by Garry Kasparov
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No matter how low your opinion may be of President Trump, he’ll always find a way to lower it. On Wednesday, he outdid himself, breaking even the laws of physics by reaching new depths in two places at once. In Washington, Trump was revealed to be even more traitorous, venal and outright criminal than already assumed thanks to the congressional testimony of his long-time attorney and fixer Michael Cohen. Just hours later, in Hanoi, Trump was forced to walk away from his latest love-fest summit with one of the world’s bloodiest dictators, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Cohen was as convincing as a confessed crook can be. It’s impossible to find an honest man to testify against Trump since he tends to surround himself with people as corrupt as he is. So we are forced to rely on their self-interest and the renowned lack of honor among thieves.
Unlike Trump’s convicted campaign chief Paul Manafort, who continued to lie and conspire against his own interest, Cohen is more worried about American justice than Russian killers. This is another reason I believe Cohen when he says he doesn’t know much about Trump’s Russia connections beyond the Trump Tower Moscow deal (in which the would-be American President’s company considered offering Russian dictator Vladimir Putin the building’s $50 million penthouse, free of charge).
If Cohen knew more, he’d say less.
Russia appeared elsewhere in Cohen’s testimony, if mostly indirectly. He confirmed that Trump heard from Roger Stone that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would release emails that would damage Hillary Clinton. Assange and WikiLeaks have been lockstep collaborators with Russian intelligence services for years and cannot be considered to act independently from Putin’s wishes.
Additionally, Deutsche Bank lent Trump hundreds of millions of dollars when no other institution would give him a dime. This is the same bank that was fined for laundering billions in Russian cash and was described by expert reporter Luke Harding as facilitating a “shuffle of money” between its business with Russians and its business with Trump. From Trump Tower to the hacked emails to the fishy loans to the polling data Manafort handed over to a Russian agent, the list of contacts and likely quid pro quos between Trump and Russia is long and growing. I believe the English term is “collusion.”
Cohen’s credibility was enhanced by his Republican interrogators, who debased themselves, their offices and Congress as an institution with their eagerness to attack one of the few people who can shed light on the threat Trump represents to the country. It is vital to understand what Putin extracted from Trump in exchange for keeping quiet about the Trump Tower arrangement and the Trumps’ many lies about it. But it was clear from the start that the Republicans weren’t interested in the truth, only in defending their Dear Leader.
They attempted to do this by calling Trump’s right-hand man a liar and a crook, as if those characteristics aren’t exactly why Trump relied on him for so many years. The GOP questioners didn’t even try to exculpate Trump, conceding that his actions are indefensible so the only hope is discrediting the messenger. The GOP isn’t angry with Cohen for lying to Congress in 2017 when he was doing it to defend Trump. They’re angry that he stopped.
In the U.S., lawmakers take an oath to defend the Constitution, not whoever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, this was only the latest confirmation that the GOP is the party of Trump, not of conservatives and certainly not of the people. Just a day earlier, only 13 of 197 Republican members of Congress voted to block Trump’s spurious national emergency declaration. Democratic control of the House guaranteed its passage there regardless, but it remains to be seen if the GOP-controlled Senate has any interest in reasserting the legislature as the first branch of government, as the Founders designed.
The President has greater discretion in the foreign policy realm, power that Trump has used to weaken American alliances and empower autocrats around the globe. From kowtowing to Putin to downplaying the murder of a Saudi-American journalist, Trump hasn’t met an authoritarian he doesn’t like. (His administration’s laudable pressure on Venezuela’s Maduro is the exception that proves the rule. One can only assume that there are millions of barrels of ulterior motive involved.)
Trump’s wooing of murderous North Korean dictator would be inexcusable even if it achieved results. It hasn’t. Instead, Kim has received the global elevation all dictators crave by being treated as an equal by the leader of the most powerful free country in the world and given up nothing he cares about. His country is still a concentration camp of 25 million souls, and he knows the only reason he is receiving first-class treatment is because of the nuclear weapons he will never relinquish.
Just as Russia loomed over the Cohen hearing, Putin’s shadow was also present in Hanoi, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov appearing right on time to claim that the “Americans are seeking our advice” on the negotiations. To be fair, if Kim listens to anyone, it’s likely Putin, who helped turn the North Korean missile program into a global threat in record time. As also seen in Afghanistan, Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, there is little Putin likes better than to create or stoke a conflict and then offer to assist in defusing it. It keeps him on the global stage and makes for good propaganda at home in Russia.
Putin has no real interest in de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula. He sells tech and fuel to North Korea against sanctions and gets slave labor and influence in return. Trump and Kim acting out a futile pantomime also strengthens Putin’s message that the United States has become a laughingstock, a paper tiger. It’s increasingly difficult to disagree. This latest American debacle in Vietnam couldn’t have ended in a more pathetic fashion without Trump clinging to the last helicopter out.
I suppose it’s true that Trump leaving Hanoi with no deal was better than making a bad one, but this is saying that drinking half a glass of poison is better than drinking a full glass. North Korea quickly disputed Trump’s reasons for abandoning the deal, and it is tragic that the words of a Stalinist dictatorship sound more credible than those of the U.S. President. Trump then added insult to injury by saying he took Kim “at his word” when he denied, preposterously, that he knew about the torture of American prisoner Otto Warmbier, who died soon after returning to the U.S. in 2017.
This revolting statement stung me especially hard, coming as it did on Feb. 27, the date my friend Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow four years ago. The likelihood that an American prisoner was abused without Kim’s knowledge is the same as the assassinations of Nemtsov or Jamal Khashoggi happening without the approval of Putin or Muhammed Bin Salman, respectively.
In none of these cases would anyone risk such a move without the leader’s sanction, if not direct instruction. This is the mafioso-style “code” Cohen spoke of in his testimony regarding Trump’s oblique instructions to lie and threaten. “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” from the top boss is as clear as a signed death warrant.
But Trump always believes what dictators tell him because he wants the same autocratic standard to apply to him. If it’s good, they want all the credit. If it’s bad, they knew nothing about it. The buck stops nowhere.
The message Trump is sending to the rest of the world is clear: The United States is an unreliable ally and an unworthy enemy. Hostile actors are tempted to act while allies are forced to consider their own plans instead of relying on collective defense. Such a trend foretells a return to the uncertainty and regional power struggles that turned the 20th century into a bloodbath.
Days that live in infamy are usually the result of attacks from abroad. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were met by unprecedented unity among Americans and their political representatives. The attacks today are largely internal, and self-inflicted. The greatest political scandal in American history is being met with denial and obstruction from Republicans, whose party once championed the rule of law. If asked what they stand for today, they can say only that they stand for whatever Trump says — and that they’ll sit and roll over for him, too.
Trump has been exposed for what he is, a thuggish con-man with no regard for decency or the law. He has declared moral bankruptcy nearly as often as financial bankruptcy. Yet the damage he is doing to the presidency, the standing of the United States, and the global world order is of greater consequence. The free world still requires U.S. leadership and strength against its many enemies. Trump’s reputation can never be repaired, but America’s reputation must be.
Kasparov is the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and author of “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.”