Joe Biden is not a very good president. His communication skills are subpar, e.g. when he found himself praising the “Iranian” instead of the Ukrainian people in his State of the Union speech. His political judgments are sometimes poor, e.g. devoting most of his first year to assuaging the demands of the progressive wing of his party. His stubbornness can be destructive, e.g. his decision to withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan. And his priorities are often wrong, e.g. focusing on voting rights legislation that addressed small problems like the number of days of early voting and dropboxes at the expense of the urgent need to reform the Electoral Count Act.
And yet, I thank God every day that Biden is president. The Russian offensive against Ukraine is the first crisis of his presidency (other than COVID, which was ongoing when he assumed office) and in this emergency he has redeemed the hopes of those who voted for competence. The administration’s warnings to Moscow were unambiguous without being hysterical. Our revelations of intelligence unmasking Russian disinformation and false flag narratives were on the nose. Biden’s coordination with European allies was neither bullying nor “leading from behind,” but a skillful presentation of unity (special kudos to Secretary of State Antony Blinken). Biden’s muscular reaffirmation of the U.S. commitment to NATO was crucial not just for Europe but for the world. China is taking notes on how the globe is responding to Putin and perhaps thinking twice about trying to conquer Taiwan.
By proclaiming American solidarity with Ukraine and our democratic allies around the world, Biden has restored our equilibrium. If Ronald Reagan were still alive, he’d find little to criticize in the administration’s approach.
There were some missed opportunities. The president should have placed the invasion of Ukraine in a broader historical context and outlined how the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is the defining issue of our time, whether abroad or at home. And he ought not to suggest or pretend that Americans can be spared any hardship, even higher gas prices, during this fight. On the contrary, he should be preparing the nation for sacrifice. Seventy-nine percent of Americans already favor banning Russian oil imports even if it means higher gas prices, and it’s a mistake to discount people’s unselfish impulses. Besides, if he promises that all of the pain will be inflicted on Russia, he will be blamed for breaking his word when Americans feel the sting of price hikes, instead of being honored for standing on principle.
Biden is a normal man with normal flaws. He made some errors, but he sees clearly what sort of menace Vladimir Putin is. Only the most obtuse or twisted soul could fail to see it. . . which brings us to the president’s predecessor.
The Ukraine crisis reminds us that Trump is no run-of-the-mill fool, but a unique combination of stupidity and venality. A quick refresher on his relations with Putin and Ukraine leaves little doubt that far from deterring Putin, he was Putin’s most reliable “useful idiot.” Trump’s most durable legacy is the Putinesque level of deceit he introduced into the American bloodstream, but he was also a mark.
Trump wasn’t the first president to go soft on Putin, of course. Barack “Tell Vladimir I’ll have more flexibility after the election” Obama plowed that ground very well. Failing to enforce his red line in Syria and inviting Russia to assert dominance there; failing to impose harsh sanctions after the annexation of Crimea; and mocking Mitt Romney for taking the Russian threat seriously, Obama was hardly a model of fortitude.
But at least Obama knew what he was doing. He chose diffidence and called it wisdom. Trump was a dupe and a dope, a walking refutation of the adage “you can’t kid a kidder.” An inveterate liar himself, he could never discern when he was being played, at least by the strongmen he admired like Putin, Kim, and Xi.
Having spent the entire 2016 campaign suggesting that it would be great if we “got along with Russia,” encouraging Moscow to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, and accepting dirt on his opponent from Russian figures, Trump was under strong suspicion and a federal investigation for his Russia ties. All 17 American intelligence agencies agreed that Russia had interfered with the election to damage Clinton. Yet upon Trump’s first meeting with Putin, he accepted the Russian’s denials and announced the creation of “an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.” The plan to let the fox guard the henhouse was dropped after GOP senators exploded.
We’ll never know how many times Trump spoke to Putin because those records were expunged and Trump often demanded that the translators take no notes, but it is clear from the public record that Trump often repeated Putin’s talking points.
At the Helsinki summit, Trump infamously endorsed Putin’s version of the election interference story over that of America’s own intelligence agencies. “President Putin says it’s not Russia,” Trump said. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.” Later, speaking to Tucker Carlson, Trump revealed the other ways Putin had been poisoning his mind, planting ideas about NATO countries. “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Carlson asked. Trump responded: “I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. . . . They are very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you are in World War III.” Who believes that Trump had ever heard of Montenegro, far less formed views about their supposed aggressiveness, before that meeting?
Trump got other ideas from his conversations with Putin and dutifully lobbied our major trading partners in the G7 to invite Russia back into the fold. They declined.
In 2019, defending his decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, Trump offered this little potted history about Russia’s engagement with that country: “Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. . . the reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.”
As with the other Putin nuggets he regurgitated, Trump said this with perfect ingenuousness.
Throughout his presidency, Trump hinted and blustered about withdrawing from NATO, which would fulfill Putin’s dearest wish. When his aides objected that this might be harmful politically, Trump conceded the point, as Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker report, saying “Yeah, the second term. We’ll do it in the second term.”
As for Ukraine, Putin, like the KGB officer he had once been, had filled Trump’s mind with calumnies playing upon his particular obsessions. Trump got the idea that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that had interfered in the 2016 election, and that the meddling was against Trump, not for him. As New York Magazine reported, “Trump repeatedly told one senior official that the Russian president said Ukraine sought to undermine him.” Trump further believed in a mysterious “missing server” that was hidden in Ukraine containing the missing emails. In his infamous 2019 shake-down call with Volodomyr Zelensky, Trump alluded to it: “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike. . . I guess you have one of your wealthy people. . . The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
And because Trump swallowed Putin’s lies, congressional Republicans echoed them. In her testimony before the House intelligence committee, Fiona Hill attempted to debunk it:
Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.
Yes, and by their willing mouthpiece, the then-president of the United States.
In 2016, Trump suggested that Russian ownership of Crimea be recognized, and again repeated a factoid that seems likely to have come directly from Putin. “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” he told ABC News. The GOP platform was changed to omit endorsing arms for Ukraine. Asked about his view of Putin’s intentions, he huffed, “He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He’s not gonna go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.”
It was more than ignorance, it was hero worship. Trump is a disturbed human being who is constantly revealing his attraction to violence and “strength.” Even as Putin was smashing his tanks into Ukraine, Trump fawned over his “genius” and then boasted that “I know him very, very well.” He said it was “wonderful.” He backtracked after a day or two, but doubtless only after being advised that it was politically unwise.
But if, God forbid, there were ever a second term, political considerations wouldn’t be dispositive and the most sinister and credulous man ever to disgrace the Oval Office would be unconstrained.
Biden hasn’t been perfect—but he’s a godsend given the alternative.