Kristof and Collins

Mr. Kristof has a question:  “Did Putin Have Trump for Lunch?”  He says President Trump praises Russia and assaults the press.  Ms. Collins says “Putin Meets Tons of Trumps” and that when the president goes abroad, and his personas multiply.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

In Hamburg, Germany, President Trump is thundering against the free press that covers him, while getting lovey-dovey with the leader of a country that attacked American and French elections, that invaded Ukraine, that helped slaughter civilians in Syria, that was involved in shooting down a civilian airliner over Ukraine, that murders critics, and that brutalizes gay people in Chechnya.

I can’t help thinking: If only Trump confronted Vladimir Putin with half the energy with which he denounces CNN and other news organizations!

A few takeaways from Trump’s European visit so far:

  1. I don’t begrudge Trump his warm handshake and pair of shoulder pats for President Putin. Nothing wrong with civility—but it has to be accompanied by a stern representation of American interests, and there’s no evidence that this is happening. “It’s an honor to be with you,” Trump said warmly, and there was a sharp contrast between the enthusiasm for Putin and the excoriation of American journalists (and it’s notable that at least 58 journalists have been murdered in Russia because of their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dutifully says that Trump pressed Putin on Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, but I flinched when I heard Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov say that Trump had accepted Putin’s assurances that Russia had not in fact interfered with the election. Really? Trump accepts Putin’s assurances over those of the American intelligence community? I’m afraid that Putin had Trump for lunch.

It’s great that Trump and Putin reached an agreement that may help Syria, but let’s see whether it translates to advances on the ground. Russia has almost no credibility left when it speaks about Syria. And when Trump acquiesces in Russia’s interference in U.S. elections, as seems to have happened, Putin wins, and why would we wish to reward him for his intransigence? We should make him pay a price, not try to raise his poll numbers. Yet Trump’s behavior fits into a long and puzzling tendency of fawning over Putin or defending his actions—and it’s doubly peculiar when Trump insults allies like Australia’s prime minister and demeans Germany’s chancellor. That’s why I say that Trump has turned the world upside down.

  1. It’s particularly problematic that Trump is continuing his crusade against the news media while abroad. All presidents think that they are covered unfairly, but Trump is venturing into new territory with his campaign against journalists. There are reports that the White House may try to punish Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, for CNN’s coverage; I doubt this will happen, but even the fact that this seems to have been discussed is extraordinary and reminiscent of Nixon’s “enemies list.” Likewise, Trump’s tweets and statements may have the effect of encouraging violence against journalists; even the parents and wife of Andrew Kazcynski, the CNN reporter who has been most unfairly targeted, have received about 50 harassing phone calls each. Trump supporters are circulating more videos showing violence against people with CNN signs on them, and I fear someone is going to end up hurt. We journalists understand that warlords and gangsters may orchestrate violence against us, but we don’t expect it from the president of the United States. And, just to be clear, to reject videos of violence against journalists is not to be a snowflake; it is to be civilized.

Trump’s campaign against CNN and the media is particularly odious because the media represent a triumph of American soft power. Other countries, from China to Russia to Qatar, try to sponsor global television networks to gain global influence — but the U.S. has the advantage of being the world’s media capital. Our president is doing his best to undermine that. In doing so, he is weakening America’s soft power.

  1. President Trump does fine with a Teleprompter. His speech in Warsaw wasn’t bad, and of course the same has been true the other times he reads what his speech-writers have drafted. The problems come whenever he goes off script — and, sadly, international relations can’t be conducted from a script.
  1. While the Putin-Trump meeting is getting most of the attention in Hamburg, the really important issue is North Korea, and that may depend more on the Trump meeting with Xi Jinping. To his credit, Trump seems to get that North Korea is one of the most important issues on the international agenda, but he still doesn’t seem to have a strategy to deal with it. (Rex Tillerson sometimes offers hints that he favors the kind of deal-making that I’ve advocated, pursuing a North Korean freeze with the fig leaf that it’s only the first step toward denuclearization.)
  1. In a larger sense, the U.S. since 1945 has pursued global leadership and seen its interests advanced by nurturing global institutions to advance peace and trade. That’s why we cultivated Bretton-Woods, the United Nations, NATO, and so on. These didn’t always work as well as hoped, but they kept the peace and promoted prosperity and certainly benefited American interests. Yet at the broadest level, President Trump is undermining these institutions and abdicating American leadership on trade and security (and on climate, a new dimension of security and the economy). We saw in the period between the two world wars that a vacuum of global leadership is perilous and results in anarchy, trade wars and shooting wars. We may be headed for a similar vacuum. Other countries from Russia to China to the European Union are trying to fill some of the space, but as a global leader the United States is simply indispensable.
  1. These conflicts and tensions are, I think, likely to get worse. The world is at a lucky moment right now — a long growth period, no major shocks, markets rising — and the one thing we can expect is the unexpected. At some point in the next few years, markets will tank, the economy will stall, international crises will erupt. If Trump flubs relations with allies like Germany and Australia in good times, what will happen in a crisis?

