High-level meetings between heads of state set the tone for relations and signal where leaders would like to stake their positions. In that respect, Monday’s press conference between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin rightly raised outrage and brought condemnation from both Republicans and Democrats who say the U.S. president didn’t plant a flag for American democracy.
President Trump declined to say he trusted U.S. intelligence agencies more than Putin’s denials when it comes to claims Russian operatives attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Intelligence agencies long ago uncovered evidence of efforts to manipulate public dialog through social media. Special prosecutor Robert Mueller just last week handed down indictments against 12 Russian agents now accused of hacking into computers.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan underlined this when he said, “There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues to attempt to undermine democracy here and around the world.”
While not directly criticizing the president, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said, “From the President on down, we must do everything in our power to protect our democracy by securing future elections from foreign influence and interference, regardless of what Vladimir Putin or any other Russian operative says.”
The president said the subject consumed “a great deal of time” in the closed-door session between the two leaders, but he refused to publicly defend U.S. intelligence efforts. He also tweeted prior to the meeting that “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity” were behind poor relations between the nations, which Russia quickly “liked” and then replied with, “We agree.” He later said he felt both nations were to blame. But make no mistake, there is no moral equivalency here.
We know the president has supporters. They like his selections for the Supreme Court and put him in the White House because his America-first approach resonated with them. But he had a real chance Monday to put his stamp on America first, championing the rule of law, democracy and protecting the land from outside attacks. He didn’t do it, and that’s disturbing.
Since the end of World War II, U.S. diplomatic efforts regarding first the Soviet Union, and then Russia and the Russian Federation, have been fairly consistent regardless of which political party was in power. This mutual respect among past presidents and a current administration have been important in maintaining a consistency in terms of aims and expectations for American foreign policy.
In addition, the president seemed too eager to fall back on old political talking points.
In his opening remarks he said, “I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics.” However, he quickly followed that by turning political, attacking alleged misdeeds by the Hillary Clinton campaign and touting his own victory in 2016 rather than directly confronting Putin with the evidence of Russian interference.
So what now? How should the country move forward?
Diplomacy and national interests must transcend politics — always. So our diplomats, including former Utah governor and ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman Jr., and the intelligence agencies must address the following questions:
- The Russian invasion of the Crimean peninsula soured relations between Putin and the U.S. What, if anything, has changed to allow the U.S. to feel differently about this? Would renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia yield some concessions regarding Crimea? If so, what?
- How would Russia help the U.S. and China deal with belligerence from North Korea? What, specifically, is Putin prepared to do to convince Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons program?
- What common ground can the two nations find in solving the Syrian conflict? The U.S. has long supported rebel forces, while Russia supports the regime of Bashar Assad. While military leaders from both countries have been cooperating with the common aim of fighting terrorists in the region, what are the long-term solutions in Syria?
- What was Russia’s involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Great Britain? British officials say evidence links this crime to the same organization believed to be responsible for trying to influence U.S. elections.
- Questions about Russian meddling in U.S. elections are far from resolved. The U.S. must continue to press Putin on the subject, forcing Russians to confront evidence and answer difficult questions. Putin has offered to allow access to U.S. investigators. How would this happen, and how much access would be provided? Also, what would Russia demand in exchange?
We hope President Trump will pursue the question of meddling without regard to the political issues of 2016. The idea of a foreign nation even attempting to influence U.S. elections is unacceptable.
One of the chief duties of the commander in chief is to create certainty at home and abroad. This past week, the president's uneven performance on the world stage has created uncertainty for allies, U.S. citizens and global and domestic markets.
Real leadership requires both sustained focus and tough diplomacy. Monday’s summit was an uncertain start.