Tom Friedman: On Trump, Helsinki, Russia, Republican Party and What Else

August 7, 2018

Tom Friedman: On Trump, Helsinki, Russia, Republican Party and What Else


The second I finished watching President Trump fawning over Vladimir Putin in Helsinki — refusing to defend the conclusions of his own intelligence services about Russia’s interference in our 2016 elections — I knew I was seeing something I’d never seen before. It took a few days to figure it out, but now it’s obvious: I was seeing a U.S. president put Russia first, not America first.

On each key question — how much Russian agents were involved in trying to tip our elections, how that issue should be further investigated, and Putin’s behavior on the world stage generally (like his government’s involvement in the downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, the murder of Russian journalists and the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K.) — Trump embraced Putin’s explanations and excuses over the judgments of his own spy agencies, Justice Department, European allies and bedrock American values.

I like what Arnold Schwarzenegger said to Trump afterward: “You’re the president of the United States. You shouldn’t do that. What’s the matter with you?”

What’s the matter with you? I don’t know the definitive answer to that question, but I know that it will be an increasing problem as we enter Phase 3 of the Trump presidency.

Phase 1 saw Trump unhinged but bound — bound by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Economic Adviser Gary Cohn. In Phase 1 Trump said and did plenty of crazy stuff, but these key aides limited the damage.

Phase 2 has seen Trump unhinged and unbound. Trump has neutered Kelly, distanced himself from Mattis and sacked Tillerson, McMaster and Cohn. He replaced the last three with men so hungry for their jobs that they were ready to step over the bodies of their predecessors, who, they knew, were pushed out for standing up to Trump on policies and principles.

Watching longtime anti-Russia hawks — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton — shucking off everything they’ve said over the years and ignoring Trump’s coddling of Putin and his trashing of the F.B.I. in order to grab jobs they’d long coveted is witnessing careerism, sycophancy and cynicism on an industrial scale.

But that sets up Trump Phase 3: unhinged and unbound and unintended.

What are the unintended consequences of a U.S. president simultaneously starting trade wars with China, the European Union and Canada, putting Russia first over America first, preferring Putin and other autocrats over our traditional democratic allies, slashing corporate taxes and supercharging the national debt — without any compensating tax increases or spending cuts, thereby putting pressure on interest rates and the trade deficit — ignoring climate change and eliminating all restraints on the exploitation of fossil fuels, breaking the Iran nuclear deal and now threatening war with Iran, limiting immigration into our already tight labor markets, steadily eroding Obamacare and violating so many norms of how a president should behave toward his staff, allies and Americans not from his own party?

What are the unintended consequences of all of these at once — none of which have been the product of traditional interagency analyses or expert hearings in Congress, but simply the crude fulfillment of campaign promises that emerged from Trump’s gut?

Who knows? Maybe there will be some good consequences — maybe China and Iran will cave to Trump’s demands; maybe the economy and stock market will continue to surge; maybe the early promising signs from Trump’s impulsive outreach to North Korea will bear fruit.

What I know for sure, though, is that no U.S. president can break so many longstanding relationships, ignore so much basic science and economics and violate so many norms of presidential behavior without unintended consequences. But they will take time to play out.

For instance, as Nader Mousavizadeh, co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners, a geopolitical consulting firm based in London, put it to me: “What America’s allies in Europe learned from Trump’s recent visit is that the United States, at his direction, is acting more like predator than partner. They are concluding that Trump is not looking for a better deal with the European Union. He’s looking to destroy the European Union. And even though they understand the difference between the president and the government he leads, they know the West may never be the same again.”

So, with the G.O.P. having completely folded and with the few Trump advisers with spine neutered or fired, is there any restraint left around him?

There is one critical defense line left — that formed by F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. By coincidence, two days after Helsinki, all four spoke at the Aspen Security Forum, which I attended.

Wray, Coats and Rosenstein all rose to the occasion. They knew Helsinki was a test of their institutions and themselves, and they passed it with flying colors — always putting America first and not Trump first when it really mattered.


Wray was unflinching. Asked about Putin’s denials in Helsinki of involvement in our election, Wray said: “He’s got his view. He’s expressed his view. I can tell you what my view is. The intelligence community’s assessment has not changed, my view has not changed, which is that Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and that it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”

Wray also let lawmakers and other critics know that their conspiracy theories about the F.B.I. and Justice Department’s Russia investigations were not intimidating him: “I’m a low-key, understated guy, but that should not be mistaken for what my spine is made out of. I’ll leave it at that.”

