President Joe Biden is not very good at his job, and yet, I thank God every day that Biden is president. In the Ukraine crisis, he has redeemed the hopes of those who voted for competence. The administration’s warnings to Moscow were unambiguous without being hysterical. Our revelations of intelligence unmasking Russian disinformation and false flag narratives were on the nose. Biden’s coordination with European allies was a skillful presentation of unity (special kudos to Secretary of State Antony Blinken).
There were some missed opportunities. The president should have placed the invasion of Ukraine in a broader historical context and outlined how the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is the defining issue of our time, whether abroad or at home. And he ought not to suggest or pretend that Americans can be spared any hardship, even higher gas prices, during this fight.
But Biden sees clearly what sort of menace Russian President Vladimir Putin is. Only the most obtuse or twisted soul could fail to see it … which brings us to the president’s predecessor.
A quick refresher on former President Donald Trump’s relations with Putin and Ukraine leaves little doubt that far from deterring Putin, he was Putin’s most reliable “useful idiot.”
Trump wasn’t the first president to go soft on Putin, of course. Barack “Tell Vladimir I’ll have more flexibility after the election” Obama plowed that ground very well. But at least Obama knew what he was doing. He chose diffidence and called it wisdom. Trump was a dupe and a dope, a walking refutation of the adage “you can’t kid a kidder.”
At Trump’s first meeting with Putin, he accepted the Russian’s denials of election interference and announced the creation of “an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.” The plan to let the fox guard the henhouse was dropped after GOP senators exploded.
Trump demanded that the translators take no notes at their meetings, but it is clear from the public record that Trump often repeated Putin’s talking points.
At the Helsinki summit, Trump infamously endorsed Putin’s version of the election interference story over that of America’s own intelligence agencies. Later, speaking to Tucker Carlson, Trump revealed the other ways Putin had been poisoning his mind, planting ideas about NATO countries. “Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. … They are very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you are in World War III.” Who believes that Trump had ever heard of Montenegro, far less formed views about their supposed aggressiveness, before that meeting?
Trump got other ideas from his conversations with Putin and dutifully lobbied our major trading partners in the G7 to invite Russia back into the fold. They declined.
In 2019, defending his decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, Trump offered this little potted history about Russia’s engagement with that country: “(T)he reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.”
As with the other Putin nuggets he regurgitated, Trump said this with perfect ingenuousness.
Throughout his presidency, Trump hinted and blustered about withdrawing from NATO, which would fulfill Putin’s dearest wish. When his aides objected that this might be harmful politically, Trump conceded the point, as Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker report, saying “Yeah, the second term. We’ll do it in the second term.”
As for Ukraine, Putin gave Trump the idea that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that had interfered in the 2016 election. As New York Magazine reported, “Trump repeatedly told one senior official that the Russian president said Ukraine sought to undermine him.” Trump further believed in a mysterious “missing server” that was hidden in Ukraine containing the missing emails. In his infamous 2019 shake-down call with Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump alluded to it: “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
In 2016, Trump suggested that Russian ownership of Crimea be recognized and again repeated a factoid that seems likely to have come directly from Putin. “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” he told ABC News. The GOP platform was changed to omit endorsing arms for Ukraine.
Trump is a disturbed human being who is constantly revealing his attraction to violence and “strength.” Even as Putin was smashing his tanks into Ukraine, Trump fawned over his “genius” and then boasted that “I know him very, very well.” He said it was “wonderful.” He backtracked after a day or two, but doubtless only after being advised that it was politically unwise.
But if, God forbid, there were ever a second term, political considerations wouldn’t be dispositive, and the most sinister and credulous man ever to disgrace the Oval Office would be unconstrained.