There was nothing normal about the July 7 meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit in Hamburg. The mere scheduling of this friendly chat handed Putin a PR victory, which the Kremlin-controlled media exploited gleefully. Not only was the Russian dictator not isolated or under pressure for invading Ukraine, enabling Bashar al-Assad’s genocide in Syria, and interfering in the U.S. presidential election, but the American president announced that it was an honor to meet with him.
Putin hardly needs encouragement to pursue further hostile acts. As fashionable as it may be to blame everything to do with Russia on Trump, the above-listed crimes all took place during the presidency of Barack Obama. Putin likely would not recognize deterrence if he saw it. Yet replacing Obama’s worthless red lines with Trump’s red carpet only fuels the Russian threat to the world order.
The headlines are all about apparent collusion between the Trump team and the Kremlin during the 2016 campaign. But what if Trump is still sharing information with Russia? We know that Putin isn’t an ally of the United States. What we don’t know is if he’s an ally of the president of the United States. Colluding with Russian intelligence as a presidential candidate and lying about it may not be illegal. What about doing so after taking an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution? It was a bad sign that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the only senior American figure present at the meeting between Trump and Putin. While he was discreet enough not to wear the friendship medal he was awarded personally by Putin in 2013, Tillerson cannot be considered a check on Trump’s mysterious affection for the Russian. Tillerson has been scarcely perceptible in his six months at his post. He has acquiesced to an empty State Department and to having important diplomatic duties handed over to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Tillerson’s sycophancy and ineptitude have put him in reach of being a worse secretary of state than Hillary Clinton or John Kerry. And who knows what comes out of Trump’s mouth in meetings like this? He shared classified intelligence with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office in May and showed little understanding of the dangers of blabbing to America’s geopolitical opponents. The complete lack of discretion or impulse control evident daily in Trump’s Twitter feed can hardly be expected to vanish in private conversations with foreign leaders he is eager to impress. Our only reports on what was discussed by Trump and Putin at their meeting come from Tillerson and Lavrov, and they are equally hopeless. The Kremlin crafts responses designed to flatter Trump personally while making ridiculous claims of progress and cooperation. Trump is himself an unreliable narrator due to equal measures of ignorance and mendacity. When forced to choose which side to believe under such conditions, it’s safest to assume that neither account should be trusted. Trump is attempting to run the American government as a family concern, from his daughter Ivanka’s briefly taking his seat at the G20 to his sons and son-in-law holding ill-defined mandates with no official accountability.
This is ideal for Putin, who prefers to do business with a few pliable individuals behind closed doors. No doubt he has said as much to Trump, telling him how great men shouldn’t have to worry about the petty concerns of legislators, journalists, and judges—or unimportant nations like Ukraine.
Nepotism is inefficient and corrupt at best. It also has unique dangers. When things go badly wrong—when a president’s son admits to colluding with a hostile foreign power during a campaign, for example—what won’t that president be willing to sacrifice to protect his family?