Trump’s Helsinki Disgrace

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Nearly a year after Donald Trump crippled his presidency by saying there was “blame on both sides” after a scrum between white nationalists and anti-racist protesters in Virginia, he has created another Charlottesville moment. This time it was on the world stage.

Trump’s 40-minute press conference on Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin was an exercise in nauseating moral equivalency. In Trump’s view, there are good nations on both sides.

Start with the most obvious example. When asked whether he would condemn Putin for interfering in the U.S. election, Trump launched into a bizarre rant about the Democratic National Committee’s “missing server.” The president of the United States should know better, particularly after Robert Mueller’s latest indictment, which detailed how a dozen Russian military intelligence agents hacked the email accounts of leading Democrats.

Then Trump went further. After Putin said he would allow U.S. law enforcement officials to come to Moscow and watch as his police question the 12 agents Mueller indicted, Trump responded by calling it “an incredible offer.”

It isn’t. Putin was falsely equating his own country’s information operation against the Democratic Party with the U.S.’s refusal to recognize an arrest warrant for William Browder, the chief executive of Hermitage Capital. Browder has spent the last nine years of his life pursuing justice for Sergei Magnitsky, his Russian lawyer, who died in prison in 2009 after exposing embezzlement by government officials.

And who knows what Trump said in private to Putin; they met alone (with only translators present) for two hours before meeting the press. But Trump’s failure to summon a micron of public outrage at Putin’s false equivalency is telling.

This is, after all, the same president who called the European Union “a foe” and criticized Germany as “captive” to Russia because it gets so much energy from Russia. Putin, meanwhile, is merely a competitor — and that’s a compliment, Trump was at pains to explain.

He may not realize it, but Trump is seeking the wolf’s cooperation to protect the hen house. Both Putin and Trump said the U.S. and Russia could work together to protect Syrian refugees, millions of whom have fled to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Europe. One reason there are so many Syrian refugees? Because Putin’s air force has indiscriminately bombed Syrian civilians.

Putin also suggested that the two sides could work on cybersecurity, something Trump agreed to a year ago after their first chat. Again, this is seeking Russian cooperation on a problem Russia has created. As the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said last week, the Russian threat to America’s digital infrastructure is now at the same level — “blinking red” — as the warnings of a terror attack before Sept. 11.

Even on arms control, Trump is playing the sucker. Right now, Russia is in violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, something Putin himself confirmed in March when he unveiled a new line of nuclear weapons (and an animation showing a Russian nuclear attack on the U.S.). Why would Trump seek new arms control agreements with Russia when it keeps violating the old ones?

None of this is proof, despite predictable hyperbole by some Democrats, that Trump is a Russian agent. And the president’s defenders are correct to point out that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all sought, in their own way, rapprochement with Putin’s Russia. So why shouldn’t Trump be given the chance to succeed where his predecessors failed?

The answer is that Trump has, or should have, the benefit of their experience. All previous presidents have eventually come to the same conclusion: When we try to work with him, Putin burns us.

The only sliver of encouraging news from this meeting is that, despite the good vibes between the two leaders, they didn’t announce any new agreements. Now Trump’s advisers will have to work to keep it that way. Russia under Putin is the equivalent of geopolitical poison. It should be quarantined, not enticed into cooperation.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast, and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.