Confronted with a true alpha male in Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump -- who likes to talk tough -- turned into a fawning beta in Helsinki, Finland, abandoning American interests in favor of appeasing the man who allegedly attacked the integrity of the 2016 presidential election.
Though Vice President Mike Pence praised the President's performance, saying Trump "stands without apology as the leader of the free world," his analysis could not have been further from the truth.
It was, as Sen. John McCain observed, "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory." McCain added that, "No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant."
Unique as it was for a president to show such weakness, Trump's display of cowardice was wholly consistent with a man who believed his military high school was equal to true service in the armed forces and who declared his sexual experiences during the HIV/AIDS crisis tantamount to duty in the Vietnam War.
Anyone who expects anything different hasn't been paying attention to how Trump behaves when face-to-face with strong individuals. He likes to talk a big game, but when he's dealing with anyone he deems of importance, he's prone to appeasement and capitulation.
Recall Trump in the days after racists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, where police said one of them killed an innocent woman by ramming his car into a crowd on a city street. Unable to muster the moral fortitude to condemn the fringe elements of his political base, Trump repeatedly said "both sides" were to blame for the tragedy that unfolded. Of course, the reality is rather different: One side marched with tiki torches, shouting racist chants. The other challenged the hate with calls for tolerance. The sides were not equal, and it was a peace activist who lost her life.
After caving in Charlottesville, Trump was met with demands from the Parkland student activists, who wanted answers and action after living through a tragic mass shooting. Face-to-face with students who meant business, he briefly abandoned his strict pro-gun position and pledged to work for sensible gun control. He even noted how some lawmakers are captive to the National Rifle Association. Days later, after his own meeting with the NRA, he knuckled under, lost the courage of his convictions and abandoned both the kids and his promise.
As weak as he is at home, Trump is even weaker with foreign leaders. Do you recall how the President mocked North Korea's Kim Jong Un as "Little Rocket Man" and promised a "fire and fury" response to any future provocations with rockets or nuclear tests? Trump then proceeded to court Kim for a so-called summit in Singapore. There he gave the dictator the legitimacy he craved and promised to cut back on American military exercises in the region. What did America get in return? He'd argue the return of hostages and no missiles fired, but there remains to be any real steps taken toward denuclearization.
Trump isn't much braver when he picks fights with world leaders who wish America no harm. He used an interview with the British tabloid The Sun to bash Prime Minister Theresa May, and boost her rival Boris Johnson, but when in the same room with her, he backed down. With a familiar cry of "fake news," the President humiliated himself by retreating in the Prime Minister's presence.
As profiles in cowardice go, however, nothing Trump has done is as bad as his treatment of Putin. With the indictments of Russian agents piling up, Trump prefaced his session in Helsinki by tweeting "to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past -- as the world's two largest nuclear powers, we must get along! #HELSINKI2018" As the injured party in the 2016 election attack, America should demand accountability, not normalcy, but Trump's words echoed with the sound of guilt.
What Trump actually cares about is the shadow that the Russian hackers cast over the election that saw him become president. He made this clear by repeatedly telling the press in Helsinki there was "no collusion" between his campaign and Moscow. He pitifully pointed to his Electoral College victory and talked about his long-vanquished rival, Hillary Clinton. (Ignoring the fact that she won the popular vote, he said, "I beat Hillary Clinton easily and, frankly, we beat her," he said. "We won that race, and it's a shame that there can even be a little bit of a cloud over it.")
Trump is so afraid of the truth about that little cloud that he essentially said he believed Putin instead of his own intelligence agencies, which have repeatedly declared the Russians did it. "They think it's Russia," he said. "I have President Putin -- he just said it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be." Trump welcomed Putin's offer, made with a crocodile smile, to help investigate the election trouble.
As much as Trump spoke like a leader over-eager to please, his body language suggested a cowering respect for Putin as the kind of manly man Trump wishes he could be. Putin rarely smiled and, when Trump praised him for the successful World Cup tournament, he barely acknowledged the compliment. When asked directly about whether the Russian state possessed compromising information about Trump -- kompromat is the term of art -- Putin wouldn't explicitly say "no."
With his equivocating on krompromat, Putin made sure Trump will feel insecure and weak as he contemplates the future. It was a brilliant bit of gamesmanship, but then again, the world didn't need any more evidence of Trump's insecurity and weakness.
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