Tuesday, July 17, 2018

What Happened

Emperor Napoleon welomes Tsar Alexander to the floating pavilion on the Neman near Tilsit, 25 June 1807. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Interpreting what happened yesterday in Helsinki is handicapped by the news media's reluctance to consider whether Donald Trump is guilty of something or not. Which is totally understandable! They're not supposed to judge! But they can't even allow themselves to consider what kind of crime we'd be talking about with any specificity, and this leads to a kind of sentimental muddling of the story, as in this report from The Times:
“You have been watching,” said the disembodied voice of Anderson Cooper, “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russian leader that I’ve ever seen.”
Perhaps Mr. Cooper had briefly forgotten the mores of his profession — stolidity and a Cronkite-ian cool — in the heat of a surreal live event: a public pas de deux on Monday between President Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in which the president criticized United States intelligence agencies and declined multiple opportunities to blame Mr. Putin for interfering in American elections.
Disrespect for the intelligence community? Failure to blame? Is it having inappropriate beliefs, that Putin knows more than the IC or is more reliable? Is it disgraceful to have those beliefs, or is it stupid? Or is it disgraceful or stupid to express them, would a decent president keep his weird beliefs silent?

Or couldn't we just say he's lying, and doesn't actually entertain these beliefs at all, knows more or less that the IC is right and Putin is a liar? I mean, it's not as if he hasn't ever told a lie in public himself.

It's not even the first time he's said these things; he's been saying them consistently for nearly two years now. He first refused to accept the idea of Russian rigging efforts in the election in the campaign debates of 26 September 2016 and 19 October ("No puppet! No puppet! You're the puppet!"), and he's refused to accept the US intelligence assessments since the Washington Post reported CIA views on 9 December 2016, and his first official briefing on the Feast of the Epiphany January 2017 didn't shake him at all. I have no idea why Anderson Cooper would be so shocked. Where's he been?

I imagine the shock is partly from the context of Trump's antics in Europe last week, his public dismissal of NATO as a bad deal for the US in the terms he uses to complain about a trade pact, his public dismissal of the EU as a "foe" (while Putin is a personal "competitor"), his condemnation of Theresa May in The Sun for not being aggressive enough in Britain's divorce from the EU (in private he was perfectly polite by his limited standards, of course—these emotional displays are just as bogus as anything else he does). Following all this aggression up with the formal dignity (he read the summary "remarks" Stephen Miller must have written for him before the meeting took place without any of his customary interpolations and ornaments) and displays of mutual esteem in Helsinki seemed like a real transition (David Brooks's take, which I may not get to at all, is a bit on these lines) from an old network of alliances to a new one. People were talking, as they do, about Chamberlain at Munich, but I was thinking of Tsar Alexander I at Tilsit in 1807, after his horrible defeat at Friedland, trying to reassume his imperial dignity by graciously welcoming Napoleon as a fellow emperor, as the two of them happily threw the King of Prussia under the bus.

Spoiling the majesty of the occasion, as Trump always will in the end, by the irreparable gaffe of that wink—

And the usual awkwardness of his difficulty answering press questions somehow heightened by Putin's presence:
REPORTER (Jeff Mason from Reuters): For President Putin if I could follow up as well. Why should Americans and why should President Trump believe your statement that Russia did not intervene in the 2016 election given the evidence that US Intelligence agencies have provided? Will you consider extraditing the 12 Russian officials that were indicted last week by a US Grand jury.
TRUMP: Well I’m going to let the president answer the second part of that question.
As you know, the concept of that came up perhaps a little before, but it came out as a reason why the Democrats lost an election, which frankly, they should have been able to win, because the electoral college is much more advantageous for Democrats, as you know, than it is to Republicans. We won the electoral college by a lot. 306 to 223, I believe. That was a well-fought battle. We did a great job.
Frankly, I’m going to let the president speak to the second part of your question. But, just to say it one time again and I say it all the time, there was no collusion. I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to colluded with. There was no collusion with the campaign. Every time you hear all of these 12 and 14 — it’s stuff that has nothing to do — and frankly, they admit, these are not people involved in the campaign. But to the average reader out there, they are saying, well maybe that does. It doesn’t. Even the people involved, some perhaps told mis-stories. In one case the FBI said there was no lie. There was no lie. Somebody else said there was. We ran a brilliant campaign. And that’s why I’m president. Thank you.
It's funny how his boastfulness forces him to emphasize how strange it was that he won (though he's lying, of course, about the Electoral College), even though that makes it look more as if he was cheating.

It seems to me, anyhow, as if the purpose of the summit, which Trump has never been able to define in any way ("I don’t think it’s unusual for the leaders of Russia and the US to meet," said Bolton), was to make that statement in that way, formally, with Putin at his side, as if to put his basic lie ("There was no collusion") beyond discussion, like a Pope invoking infallibility. I think Putin may have asked him to do it, in the phone call of 20 March when the concept of a summit was first discussed:
MOSCOW — Russia sought to move beyond last week’s diplomatic confrontation with the West on Monday by pressing President Trump for a White House meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin that would undercut the perception that the angry reaction to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain has left it isolated from the international community.
The Kremlin foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said in Moscow that Mr. Trump, in a telephone call with Mr. Putin on March 20, proposed that the two leaders meet at the White House in the near future. Mr. Ushakov made clear that the Russian leader would like to take him up on the suggestion. “This is a rather positive idea,” he said.
As to what the lie is covering, I'll try to get back to that shortly.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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