Trump digs himself a deeper hole

Saturday , July 21, 2018 - 12:00 AM

JULES WITCOVER
National Columnist

WASHINGTON -- President Trump took to television Tuesday to "clarify" his position on alleged Russian meddling in our 2016 presidential election, as stated at the Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin. The only thing he clarified was his astonishing ability to make matters worse for himself.

Trump ineptly insisted that he merely misspoke in that Helsinki news conference by saying he didn't "see any reason why it would be Russia" involved, when he meant to say "wouldn't be." It was at best a sneaky reversal of his earlier repeated absolution of his Moscow pal and his minions, in the cyber war on the American democratic process.

In his tardy rollback of his summit statement, Trump first contended "we're all to blame" for the hassle, before finally saying Wednesday that "we can't have meddling." But even then he did not say what his administration would do about it.

Trump's complete turn-around from his original observation came as he tried to say now he believed all along that his own intelligence community was correct. He said his rap was against previous top intelligence officials who were out get him, but those there now are fine.

In all, it was an incomprehensibly ham-handed way finally to acknowledge the Russians were involved somehow but without saying anything critical of Putin.

Trump was like a prisoner in the dock, reading a prepared alibi that was almost childish in its transparent simplicity and emptiness. He concluded it with a throwaway line about the one-word change: "So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself." Could he really have thought so?

Once again the president twisted the truth and revealed his immense insecurity by revisiting his failure to win the popular vote in 2016, which obviously continues to irritate him.

Trump's utter bungling of the Helsinki summit, at which he intended to establish himself as an unchallengeable leader and power on the world stage, reasonably raises doubts about his qualifications, intelligence and grasp of the world today to be in that position at all.

His apparent willingness to entertain the preposterous notion of making U.S. intelligence officials and former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul available to Russian intelligence counterparts was immediately rejected as absurd by a State Department spokeswoman.

The concerns about Trump as a loose cannon on the foreign policy stage got new impetus from his week-long rampage through Europe. It started with his wrecking-ball assault on the North Atlantic Alliance in Brussels, followed by his crude and uninformed insulting of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May en route to Helsinki, and then was crowned by his farcical cave-in to Putin there.

For once, the collective impact has finally begun to stir some awareness among Republican leaders in Congress that their party may be facing more than a Democratic "blue wave" of opposition in November's election for control of the legislative branch.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, already driven to retire by year's end by the Trump takeover of the GOP, allowed himself some mild criticism of the president. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell showed some reservations. But it's all far from an intraparty revolt to deter this president from his mindless demolition of the Western alliance -- of which the GOP not long ago was the staunchest defender.

Seldom since the end of the Cold War has America's commitment to that alliance been more in peril than it is today, because of one man of little knowledge and appreciation of its history, and because of his conspicuous disdain for the notion of collective security in his America First era.

To Donald Trump, foreign policy increasingly seems to be less a matter of national integrity and international comity and more just another poker game at which the art of the deal is played, with the highest stakes going to the most practiced hustler.

His open and unvarnished courtship of the other -- and perhaps much craftier -- hustler at the table now poses a danger not only to America's world leadership but also to the Western reliance on her democratic process and principles in an era of growing authoritarianism.

Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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