Despite his campaign comments to the contrary, President Donald Trump will apparently meet Friday for the first time with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Germany.
If Trump fails to stand up to Putin and forcefully raise the issue of Russian interference in our elections, the Kremlin will conclude that he is too weak to stand up to them at all. That makes his statement today—that no one really knows who was behind the hacking and dumping of Hillary Clinton's emails—more than discouraging. Far from putting America first, if he continues to cling to this personal fiction, he will be elevating Russian interests above all others.
On the agenda should also be Russia's continued destabilization of Ukraine, Russia's propping up of Bashar al-Assad, and a clear declaration that the U.S. will not turn a blind eye to any potential Russian support of the Taliban or increased trade with North Korea.
There is little evidence, though that Trump plans to confront Putin on any of these serious matters. Instead, he may seek little more than the exchange of pleasantries and the usual claims of a fabulous meeting.
This would be a historic mistake, with damaging implications for our foreign policy for years to come. Because what the Russians have in mind goes well beyond interference in one election, or the restoration of Russian dominance in what it considers to be its sphere of influence into a profound challenge to a rules-based international order that has been of incalculable benefit to freedom-loving people around the world.
Last summer, what began as a Russian effort to gather foreign intelligence on candidates for the presidency of the United States became a very different kind of enterprise when Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to weaponize the data stolen by his intelligence services. Putin’s dumping of private stolen emails in an effort to influence the U.S. election was a breathtaking escalation of Russian interference in our internal affairs. It is vital that we understand both why he chose such a provocative course, and the new threat that the Russian government poses to the very idea of liberal democracy.
There is no question that Putin despised former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over her support of pro-democracy protesters who gathered by the tens of thousands in Moscow streets years earlier to protest his government’s fraud and corruption. Putin was terrified by these mass protests and believed he saw the hidden hand of the Central Intelligence Agency behind them.
Putin understands innately that the only real threat to his regime will come from the streets, not from an election process where opposition leaders are continually jailed or killed, and where the state controls all the major media. Putin was more than aware Clinton would continue her strong support of sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and those sanctions are a keen threat to the regime specifically because they have slowed the Russian economy and made the prospect of popular opposition to Putin even greater.
Apart from opposing Clinton, there was every reason for the Russian government to prefer Donald Trump, who over the course of the campaign belittled NATO, celebrated Brexit and a further weakening of Europe, expressed a common purpose with Russia in Syria notwithstanding our very different interests on the survival of the Assad regime, and most significantly, made clear his willingness to revisit our economic sanctions on Russia.
But we would make a grave mistake to assume the Russian intervention was solely about hurting Clinton or helping Trump, or even its main object. Above all, Putin wanted to tear down American democracy just as he is assaulting other liberal democracies around the world. We are in a new battle of ideas, pitting not communism against capitalism, but authoritarianism against democracy and representative government. America must not shrink from its essential role as democracy’s champion.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we lived in a world in which the number of people living in free societies was ever increasing. The triumph of liberal democracy in Europe seemed certain, and around the world, democratic change was often plodding but seemed inexorable.
Today, even with welcome victories for candidates like Emmanuel Macron, we may be at an inflection point in which we can no longer be assured that the number of people around the world who will enjoy the freedoms of speech, assembly and religion will increase. It may, in fact, contract. Putin’s autocratic model is on the rise in places like Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Egypt, the Philippines and elsewhere.
The narrative Putin wishes to tell is that there is no such thing as democracy, not in Russia nor in the United States, and our commitment to human rights is mere hypocrisy. Putin’s aims are served when Trump baselessly accuses President Obama of illegally wiretapping him or when the President lashes out at a secretive “deep state” allegedly working against him.
Of all the praise heaped undeservedly on Putin’s leadership, none would have pleased him more than when Trump was asked during the campaign why he could not criticize Putin's assassinations of reformers and journalists, at home and abroad. Trump responded, “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
The Trump Administration has decided that democracy and the promotion of human rights will no longer be a top priority and instead we will put “America first.” This fundamentally misapprehends the degree to which the success of democracy around the world is a core American interest.
When the President complements Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on a massive campaign of extrajudicial killing, he is not advancing American values or interests – only causing the rest of the world to turn away. We fought two world wars to make the world safe for democracy, because we recognized, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., that a threat to democracy anywhere was a threat to democracy everywhere.
America is not a victim, as the President so often paints her, but the most powerful nation on earth and the greatest beneficiary of a liberal world order established at tremendous cost in American blood and treasure. That is a legacy to cherish and to defend.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.