This week, at the G-7 meeting in France, President Donald Trump stood before the world and, for three horrifying minutes, displayed utter incomprehension of allegiance to the United States.
The topic was Russia. During the meeting, Trump lobbied his fellow heads of state to invite Russia back into the G-7. This vexed the other leaders, because Russia had been suspended from the group in 2014 for a good reason: It had invaded and annexed Crimea, which was then part of Ukraine. Since its suspension, Russia has done a lot for Trump. According to former special counsel Robert Mueller, the Russian government committed crimes to help Trump win the U.S. presidential election in 2016. But Russia has done nothing to rectify its seizure of Crimea. On Monday, at a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump was asked why, in view of Russia’s offenses, it should be invited to the next G-7 meeting.
Trump replied, matter-of-factly, that the seizure of Crimea was no offense to him.
Crimea, he explained, had been “taken away from President Obama, not taken away from President Trump.” According to Trump, the invasion irked Barack Obama because he had made a commitment to the victimized country—“President Obama was helping Ukraine”—and because Obama resented that “President Putin outsmarted President Obama.” The episode “was embarrassing to him,” Trump said of his predecessor, and therefore Obama “wanted Russia to be out” of what was then the G-8. Since this was Obama’s beef, Trump concluded, Putin should now be readmitted to the group.
Trump’s answer clarifies why he continues to work for Russia and against the United States, even after Mueller failed to prove that Trump and Putin colluded during the 2016 election. Trump has no sense of national loyalty, and he views the United States government, prior to his presidency, as an enemy. This makes him a ready instrument of Putin and other dictators who have tangled with the United States.
Let’s take the elements of Trump’s answer one by one. Start with his claim that Crimea was “taken away from President Obama.” Actually, Crimea was taken from Ukraine. Trump can’t comprehend that, because it isn’t about him or his personal rivals. So he defines the invasion instead as a defeat of Obama—whom Trump regards as his nemesis—and therefore as evidence of Trump’s superiority.
The word “outsmarted,” which Trump repeated five times in his answer, is significant. Trump has no conception of justice or human rights. All he understands is winning and losing. If you win, that makes you better—in Trump’s language, “smarter.” Putin seized Crimea because he was more ruthless than Obama or Ukraine. To Trump, that speaks well for Putin and poorly for Obama.
A patriotic president would regard a past affront to the United States as an affront to himself. Obama, for instance, saw the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as an attack on his country, and therefore he authorized the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. Trump lacks this sense of continuity. Like a child who thinks the world didn’t exist before his birth, Trump ignores events prior to his election. Since the assault on Crimea took place in 2014, Trump dismisses it as an offense against “President Obama, not … President Trump.” Trump doesn’t understand that he and Obama share a country and that he’s supposed to punish wrongs even if they occurred on his predecessor’s watch.
From this solipsistic standpoint, there are no national commitments. All commitments are personal and dispensable. “President Obama was helping Ukraine,” according to Trump, but that was Obama’s policy—not, in Trump’s view, an enduring promise by the United States. So Trump abandoned that commitment. He accepts Russia’s claim to Crimea, and he dismisses its suspension from the G-7 as a fit of pique by an embarrassed and now irrelevant former American president.
Look back at Trump’s recent comments, and you’ll see a pattern of indifference to national loyalty. A month ago, he told four American congresswomen—three of whom were born in the United States—to “go back” to the countries from which their families had emigrated. Two weeks ago, he urged a foreign nation, Israel, to deny entry to two of the four lawmakers. He argued that American Jews who supported the congresswomen were being disloyal to Israel. On Saturday, Trump defended the honesty of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, despite U.S. intelligence that shows Kim is faking denuclearization. In response to a question about French taxes on American technology companies, he grumbled that the companies were anti-Republican and might have cost him 15 million votes in 2016. As to China’s unfair trade practices, Trump concluded, “I don’t blame China. I blame our presidents, our representatives, past administrations, for allowing that to happen.”
Trump has been talking this way for years. He pretends to be a nationalist, but he doesn’t understand what a nation is. A nation makes enduring commitments. A nation preserves memories, principles, and obligations from one presidency to the next. A nation treats an attack on one as an attack on all. Trump believes in none of that. To him, every past president is a rival, and every adversary of those presidents—including Putin and Kim—is, by extension, an ally. Trump doesn’t go to gatherings of world leaders to represent the United States. He goes there to represent our enemies.