Russian President Vladimir Putin came late to the Helsinki Summit with Donald Trump on Monday and spoke first at the news conference afterward. He handed Trump a soccer ball from the World Cup, but he clearly walked away with the trophy for the World Cup of politics, largely because Trump, in a bizarre and unprecedented performance, kept scoring own goals on Putin’s behalf.
I have always supported dialogue and negotiations over conflict and isolation. I believe that good relations with the Russians, a nuclear power, are as Trump would say, “a good thing.” But Trump made it embarrassingly clear that he is more concerned about defending his own besmirched election campaign than he is about protecting American democracy.
The president apparently doesn’t understand that it isn’t all about him. Russian interference in our elections — which Trump’s own intelligence appointees warn is ongoing — isn’t just about the “collusion” that the president rushed to deny. It is about subverting our democracy. Trump can howl at the moon denying collusion, but it is simply grotesque that he could not bring himself to warn Putin publicly that continued interference with our elections is unacceptable and would be met with an immediate response.
Trump is outraged at the Mueller investigation of possible collusion of his campaign with the Russians, but he seems unmoved by the clear evidence of the subversion of our elections. He didn’t give Putin a red light or even a yellow warning one about future interference; he essentially gave him a free pass.
The reality is that a core of our democracy — free elections — is under assault. Given the administration’s failures, foreign interference is likely to spread. The home-grown systematic efforts by right-wing politicians and activists to suppress the vote, to make it harder to register and harder to vote, to purge voters from the lists, to gerrymander election districts to distort the outcome and to open the gates to a flood of unaccountable, secret corporate and private money continue to get more sophisticated.
Already experts suggest that Democrats will have to win the national vote by 6 to 8 percent in order to take the majority of the House, largely due to Republican partisan redistricting.
Trump is so focused on his own election campaign, so defensive about the legitimacy of his own victory that he has utterly failed to protect our democracy from subversion from abroad or at home.
It will be up to the states to make the reforms that are long overdue: automatic voter registration, longer early voting days, voting day holidays, an end to voter purges, nonpartisan redistricting, matching public funds for small donations, mandatory disclosure of all funding sources, returning the right to vote to felons that have served their time and more. The states should be taking measures to protect voting systems from outside interference, including moving back to paper ballots to eliminate the threat of cyber intrusions.
What is clear from Trump’s performance in Helsinki is that he won’t lead this effort. He is so fixated on defending himself that he is failing to defend our democracy and our elections.
The president should be applauded for meeting with Putin, hopefully reduced tensions and new impetus for reducing nuclear arsenals will follow. But his failure to defend our democracy both against Russian interference and against domestic subversion is a dangerous dereliction of duty.
Republicans in Congress won’t act because they seem to believe that their majorities may depend on suppressing the vote.
So, it is up to the states, and to an aroused citizenry, to insist that our election be open, free and fair. The shocking display that Trump put on in Helsinki makes that all the more imperative.