President Trump’s joint news conference Monday with Vladimir Putin was a catastrophe. On that, all but the most servile of his apologists agree. Not even latter-day consul Publius Decius Mus, aka Michael Anton, could rouse himself to defend the president on CNN. Here was the putative leader of the free world giving voice to sophomoric nonsense better suited to a Noam Chomsky seminar.
Even before the event itself got underway, Trump went full Chomsky with a pre-conference tweet blaming Washington for the state of U.S.-Russian relations: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity. . . .”
That sent the right’s Trump-whisperers scrambling. They insisted that the “foolishness” Trump had in mind was Obama’s weak posture. But given Trump’s refusal at various points to condemn Russian meddling in elections across the West and illegal annexation of Crimea—not to mention his persistent reluctance to criticize Putin directly—the rest of us can’t be blamed for thinking that by “foolishness” Trump meant “American hawkishness.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s pithy response to Trump’s tweet cleared up any remaining doubt: “We agree.”
Chomsky should be proud. He has won legions of fans over the decades, mainly among the simple and the half-erudite who imagine the MIT professor’s jeremiads offer secret knowledge of the way the world really works. And the key to that secret knowledge is that the U.S. is just as bad, if not worse than, its most vicious adversaries among rogue and revanchist regimes.
Trump has long had a Chomskyite streak, of course. Recall his flirtations with 9/11 trutherism amid the GOP primary campaign; his claim that President Obama quite literally founded ISIS (“ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He is the founder of ISIS, okay? He is the founder”); and the moral parallel he drew between the U.S. and Russia’s thugocracy in an interview with Bill O’Reilly soon after he took office.
But all that paled next to the spectacle of Trump humiliating America’s security apparatus, elevating the Kremlin’s global prestige, and crediting Putin’s incredible denials of election interference—all while standing next to the Russian strongman, who grinned Cheshire-like with a look of ironical amusement in his eyes.
Trump’s comments and the whole Helsinki affair look even worse against the backdrop of his rhetorical assaults on America’s European allies during the earlier NATO summit in Brussels. Not all of his criticisms were wide of the mark. As I wrote last week, the president was right to take Germany to task for a pipeline deal that would enhance Moscow’s energy dominance in Europe. But to describe the EU as a “foe,” as Trump did, and then to follow that comment with the grotesque moral equivalences of Helsinki marked a dismal moment in the history of the American presidency.
The best that can be said for Trump’s performance is that it doesn’t reflect his administration’s policies. The president might babble, but his babble is just that—for now. While he chums it up with Putin, Trump is arming Ukraine, blowing up Russian operatives in Syria, squeezing Moscow’s Iranian clients, and so forth. All this is an improvement over Trump’s predecessor, whose deference and pusillanimity toward the Kremlin took policy form.
But the policy defense only goes so far. For starters, we are already witnessing a rollback on the policy front. Jimmy Quinn notes at National Review that Trump may be rethinking his opposition to the Nord Stream II pipeline. Following his gabfest with Putin, Trump appeared to have changed his mind about the project, telling reporters that he now understands “where they’re all coming from,” and adding: “So I’ll just wish them luck.”
Foreign policy isn’t just about the policies a nation pursues. Statements and symbolism and personal signals matter enormously. As my colleague Noah Rothman has repeatedly argued in these pages, the danger in all this obsequy toward Moscow is that it might cause Putin to miscalculate Trump’s own parameters and trigger American tripwires, which in turn could lead to a rapid military escalation for which neither great power is prepared.
And what are the likes of Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic States, which live under the shadow of Putinist aggression, to make of all this? Whatever their qualms with the European Union and its mandarins, the citizens and leaders of these nations know the difference between the free air of the West and the stultifying, corrupt air that pervades the Kremlin sphere. They can’t afford for the American president to channel Noam Chomsky.