"Shields and Salam on Trump-Putin summit aftershocks" PBS NewsHour 7/20/2018
SUMMARY: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review Executive Editor Reihan Salam join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the fallout from President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in U.S. politics and the NATO alliance, plus news that the President has raised almost $90 million toward his re-election.
Judy Woodruff (NewsHour): We return now to the turbulent aftermath of President Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin.
For more, we have the analysis of Shields and Salam. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and “National Review” executive editor Reihan Salam. David Brooks is away.
Welcome to both of you.
Mark, it has been a turbulent, turmoilish week, from NATO to Great Britain, to the meeting with Vladimir Putin, back to Washington.
What are we left with?
Mark Shields, syndicated columnist: We’re left with, Judy, a week of — I think a blow to the United States of America.
I don’t think there’s any question about it, to our leadership, the fraying of the relations with our longtime allies, a dismissal, almost a disparagement by the American President of democratically elected leaders, and the messy problems that democracy requires, an adulation, a flattery, a giant sucking sound in the company of the Russian dictator by the President’s part.
And Dan Balz, perhaps as respected writer as there is on politics in America, wrote: “When the setting called for a show of strength and resolve, Trump instead offered deference, defensiveness, equivocation and weakness.”
And I think that’s fair.
Judy Woodruff: Do you have as dark an assessment, Reihan?
Reihan Salam, National Review: Well, I think it’s helpful to take some perspective.
Consider President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea. Kim Jong-un is an absolutely brutal, awful dictator. Donald Trump had very warm words for him.
Some weeks later, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, then met with the North Korean regime. And then the North Korean regime responded by saying, they’re making gangster-like demands, they’re taking this much more hard-line position.
Donald Trump, when it comes to offering warm words for authoritarian leaders, does a lot, goes a long way in ways that other Republicans feel makes them very uncomfortable. But he is a minority of one in his own administration when it comes to those warm words. And when it comes to actual substance, you see a much tougher line.
If you look at Pompeo, if you look at Jim Mattis, if you look at John Bolton, these are all people who have taken a consistently hawkish line.
And the President himself, he reversed himself. Again, that’s quite unusual, for him to have reversed himself so quickly, because Republicans were foursquare behind this idea that, no, in fact, they also — Republicans in Congress passed legislation, bipartisan legislation, keep in mind, that says that they can impose sanctions that the President of the United States can’t reverse.
That is legislation that Donald Trump signed in 2017. So that’s important background to keep in mind.
Judy Woodruff: So, Mark Shields, are we making too much of the — too much of the words of President Trump?
Mark Shields: No.
I mean, he is the policy-maker. He is the face and the voice of the United States of America. Every President has been. Ronald Reagan was when he said, tear down that wall and called the Soviet Union an evil empire. Donald Trump is when he stands there and contradicts the unanimous judgment of all the men and women who are professionals in the United States intelligence services, who have concluded unanimously that Russia, Russia was behind the meddling, cyber-attacks, and continues to be at this time, and stands there and says — pays the ultimate compliment.
You can talk about his words. We know his words. In his lexicon, the lexicon of Donald Trump, there are no greater compliments than to say strong and powerful. And what did he — whom did he call? To call anybody weak is the ultimate insult.
And he paid the ultimate compliment to Mr. Putin, as he stood there, in refusing to endorse and support the work of the American intelligence professionals in public.
We have never seen a situation like that before. No American President has ever done it.
Reihan Salam: There was a fascinating moment during that press conference, where President Putin had to say, President Trump continues to say that the annexation of Crimea was illegal.
President Putin actually reminded the global public of this. Why did he do that? That’s a really puzzling question. Right? You would think that would be President Trump who would be saying that, who would be taking that kind of stern step of reminding the wider global audience of the differences between them.
Judy Woodruff: I think that got overlooked.
Reihan Salam: And one of the reasons why President Putin did that is because he recognizes that Donald Trump alone doesn’t represent the American government in its entirety.
What has happened is that Republicans are more unified against Vladimir Putin. Democrats are far more inclined to take a hard line against Russia than they had been before Donald Trump came into office.
Vladimir Putin knows that, for his purposes, this wasn’t a victory. It was in fact a defeat, because Donald Trump, his style of negotiating is, regrettably, one in which he says a lot at one point, but then his administration takes very sharply different action.
If anything, we’re going to get a more hawkish line on Russia in the months to come.
Judy Woodruff: So, Mark, I mean, I will ask it again.
Judy Woodruff: Go ahead.
Mark Shields: Where was the defeat? Where was the — it was a defeat for Putin?
Reihan Salam: Absolutely. Absolutely, because what Vladimir Putin wants is to get some component of the bipartisan establishment reconciled to the idea of a warmer relation with Russia.
In fact, we got the exact opposite. Donald Trump himself on the flight on Air Force One back home from Helsinki realized that this didn’t play especially well with the people he depends on to shield him from investigations and much else.
