Trump Goes Full Putin—Capitulation Inside the Oval Office

Vladimir Putin’s favorite form of argument is whataboutism. Accused of virtually any wrongdoing, Putin points to something done by a country other than Russia and asks, “What about that—what’s the difference?” New revelations about Donald Trump’s 2017 Oval Office meeting with top Russian officials indicate that Trump has taken Putin’s approach to a whole new level. For Trump, it’s not just what about them—it’s what about us.

Over the past two decades since Putin came onto the scene, the United States, alongside other Western nations, has called out various Russian transgressions. And his retorts have had a consistent ring. A Russian invasion of Georgia—but what about the American-led “invasion” of the former Yugoslavia? Russian aggression in Crimea—but what about America’s “aggression” in Syria? Russian interference in U.S. elections—but what about America’s “interference” in the internal politics of Ukraine—not to mention, in Putin’s view, in Russian politics via American nonprofits preaching democratic reform?

We’ve long known that Trump has a strange admiration for Putin. But recent reports confirm that Trump has adopted Putin’s whataboutist logic wholesale—and put his own stamp on it.

Trump’s instinct toward whataboutism isn’t brand new, of course. We’ve seen it, for example, in Trump’s attempts to deflect criticism of his interactions with Ukrainian leadership by pointing toward those of his political rival Joe Biden: Think I did something wrong in pressuring Ukraine—what about Biden. It matters not, of course, that the comparison fails to withstand scrutiny.

Trump’s emulation of Putin’s brand of whataboutism is highly dangerous when deployed as public propaganda by an American President. But it turns out Trump has followed this logic not simply for public consumption. He’s apparently internalized it and, moreover, turned it against the United States in private diplomatic exchanges. Consider stunning revelations that, in a 2017 Oval Office meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, Trump said he was unconcerned that Russia interfered with America’s 2016 election—the very election that put Trump in the Oval Office. He also apparently expressed lack of concern–or even “seemed to invite”–Russian interference in other countries. The reason Trump reportedly gave for his lack of concern? His view that the United States takes similar steps to meddle with domestic elections in other countries.

Trump has followed this logic not simply for public consumption. He’s apparently internalized it and, moreover, turned it against the United States in private diplomatic exchanges.

This puts a bizarrely unpatriotic spin on Putin’s playbook. When Putin deploys whataboutism, it’s to deflect attention from what his own country has done and shift it to another. What about them, Putin asks.

But this was Trump deploying whataboutism to deflect attention from what another country had done and shifting it to his own. What about us, Trump insisted—what about us.

Trump’s view—equating Russian election interference with U.S. practices—is badly mistaken, as we have explained elsewhere. But that’s the whole point of whataboutism: it makes little difference if the comparisons don’t hold up. They don’t for Putin. Comparing a unilateral Russian attack on Georgia to a multilateral U.S.-led effort to stop human rights atrocities in Kosovo doesn’t make much sense. Neither does comparing Russia’s militarized land grab in Crimea with America’s efforts to counter armed attacks against Iraq by a terrorist organization and to contain humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. Nor does Russia’s unlawful hacking and information operations to help one U.S. candidate defeat another withstand scrutiny when compared with America’s generalized support for democracy itself.

The comparisons don’t hold up for Trump, either. It’s true that the United States took regrettable steps during the Cold War and even later, including sending advisers to help Russia’s own Boris Yeltsin in the context of a domestic election. But the United States simply does not do what Russia did in 2016: engage in unlawful hacking and exposure of hacked documents; use that hacked information to favor a particular candidate; do it covertly; and have no possible claim that the intervention favored democracy rather than simply disruption.

But none of this matters to Putin or to Trump. Relentless whataboutism is a way to justify and distract, not to make a genuine case. That’s why Trump has stuck to unjustified comparisons, not only in private with the Russians but also in public with Bill O’Reilly—and there, too, to indulge and excuse Russian wrongdoing.

Moreover, it’s an astonishing basis for abdicating a fundamental responsibility of the presidency: to protect and defend the sanctity of American democracy. For Trump to tell Russian officials that he accepted their country’s interference in any U.S. election would be an incredible betrayal of a president’s duty to safeguard our nation from all enemies foreign and domestic. For Trump to do so about an election that he himself won is unfathomable.

And, at bottom, Trump’s justification, as reported, was crude whataboutism. By the time of the Oval Office meeting, Trump and the Russians knew full well that other Americans were expressing outrage at the Kremlin’s assault on American democracy, especially as its full scope began to emerge through assessments by the U.S. intelligence community, media reporting, congressional investigation, and more. So Trump needed to deflect attention. What about the United States, Trump was telling the Russians: if we do it, why can’t you?

For a Russian president to defend Moscow’s misbehavior by asking “what about them” is usually an unconvincing and flimsy misdirection. But it’s at least, by now, expected. After all, Russian leadership will surely defend what Russia has done, however unsavory it might be.

But for an American president to defend Moscow’s misbehavior by asking what about us? That should still shock every American. The fact that it involved misbehavior directed against the United States should outrage us. Because it’s not just a losing argument. It’s a dereliction of a solemn duty. And it’s a far cry from putting “America First.” 

About the Author(s)

Joshua Geltzer

Founding Executive Director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Legal Advisor to the National Security Council, and former Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. Follow him on Twitter (@jgeltzer).

Jake Sullivan

Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Brady-Johnson Distinguished Practitioner in Strategy at Yale University.  He served in the Obama administration as national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State, as well as deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.