Moreover, as the investigation into Trump and Russian collusion and obstruction of justice continues, I suspect it will erode his political capital and make him even more unstable. Even if the investigation doesn’t reach Trump himself, it may cause the departure from the White House of key aides or family members, and cause his poll ratings to sink further. That invites foreign countries like North Korea or Venezuela to overplay their hands, and it may lead a president to respond with a forcefulness that escalates a crisis.

  1. Traditionally, when such crises arrive, the best card the U.S. has to play is its credibility and its soft power. These have been eroded with the Iraq War and Guantanamo and so on, but they still are hugely important in a crisis. Yet President Trump has almost no credibility before the world, and not much at home. The upshot is that we will approach the next crisis with less soft power, less credibility, less consensus—and greater risk that it spins out of control.
  1. And that is why it would be so useful, not just for this presidential trip but for the long-term interests of the United States, if Trump listened to his national security aides, if he subscribed to the 70-year bipartisan foreign policy consensus, if he backed global institutions instead of trying to blow them up. And, of course, if he stopped denouncing CNN for committing journalism, if he confronted Putin for interfering in our election as robustly as he excoriates those reporters trying to cover him, if he stopped portraying the United States as another Belarus.

In short, if he attempted to turn our foreign policy right side up again.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Say what? Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin. American officials claim he pressed Putin on Russia’s messing in our presidential election. Putin’s people insist Trump accepted Russia’s assurances that nothing happened.

We will now explain how this outcome was inevitable.

Our president, as you know, has ever-changing personas, ranging from statesmanlike Reader-of-Speeches to Nearly Unhinged Trump, a version frequently seen on Twitter.

And Diplomacy Don, who seemed to fall head over heels for Putin.

“President Putin and I have been discussing various things and I think it’s going very well. We’ve had some very, very good talks,” Trump said. This was before the meeting even began. What do you think he was referring to? A late night pajama party? The two had never met in person before, even though, as a candidate, Trump seemed to nurse memories of an imaginary encounter.

Then off they went, for a meeting that went on for more than two hours. Halfway through, Melania came in to remind Trump they had other things to do. Naturally, he ignored her.

The two presidents agreed to a prearranged limited Syrian cease-fire. And they did talk about Russian meddling in the American election. But which Trump do you think brought the subject up? The day before, a version who took a few questions from reporters in Poland seemed to regard the whole matter as the sort of moral equivalent of jaywalking. (“A lot of people interfere. I think it’s been happening for a long time.”)

That was Ad Lib Trump, who is always … interesting. Then Nearly Unhinged emerged overnight and took to Twitter, blaming the election hacking scandal on the Democrats: “Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!”

Several questions arose, the chief one being why the leaders of the most important nations in the world would be talking about Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager, whose current occupation was taking a cross-country drive with his wife.

Nearly Unhinged disappeared before the big sit-down and was replaced by a Trump version we’ll call Good At Meetings. GAM sits there nodding a lot, leading the other side to think he’s in agreement when in fact he’s just wondering what he’s going to have for dinner. Across from him was Putin, the guy who assumes that he’s won every debate unless the other side makes resistance so clear that they have to be arrested.

Perfect match! No wonder Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there was “a very clear positive chemistry between the two.”

Previously, Europe had gotten a look at a number of other variations of our president. Speechreading Trump, who usually makes a good impression, went on a Crusader kick in Poland, calling for a defense of Western civilization from “radical Islamic terrorism” and “the steady creep of government bureaucracy.”

At around the same time, Japan and the European Union announced a big trade deal, which will be great news for Japanese automakers and European farmers. People, would you rather have a big speech or a big trade deal? Or a tweet about John Podesta? The various Trumps have already given you two out of three. What are you complaining about?

In Poland, people also got quality time with Ad Lib Trump, who popped up at a gathering of Eastern European countries. After complimenting his hosts (“Beautiful nations, by the way”) the president then went on to brag about the American economy (“Our stock market just hit an all-time high …”), and to complain that he isn’t personally making any money off it. (“Everyone else is getting rich. That’s O.K. I’m very happy.”)

This is presumably because he has to spend all his time being president. But his business empire is being run by his sons. Did they manage to lose money in this stock market? If so, it’s time to have a very serious talk with Eric.

Then Trump bragged in general about the United States. (“We make the best technology and we make the best, best technology for fighter jets and ships and equipment, military weapons. There’s nobody even close.”) At this point, he had begun to resemble a dinner guest who does nothing but talk about his superior tennis skills, better car and more interesting vacations.

Later in the day, Trump took part in a very, very short press conference during which he bragged that Polish-Americans “came out in droves. They voted in the last election and I was very happy with that result.”

By Trumpian standards, this barely even counted as boasting. However, it’s getting embarrassing when the rest of the world watches him go on like that. Maybe on future foreign trips they could arrange for him to be introduced as “the president of the United States who won the election and got better ratings than Arnold Schwarzenegger on ‘The Apprentice.’ ” That would at least get it over with at the beginning.

So Europe, we sent you an entire fleet of Trumps. I hope you’re grateful. And feel free to keep a few.

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