Of course, Mr. Trump used the same personal touch at the summit with Kim Jong Un, and we know that the president places great value in establishing these types of direct ties. But the conspiracy theorists would have us think Trump and Putin were locked in a room hatching schemes, which shows how childish and unserious the president’s critics have become.
The summit began shortly after the Justice Department released a curiously-timed indictment of 12 Russian agents for alleged hacking activities aimed at Democrats in 2016. We also learned about the ownership stake of a Russian oligarch in Maryland’s election system, a state Hillary Clinton won by 26 percentage points. Shocking. But oddly enough there were no indictments of Russians who were also trying to hack the Republican National Committee in 2016, which the Justice Department probably saw as too confusing for the witch-hunt narrative.
Talking with Russia isn’t actually treason
The mere fact of a U.S. president seeking better relations with Russia should not be controversial. President Barack Obama certainly did his best, blaming the George W. Bush administration for souring relations between the two powers. We had Hillary Clinton’s famous 2009 “Russian reset,” complete with a mistranslated red button stolen from a hotel jacuzzi.
Obama mocked Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in a 2012 debate for his remark that Russia was America’s “biggest geopolitical threat,” saying “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” And who can forget Mr. Obama’s 2012 hot-mic moment assuring outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” in dealing with Moscow after the election?
And was Obama ever flexible. He responded to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea by imposing limited sanctions on a few officials and pleading with Moscow to reverse course (which it didn’t). He dismissed Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria as a sign of weakness, and adopted a wait and see posture that was essentially wait and do nothing.
He was more than happy to have Moscow’s assistance negotiating the flawed nuclear agreement with Russia’s client state Iran. And in September 2016, after he was informed of alleged Russia attempts to influence the U.S. election, he personally told Vladimir Putin to “cut it out,” threatening — but later lamely discarding — “serious consequences.”
Trump could avoid Russia, but he won’t
So for Democrats to now invoke the ghost of Joe McCarthy and cry treason at Trump’s efforts to improve relations with Moscow has more than a whiff of hypocrisy. Besides, do they want relations to get worse? Should the United States purposely freeze out the second (or maybe first) largest nuclear power in the world? Yet if Trump took a hard line with the Kremlin, his critics would say he was trying to conceal his collusion, so it’s a no-win situation.
The easiest thing to do politically would be to avoid Russia. The president did not have to attend this summit meeting, especially with the midterm elections months away and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s expected report looming. He could have simply avoided both the issue and the optics.
But Donald Trump did not become president by doing the easy or expected thing. His political M.O. is to disrupt the opposition by owning the downside. A summit with Vladimir Putin is the perfect Trumpian way to say to his frantic critics that he couldn’t care less what they think. And it may force some of the more thoughtful ones to begin to consider the possibility that President Trump is right, and the entire Russian collusion narrative has been a lie.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins.