President Trump’s disgraceful performance in Helsinki, Finland, and in the days since is an indication that he is not fit to remain in office. Trump’s 2016 “America First” platform might be more aptly named “Russia First” after the disaster that occurred last week.
Trump’s turn toward Russia is indefensible. I am a lifelong Republican. I have campaigned and won as a member of the party, and I have served more than one Republican president. My Republican colleagues — once rightfully critical of President Obama’s engagement strategy with Russian leader Vladimir Putin — have to end their willful ignorance of the damage Trump is doing both domestically and internationally. We must put aside the GOP label, as hard as that may be, and demonstrate the leadership our country needs by calling on the president to step down.
Trump’s sycophantic relationship with Putin is unsurprising given his previous comments about Russia and its dictator. What is shocking is how long he has possessed — and disregarded — hard evidence of Putin’s direct role in undermining our elections. According to New York Times reporting, he saw dispositive emails and texts early in January 2017.
Trumps’ repeated public dismissals of the intelligence coming from his own deputies is deeply disturbing. Along with his walk back of statements last week, and then walking back the walk backs, it’s impossible to keep up, and his behavior warrants a fresh evaluation of whether the president can be trusted with the future of the United States. His apologists will argue that the current outcry is just another attempt by moderates and “establishment” Republicans to discredit the president. But what does this man have to say or do for his supporters to finally see that his actions are detrimental to the country?
Trump’s avowed respect for the word of a dictator who has spent decades undermining the U.S. and its allies is utterly dangerous. Putin is not our ally. Despite the president’s dismal attempt to change the narrative by explaining that he misspoke in Helsinki, the pattern is clear: As a candidate and as president, he has constantly praised Putin just as he has constantly undercut the core institutions of our democracy — the courts, the media and the FBI. He has a history of discrediting members of his own Cabinet and the agencies they lead. These are not the actions of someone who should be navigating delicate diplomatic discussions and setting foreign policy.
If the president did genuinely misspeak on Monday, it demonstrates his inability to articulate accurately U.S. foreign policy at the highest level, for the highest stakes. As the leader of the free world — as ridiculous as that title sounds when applied to Trump — his words matter. If he cannot take his place at a podium next to an adversarial foreign leader and stand up for America’s interests and principles, he should not be president.
Trump has alienated our true allies in Europe and undermined the United States’ reputation as a consistent, reliable moral force for good in the world. He disdains democracies and admires dictatorships. What appears to matter to him is not what leaders represent but how they flatter him. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Putin have cracked that code and fan Trump’s ego in a way that respected heads of state do not.
Yet many Republicans continue to defend him. In this election year, opposing Trump is risky for GOP candidates. Invoking the need to choose country over party is an overused trope. But it is essential now.
The Republican majority in Congress can fully implement promised sanctions against Russia to show its opposition to Russia’s meddling in our election. Putin needs economic growth in Russia because it benefits the oligarchy. Tougher, tangible sanctions would weaken him and hurt those who benefit from his power. House Speaker Paul Ryan indicated earlier this week that additional sanctions were on the table. This would be a start.
Congress can also ensure that the Robert S. Mueller III investigation is not compromised. Any interference in it after this week should raise many red flags. The special counsel and his team, who despite the president’s attacks show every sign of unbiased professionalism, need to finish their work without tampering.
Finally, even if the Russian efforts to undermine state voting systems were unsuccessful in 2016, this is a vulnerability that may be exploited in the future. With the help of Congress, states must strengthen their processes and security to stop future meddling from Russia or other foreign actors.
Republican voters, including those who supported Donald Trump, have the obligation to demand action from their elected officials. Vocal opposition is expected from Democrats, but it is Republicans’ disapproval that will have the most sway on Capitol Hill and at the White House.
Those members of the party in Congress who have stood up to the president should be commended. More must follow, with more than private talk and tepid tweets. Only bold leadership can put the United States back on a path that values freedom and democracy, and truly puts America first.
Christine Todd Whitman served as administrator of the EPA from January 2001 until June 2003 and as governor of New Jersey from 1994 until 2001. She is currently president of the Whitman Strategy Group, an energy and environmental consulting firm.