President Trump's shameful surrender to Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit revealed a threat to U.S. security far greater than Russia's hack of the 2016 election:
The president himself.
The situation is far more dangerous, and the threat is more urgent than most Americans realize. The president's shameful performance at Helsinki provided all necessary warning.
In recent days, Trump has openly embraced Putin's worldview: disdain for NATO, disdain for U.S. intelligence agencies, disdain for our European allies — and an effort to undermine them all. The president's words and actions, in Europe and at home, prove this to be true even as he denies it.
Most perilous, Trump imagines himself a match for the despots whose company he prefers to democratic leaders. He falsely believes his unique skills will enable him to best other strongmen.
To the contrary, at Helsinki, Putin ran rings around Trump (and we don't know what happened in their one-on-one meeting, which the Russians probably recorded). The president's performance revealed more clearly than ever his unfitness to be our foreign policy leader.
Only a few examples of Trump's behavior in Helsinki – and since his return – are needed to set off alarms.
First, the president refused to take advice from his top advisers, who are far more hawkish on Russia than he is. Trump's insistence that he knows all, and has no need to be briefed, makes him a patsy for serious opponents, as was painfully apparent in Helsinki.
Trump never even held a meeting of his principals, including top Cabinet officials, before departing. He preferred a spontaneous meeting without a clear agenda, as if this were a real-estate negotiation, not a summit with a dangerous foe. And once there, he clearly ignored the advice of Russia-savvy National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Russia adviser Fiona Hill.
Trump's willful ignorance was painfully visible at the news conference, where he openly praised Putin suggestions that were clearly harmful to U.S. security. One example: the Russian's disingenuous suggestion that Robert Mueller's team could question Russian spies, if they in turn could grill U.S. intelligence agents who worked on issues that annoyed Russia. Trump twice praised this "incredible offer," making himself look foolish.
The president's blindness was also on display when the two leaders answered questions on Syria. Putin cynically trumpeted — at length — their talk of cooperation on humanitarian issues, while Trump stood silent.
Yet Russia is creating a new humanitarian crisis right now with massive bombing of civilians in southern Syria. Putin wants nothing more than to have the West find the funds to feed the refugees Moscow is creating. The credulous Trump appeared to believe that Putin was handing him a victory. One can only wonder what he conceded in private to Putin — on Syria, Crimea or nuclear weapons — given his aversion to details.
Second, the president seemed unaware that his constant flattery of Putin made him appear like a supplicant rather than a leader.
"Russian news outlets portrayed Putin as confident and the dominant party," wrote the Moscow Times. "It seems as though Putin was dragging Trump along," trumpeted the main state-controlled Channel One news.
"Oh absolutely, Putin feels the victor," I was told by Yevgenia Albats, one of Moscow's bravest independent journalists. "There is a celebration in Moscow. Now Putin is running the world."
Which brings me to point three, the most deeply disturbing. In Helsinki, Trump undercut his own country. He made repeatedly clear that he believed Putin's denials of Russian meddling over the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies.
The president's efforts at damage control after coming under withering GOP criticism back home are laughable to anyone who watched his news conference. His claim that he warned Putin in private not to meddle lacks credibility after he publicly trashed U.S. intelligence agencies alongside the Russian leader. Moreover, Trump has already reverted to form, insisting that the meddling could have been done by others, not Russia. And he still refuses to organize a government-wide program to fight cyber espionage.
Russians notice this. So does the world. They see that Trump was forced to read a scripted "clarification" with which he disagrees. And that he really takes Putin's side.
To an autocrat, such capitulation smells of weakness. And Trump capitulated to Putin again as soon as the summit was over. In an interview with Fox, the president raised serious questions about whether he supported Article Five of NATO, which commits all members to come to the aid of any member who is attacked.
"Trump made clear he is uneasy about Article Five," said Russian journalist Albats. "It's like telling Putin, 'Don't worry if you decide to occupy the Baltics, don't worry.'" Trump's European tour, she said, handed Putin "the main goal of his international politics, to break up the West."