennan wrote on Twitter, “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you?”
That need not be a rhetorical question.
John Shattuck in the Boston Globe asks Is Donald Trump committing treason?
Following the 2016 presidential election, a specter of treason was hovering over Donald Trump because of his response to the mounting evidence that the Russians had intervened to help elect him.
As the president-elect entered the White House, he summarily rejected the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russia had engaged in cyberwarfare against the US elections. He worked to block investigations into Russia’s actions. Trump advisers and associates had extensive political and business dealings with the Russian government before and during the 2016 presidential campaign. While there has not been any direct evidence that the president-elect was involved in the Russian government’s actions, circumstances suggested that individuals or groups close to the president could have aided or known about the Russian meddling.
According to the law, the federal crime of treason is committed by a person “owing allegiance to the United States who … adheres to their enemies, giving them aid or comfort.” Misprision (abetting) of treason is committed if a person “having knowledge of the commission of treason conceals and does not disclose” the crime.
Today the evidence of Russian cyberattacks against the US democratic process is overwhelming. On July 13, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a Trump appointee and former Republican senator, stated that “the warning lights are blinking red again,” as they were before the 9/11 attacks, and that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.” This high-level warning came on the same day Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that 12 Russian agents had been indicted for hacking Democratic officials in the 2016 elections by a federal grand jury convened by special counsel Robert Mueller. The Russian attacks began the day after Trump had openly encouraged Russia to hack the e-mails of his opponent.
In response to the indictments of Russian agents last week, Trump declined to condemn the cyberattacks, nor did he indicate that he would to defend the country against them. Instead, the White House claimed that the Russian indictments exonerated the president because no Americans were accused of collusion. In the special counsel’s probe, however, four Trump campaign officials have already been charged with criminal conduct relating to the Russian cyberoffensive.
Before his meeting Monday with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Trump remarkably blamed his own country for the poor state of US-Russia relations, repeating his mantra that the Mueller investigation is a “rigged witch hunt.” Trump’s pre-summit comments implied that he would not use the tools of diplomacy, law, or military technology to defend the United States against continuing Russian cyberattacks. If true, this would be tantamount to giving aid and comfort to an enemy.
… it’s worthwhile to try to improve relations with an adversary. True enough, but not at the expense of US national security. The president’s hostility to the US investigation of Russian cyberattacks, his failure to impose a cost on Russia for the attacks, his denigration of US alliances, and his eagerness to have “an extraordinary relationship” with the Russian leader all point toward giving aid and comfort to an enemy.
In Some Dare Call It Treason Politico.com has a listing of many who agree, saying that “Trump’s bizarre summit with Putin has his critics reaching for new epithets.”
Trump’s coddling of Putin prompted Trump criticism to reach a fresh threshold, as the press and politicians started flinging a new, shocking descriptor that burns like acid when it lands: In their new stinging formulation, Trump isn’t just a lout or a loon, a firebrand or an opportunist, he’s a traitor.
New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow was among the first to apply the “T” word to the president in a prescient Monday piece titled “Trump, Treasonous Traitor,” which appeared just hours before the presser. “It was nothing short of treasonous,” former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted of Trump’s press conference performance. “I’m so sorry the Commander-in-chief is a traitor,” tweeted Michael Moore, agreeing with Brennan for the first time ever. Tea Party stalwart Joe Walsh said the same. “Trump the Traitor,” read the headline on Boston Globe columnist Michael A. Cohen’s Monday afternoon piece. He concluded, “Trump is a clear and present danger to US national security.”
Other voices from both parties concurred without actually using the T-word. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called Trump’s kowtowing to Putin “shameful.” In a statement, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Trump had “abased himself … abjectly before a tyrant.” “Disgraceful,” wrote Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Shameful,” wrote Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). “Indefensible,” wrote former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. “Useful idiot,” wrote journalist David Corn. “Disgraceful,” reiterated CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. “Dangerous and reckless,” wrote Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). “Donald Trump is either an asset of Russian intelligence or really enjoys playing one on TV,” wrote New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. American academic and diplomat Eliot A. Cohen added this on Twitter, “The word treason is so strong that we must use it carefully. But that press conference has brought the President of the United States right up to that dark, dark shore.”