He understood the tremendous vulnerability. He understands that there are people in his own administration who may well leave that administration and leave him in a more vulnerable position if he moves in that direction.
And, again, look to North Korea.
Judy Woodruff: That says — but what you’re saying is that — is that there was a mass created that required a lot of cleaning up.
Reihan Salam: And, also, remember the North Korea precedent.
Remember the fact that these — we’re talking about this as though it’s unprecedented. Donald Trump praised the North Korean dictator. And then North Korea suddenly realized, wait a second, that doesn’t amount to us getting everything we want.
Mark Shields: Donald Trump has told us that nuclear arms are gone from the Korean Peninsula.
Reihan Salam: Which is nonsensical.
Mark Shields: Nonsensical, nonsensical.
Reihan Salam: But, of course, that’s not what he said, right? He didn’t say the weapons are gone.
What he says, I’m committed to denuclearization. Now, that doesn’t mean what the North Koreans believe it means, right? There’s room for interpretation. And what we have seen is actually a more hawkish posture in the weeks since then.
So it’s very important to keep these precedents in mind before we claim that this is going to be some grand breakthrough.
Mark Shields: At what point do we get this seismograph or this magic detector that — with two box tops and a coupon, that allows us to tell when he’s telling the truth?
When he stands there and says Kim Jong-un loves his people, loves his people, this is a man who has killed thousands of Koreans, who has starved…
Reihan Salam: It’s absolutely appalling.
And it’s also the case that the U.S. government and the Trump administration didn’t, in fact, give away the store.
This is absolutely rattling. It is wrong for the President of the United States to appear to the be kowtowing to the Russian president. It’s also important to recognize, however, that Donald Trump styles himself as an unconventional figure, someone who is actually seeking diplomatic break breakthroughs, diplomatic breakthroughs that I do not believe are going to materialize.
Judy Woodruff: But, Reihan, you’re saying, for all the fuss we’re making over the behavior, the words of President Trump, in the end, the policy is going to turn out all right? Is that what you’re saying?
Reihan Salam: What I’m saying is that the words are dangerous. It is wrong. It is disorienting. And it’s something that is actually sapping some of the trust that people have in him.
I think that that’s not a good thing. But the policy is moving in a different direction.
Mark Shields: There’s no question that he was overmatched with Putin. I mean, there’s no question who was the supplicant in that relationship.
There’s no question who was the big dog and who was the puppy seeking the approval. And the reality, when you come back — and I don’t know when this epiphany occurred, that he realized things hadn’t worked out, because it didn’t occur — they had to sit down with him. They had to confront him in his own administration before he would even acknowledge, begrudgingly, two letters.
That didn’t change that the United States was at fault, that he blamed his own country, that he blamed America first. No American President has ever done that before.
But when you get verbs like revise, revamp, contradict, change, modify, those are not the words of a thoughtful leader or a strong leader, or a principled leader.
Those are the words of somebody who really is overmatched in a public situation.
Reihan Salam: What they might also be, however, are the words of someone who has promised diplomatic breakthroughs and change.
Now, this something that is very rattling for those of us, myself very much included, who believe that the architecture of our existing alliances is enormously valuable. But, again, Donald Trump believes that, by shaking things up, he is going to bring us to a better place.
Now, it happens that members of his own administration are deeply skeptical about that posture. And that is actually the substance of what we’re getting.
President Trump doesn’t have the power to reverse sanctions. That is exactly what Putin wants. And he’s not going to get it. And he’s less likely to get it now than two weeks ago.
Mark Shields: Let me just ask one question.
Reihan Salam: Please.
Mark Shields: Do you think that, after 9/11, when Dan Coats was the United States Ambassador to Germany, and he stood with Gerhard Schroeder, the chancellor of Germany, at the Brandenburg Gate, and thanked 200,000 Germans for their supporting the United States in its hour of need after the 9/11 attack, and invoked — in voting to invoke Article 5 of NATO to support United States and its attack, do you think Donald Trump has any idea that happened?
Reihan Salam: I think…
Mark Shields: Do you think he any idea that Dan Coats even was there?
I mean, this is a man who…
Reihan Salam: I believe it’s worth mentioning that Gerhard Schroeder ran an explicitly anti-American political campaign that, during that time, members of the NATO alliance, including Turkey, said that we will not allow the United States to enter Iraq via our territory.
That was a period of enormous fractiousness within the NATO alliance. And NATO survived and proved resilient. That is also important to remember.
Dan Coats is a loyal public servant who deserves a great deal of credit, but let’s not forget history.
Mark Shields: Do you think Donald Trump is aware of any of this?
Reihan Salam: I can’t say, Mark.
Mark Shields: You’re an informed person, Reihan.
Reihan Salam: What I can say is that the NATO alliance has survived much worse than that.
Judy Woodruff: I think — I think temperatures are rising all around this week.
Mark Shields: OK. All right.