Donald Trump has merited plenty of commentary over the first year and a half of his tenure in the White House. At the end of another bizarre and newsworthy week for the President, we must now add desperate – and dangerous – sycophancy to the lengthening charge sheet he faces.
That is the only conclusion after watching his astonishing performance in Helsinki on Monday following his summit with Vladimir Putin. As the Russian president looked impassively on in appreciation, the US president’s obsequious performance ironically brought to mind one of the nervous ‘apprentices’ who Mr Trump used to enjoy schooling when, prior to becoming the leader of the free world, he made his money as a celebrity in the American version of the TV show.
Here was the President of the United States fawning over a Russian hardman. The impression gained was of a figure desperate to obtain a measure of acceptance and praise from his new friend.
The press conference confirmed that Mr Trump believes protecting his own reputation – and the legitimacy of his 2016 election victory – is more important than investigating Russia’s attempts to wreck America’s democratic process. Astonishingly, it revealed he is prepared to sell out his own intelligence agencies – and exonerate Putin – in his attempt to do so. As ever, Trump tried to backtrack later and blame others when he saw the scale of the outrage at his performance. But the damage had been done.
Senator John McCain – a politician who knows the meaning of public sacrifice and the vital importance of our stand against men like Putin – put it brutally thus: the Helsinki press conference was, he said, “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate”. Hear, hear.
Sometimes you get to know much about a man by the company he lauds. Four years ago, it was Alex Salmond who stated his admiration for Putin’s effectiveness, adding: “He’s restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing.” This week Salmond was reprimanded by Ofcom for misleading viewers after reading out ‘audience’ tweets on his RT show which turned out to be written by staff, echoing Putin’s disinformation campaign.
This week, it was Trump’s turn to declare he trusted Putin more than his own people, his security and intelligence agencies, and his allies. Nothing attracts a wannabe strong man, it seems, than thuggish strength. And, in the case of both the former First Minister and current US president, Putin has – sadly – succeeded in that task.
To put Mr Trump’s appalling performance in context, it is worth just reminding ourselves of just some of Putin’s record in power. He has annexed Crimea, his proxies have shot down a civilian airliner, and he has supported the Syrian government as it has ruthlessly murdered its own people. In 2016, US intelligence agencies concluded that Russia was behind efforts to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the US election with state-authorised cyber attacks and fake news stories. Meanwhile no credible explanation exists other than that Russia was responsible for the poisoning on British soil of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury earlier this year. Nor is there a credible counter-narrative as to who was behind the death of a British national, Dawn Sturgess, on British soil last week – killed by Novichok poisoning.
Putin’s regime is a government that is contemptuous of international law and our democratic way of life. Yet, for the President of the United States, it is the European Union which is now to be deemed a “foe”, while Putin is America’s new best pal.
As Senator McCain remarked, to draw moral equivalence between a nation such as the USA, with its checks and balances on power, its history, and its traditions, and Putin’s Russia is as offensive as it is unbelievable. Where does all this end? The press conference will undoubtedly add to the growing fears of those who believe Mr Trump’s presidency heralds the end of the rules-based system of Western democratic norms. The America of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has fallen, they say, and the rest of us are all about to follow.
I beg to disagree. Mr Trump and Mr Putin’s cynical two-step this week may have delivered a cold chill to disturb this searing summer – and there is little doubt that the alliances which we have taken for granted in our lifetime are in crisis.
But we should continue to hope and believe in those who fight against the casual disposal of decades of earned freedoms that was witnessed this week. Mr McCain’s brave words – plus the condemnation from numerous congressmen and senators, both Democrat and Republican – show that American’s values are far from broken or forgotten in the corridors of power. And we should remember that Mr Trump’s narrow vision of America – blustering, boastful and bullying – simply doesn’t relate to the reality.
Last night, guests in Edinburgh had the good fortune to listen to Michelle Obama speak at a dinner hosted by Sir Tom Hunter. Two months ago, Bill Gates visited the Roslin Institute which is supporting the work of his foundation in tackling malnutrition in Africa. Next month, artists, comedians, musicians and cultural figures will pack out the capital’s venues in the biggest festival of creative endeavour on the planet. Mr Trump wants to have us believe there is only one America – his. He is wrong – and we should never forget it.
America does not conform to Mr Trump’s small and insular vision of it, nor does it have need of being made great again: it is already a hotbed of intellectual, cultural and technological greatness.
When I was in the reserve forces, I was always taught to salute the rank, not the person wearing it – that the position of General or Captain or Lieutenant endured beyond the man donning the rank-slide.
So it is with the Office of the President of the United States. The office – and national leadership it symbolises – continues irrespective of the character of the inhabitant of the White House.
Let’s not inflate Mr Trump’s ego even more by fearing him too much. Let’s instead remember that our values and our way of life are always stronger than one man, alone. And that while leaders all eventually recede into history, nations and alliances endure.