by Garry Kasparov
On Thursday, the news broke that President Trump has invited Russian leader Vladimir Putin to the White House, proving once more that Trump has an unparalleled ability to surprise. It’s like inviting the man who burglarized your house, just in case he forgot to swipe any of the fine silver.
It also illustrates the scandal-driven dynamic of the Trump administration: No outrage is so bad that it cannot be driven from the headlines by an even worse one.
Still, it is important not to lose track of what is causing this desperation. The investigation into the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 election continues to heat up, with a dozen new indictments of Russian military intelligence operatives by special counsel Robert Mueller. An alleged Russian undercover agent has been charged with attempting to influence U.S. politics, including extensive connections with the National Rifle Association.
These are acts of foreign aggression, direct attacks on the integrity of the American political system. Call it hybrid war or whatever you like, but a war is what it is. Putin understood this many years ago and has been investing heavily in the weapons with which this new type of war is fought: propaganda, cyberwarfare, supporting extremists on all sides, and dividing allies.
That his targets are still arguing about what to call it instead of fighting back is why Putin has had such success.
So it’s an odd time for the U.S. to be rolling out the red carpet for Putin, who directs these actions and is surely plotting more. Perhaps like any good real-estate agent, Trump just wants to give Putin a personal tour of the house he purchased online. It’s hard to imagine any legitimate reason for such a scandalous invitation, especially after the debacle of their summit last week in Helsinki.
As has already been written in the annals of ignominy, Monday, Trump had a private meeting with Putin and then joined him in the most disturbing press conference spectacle most of us have ever seen. Trump’s subservient display has been well-described already, so I won’t waste time detailing how the American President presented the Kremlin line better than Putin himself.
I’ve spent many years countering Kremlin propaganda that tries to put America and other free world nations on the same ethical plane as Putin’s murderous and repressive mafia state. “There is no good or evil,” it goes. “We all do bad things, so don’t judge. Let’s do business and forget about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.”
Listening to the U.S. President make such moral equivalence arguments — standing next to a KGB-trained dictator, no less — was infuriating and heartbreaking.
The backlash was strong enough to force Trump to publicly “clarify” some of his Helsinki statements criticizing American intelligence services and defending Putin. While it suited Trump to pretend to apologize, and for his ardent supporters to pretend to believe him, Helsinki marked a turning point. The idea that the American President is somehow compromised by the Kremlin is no longer a far-fetched conspiracy theory touted only by his political opponents. It has become the most logical, if not the only, explanation for Trump’s devotion to an enemy of the United States.
Trump and his supporters apparently wouldn’t mind receiving more assistance in 2018 and 2020. Despite repeated warnings from top security officials, the Trump administration has declined to direct federal agencies to harden election systems. On Thursday, Republicans refused to include state funds for election security in an appropriations bill. This is what happens when national security is sacrificed to political partisanship.
Trump flattered Putin well before the election took place, and Trump continues to check off items on Putin’s wish list that have nothing to do with election interference, such as weakening NATO, attacking the European Union, and, especially, appearing together at a summit and inviting him to the White House. Putin craves such legitimacy desperately, and there are no good reasons why Trump should be so eager to satisfy him while getting nothing in return.
Trump also added that his appearance with Putin was loved by people at “higher ends of intelligence.” I’ll modestly refrain from throwing my IQ around, but the given rationales for these meetings only insult our intelligence.
First there’s the old strawman argument that anyone who isn’t in favor of capitulating to Putin’s aggression is a warmonger eager for World War III. As his track record demonstrates, standing up to Putin is far less likely to lead to further conflict than giving him what he wants. As with Trump and any bully, conceding to Putin only convinces him you are weak and that he can push further.
Then there is Trump’s refrain, “shouldn’t we want better relations with Russia?” Certainly, but not at any cost. It’s easy to make deals and have good relations with dictators if you concede everything they want and ask nothing of them. Better relations with Russia should depend on the national interests of the United States, not the personal interests of Donald Trump.
While it’s irresistible to theorize about what exactly Putin has on Trump to keep him on such a tight leash, it’s more important to accept the fact that it is happening. With the Mueller investigation indicting more Russian agents and a potential Democratic takeover in the midterm elections threatening to curtail Trump’s authority, Putin is rushing to squeeze everything he can from his prized Oval Office asset before it is devalued.
Aside from a few notable exceptions like Sens. John McCain, Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse, the Republicans in Congress have been far too quiet. They are afraid of losing in primaries to Trumpist extremists, and fear has made them swallow their tongues. Many of these quietly critical Republicans hope to outlast Trump by not confronting him and his voters.
This is a dangerous delusion. For 18 months, the damage Trump is doing has come at a faster and faster pace. There’s no time to lose.
His own administration has little clue what he’s going to say or do next; perhaps only Putin knows. The announcement of Trump’s invitation to Putin came as a complete shock to Dan Coats, Trump’s own director of national intelligence.
Many of the areas in which Trump is waging his assault on American democracy and the world order were never intended to be the domain of the President at all. Constitutionally, the President has no business starting trade wars or radically changing immigration policy.
But Congress has abdicated its role as co-equal branch of government over decades, steadily conceding power to the executive. This has been done in the name of expediency, to fight partisan gridlock, and has been pushed along by each side in tit-for-tat battles. Clinton did it, so Bush had to do it. Bush did it, so Obama had to do it.
With each turn, the balance of powers became more unbalanced. If the ship of state is to be righted before the Trumpian iceberg finishes the job, Congress must take back the power given to it by the Founders. Stop tweeting and start legislating.
As for those in Trump’s White House who are horrified by their boss’ actions, I’m not convinced that honorable resignations would achieve much benefit. Trump is happy to be rid of anyone who doesn’t provide the unconditional praise he demands. Foreign policy and security experts like Coats and National Security Adviser John Bolton know that they would surely be replaced by more sycophantic and less capable individuals should they leave in disgust.
They must all answer to their consciences, and they could draw public lines in the sand without enraging Trump, the way some GOP senators have invoked the possibility of a constitutional crisis if Mueller is fired.
We have an apt phrase in chess: “The threat is stronger than the execution.” But are any Republicans ready to execute if their threats are ignored?
The Cold War was won based on the policy of containment established by President Harry Truman in 1947. The U.S. would not attack the Soviet Union, but it would not allow the USSR and Communism to expand unchallenged. When the Cold War ended, the winning containment concept was discarded in exchange for engagement, which is a major reason why all but a handful of former Soviet republics are still dictatorships today, and why liberal democracy is under attack all over the globe.
This does not happen overnight. Putin dismantled Russia’s fragile new democracy in the full view of the leaders of the free world, who expressed the usual concerns as they made deals for Russian oil and gas and welcomed Putin’s oligarch buddies and the billions they were looting out of Russia.
President Obama spent many hopeless years trying to make friends with Russia — all while Putin was liquidating his political opposition, preparing to invade Ukraine, and building the disinformation Death Star he eventually unleashed on Europe and the United States.
From Obama’s naive appeasement, we arrived at Trump’s open collaboration. Putin isn’t just emboldened, he’s coming to Washington to take a victory lap.
What’s needed today is a Trump containment policy, to limit his reach and his ability to weaken the American institutions that hold him in check. The President will always have dominion over foreign policy, and that includes inviting the leaders of hostile dictatorships to the White House. But Congress can and must begin to work now to ensure that Putin leaves only with Trump’s loyalty, and not with the rest of the silver and the keys to the country.
Kasparov is the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. He is the author of “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.”