Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Like a boy forced to say “I’m sorry” when he doesn’t mean it, President Donald Trump has been sullenly trying to fix the problem he caused in Helsinki, Finland when he embraced Vladimir Putin and disrespected America’s intelligence agencies and allies. Most recently he told CBS news anchor Jeffrey Glor he used his one-one-one meeting with Putin to express strong concern about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Then he went soft again on America’s most aggressive enemy and complained like a malcontent child.
Amid recitations of his tired mantra – “no collusion” – Trump called former CIA Director John Brennan “a total lowlife” and said former US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has “gone haywire” because they have been calling attention to Russia’s attack on American democracy. Both men have served America for decades, working with presidents of both parties, and they were part of the group that confirmed the Russian campaign to drum up support for Trump’s candidacy for President.
Not content to bash public servants, Trump used a question about whether he spoke firmly to Putin to complain about his predecessor. Trump said he spoke “very strong on the fact that we can’t have meddling, we can’t have any of that, now look. We’re also living in a grown up world. Will a strong statement, you know, President Obama supposedly made a strong statement, nobody heard it, what they did hear is the statement he made to Putin’s very close friend. And that statement was not acceptable. Didn’t get very much play relatively speaking. But that statement was not acceptable. But I let him know we can’t have this, we’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Trump speaks in such a garbled way that it seems like he never wants anyone to really understand what he’s saying. However, there’s no mistaking that his intent was to deflect attention from the fact that he was weak in Putin’s presence. During his news conference in Helsinki with Putin, while the whole world watched, he praised the Russian President’s strength and explained, “He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Weak as Trump looked as he stood next to Putin, he looked even softer when he explained – more than 24 hours later – that he misspoke and intended to say “wouldn’t.” Only an incompetent President would make a mistake such as this, and only a fool would accept his lame explanation. Remarkably, Trump continued to show his fear of Putin when Glor gave him a chance to say Putin lied. “I don’t want to get into whether Putin lied,” said Trump, exhibiting astounding cowardice.
Although what Trump said was bad, it was what was missing from his interview with Glor that stands out. Where was the anger we should expect to hear from a President who knows a foreign power had attacked the integrity of our election? Where was his determined proposal for both defending our democracy and answering Russia’s offenses with action of his own?
No matter the party, the era, or the political conditions, a President’s first instinct should be to protect the country he loves from its true enemies. This feeling was evident in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s description of the Pearl Harbor attack – “a day that will live in infamy” – and in George W. Bush’s words after 9/11. “America has stood down enemies before,” said Bush, “and we will do so this time.”
For a more recent example of genuine, heartfelt anger directed at an American enemy, look at the photo of Barack Obama glowering at Putin at the time of Russia’s cyberattacks on the US election system. Dubbed the “death stare” by Britain’s Daily Mail, the moment came before anyone was even sure about the extent of Putin’s meddling.
Clearly Trump lacks the spine, and the loving paternal instinct, to stand as America’s defender. Instead, he seems to be focused on the threat to his own ego that the Russian election interference implies. Indeed, as more and more evidence of Putin’s election manipulation emerges, the shadow over Trump’s presidency grows larger. Thanks to the work of special counsel Robert Mueller and investigations by other authorities, we know that Russia mounted an aggressive effort to help Trump capture the White House. That effort included:
• Stealing documents from Democratic Party officials and disseminating them publicly
• Hacking into state election boards’ computers across the country
• Conducting massive pro-Trump propaganda efforts online
• Creating fake grassroots organizations to oppose Clinton and boost Trump
• Enticing Trump campaign officials with promises of documents that could damage Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Even by Putin’s own admissions, we know that he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election.
With thousands of keystrokes and outrageous acts, Putin’s minions offended the United States of America. These crimes were committed in secret, by agents intent on sowing confusion and disguising their efforts, which means that our understanding of these events has only come gradually.
The key factor in Trump’s response to Putin before and after the election has been his focus on his own interest above that of the United States. Instead of the anger and action one would expect from a President responding to an attack, he has repeatedly questioned the findings of US intelligence agencies and used the phrase “no collusion” to argue that he won the presidency fair and square. What clearly matters to the President is his own image and claim to power, not the integrity of the nation.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Face-to-face with the bad guy, Trump betrayed his duty and revealed his lack of protective passion. The last time any American politician made such a mistake was when presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was asked a hypothetical question, during a 1988 presidential debate, about imposing the death penalty on a man who killed his wife. Instead of flashing real anger at the thought of the crime, Dukakis offered an abstract answer that ended his political career. Trump, faced with an actual assault on America, demonstrates an even worse instinct by repeatedly denying the offense and embracing the offender.