Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Keep calm and carry on: a message to Trump critics

With two-and-a-half years still to go in Trump’s first term, this level of outrage just cannot be maintained.

Photo: Elliott Brown/Flickr
Photo: Elliott Brown/Flickr
Published 18 Jul 2018   Follow @SamRoggeveen

There are still two-and-a-half years to go in US President Donald Trump’s first term, and I’m concerned about his critics. They need to pace themselves. This level of outrage just cannot be maintained.

When it comes to the instantly infamous press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, they also need to turn off the Twitter outrage machine so they can get themselves some fresh air and a little perspective, although Wednesday’s muddled “clarification” from Trump is sending them back to their keyboards and into another frenzy.

Those arguing Trump is in Putin’s pocket need to cite some examples of what Trump actually surrendered in Helsinki, other than his dignity.

Granted, it is unusual in the extreme for a US president to openly criticise their own intelligence community, but emphasis on the “openly”. It’s not unusual for presidents to question what their spies are telling them, and in fact the world could use a bit more scepticism from US presidents when it comes to their daily intelligence briefing. If one of Trump’s predecessors had been a bit less credulous about the intelligence assessments crossing his desk, Trump wouldn’t be president today.

Yes, Trump performed poorly in Helsinki, but treason? “In the pocket of Putin”?

There are plenty of ways to explain Trump’s behaviour without giving in to that kind of hyperbole.

There’s a personal/psychological explanation: Trump is clearly pre-occupied to the point of obsession with the details of his election victory. Two years later he still raises it at the slightest prompting. So naturally, it would be difficult for him to admit to himself, let alone the public, that this victory was somehow illegitimate or not all his own doing.

(On a side note here: the deligitimising of every president since Bill Clinton is a dark trend in US politics, and it is bipartisan: Clinton, his opponents said, had to be impeached because he lied about an affair; George W. Bush was illegitimate because he was installed by a stacked Supreme Court over the wishes of the electorate; Barack Obama couldn’t be president because he wasn’t born in the US; and Trump’s victory was engineered by the FSB.) 

There’s a political explanation: Trump was elected in part on a platform of improving relations with Russia, and a large part of the electorate clearly has no problem seeing him getting along with the Russian President. So by playing nice with Putin he’s being seen to fulfil a campaign promise (though in practice, he’s really not; more on that below).

The third explanation is geo-political: Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon told Fairfax journalist Peter Hartcher last week that Trump believes the US-China rivalry to be the main game of the 21st century. So maybe Trump regards Russia as a useful card in that larger rivalry, one he can play without too much risk because Russia is not that big a military threat to NATO, and even if it becomes one, it’s a challenge the Europeans alone should be able to handle.

But over and above all those possible explanations, those arguing that Trump is in Putin’s pocket need to cite some examples of what Trump actually surrendered in Helsinki, other than his dignity. The US still has tough sanctions in place, it did not reverse its decision to begin arming Ukraine, and it did not recognise Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.

Trump has also stood side-by-side with the UK over the Skripal affair, has tried to bully Europe into increasing defence spending, and has shown no sign of releasing the pressure on Russia’s ally in Syria, Bashar al Assad.

If Trump is a Manchurian Candidate, his Russian handlers are doing a pretty poor job of managing their asset. Paging Angela Lansbury!



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