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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Parsing the Trump-Putin summit

Last month I chastised Democrats and the media serving them for their unalloyed criticism of President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un. I agreed with conservative columnist Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry “that if anybody other than Trump were president, the summit would immediately have been hailed a preliminary success.” I’m inclined to make that same point about the response to Trump’s meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, but on this occasion there’s a big “but,” namely, Trump’s public subversion of his own nation’s intelligence community regarding Russian meddling in the 2016 election. More on that later.

I hugely regret that the responses to the meeting were focused solely on Trump’s assertion that Putin’s denial of meddling was as credible as our top intelligence agencies’ assertion of it. Some commentators again portrayed Trump as a weakling bested in a contest with another national leader. Rachel Maddow called his performance “appeasement.” Are we really going to regress to a playground mentality when discussing matters of such importance? To those people I quote the line Trump read from his prepared remarks: “I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics.” Like JFK’s “Let us not negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate,” that’s an apt response to Cold War hardliners. It’s an unhappy irony that the noisiest hardliners now are Democrats.

I thought the most important feature of the joint news conference was Putin’s opening speech. Unlike the habitually self-contradictory Trump, Putin speaks with forethought, and I urge my readers to go on-line and listen to him. Across the board, what he said supported his prefatory statement that “diplomacy and engagement is [sic] preferable to conflict and hostility.” His remarks about every area of potential major conflict between the U.S. and Russia should hearten anyone concerned to avert catastrophic war between the two nuclear superpowers. These included pursuing further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, cooperating to prevent nuclear proliferation, avoidance of chance clashes in the air over Syria, support for efforts to end tensions on the Korean peninsula, and mediating conflict between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights. He even chastised Trump (in a low key) for pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement, noting that Iran is under a stringent international inspection regime. In his turn, Trump echoed Putin’s readiness to reset a relationship that had soured, rightly saying that both countries shared responsibility for what had happened.

Had Putin spoken such words at a news conference with Obama, they might have validated Obama’s prematurely awarded Nobel Peace Prize. They weren’t, however. Hillary Clinton, I suspect, induced Obama to adopt a Cold War posture toward Russia. But (and there’s that word) the problem with crediting Trump for a major breakthrough for world peace is the nagging suspicion that, to use a favorite Lyndon Johnson phrase, Putin has Trump’s pecker in his pocket. How else explain his self-destructive denials of Russian meddling in the election?

Trump has to deny collusion. His political life depends on it, and it’s still an open question whether anything occurred more serious than Donald Jr.’s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya to get her promised dirt on Clinton. Thus, Trump has tried hard to discredit the Mueller investigation. But why discredit the intelligence agencies? What’s at stake here is whether we can protect the integrity of our democratic processes from foreign disruption. That’s not a higher stake than avoiding nuclear catastrophe, but it is non-negotiable.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.