Coats had already demonstrated his steel and integrity before coming to the conference. Immediately after Trump’s performance in Helsinki impugning the conclusions of the intelligence agencies, Coats put out a statement defending them. He gave the White House a heads-up that it was coming — but did not ask, “Captain, may I?”

Coats said: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”

Rosenstein backed up Coats 100 percent, declaring: “As Director Coats made clear, these [Russian] actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not.”

Unfortunately, the secretary of homeland security showed no such spine. Asked if the Russians had intervened to favor Trump, Nielsen said with a straight face: “I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party. I think what we’ve seen on the foreign influence side is they were attempting to intervene and cause chaos on both sides.”

That was the sound of a senior national security official putting Trump first, not America first. Nielsen proved to be a shameful coward. I sure hope we do not have a homeland security crisis on her watch.

Image result for Tom Friedman: On Trump, Helsinki, Russia, Republican Party and What Else

Which brings me back to Schwarzenegger’s question — “What’s the matter with you?” It applies not just to the president but also all the people enabling him. Why do they so freely sacrifice their own reputations and their own integrity to defend a man with no integrity, a man who would sell each and every one of them down the river the second he decided it was in his interest? It is inexplicable to me.

At least Stormy Daniels got paid.




An earlier version of this column misstated the name of a former economic adviser to President Trump. He is Gary Cohn; not Cohen.


A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: America First or Trump First?.

5 thoughts on “Tom Friedman: On Trump, Helsinki, Russia, Republican Party and What Else

  1. Trump’s frantic weekend tweetstorm shows that he knows that his son Donald Trump Jr. is in serious legal trouble. But, however, nobody was prepared for what Trump ended up doing: confessing to the crimes that took place with respect to the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. He’s losing it because he knows his son may be going to jail.

    Here’s what he tweeted about the Trump Tower meeting: “Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower. This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!”

    This tweet means Trump finally confessed that the meeting was an attempt at obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russians. Of course it was not “totally legal” but an illegal attempt to receive a gift of value from a foreign entity on behalf of a campaign, as well as attempting to illegally receive stolen goods. This tweet may have proved other charges like treason and conspiracy against the United States. It has proved Don Jr’s guilt while attempting to show the president was innocent, by saying “I did not know about it!”

    While the president has thrown his own son under the bus, he may not have saved himself by claiming that he wasn’t in on the conspiracy. We’ve been told that both Michael Cohen and Rick Gates will testify that Donald Trump did in fact know about the meeting before it took place. Clearly Donald Trump would not be making such desperate moves if he wasn’t out of options. Clearly Donald Trump knows that all of his lies are falling apart and the walls are indeed closing in around him.For many months Trump has been shouting at Mueller: “No collusion, witch hunt!” Now all his lies are falling apart.

    During an appearance on Fox News’ Outnumbered program on Monday, the highly-respected judge and Fox News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano gave his in-depth legal response to Trump’s tweet on Sunday throwing Don Jr. under the bus, making very clear that in his opinion Donald Trump Jr. can now legally be charged for committing the crime of conspiracy. He said this is true even if Russians did not give him damaging information about then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, as he and others have always maintained: “The crime is the agreement.” Trump’s tweet has increased the likelihood that Don Jr. will end up going to jail.

    Concerning whether or not there was “collusion” Napolitano explained to the show’s co-hosts: “There is no such law and there is no such word in the law as collusion, that’s a Hollywood and media term. The legal term is conspiracy. If the Trump campaign and the Russians work together, but was there an agreement to work together? The crime is the agreement. Whether the agreement was put into place or not. That’s what Bob Mueller is looking for.”

    Judge Napolitano has taken away any doubt that Donald Trump Jr. committed at least one felony in setting up the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. Not only that, but he also made clear that the crime is easy to prove and Mueller has all the evidence he needs to convict the younger Trump and send him to jail.

    And it’s Donald Trump who is sending his son to jail.

    • Yes, the Blue Wave is real. Today, Republican candidate Troy Balderson eked out an apparent victory in Ohio’s 12th congressional district special election beating Democratic opponent Danny O’Connor by less than one percentage point in a district Trump won by double digits in 2016. This OH-12 district is owned by the Republican since 1939. This election today has the Republican panic growing. That’s because many Republicans are voting Democrat. NBC News asked a voter who labeled himself a conservative why he voted the way he did the Ohio House special election. He answered that if Republicans weren’t going to put a brake on Trump, voters would vote for Democrats who would.

      I believe the Democrats will capture the House of Representatives, and win big. And there will be a record number of women in the House. The Democrats may be able to capture the Senate, too. If they do, I figure it may be about two seats.

  2. Yes they said that DNC will do well in 2016 elections. I am sure they will do equally well in Mid-Terms. We will see.

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