Trump’s obeisance to Putin at Helsinki was easy to predict given his earlier refusals to call the Russians out and punish them. But were we ready to see him come this close to violating his oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution? Watching him grovel and defer to Putin revealed Trump as a coward and weakling, an excuse-maker and an apologizer, and as someone unfit to hold the office of president. “If this is what President Trump says publicly, what did he tell Putin privately?” asked Sen. Mark Warner.
For months now, Trump has denounced the press as an “enemy of the people.” He said it again in a tweet on the day before his Putin meeting, expanding his enemy list to include “all the Dems.” Having deceitfully placed the phrase “enemy of the people” into currency, it’s only right that it has boomeranged on him.
Newsweek asks “Did Trump Commit Treason at Putin Meeting?” and answers with Here’s What Lawyers Say.
There are many things you can accuse President Donald Trump of. And treason is now apparently one of those after his controversial press conference with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at their summit in Helsinki, Finland. But do lawyers agree?
According to federal law on treason, 18 U.S. Code § 2381: “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”
And in Article III of the U.S. Constitution, it says: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”
Laurence H. Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor and a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, told Newsweek: "If one defines ‘war’ to include cyberwar—e.g. by deliberately hacking into a nation’s computer-based election infrastructure—then what we witnessed in Helsinki was President Trump openly aiding and abetting the Russian military’s ongoing war against America rather than protecting against that Putin-led cyber-invasion.
"That in turn could reasonably be defined as ‘treason’ within the meaning of 18 USC 2381 and Art. III of the US Constitution.
But Ross Garber, a lawyer and adjunct professor at Tulane Law School, who has represented state governors in impeachment trials, does not believe the constitution can be stretched or interpreted to regard Russia as an enemy against which the U.S. is at war.
“No matter how repugnant one might consider the president’s statements in Helsinki, they do not meet the constitutional definition of ‘treason,’ which is very narrow and addresses providing aid to an ‘enemy,’” Garber told Newsweek. “Russia is not technically an enemy because we are not at war with it. These matters are far too important to allow partisan aims to diminish serious constitutional analysis.”
I’ll let John Cassidy of the New Yorker sum up in Donald Trump’s Disastrous Trip to Europe. What are our allies thinking about Trump?
… From one perspective, Trump didn’t do or say anything very novel. We already knew that he admires Putin and wants warmer relations with Russia. We also knew that he rejects the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies that Putin’s regime interfered in the 2016 election. We knew that he’s still obsessed with Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and the special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. What was shocking was Trump’s willingness to reaffirm these things in full view of the world, with Putin at his side. Some of his longtime enablers in the G.O.P., such as the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, and Senator Tom Cotton, were moved to distance themselves from him as he flew home to Washington. But much of the rest of the world saw Trump’s performance on Monday as further confirmation of something they figured out a while ago: the White House is occupied by a determined international wrecker, a person who may have hidden obligations to Moscow.
America’s allies will be monitoring what happens in Washington over the next few days, and whether there is any real pushback against the President. They will also be looking out for any resignations among the members of Trump’s national-security team. To many Europeans, the continued presence at the Pentagon of James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, who is a staunch supporter of nato, has been somewhat reassuring.
But even if Mattis stays on, other countries will step up their efforts to defend their own interests. Initially, their efforts will focus on economics. Eventually, if Trump’s policies are sustained, there will be military implications, too. In most parts of Europe, there is still a lot of good will toward the United States as a country. But, remarkable as the idea would have sounded a few years ago, many Europeans now regard the American President as a serious threat. After the events of the past week, can you blame them?
And that suits Vladimir Putin just fine.