Thomas L. Friedman: Trump sycophants put boss before their country

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NEW YORK — The second I finished watching President Donald 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 — 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.

The phases of this 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 Cohen. 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 Cohen. He replaced the last three with men so hungry for their jobs that they were ready to step over the bodies of their predecessors, whom, 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 FBI 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?

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 long-standing 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."

So, with the GOP 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 FBI 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 FBI 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?"

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."

Putting Trump first

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.

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.

Thomas L. Friedman writes for The New York Times.




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