In general, US media organizations covered the early stops in President Trump’s tour through Europe conventionally, which, in the Trump era, means that the tour played as spectacle. And spectacle there certainly was: NATO-bashing, humiliation of Theresa May, rudeness to the queen—even a balloon of a giant, diapered, angry baby Trump, holding a smart phone high above London. It was all presented as a larger-than-usual but otherwise ordinary display of Trumpiness, just another round of the gauche public theater that the US president regularly employs to play to his political base.
Until Friday. Then, the US Justice Department announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for allegedly hacking Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign computers and using email and other information stolen from those computers to undermine Clinton’s election effort.
Coming just three days before Trump’s meeting with Russian President Putin in Helsinki, the indictments propelled special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government smack into the middle of the Helsinki summit. US media were more or less forced to suspend normal practice, because Mueller’s most recent indictments suddenly made the extraordinariness of the situation unavoidable: Trump, under investigation over alleged collusion with Russia, was set to meet with Putin, the Russian president and former spymaster who allegedly directed efforts by his intelligence services to help Trump win the 2016 election.
Trump’s performance at the press conference that ended Monday’s summit threw dynamite into the dumpster fire of his European trip. Standing next to Putin, Trump blithely blamed the United States for poor US-Russia relations and suggested that he believed Putin’s denial of attempts to intervene in the 2016 elections over the US intelligence community’s assertions (and Mueller’s indictments) to the contrary. “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,” Trump said.
The response from Democratic and some Republican politicians was instantly and broadly negative. Congressman Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, had one of the pithier of the GOP reactions: “A person can be in favor of improving relations with Russia, in favor of meeting with Putin, and still think something is not right here.”
Many foreign policy experts were appalled. “Today, President Trump’s disgraceful comments at the press conference at the Helsinki summit could have been read out of a script handed to him by Vladimir Putin,” said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, director of the Intelligence Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “Not only can the US intelligence community no longer trust our president’s judgment, but ironically, any hopes of improving US-Russian relations have been dashed.”
Media figures known for careful thinking and precise writing were just as unsparing. The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows put forward a premise that bears quoting in full:
Either Donald Trump is flat-out an agent of Russian interests—maybe witting, maybe unwitting, from fear of blackmail, in hope of future deals, out of manly respect for Vladimir Putin, out of gratitude for Russia’s help during the election, out of pathetic inability to see beyond his 306 electoral votes. Whatever the exact mixture of motives might be, it doesn’t really matter.
Or he is so profoundly ignorant, insecure, and narcissistic that he did not realize that, at every step, he was advancing the line that Putin hoped he would advance, and the line that the American intelligence, defense, and law-enforcement agencies most dreaded.
Conscious tool. Useful idiot. Those are the choices, though both are possibly true, so that the main question is the proportions.
Even commentators in the Trump-friendly ecosystem of Fox News questioned Trump’s performance, with Fox anchor Neil Cavuto calling it “disgusting.”
But by the next morning, the Trump normalization machine was already at work, with the president leading the way on Twitter.
While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way – the Fake News is going Crazy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 17, 2018
Now, the question is whether normalization turns Helsinki into just another Trump spectacle, or whether the fact-based segment of the US news ecosystem insists on dealing openly and directly with the possibility of a compromised President Trump in a way that serves America and its people.
There is a plethora of evidence in the public record that suggests the “conscious tool” assessment of Donald Trump is reasonable; the evidence is not absolutely conclusive, but it does strongly suggest that the president has been compromised and is in some way controlled by the Russian government. The best compilation of this evidence that I’ve seen was presented by Jonathan Chait, in New York magazine, in an article headlined, “Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart—Or His Handler?” Chait’s article—and the enormous weight of evidence in the public record about connections among Trump campaign and administration officials and people and entities connected to the Russian government—provided more than sufficient reason for the media to ask questions about Trump’s motives for his behavior and assertions in Europe, even before Helsinki, even without the latest round of indictments from special counsel Mueller’s investigation.
From the moment Donald Trump was elected president, the press has been regularly taken to task for playing along with his chaotic, reality-TV approach to governance, letting itself be distracted by one shiny and unimportant news bauble after another, to the detriment of the country. In a blog called PressThink, New York University professor Jay Rosen has written some of the most thoughtful and trenchant warnings that major media organizations have normalized a president who simply is not normal, by refusing to adapt their methods to deal with Trump’s distract-and-overwhelm tactics. In June, in fact, Rosen called on major media organizations to suspend their usual relations with the Trump administration, in the way that governments suspend diplomatic relations with countries that have engaged in extreme behavior, and gone far beyond the bounds of what is acceptable in international affairs.
Such a suspension of normal coverage is necessary, Rosen wrote, because the Trump presidency—with its almost ceaseless attacks on the press, with its constant mendacity, with its continual shifts of focus, and with its apparent determination to obscure the difference between reality and an alternative world where facts don’t matter—“is the most significant threat to an informed public in the United States today.”
The Constitution protects the press precisely so it can ask the incredibly rude question that proper people would never put forward. It is indeed rude to ask whether the president is a traitor. But it is incumbent on the American press—now, as at no time I know of in American history—to ask that question regularly, and until there is a definitive determination about whether he or members of his campaign cooperated with a Russian conspiracy aimed at undermining an American presidential election.
There is a compelling reason for the press to keep raising that question: If it turns out the president or his close advisers are compromised, American citizens will need to be prepared for the consequences, and to know the avenues for dealing with the problem that best protect the country, given the obvious security concerns a compromised president presents. Whether they have supported or opposed President Trump, they will need to be ready to respond, as citizens, if the worst is proven, by thorough investigation and proper legal process.
Given the negative reaction to Trump’s performance on Monday, one can reasonably anticipate that the White House public relations apparatus and tweeting machine will continue to try to have the disaster in Helsinki reinterpreted as a masterstroke of diplomacy and to brand negative media responses as yet more “fake news.” The fact-based segment of American media should ignore that effort and continue to directly and clearly state the possibility that Trump is compromised—not because they are anti-Trump, but because they know that citizens cannot play their proper role in American society if they do not know the possibilities at hand, as rude as mentioning them may seem.