Donald Trump

Trump's Presser with Putin Was Disgraceful. But No, It's Not 'Treason' to Meet with Russia.

"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."


Metzel Mikhail/ZUMA Press/Newscom

During a joint press conference Monday morning, President Donald Trump told the world that he accepted Vladimir Putin's dubious assertion that the Russian government did not meddle in America's 2016 election. In doing so, Trump contradicted his own intelligence officials, who remain confident that Russia was indeed responsible for the hack of Democratic National Committee emails, regardless of whether anyone within the Trump campaign colluded in this effort.

That Trump could stand next to Putin and go out of his way to please the autocratic leader was "disgraceful," in the words of CNN's Anderson Cooper. If Twitter is any indication, Cooper's sentiments are widely shared by people in media and politics, and not just the left-of-center ones. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wrote, "I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful." Fox News's Guy Benson called this one of Trump's "worst days as president." The Federalist's Mollie Hemmingway said Trump should have chosen different words. Even Rep. Peter King (R–N.Y.), ordinarily a reliable defender of Trump, said he "strongly disagrees" with the president's take on Russian interference.

This disappointment with Trump's behavior is well-justified. The president didn't have to bow to Putin, fully embracing every obvious lie the Russian leader had told him. He could have been polite without being craven. He could have signaled a desire to work toward more peaceful relations without coming across like a dupe.

But this does not mean it was a mistake for Trump to meet with Putin in the first place, or that the theory—promoted just days ago by New York magazine's Jonathan Chait—that Trump is some sort of Russian agent (and has been since 1987!) holds water. Former CIA chief John Brennan claims that Trump's performance was "nothing short of treasonous" and that it "rises to & exceeds the threshold of 'high crimes & misdemeanors.'" That's plainly wrong. And Rep. Eric Swalwell (D–Calif.), a frequent spokesperson for the #Resistance on cable news, was engaged in unhinged fearmongering when he tweeted this over the weekend:

Unsurprisingly, the most reasonable response to the presser came from the reliably levelheaded Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.) who said, "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." Diplomacy is good, and Democrats shouting "Treason!" whenever the president does something dumb is as obnoxious in the Trump years as it was when the Republicans did it during the Obama years. It's a mistake to indulge in grand conspiracy theorizing—Manchurian candidates! The Americans! Urinating sex workers!—to explain the president's actions when mundane incompetence and egomania fit just as nicely.