Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Donald Trump is President, but he is not king of America; the country is not his private property.
When he was running his “Trump Organization,” he was free to hold secret meetings – even with his enemies – to ignore everyone’s advice and then tell no one what transpired. But the US is not a wholly-owned subsidiary of Trumpworld, and the country needs answers about what happened in Helsinki. So far, we have virtually nothing. All we have is a new plan likely to make it all worse with another meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On Thursday, America’s top intelligence official, Director of National Security Dan Coats happened to be on stage, on camera, when he was informed by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that the White House had just tweeted yet another bombshell: Trump had invited Putin to visit the White House this fall. His reaction – a deep breath, exhalation, nervous laughter – confirms the danger. “That’s going to be special,” Coats said, to more nervous laughter in the audience.
Coats had already said he was not consulted about Trump’s Helsinki summit and would have advised against it. After hours spent with the Russian President, Trump went on to disparage the conclusions from Coats and other intelligence agencies: that Putin not only led attacks on US democracy in 2016 but continues to do so and plans further interference in US elections this fall, when Putin presumably will be Trump’s guest.
This, to put it mildly, is a travesty.
The dispute between Russia and the United States is not a Hatfield and McCoy feud – the notorious decades long dispute between two families in the South — perpetuated over ancient grievances. There is a reason why the US and its allies imposed sanctions on Russia. The tensions are caused by ongoing grievances, of which Russia’s assault on American democracy is only one. Russia continues perpetrating egregious actions against its own citizens, against its neighbors and against America’s allies. In Russia, Putin’s critics are routinely suspiciously murdered. Those who go against the Russian President are not safe even in England.
But Trump, for reasons that may ultimately be explained by the Mueller investigation, is determined to transform America’s ties to Russia. His actions are already affecting US foreign policy on symbolic, substantive, and shameful fronts.
A recent example is the Trump administration’s silence during this week’s anniversary of the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 people, most of them citizens of the Netherlands, a loyal ally of the US. Dutch soldiers fought in Afghanistan to support America’s post-9/11 campaign and dozens of them died there.
An international investigation concluded that MH17 was shot down by a missile belonging to Russian military forces in Ukraine. This year, as it did on every anniversary, the State Department prepared a strong statement. It called on Russia to stop its “callous disinformation campaign and acknowledge its role.” But the statement was reportedly deleted from the State Department website, and Washington remained silent.
Trump has been aligning his views with Putin on NATO, attacking newest member Montenegro, which is very telling and enormously troubling.
Americans still don’t know what happened in that Helsinki meeting, but Russia has been making intriguing comments. The day after the summit, Russia’s defense ministry said it was ready to implement the agreements the two presidents reached. The next day, Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, speaking in Moscow, vaguely described “important verbal agreements,” and on Thursday, Putin said in a speech that he and Trump had made “useful agreements.”
To what did Trump commit America? Nobody is quite sure. Coats doesn’t know. The National Security Council doesn’t seem to fully know. According to a spokesman, they are still “reviewing the discussion.” The top US general in the Middle East doesn’t know.
The President gave us a hint on Twitter, referencing “things discussed” in his “very successful” summit, including, terrorism, the Middle East (possibly meaning Syria), Israel, Ukraine, trade, and other topics.
What we did hear in the Helsinki press conference is reason enough for alarm. On stage there, Trump characterized as “an incredible offer” Putin’s proposal to have Russian agents question American citizens, including former US ambassador Mike McFaul, in exchange for US officials interviewing indicted Russian agents. The idea was so outrageous that the Senate rejected it by a 98-0 vote. On Thursday, the White House said that Trump now disagrees with Putin’s proposal.
There is talk of other plans. Antonov said one agreement was to “cooperate” in Syria. Congress, in its National Defense Authorization Act, banned “military-to-military cooperation” between the US and Russia after Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The head of US forces in the Middle East says he knows nothing of a new agreement, which could require congressional action.
But Congress, part of whose job is to prevent presidential abuse of power, is guilty of gross negligence. With US intelligence repeatedly confirming Russian cyberattacks on the elections, the Republican-controlled House defeated a proposal to increase security spending for the elections.
Remember, Trump once, incredibly, touted a Putin idea to establish a joint US-Russian cybersecurity force. The idea seemed to resurface in Helsinki when Putin suggested that the US and Russia should work together to go through evidence of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
So, now, when we still don’t know what happened in Helsinki, Trump’s Washington invite to Putin is scandalous.
Let’s speak plainly: The United States is currently investigating whether agents for Trump and Putin worked together, secretly, illegally, to subvert the 2016 election. No matter how many times Trump inserts the words “no collusion” into unrelated sentences, we still don’t know what occurred, and what may or may not be happening now. The special counsel has issued dozens of indictments, so this is not a “witch hunt.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
Trump’s behavior has done nothing to allay the worst fears of many Americans, quite the contrary. Against this reality, how is it possible that Trump was allowed to meet in secret with Putin? Against that reality, plus the mysteries surrounding the first meeting, how is it possible that the US government, people, institutions, will seemingly allow it to happen again? This is malpractice of the highest order.
Trump is not king. No matter what his approval ratings among Republicans, government officials have a duty to the country. Standing by and just watching another meeting take place – and failing to find out what happened in the last one – would amount to a dereliction of duty.