The first responsibility of the president of the United States is to protect the country from foreign aggression. But Donald Trump can’t fulfill that responsibility, because he believes that any acknowledgment of foreign interference in the 2016 election would threaten his legitimacy. That diagnosis of the president’s mental incapacity may sound harsh, but it isn’t coming from the president’s critics. It’s coming from his own party.
On Sunday, congressional Republicans fanned out on TV to deliver a common message. Ordinarily, such messages aim at a broad audience. This time, they targeted a single viewer: Trump. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Rep. Trey Gowdy spoke directly to the president, often looking into the camera and occasionally pleading with him by name. They staged a collective intervention, begging him to understand that Russian interference could be true even if collusion by Trump’s campaign wasn’t.
I think the president gets this confused. If you suggest that Russians meddled in 2016, he goes to the idea that, “Well, I didn’t collude with them.” You didn’t collude with the Russians, or at least I haven’t seen any evidence. But, Mr. President, they meddled in the elections. They stole [John] Podesta’s emails. They hacked into the DNC. It could be us next. It could some other power, not just Russia. Harden our electoral infrastructure for 2018. Mr. President, Dan Coats is right. The red lights are blinking.
Graham offered this as a defense of Trump’s kowtowing before Vladimir Putin. It’s a less damning explanation than kompromat or treachery, but it’s still damning. A president who can’t separate his innocence from Russia’s, even after a year and a half in office—and who has to be implored to listen to his national security team and prepare for the next attack—is clearly unfit to protect the country. To get Trump to care about the attacks, Graham has to warn him that Russia could target “us,” the GOP, next time. That’s an implicit acknowledgment that Trump doesn’t care about foreign attacks, as long as they favor him.
Gowdy, speaking on Fox News Sunday, made the same case. He lamented Trump’s “equivocation” about Russia’s role in the election:
There is no way you can listen to the evidence and not conclude, not that the Democrats were the victims, but the United States of America were the victims. We were the victims of what Russia did in 2016, and it ought to be a source of unity and rallying around the fact that we are never going to allow this to happen again, and we’re going to punish those who try to do it.
Gowdy went on to explain the roots of Trump’s hostility toward the Russia investigation. He concluded with a plea to Trump: “It is possible to conclude that Russia interfered with us and it still does not delegitimize your presidency. That’s where I would encourage the president to go.”
Gowdy’s main points were identical to Graham’s. First, the president was having great difficulty separating his interests from Russia’s. Second, Russia had attacked not just Trump’s domestic opponents, but the whole United States. Gowdy’s plea that the attack “ought to be a source of unity” in confronting and punishing Russia was an indirect affirmation of Trump’s failure to respond to the attack as an American, rather than as a partisan.
Rubio, appearing on State of the Union, offered a similar defense. Trump “views any sort of admission of Russian interference as admission of collusion,” the senator argued. This, he explained, clouds Trump’s ability to acknowledge Russia’s “indisputable” interference. Likewise, Rubio lamented the president’s failure to separate FBI surveillance of Carter Page, Trump’s former foreign policy adviser, from surveillance of Trump himself:
This is not Trump-related. Even before the campaign, [Page] went around the world bragging about his connections in Russia. So they [the FBI] knew who he was before the campaign. Then you see the guy kind of gravitating around a leading campaign, and then other things came up on their screen. And they say, “We’ve got to look at this guy.” And that’s what the FISA application sort of lays out. By the Trump campaign’s own admission, Carter Page was not a big player in their campaign. I don’t believe that them looking into Carter Page means they were spying on the campaign.
Rubio seemed baffled by Trump’s insistence on attacking the FBI’s surveillance of Page.
Even after 18 months in office, Trump reflexively defends anyone who has been monitored, accused, or prosecuted as part of the Russia investigation. He can’t distinguish his innocence from the innocence of the people around him, no matter how tenuous the connection. On Monday morning, despite Rubio’s best efforts, the president was at it again:
Trump’s enemies on the left have long speculated about his peculiar behavior around Putin and the Russia investigation. Some say Trump simply admires strongmen. Others think he’s compromised by video recordings of sexual or excretory acts. Others suspect that he’s indebted to, or has been involved in money laundering for, Russian oligarchs. But the alternative explanation, the one on which Republican lawmakers openly agree, is bad enough: Trump sees any accusation against Russia as an accusation against himself. No one who thinks that way can faithfully serve as president of the United States.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus