What’s the significance of the Republican criticisms of Trump and Putin in Helsinki?

Trump met with Putin in Helsinki, then defended the Russian president. Democrats were outraged, of course, but this time many Republicans chimed in with disapproval as well. What does the language of these Republican protests tell us about the probability of an impeachment?

Trump got everyone upset with this response to a reporter’s question:

AP Reporter: Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. My first question for you sir is, who do you believe? . . .

Trump: My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coates, came to me and some others they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia.

I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. But I really do want to see the server but I have, I have confidence in both parties. . . .

I have great confidence in my intelligence people but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today and what he did is an incredible offer.

Trump’s failure to acknowledge what his own intelligence experts believe, that Russia attempted to interfere with the election, and his acceptance of Putin’s “strong and powerful denial” is what set people off.

Before I go on, let’s review the obvious answer to the comment, “I don’t see any reason why it would be.” Why would the Russian government want to interfere in the election and get Trump elected? Well . . .

  • Dividing the American electorate makes America weaker. This is why Russian trolls initially backed Trump (and, for that matter, Bernie Sanders) in the 2016 election.
  • Trump sows distrust of news media. Once you convince enough people that media reporting doesn’t represent truth, it’s far easier to spread disinformation (fake news).
  • Trump made statements during the campaign critical of NATO. Since becoming president, he has challenged NATO members, weakening the alliance. NATO is Russia’s enemy.
  • Hillary Clinton was a skeptical hardliner on Russia. Trump was more accommodating. He proved this by failing to criticize or hold Russia responsible for its actions in Ukraine, Crimea, Syria, and the UK, where it poisoned former spies.
  • Russia is a small and weak nation. Economically, it has an economy the size of Italy (and that’s shrinking as the price of oil falls). Getting Russia-friendly Trump elected helps Russia gain stature on the world stage.

Why won’t Trump acknowledge these reasons? Because once he admits Russia interfered in the election, it looks like his presidency wasn’t won legitimately, and Trump is all about the appearance of winning.

Republicans denounce Trump

Here’s the response from Senator John McCain:

Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.

President Trump proved not only unable, but unwilling to stand up to Putin. He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script as the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world.

It is tempting to describe the press conference as a pathetic rout – as an illustration of the perils of under-preparation and inexperience. But these were not the errant tweets of a novice politician. These were the deliberate choices of a president who seems determined to realize his delusions of a warm relationship with Putin’s regime without any regard for the true nature of his rule, his violent disregard for the sovereignty of his neighbors, his complicity in the slaughter of the Syrian people, his violation of international treaties, and his assault on democratic institutions throughout the world.

Coming close on the heels of President Trump’s bombastic and erratic conduct towards our closest friends and allies in Brussels and Britain, today’s press conference marks a recent low point in the history of the American Presidency. That the president was attended in Helsinki by a team of competent and patriotic advisors makes his blunders and capitulations all the more painful and inexplicable.

No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are—a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad. American presidents must be the champions of that cause if it is to succeed. Americans are waiting and hoping for President Trump to embrace that sacred responsibility. One can only hope they are not waiting totally in vain.

This wins the contest for the most spirited and honest Republican response. It features the most vivid descriptors (“disgraceful,” “spew propaganda,” pathetic rout,” “delusions,” “blunders and capitulations,” “abased himself more abjectly.”). It describes what caused the damage (“naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats”) and analyzes Trump’s actions as a result, not of inexperience, but of a misguided desire to cosy up to Putin. I defends the press and the America that McCain hopes we still are. And it does it all in 364 words.

Most of the other Republicans responded with tweets. Here’s Mitt Romney, who’s running for the Senate in Utah:

President Trump’s decision to side with Putin over American intelligence agencies is disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles. Russia remains our number one geopolitical adversary; claiming a moral equivalence between the United States and Russia not only defies reason and history, it undermines our national integrity and impairs our global credibility.

Sort of like McCain’s statement, only briefer and less florid. Looks like Romney wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes as Trump’s Secretary of State.

Departing Senator Jeff Flake had this to say:

So we can now add shameful to disgraceful.

Trump fan Newt Gingrich is still holding out hope that Trump will fix things:

And Senator Lindsey Graham equivocates and parses, including some amateur spycraft about the World Cup soccer ball that Putin gave Trump.

Ted Cruz made no public statement except for this remark to a CNN reporter:

Reading between the lines: will Trump’s behavior lead to impeachment?

I’m an expert on words, not politics. But it’s hard not to read these statements and imagine what might happen next. Let’s try to answer the question suggested by former CIA director John Brennan:

“High crimes and misdemeanors,” of course, is what the Constitution prescribes as impeachable behavior. Forget whether Trump has behaved in a way that demands impeachment — have things changed to such an extent that he would be impeached?

On the heels of this action and many others, I think Democrats will take over a majority in the House of Representatives in November. When the new Congress convenes, they’ll begin impeachment proceedings and likely succeed. The impeachment proceedings in the House will reveal where everyone stands — not only House Republicans, but Senate Republicans, will need to take a stand on accusations against Trump of self-dealing, incompetence, and treason.

The House will impeach Trump. But as we learned in the impeachment of Bill Clinton, this is not the end — it’s more like an indictment in a criminal court. Will the Senate convict Trump and remove him from office?

To convict the president requires “two-thirds of the members present.” But what will the Senate look like in 2019? Since most of the seats up for election are held by Democrats, it’s likely to look about the way it does now: about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Conviction would require 16 or 17 Republicans and all the Democrats to vote against the President. It’s clear from the statements of Republican senators after Helsinki that Republicans hoping to stay in office are reluctant to take actual action against this president. Flake is leaving and McCain is dying.

One of two outcomes are possible.

It’s possible that Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republicans in the Senate will calculate, after a lurid trial, that dumping Trump is the best way to cut their losses. Vice President Pence would take over and keep the executive branch in Republican hands. (If you believe that the Senate will convict Pence as well, leaving us with President Paul Ryan, you’re dreaming.)

It’s also possible that Trump will survive, but at that point, the nation’s institutions will be so poised against themselves that the survival of an effective government is in question.

And Trump is more likely to die in office than resign.

Watch statements by Republican senators in the next three or four months closely. They’ll tell you whether Trump will survive as president, or not.

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  1. “If you believe that the Senate will convince Pence as well, leaving us with President Paul Ryan, you’re dreaming.”


  2. This may seem like a very naive question, but here goes anyway.
    Am I right to think that it’s Russia’s ambition to destabilize the West, and that by helping Trump get elected it meant they would have a US president in the White House carrying out (unwittingly of course), the Russian’s ambition on their behalf?
    Because sure as hell that’s what Trump seems to be doing.

  3. Personally, I am amplifying the comments by many of these Republicans about the President’s meeting with Putin. People will pay attention to spokespersons they consider credible. So, whenever I witness a show of spine or a whiff of ethics, I amplify it. I hope when the dust settles, we can heal our system. We’re buffeted by greed, power, political gamesmanship, inequality, changing climate, changing economic and demographic realities, and new technologies. Lots of variables. Health = resilience. Zero-sum is not resilient.