Elephants in the Room

How Much Damage Did Trump Cause in Helsinki?

The president’s disgraceful remarks could have disturbing results.

U.S. President Donald Trump discusses his summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with House Republicans in the Cabinet Room of the White House on July 17. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump discusses his summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with House Republicans in the Cabinet Room of the White House on July 17. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

After U.S. President Donald Trump’s Helsinki debacle, it is time to take stock of what the substantive damage caused by his conduct might entail. This is not to gloss over the anger in response to his betrayal of the United States in front of one of its most dedicated adversaries. I share that anger, and as rich as the English language is, its syntactic menu of fulminations and imprecations has been taxed to the limit this week as voices across the political spectrum have denounced Trump. Suffice to say it was one of the most appalling moments in the annals of presidential history.

But what might its actual effects be going forward on our country and our national interests? A potential damage assessment must begin with understanding that it wasn’t just about that dreadful day in Helsinki—it was the entire week that led up to it. Trump’s trashing of the NATO alliance, calling the European Union a “foe” of the United States, insulting British Prime Minister Theresa May and further weakening her fragile coalition, and blaming the United States first for the frictions in its relationship with Russia. Taken together, it was a terrible week for the Western alliance, or what we not long ago called the free world.

It is impossible to tell at this juncture just how much harm Trump’s diplomatic malpractice did to the United States and its interests, but I will here pose a few speculations and places to watch for lingering fallout.

The U.S. intelligence community

Anyone who has worked for or with the intelligence community can attest to the resilience, equanimity, and dedication of its professionals. But when the president disgraces the community on the world stage, alongside one of the country’s most cunning and hostile adversaries, there will be a cost. It may come in risky operations curtailed because intelligence professionals doubt the support of the president, in liaison relationships truncated because partner services do not trust the U.S. president’s commitment, or especially in aggressive countermeasures not taken against Russian information warfare because the president refuses to order them, as only the president can do. We will never know the timing or full extent of this damage, but that does not make it less real.

The 2018 elections

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats delivered—and then reiterated—the most emphatic warning possible about ongoing Russian active measures targeting U.S. infrastructure, especially the national elections this fall. By November, we will see to what extent this Russian hybrid warfare does its damage to U.S. democratic processes and institutions, especially given Trump’s refusal to defend, retaliate, deter, or otherwise counter the threat. And for those many congressional Republicans who have thus far failed to take the Russian threat seriously, consider this: Given Putin’s desire to sow chaos and division to further weaken the United States, what if he decides in this election cycle to support Democratic candidates so that a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will further bedevil the Trump administration? Of course, principle and duty alone should be sufficient to compel Republican members of Congress to do their part to protect our nation’s election system. But those who have been too quiescent about the ongoing Russian assault may eventually see that it hurts them too.

The Baltic States and Ukraine

These are catalogued together because they are the most obvious targets of an emboldened Putin’s next aggressive steps. Now that he has seen firsthand Trump’s supine posture toward him, Putin may perceive a window of opportunity for new coercive measures (or worse) against any of the Baltic States or Ukraine. After former President John F. Kennedy’s weak performance at the Vienna summit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961, Khrushchev decided to press his advantage by building the Berlin Wall and then deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba. The coming months will reveal if Putin makes a similar calculation.

NATO

By many measures, NATO should be the picture of resurgent strength, as Derek Chollet and others have noted, given increasing defense budgets among member states, more robust exercises, and new capabilities. But NATO’s bedrock has always been the political commitment of its strongest members, especially the United States. In the aftermath of Helsinki and Trump’s disgraceful interview with Tucker Carlson, NATO is a damaged and weakened institution. Trump’s misconduct toward our European allies also diminishes their leaders’ political standing to continue increasing their national defense budgets, as European publics recoil against anything Trump favors.

The Middle East

We do not know what, if any, agreements or indications Trump may have given to Putin on the Middle East in their two-hour private meeting. Given Trump’s predilections, however, it is quite possible that he signaled to Putin a further green light for Russia’s partnership with the Bashar al-Assad regime and growing footprint in the region. As Putin mulls how to exploit the many new openings Trump conceded to him, he may well turn to the Middle East as the most advantageous. The benefits of increased Russian influence in the Middle East will flow to Iran as well, to the further detriment of the United States and Israel.

The British government

While May’s many missteps have contributed to her present plight, Trump’s insults and criticisms of her further weakened her already fragile government. If this leads to a new round of elections, Trump may even have made it more likely that the radical leftist Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, becomes the next British prime minister, whether as head of a coalition or of an outright Labour government.

Bill Browder, Michael McFaul, and other Putin critics

That this category even needs mentioning shows what perilous straits we inhabit. Trump’s grotesque willingness to consider Putin’s demand for Russia to be able to interrogate some of his most effective critics, reiterated yesterday by the White House press secretary, has prompted justifiable outrage. Even entertaining the notion as Trump did, along with his muted reaction to Russia’s chemical assassination attempts against regime opponents, may further embolden Putin’s gangster behavior. It also puts at risk U.S. diplomats serving in repressive nations, as other governments see the president of the United States refusing to stand up for the people who serve under him.

We already know that Trump’s European misadventure was a disgrace. But just how much damage it actually did will become clear in the weeks and months to come.

[To read the full transcript of the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki on Monday—including the bit that the White House edited out from its transcript—click here.]

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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