Putting Putin in the Oval Office is political suicide

Putting Putin in the Oval Office is political suicide
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Any fellow Republicans who try to defend President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE’s performance in Helsinki must ask themselves one question: What would they say if President Obama had done the same thing?

In some respects, we already know the answer. Remember when Obama told then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he would have “more flexibility” after the 2012 election to work with Moscow? Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyProgressive Democrats ramp up attacks on private equity Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Ocasio-Cortez jabs 'plutocratic' late entrants to 2020 field MORE and others pounced on the comments — and rightly so.

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Clearly, what our current president did in Helsinki was far worse. I won’t dismiss Trump’s actions because we share the same party or ideas; he damaged not only his reputation but also the office in which he serves. And while his half-hearted attempt to walk back his post-summit remarks — a stinging rebuke of our intelligence services while standing beside the very thug who ordered an attack on the foundations of our democracy — may have satisfied some, Trump has now fouled that up as well.

 

What the president did was inexcusable, and he is likely to be held accountable for it politically. And he should be.

Unfortunately, we seemed destined to repeat this sad episode once again, if President Trump has his way.

Seemingly needing to spite his enemies for calling him out on his error, the president seems ready to commit himself to a second summit with Russia this fall. However, not content with having the meeting in a neutral site, Trump is pushing to have the summit in Washington. That means Russian President Vladimir Putin, no friend of the United States, our allies or even his own people, could be given the customary but clearly high honor of a photo op in the Oval Office — the office he literally attacked with his army of cyber warriors.

Stop and think about the optics of that for just a moment.

A photo of Trump and Putin, standing in the Oval Office, smiling and shaking hands, would be panned universally across all sides of the political spectrum as the ultimate embarrassment for this administration. In that one moment, no matter how innocent it would seem in normal circumstances, Democrats would have the ultimate weapon to take down Trump.

You can almost see and hear the attack ads now: “How can President Trump allow Vladimir Putin, the man who tried to destroy our democracy, enter one of the most sacred national treasures, truly a room every American loves and respects? But wait, you know why. It was a thank you for helping him get there.”

Trump would deserve every one of those attacks and the damage they would do to him, if he follows through on this.

I can respect President Trump’s view of wanting to have better relations with Moscow; I have argued in these very digital pages recently that Trump was correct in meeting with Putin.

Yet, President Trump must understand and appreciate the political firestorm he has ignited. For the first time in years, Democrats and Republicans, who can’t agree on anything else of substance, are broadly united in their condemnation of the president over his Helsinki performance. If Trump were to make the same mistake again — this time doing so in the nation’s capital, or allowing a photo with Putin in the Oval Office — the damage done to his presidency would be incalculable and likely beyond repair.

In fact, if the timing of this summit is immediately before the midterm elections, Trump will give the Democrats the ammunition they need to take back the House and the Senate. Surely, they would use any pining performance with Putin or an Oval Office photo in countless radio, TV, internet and robocall ads across the country.

As one senior Democratic pollster told me recently: “Nothing could help us more if Trump dared to allow Putin to come to Washington and take that photo in the Oval. I can see my campaign rallying cry now: ‘Take back our country from Russia.’”

President Trump has the power to stop all of this, however. Thankfully, while the damage to his administration over the short to medium term will be severe, he can weather the storm. And the formula is simple: Listen to his advisers, his communications team and his political aides. If Trump could just refrain from speaking about “the R-word” for the next few weeks, allowing his policies toward Russia — the toughest in a generation — to do the talking, Hurricane Helsinki will surely pass.

Trump needs to forget about a Washington summit with Putin. If he does go forward with it, he may not get a second term — or even complete the first one, if the Democrats take back Congress.

And it would be his own fault.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He previously worked on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted Cruz presidential campaign and as foreign policy communications manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, and as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.