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Judd Gregg: The language of leadership

Judd Gregg: The language of leadership
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President Clinton gave us very few quotes that are memorable.  

However, when pressed on whether he lied under oath in the Monica Lewinsky matter, his answer was “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” 

This declaration was memorable for many reasons — mainly because it was totally disingenuous. 

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Now comes President TrumpDonald John TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration MORE, who declared that when he said “would” in the presence of Russian president Vladimir Putin he actually meant “wouldn’t,” and that when he later said “no” twice in answering a question about Russia, he actually meant “no more questions.”

This mangling of language is important.

It clouds our understanding of the president’s view of several things: Russia’s attack on our democratic processes in 2016; Putin himself; and the people who work in our intelligence agencies.

Russians — under the guidance of their government and undoubtedly with Putin’s approval — have tried, and most likely are still trying, to undermine and affect our elections.

This is an attack on our democracy being carried out by a marginally autocratic government, which has best been described as a kleptocracy: a government of thieves and thugs.

Putin’s antipathy toward the United States can easily be traced back to his years as a KGB officer in the Soviet Union.

But it was truly cemented and expanded by what he and other Russians felt was the stepchild treatment their country received from the United States in the 1990s as it grappled with the changes brought on by the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

With the consolidation of power in Putin’s hands, all Russian foreign policy has been directed at resurrecting its role in the world as a formidable power and adversary to the US.

From the Tsars, to Lenin, to Stalin, to now Putin, Russia has had a tradition of strongman rule and virtually no experience with the rule of law, as we understand it in western democracies.

Trump set up this Helsinki meeting ostensibly because he believes it is helpful to talk with world leaders, even if they are adversaries.

This is a reasonable belief. If pursued thoughtfully and from a place of knowledge, it could be very beneficial.

The failure here was the lack of thought or knowledge. He does not seem to appreciate the depth of antipathy that Putin directs at us.

Prior to meeting in Helsinki with Putin, the president went through western Europe as if he were General Sherman marching to the sea.

He verbally laid waste to Germany, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, our NATO allies and the European Union.

Ironically, much of what he said was correct.

Germany should look for other sources of energy rather then rely on Russia. The European Union should reduce its tariffs on American imports. Britain appears to be messing up Brexit. NATO countries need to contribute more to the cost of their mutual defense.

The way he made these points, however, had a distinct tinge of New York City tactlessness that muted the effectiveness of his points. He was, simply put, too blunt.

The time to be blunt, to be New York, was when he met with Putin.

If he had been half as forceful with Putin as he was in his march through western Europe, his trip would have met great praise.

Instead, it seems that he cannot differentiate between the attacks by Russia on our election process and the attacks by Democrats and others who allege his campaign colluded with the Russians. As a consequence, he stumbles on both issues.

Whether he meant “would” or “wouldn’t” in his now-infamous claim about the plausibility of Russian meddling, the fact remains that his language overall was weak.

He did not deliver a rebuke. Instead, he stood beside Putin and gave the Russian president equal standing with our intelligence services in terms of who should be believed.

His actions both at the press conference and afterwards were unbecoming.

The effect of his performance on his trip was not that our allies and fellow NATO members were “thrilled,” as he declared. They had the opposite reaction.

Europe and the world need America. We are the lynchpin for world stability and democratic principles. This trip did not enhance that status.

When a president appears weak and ineffectual in confronting an autocrat who seeks to destabilize the world’s democracies, then the world in general becomes less respectful of freedom, liberty and the right of people to choose who governs them.

The president needs to do much more then he has done so far to correct the errors of this Putin meeting.

He needs to make clear that he is the leader of the free world and that he will confront those countries and leaders who wish to undermine those freedoms.

This will not be accomplished by tariffs and trade tirades.

It must be accomplished by a simple, clear statement, made in a very open and serious forum, of the doctrine that is guiding his leadership of our country and the other democracies in this very dangerous world.

Only then will our allies, and our own people, be “thrilled” with his leadership.

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.