How much longer can the foreign policy leaders in President Donald Trump's Cabinet stick by this President?
The Helsinki, Finland, summit will surely go down as one of the worst-ever presidential performances on the international stage. Not since President John F. Kennedy was thoroughly intimidated when he met with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria, in 1961 has an American president been so completely and artfully outflanked by his Russian counterpart.
At a press conference in Helsinki standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin, instead of endorsing the unanimous finding of US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, Trump observed that Putin was "extremely strong and powerful in his denial."
Well, that settles it then! We will always take the word of Putin, a former longtime KGB official whose actions around the world have run counter to American interests, against those of America's key intelligence agencies.
For good measure, Trump dumped on his own country, "I think that the United States has been foolish. We've all been foolish. We're all to blame." Really? In fact, as special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation has painstakingly revealed, the ones to blame are a small coterie of officers in Russia's military intelligence agency GRU, acting no doubt under the orders of Putin.
Surely Trump's performance in Helsinki must have the members of his war Cabinet asking themselves: How can I continue serving in this administration? After all, these are serious public servants, much of whose lives have been bound up in countering first the Soviet threat and now the Russian threat.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis enlisted in the Marine Corps in the late 1960s when he was 18 and when the Cold War was at its height.
During his confirmation hearings to become defense secretary, Mattis described the Russians as the number one threat to the United States and opined that Putin was seeking to break up the NATO alliance.
In the Pentagon's defense strategy released in January, Mattis again described Russia as a key threat.
This was a similar conclusion to that of the national security strategy review overseen by now-departed national security adviser Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster that was released in December.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's first assignment as an Army officer was patrolling the border between West Germany and East Germany as the Cold War wound down.
At his confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Pompeo said, "Russia continues to act aggressively, enabled by years of soft policy toward that aggression."
In May, Pompeo said the United States has a "great deal more work to do" to safeguard the November midterm elections from outside interference.
Dan Coats, who oversees the 17 American intelligence agencies, testified in March that Russia "is likely to continue to pursue even more aggressive [cyber] attacks, with the intent of degrading our Democratic values and weakening our alliances."
After Trump's bizarre press conference on Monday, Coats' office released a statement pushing back on the President's bromance with Putin, saying, "We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy. ..."
In the past Trump's current national security adviser, John Bolton, has called Putin a "liar" and Russia's election-meddling in 2016 an "act of war." Bolton has moderated his tone on Russia of late, but clearly, he is naturally a skeptic of Putin and his works.
So, we are now in the bizarre place where the Trump administration seems to have two sets of policies about Russia. There is the policy of the administration, which has taken a fairly hard line on Russia, for instance, expelling 60 Russian diplomats in March after Russia's attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom with a nerve agent.
Then there is the policy of the President, who continues to embrace Putin and to deny the assessments of his own intelligence agencies. How long is this really sustainable for the members of Trump's war Cabinet? Or put another way, at what point should it no longer be tolerable?
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